Back in April 2016, Already Heard got Big Scary Monsters head honcho Kev Douch and Alex Fitzpatrick of Holy Roar together to discuss the latter’s 10th birthday. Plied with beer in a central London boozer, the discussion turned into a forensic dissection of the music industry and the challenges of running a small label. You can read the two part piece here and here.
So, when Kev approached us about a return leg – this time centred on Big Scary Monsters’ 16th birthday – we simply couldn’t refuse. And here we are, sat in Brixton’s Ghost Whale – co-owned and managed by Holy Roar’s Alex Fitzpatrick – once again peering into the murky innards of indie label life…
Holy Roar: So, 16 years…
BSM: I know. Is this a joke about my age? [laughs]
Holy Roar: No. On a productivity level, you’ve done 16 years and you’re about to hit 200 releases. I’ve done 10 years and I’m on release 183 or 184. Were you completely lazy early on, or did you have other things going on in your life? I was slower at the start too…
BSM: Well, it’s quality over quantity [laughs]. No, for the first year or two I didn’t put out a single release. I was just telling people I had a record label, so that skews it initially.
Holy Roar: OK, so of the 16 years, how many would you say are ‘real’?
BSM: I would count it more as our 10th anniversary. We probably only put out 20 or so releases in that first six years. But you know how it is; we put out that first compilation record with £100, and when we started working with bands and pressing EPs and singles, we’d press one at a time.
Holy Roar: Not one copy – you mean one release?
BSM: That’s right, one release at a time. I think one copy is something we’d do these days…
Holy Roar: Just to piss people off. I still need to tick of HRR100 – I haven’t done it, it’s blank. I was thinking of doing a one-off 16” record of my advice on life.
BSM: I’ve been looking to do a 17” record for years.
Holy Roar: [laughs] Should we do a split? Your advice on life on the one side, mine on the other. Can we actually do it? One copy for each label. Your face is the cover for the one released on my label, and my face is the one on the cover of your label?
BSM: Let’s do it. We haven’t done anything dumb like that in ages.
I have actually looked into a 17” record, purely because 17 is my lucky number and I thought it would be funny. I think it was for our 150th release – and then we never did anything for 150 and just skipped over it.
I just love the idea of people buying this fucking big… I mean, it would look like a New York pizza. And just the thought of people trying to play it. Some record players would, but most people wouldn’t be able to play it. We could put any old shit on there…
Holy Roar: This feeds into one of my mean question. So, you feel like it’s been real – or proper – for 10 years; does the fact that Holy Roar celebrated its 10th anniversary last year – and we had quite a lot of press, put on a big gig that was successful – with this whole 200 celebration, are you basically thinking ‘I want a piece of that’? Or did I give you this great idea?
BSM: Honestly, yes and no. What you guys did was great last year, and I think you pulled it off really well (by you, I mean Justine [Jones, Holy Roar label assistant]) [laughs]. And I was disappointed I couldn’t come to the HR10 gig, as it sounded like an amazing day with a real community atmosphere. It sounded like a really cool event.
Holy Roar: Joking aside, if the HR10 gig had gone to shit, it would have dented my confidence towards the label in a big way.
BSM: I was pleased for you. There was definitely a bit of ‘I’d like to do that too’. But it wasn’t just you, it was Polyvinyl too. They celebrated their 20th and did lots of cool things as well. One of the things, I’d been wanting to do for BSM for years and I’d just started planning it.
So, by coincidence one day, I was making a list of bands, just brainstorming what to do for BSM200, and one of the things was to get all of the bands involved and – it’s kind of an obvious idea – but to get our bands covering our other bands. So PWR BTTM and Modern Baseball are good friends, and that would be great if they covered each other.
Holy Roar: So have you put it together, this compilation?
BSM: No. We had just started thinking about it, and we had enough time to get it done, but then, a couple of days later Polyvinyl announced their 20th celebration, which included their bands covering some of their other bands – and they had a couple of our bands on there too – so I just thought ‘ah bollocks, I can’t do that now’, but they did lots of cool stuff. I can’t remember them doing a gig though.
So they did one thing, you did another and I think we’ve done something in between.
Holy Roar: It looks like you’re doing some cool stuff with the pop-up shop.
BSM: It’s actually been a lot of fun. It’s been much harder than I expected. It cancelled Christmas for me…
Holy Roar: Doing our 10th anniversary completely dominated our year. I felt like we didn’t have half as much work to do once that gig was done.
