Szporluk Interview March 2004
So you might not recognize the name Ben Szporluk, but you probably do recognize the names of some things he's been involved with. He's been a writer for zines like The Big Takeover & Dagger as well as running his own kick-ass zine Vendetta for years before ending it to start his own record label Elephant Stone.
QRD – How did Vendetta start out, why did you stop doing it & how was it successful & unsuccessful?
Ben – I started Vendetta in 1995 on a really small scale. The first four or five issues I printed out maybe 50-100 just to give away for free and to send to labels whose bands I reviewed. I got a bit more ambitious in 1997 when I moved up from digest size to regular size and started soliciting ads from labels. At its peak (1999-2002) I would print about 1000 of each issue and pretty much break even. I think that's all you can really expect from a fanzine. I really didn't want to make compromises and start featuring bands I didn't like to get ad revenue from major labels. I feel like I went out on a creative high.
QRD – How did Vendetta & working for a label prepare you & not prepare you to start Elephant Stone?
Ben – Vendetta, while not profitable, was hugely instrumental in getting the label going. Most of the records I've put out thus far have been by bands that I used to write about in the zine. Some examples include The Land of Nod, Delta, and The Out Crowd (the singer Matt used to be in Brian Jonestown Massacre who are one of my all-time favorite bands). Working for Dionysus and their pop imprint Orange Sky was great. Lee Joseph ,who owns Dionysus, taught me so much about every facet of the business and really trusted my judgment when I offered advice on potential bands for the label or on other issues. That was really instrumental in giving me the confidence to start a label. That said, it's a crazy business and no amount of experience can prepare you for the ups and downs of having your own business. I liken starting a label to the Fool card in the Tarot where the guy is oblivious to the fact that he's about to walk off a cliff.
QRD – What does the name Elephant Stone refer to?
Ben – The name is taken from a Stone Roses song but it's also a slang term for Ivory. My wife Bella came up with the name. I was pretty set on naming the label after a band or a song like Creation records did with The Creation.
QRD – What is the Elephant Stone Mission statement?
Ben – To release records by bands that I'm a huge fan of. The number one concern is that I love the music. Obviously I want to make a profit on each release, but I always put art above commerce. You have to love the music so much that even if you don't sell what you hoped you won't regret it!
QRD – How many releases would you ideally do a year?
Ben – 6-10 releases a year would be ideal. Even if I had unlimited finances I wouldn't want to do much more than that. I want each band to feel like a priority and not get lost in the shuffle. Thus far, I put out one CD at the end of 2002 when I started the label, 4 CDs and a 7" last year, and this year, I'll probably put out 5 CDs.
QRD – How has the label effected your own musical endeavors?
Ben – The label takes up a huge chunk of my time so I really don't have time to do as much writing as I used to. I no longer publish Vendetta but I just started doing a little bit of writing for The Big Takeover, Skyscraper, and Dagger. I also DJ once a month at a cool bar, but really, my musical aspirations are to make the label my full-time job. The writing and DJing are just for fun!
QRD – What have you done for publicity with the label that you feel has been most cost effective?
Ben – I think word-of-mouth is the best and cheapest way for an indie band to develop as opposed to hiring an expensive publicist or advertising in glossy zines. It certainly helped with the CD I put out by Daydream Nation, who are from Ottawa, Canada. The CD I put out was basically a compilation of some bedroom demos and though the singer/main songwriter Pat Vaz was pretty unknown at the time, even in his hometown, I've gone on to sell out the first pressing of 1000 in 6 months, largely due to a good buzz being generating by some nice press, and distributors like Tonevendor and Parasol praising the release on their websites. Goes to show that you don't need fancy studios and big advances if the heart's in the right place. Good songs are good songs!
Advertising in the right places can be cost effective too, but it can also be expensive. Last year I spent more than I should have on ads, but I think I've learned now which zines give you the best bang for your buck. My releases appeal to a niche market so I think the key is to advertise in small zines for the most part. The biggest zines I advertise in are The Big Takeover and Skyscraper.
QRD – What do you think Elephant Stone needs to make it to the next level?
Ben – I think I need to put out a band that sells maybe 5,000 CDs and gets offered a deal by a large indie for their next release. If that happens more people would buy the Elephant Stone back catalog. I'm not really aiming to be an A&R outlet for larger labels, but the history of rock 'n' roll is all about bands getting snatched off of small indies so if the situation arises where a big label offers one of my bands something that I can't give to them, I'll definitely try to use it to my advantage.
QRD – Is Elephant Stone about whatever music you like or a particular style?
Ben – I guess more of a particular style that I like, as I do like bands in genres that I probably will never release on Elephant Stone. I think the model for me is labels like Chess, Stax, Motown, Creation, Factory, and early Sub Pop, who were all pretty genre specific. Obviously I don't want all the bands to be identical but I would like to think that someone who buys something on Elephant Stone would probably like most, if not, all the releases on the label.
QRD – I know you’re a fan of a lot of nostalgia oriented music from garage to shoegazer, how do you feel the current bands in these genres compare to the originals?
Ben – For the most part, I think the originals are better, especially in the garage scene. I like the current shoegazer/space rock bands a lot more than the new garage rock bands. Maybe because there's more space to be innovative and original in shoegazing. With garage, you're pretty much confined to 2-3 minutes of fuzz and melody, and there's not really much that a current band can do to improve on all those great '60s records by bands like The Creation, The Pretty Things, Seeds, Sonics, and Shadows of Knight. In contrast, what constitutes shoegazing/dream pop is pretty vast (i.e. Cocteau Twins, Slowdive on one extreme - JAMC, the noisy side of MBV on the other). There aren't any rigid formulas for song length, guitar sound etc. I like a lot of the bands that people praise on message boards like Blisscent and while you can usually trace back the influences, I think groups like Skywave, Whirlaway, A Place To Bury Strangers, Daydream Nation, etc. are adding their own original twists to the early '90s innovators. I'd also like to give you a shout out for putting out the Twelve CD. Chris Olley is a major talent with Six By Seven and it's cool to see another side to his music on the Twelve project.
QRD – How has running the label effected you as a music fan?
Ben – I certainly don't buy as many CDs as I used to, so I'm definitely more cautious about purchases as any disposable income tends to got to Elephant Stone.
QRD – Do you feel telling people you meet about the label is cool or embarrassing?
Ben – Mostly cool. I'm not sure that people I meet outside of music circles quite understand the process of putting out a CD, but I'm proud of what I do.
QRD – What forms of digital music trading do you feel are potentially helpful to a small label & which ones most harmful?
Ben – I think having a couple of MP3s on your website and on band and distributor sites is great, but I don't think fans should make an entire CD available for trade. Radio is so corporate these days that I view an MP3 as a radio single. i.e. You hear something you like, you might be inclined to buy the CD. I'm not crazy about people being able to download entire CDs on the internet though, especially when its a CD by a really obscure indie band who could use the money.
QRD – Anything else?
Ben – Just that despite all the setbacks
major labels are having, I don't think the music industry is as bad off
as the bigwigs think it is. Maybe it is for them because they're greedy
and want big bonuses etc., but I think that there are enough passionate
music fans out there to enable labels like Elephant Stone and Silber to
have an impact. I'm a big believer in the DIY ethic.