BSM: I can totally see that coming. I feel for the last week – and I will for the next 10 days – that I’m living at a festival. I have this weird feeling that I’m living in a bubble. I haven’t seen the news or any TV, I’m not eating proper food. I’m either commuting, I’m in the shop or I’m off doing interviews, I’m collecting a band from a venue, I’m chasing a courier. There’s always something going on – and then, when the instore happens, it’s so intense for an hour. When we had Modern Baseball play their in-store, we had people queuing four-and-a-half hours before it started. Which is cool, but it puts a twist on your day…
“For every success you have, it leads to a new potential and a new challenge.”
Holy Roar: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier [before AH arrived], which was every cool thing you do breeds another set of problems – even if it’s a nice problem.
BSM: That’s the thing. For every success you have, it leads to a new potential and a new challenge. That in-store with Modern Baseball went really well, but now I want everything we do over the next week to go even better – and that’s now the new benchmark.
Ric from Tall Ships came in a couple of nights ago to do an in-store, and we went for dinner afterwards and we were talking about their debut album campaign. The night they played XOYO it was sold out and it was such a good night – probably one of the best things we’d ever done to that point in our careers – and then I went to a bar around the corner to have a drink with their publisher, and they said ‘So, what’s next?’ And that question completely ruined my night, because I hadn’t thought about that. It was like ‘Shit, what do we do next?’ It took me two hours to get home and all the way home I just kept thinking ‘Well, we’ve got to do Scala next – but that’s a lot more tickets, we’ve put out the biggest single from the record, we don’t have any new content’, and you lose a bit of excitement once the album is out there.
Holy Roar: It’s just the nature of the beast though, as much as you want to fight against it.
BSM: Campaigns become harder, definitely. Yet we had to pull 300 people in, and suddenly, instead of enjoying that night, I was already stressing about the next one. But then I wouldn’t change that. If you don’t have that desire to go bigger, you’d quit immediately.
Holy Roar: A couple of things you’ve said there feed nicely into my next question, which is about the whole ‘what next’? What was the point where you decided, ‘Fuck these British bands, I’ll just start licencing American ones?’ [laughs]
BSM: [laughs] Interesting phrasing on that question…
Holy Roar: OK, to give a nicer spin on it; Did you do a licence for an American band and realise that by doing that you could elevate the label further, while still allowing you to support the British bands that you know and love? Was there one release that you could pinpoint where it made you realise you could open some doors by doing this sort of thing as well?
BSM: Yeah, there was. And I didn’t realise it until the other day, when I was doing another interview and was talking about the timeline of the label. It actually fits into two chapters, and the beginning of the second chapter was ‘Brother’s Blood’ by Kevin Devine.
We’d worked with American bands before that, but they were quite small bands and mini-campaigns, really. But that one, when we signed Kevin, he immediately became one of our bigger artists, and when we released the record he was on tour with Brand New doing big venues around the UK. That brought up different challenges that we hadn’t experienced with UK bands.
So, rather than having bands… we were working with Blakfish at the time, and they just burnt themselves out touring around the UK – suddenly we didn’t have that a problem as Kevin could only be over in the UK once or twice a year. We’d know he’d be in the UK in July and December, then he’d be off to write an album, and back in the UK the following September. So suddenly we had these focal points for campaigns.
Holy Roar: That must be nice when you know that there will be spurts of seriously hard work, and times when you don’t have to worry about that artist so much because there is another label in another territory dealing with them.
BSM: Absolutely. And I think that’s helped me in relation to campaigns – like I mentioned about that Tall Ships one – when you’ve gone past the album release and you’ve gone past the singles and you somehow have to try and maintain it. With artists only coming over once or twice, they’re kind of events in themselves, so you can build around those and it gives you impetus without having to force it.
Holy Roar: You’re making me view your label here like the three Hobbit films. So the first film – the early years in this case – was bullshit, because there’s like half an hour when they’re singing in the kitchen. Second film, things started to gather pace and it’s pretty good, and the third one is an action slammer. I think you’re in the third phase, post Kevin Devine.
BSM: We’re an action slammer. I think Kevin opened a lot of doors. He obviously didn’t intend to – he was just looking after his own career – but it was great for us. We’re Kevin’s longest serving label and he’s our longest serving artist.
Holy Roar: That’s a great thing.
BSM: It is. We’ve done five studio albums, a live album and various singles over eight years. And Kevin’s a nice guy, he’s got a lot of friends and he’s really well respected. And that made it loads easier for me to approach bands after that. When I’d email and say ‘Hey, I love your band, can I work with you?’, genuinely, so many of them wrote back to say… like that Touché Amoré album you did a few year back…
Holy Roar: … ‘To The Beat of a Dead Horse’
BSM: Yeah. I emailed them a few months before you did it. I emailed them to say ‘I really like this record, it doesn’t appear to have come out, can I release it?’ Jeremy [Bolm] wrote back to say how much he liked Kevin Devine. And that surprised me, because of how different they are musically.
Holy Roar: Similar worlds though.
BSM: True, but at that point it was so new to me, the whole American thing, I was looking at things musically and geographically, rather than scenes that transcend those barriers, and that wasn’t one I was expecting. Like maybe I expected him to say he’d heard the Chariot’s record or something.
You know, I don’t even know if I followed that email up. I don’t think I did. Good for Holy Roar though, right? Maybe I wish I had replied. [laughs] But yeah, Kevin opened doors that I never expected – and he still does to this day.
“We’re still small set-ups – and we’re only just now really beginning to make headway in our own territory.”
Holy Roar: You’ve given me another question there, and it’s something we’ve talked about in the past, but you’ve given it a new perspective. You’ve talked about how an American band can only be available in the UK say twice a year for a two/three week period, so you know when you can work on them, and the structure of that campaign, and you also highlighted a problem with a British band – Tall Ships in that instance – where you don’t want to cane the touring schedule (and you mentioned Blakfish there as well, I’m not just picking on Tall Ships), but why are we still not doing the same with British bands as we are with American bands, but in reverse – ie, why is there still not a huge amount of great British bands – not huge – who you can work on and know you won’t have to worry about them for three quarters of the year because they’ll be in Australia, Japan, America?
It’s still, to me, a problem and a barrier. To me it’s still infuriating.
BSM: Brexit, innit.
Holy Roar: You can’t say that though!
BSM: [laughs] No, it’s not Brexit, but it’s not a million miles away. For American bands, their visa to come in costs what, £100?
Holy Roar: Whereas for us it’s £5,000 once you factored everything in. Which is crazy.
BSM: I’ve heard stories of US bands getting to the airport, getting to Heathrow and realising they don’t have a visa, so they ring up the booking agent, stand in the queue and by the time they get to the front, the visa has come through. Whereas for UK bands going to the US… we applied for one for Gnarwolves three months ahead and it still didn’t come through in time. It’s such a long convoluted process – and expensive.
Holy Roar: Isn’t it a sad state of affairs that it isn’t a level playing field? Why should we carry on supporting British bands if it’s difficult for them to make headway? Unless they get into that infrastructure where their manager also manages Iron Maiden and you can throw money at it. But then, you could throw £10,000 at it and still not make those inroads in America. There is still this big jump…
BSM: It’s unfair to put the whole blame on the visa process. We’ve had bands travel without the process. If you go to FEST in Florida, the likelihood is all of the British bands will be there ‘illegally’. But the other thing is the size and scope of trying to break those territories. We are still – both of our labels – we’re still small set-ups – and we’re only just now really beginning to make headway in our own territory.
I have no idea how many times bigger America is than the UK. Say if you wanted to break Employed To Serve over there, they would have to tour a number of times. There would have to be a bit of luck to it as well – maybe they would have to land a great support slot, which means they make $100/$150 a night, which means, even if they go without a visa, you’re looking at a debt of at least £5,000.
Holy Roar: So let’s phrase it another way; Why is it so easy for an American band and an American label to get you on board, when it’s difficult – still – for me or you to get an American label or an Australian label on board with one of our bands and basically do what you’re doing?
BSM: I think it’s different. In America it’s very ‘live’ driven, you need to tour and you need to be visible and available. In the UK and Europe it’s a smaller territory and lots of bands are big before they have even played a show. There’s numerous bands who will put a couple of songs online in America, and by the time they play London they’re selling out 3-500 capacity venues.
We both work a little bit in Germany, and I’ve been told before that if you want to break Germany, you need to tour. You’re not just doing Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, you have to do the smaller towns too. They want to see a commitment to that territory. Maybe there’s a certain degree of arrogance in it? I dunno. In France, the radio is all taken up by French speaking music so it’s difficult to even get involved.
Holy Roar: But as a music infrastructure, France isn’t that good. Our bands can tour Italy, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, but France is continually hard to play more than two shows.
BSM: It is. Most of our bands – we have Beach Slang and Modern Baseball over at the moment…
Holy Roar: And it will be Paris and that’s about it. They’ll all go to Paris exclusively.
BSM: Exactly. They’ll all go to Paris exclusively.
Holy Roar: I know it was what you wanted a few years ago, but do you still want someone running BSM USA. Or something along those lines. Do you still want to push into America – and not just America but Australia and Japan as well? Do you think, with your set-up in the UK and Europe, that you can continue to grow that and carry on working with bigger bands – and use the bands you work with now to approach even bigger bands – and be happy with the UK and Europe, and not go through with the infrastructure nightmares that you would go through getting into those territories?
BSM: It is still a goal. I think I got it wrong a few years ago by going to go too big too quick. But, since signing US bands here, it has allowed me to get a better understanding of that.
Holy Roar: So is the goal to sign these US bands worldwide?
BSM: We have a plan. This year we’ll do a US distribution deal for the first time, and then in 2018 I want to be comfortable with that set-up so we can sign US bands for the US.
Holy Roar: But would that require someone on the ground in America?
BSM: We’re talking about this at the moment.
Holy Roar: You could ship out Dave [Owen, BSM label assistant] in a box. Or a coffin.
BSM: And that solves two problems right? [laughs] We went to New York last year and had a couple of meetings and have been trying to figure it out. I’ve got some ideas and need to make some calls in the next couple of weeks to start looking into this. We already have a couple of releases that I am 90% sure we’re going to release in America – we just need to get that set-up in place. So 2017, we’ll start to get actively involved in this, then 2018 will be when we’re better at it. Just like how it was here when we started. That doesn’t mean we’re going to fuck up this year’s releases, I just think we’ll learn from them and improve.
But I think it’s an important step for an independent label, as you do hit glass ceilings in the UK and Europe.
Holy Roar: And we need labels to push through that every now and then.
BSM: Exactly. You look at City Slang. That began as a little label in Berlin – and yeah, they did some great things early on – but now they sign bands and they go worldwide.
Holy Roar: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and feeds back into your own territory, so you become this global, world-renowned thing…
BSM: The difficulty is, there’s not too many labels from our scene that have expanded that way. Mostly they’re US coming to us – look at Run For Cover, Topshelf…
Holy Roar: Wichita did it…
BSM: Yeah, taking Los Campesinos! and other bands, but I can’t think of too many other labels that started in the same way BSM did – like I knew nothing – and have grown to the point where they can look to go to the US. Wichita had the benefit of years of experience with Creation – and they have more money and experience and they’re better at it than I am.
Holy Roar: You’re right. And it’s rare for that whole DIY model. If you can achieve it when MP3s and now streaming have existed, then even fewer labels would have experienced it.
BSM: That feels like it could transition to a question about digital?
“It’s hard to predict their buying patterns because they’re still forming as humans, let alone record buyers and music consumers. I don’t see a change in format coming though.”
Holy Roar: I didn’t have anything specific on that, but what do you feel has changed over the last six months – since we did the last interview? I think that could be applied to digital. I feel like loads has changed, for Holy Roar and the industry. I look at the back end of 2016, the streaming stats have grown and grown and grown, and it has started to be at the expense of MP3s. Obviously, Holy Roar has changed, and I’m now doing this too [gestures to the shop], but how have things changed for BSM? BSM: I don’t know if things have changed that much in terms of the MP3s and downloads, but I think it is coming. I remember thinking last year that I thought iTunes would stop selling downloads, but I was jumping the gun a little bit. I think I forgot a little bit that it takes people a while to change their buying habits. So I misjudged it.
Holy Roar: I’m a bit surprised the vinyl thing hasn’t blown over yet.
BSM: I feel like there’s almost two generations of vinyl buyers. There’s people our age who have always bought it and…
Holy Roar:… The old people
BSM: We are the old people! [laughs] But we people buy it because we like the packaging and the artwork and it’s nice. Whereas the 16/17/18 year olds, they’re interested in the variants. If we announce a new Modern Baseball record, they want all the variants, and they definitely want the rarest.
Holy Roar: But why?
BSM: I think maybe they like to say to their friends ‘I got this one and you haven’t.’ Older people, like those in their 30s, don’t give a shit, they just like the album.
Holy Roar: Does that vapid consumerism spell the slow death of humanity?
BSM: Yes. [laughs] I don’t know. It’s interesting what it’ll do for vinyl, but it’s hard to know if people who are 12 will have that same desire when they’re 15, or if they’re 15 now, will they still have that desire when they’re 18. It’s hard to predict their buying patterns because they’re still forming as humans, let alone record buyers and music consumers. I don’t see a change in format coming though. I can’t see a CD resurgence, tapes had its tiny bubble…
Holy Roar: You know, we put out an announcement about the new Brutality Will Prevail record and someone said, ‘I wish you were putting it out on tape,’ so I said ‘OK, we’ll do it’. They’re really easy to make.
BSM: Five or six releases a year we’ll put on tape, but I think they’re selling for the same reason as the variants – because who listens to them? Actually, saying that, we sell a few in Groezrock and we’ve had some French and Belgians ask if we have certain releases on tape and they’ll have a boombox with them.
“you’ve got to take a risk and spend money to make money”
Holy Roar: But the cassettes we have now actually sound pretty good.
OK, so what has changed for BSM? Is Dave now full time?
BSM: Pretty much. And we have Connor [P Laws] part time, so that has changed. We wouldn’t be doing the pop-up if it was just me, because I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it on my own, so that has changed. We’re a braver label now.
Holy Roar: Do you realise now that the more man hours you’ve got, the more you can achieve? I feel like you resisted that for a long time.
BSM: Oh yeah. I got it wrong in that I thought I couldn’t employ someone until I had an annual wage sitting there spare. Which isn’t the case – you’ve got to take a risk and spend money to make money. We’ve both done it and I’m sure we’ve had sleepless nights about it, as you’re now risking someone else’s livelihood…
Holy Roar: But isn’t that a good thing? It makes you work harder and makes you think about how you can turn those work hours into sales for the label.
BSM: And in answer to your question, I think that is the biggest change. We have more hours, so there’s an expectation that it will make more money.
Holy Roar: That feeds into my next question. Do you still think outsourcing your PR and distribution – as this is where BSM and Holy Roar differ – is the way to go? We do it all our mail order in-house and 90% of our PR in-house – but we employ more people in-house to cover that. So you outsource and money goes there to those jobs, whereas we do it all in-house – do you think either approach is better, or are your opinions changing?
BSM: Not sure. Previously I was of the same opinion as you and we did everything in-house. But the reason we don’t do PR in-house is, if we try it, we don’t do it as well, if at all. We have great intentions but it can be difficult to follow it through. So we pay for PR – but that costs money so you have to be confident in the results.
I’m not sure if one is better than the other though. Maybe they work for different people. Currently outsourcing works for us, but what’s to say it will always be the same. I think if you asked me two years ago you’d have got a different answer, and if you asked me four years ago I’d have given you a different answer.
Right now, I’m enjoying not doing the mail ordering. I like that it gets done daily and we don’t touch it as we were terrible when we handled it ourselves.
Holy Roar: I feel like we have come full circle now that we’ve brought our mail order back in-house. I think we’re doing it better than ever as people can tell we really give a shit, we’ve got a system that works and we can throw in cool little things, the errors are well down and we get the returns if things are undelivered.
BSM: I do miss having that control – like you can’t throw in little things, but I like not dealing with it.
Holy Roar: That’s where delegation has been a beautiful thing.
BSM: I still feel giving someone a job I don’t want to do myself is a bit shit. I need to improve on that.
Holy Roar: Since the last time we did this, I said at the time I was going to open a beer shop – and here we are sat in it. But are you bored yet? I said I felt like I needed to diversify to keep feeling excited and fresh about the label because I had somewhere else to park my brain. Do you ever feel like that, and if so what would you diversify into?
BSM: Two years ago, I think I was ready to do the label as one of a number of things – kind of like what you did – and I was actually trying to think about what I would do. I remember at Christmas two years ago – so 2015…
Holy Roar: You realised you couldn’t do anything else? [laughs]
BSM: I had loads of ideas, came back in January and thought about ways to start extricating myself from the label, yet by March I was full engrossed again. I’m not sure what it was, but it was like an epiphany…
Holy Roar: Was this epiphany your bank balance after doing all the American releases? [laughs]
BSM: Maybe [laughs]. Nah, I don’t know what it was. I think it was that I realised I should stop being an idiot and accept that this is my job and I actually enjoy it.
Holy Roar: You do love it more than anyone else I know.
BSM: I think that’s it. I’ve learnt to accept it and embrace it, and the other things I was worried about, I got over. It all comes down to being in my 30s now. I say this to people all the time now. Ric from Tall Ships is 30 in a couple of days and he’s freaking out about it, but I told him he’s gonna love it. Things get better that day.
Holy Roar: It does. Having this [Ghost Whale] to strive for… I think I now love Holy Roar more too. But you figure things out a bit more – as long as you have an idea of what you want to do, you can push on and do it.
BSM: That’s it. I think maybe I felt things had stagnated or that I wanted a new challenge, but in fact, there are lots of challenges within my job anyway – such as expanding in to America. And that’s a huge challenge and I want to have a meaningful crack at it before I give up. And I now have responsibilities too. I have a mortgage and a wife and a dog. It’s not just me being an idiot now. If I give up it doesn’t just affect me.
Big Scary Monsters’ pop-up shop runs until February 4th at Hackney Downs Studios, London E8 2BT
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Alex Fitzpatrick and Kev Douch for their time.
Words by Rob Mair (@BobNightMair)