with Brian John Mitchell of Silber Records
Well, Brian John Mitchell is me. These are some questions/conversations from “fans” for this interview. It’s mainly about the label.
QRD – What originally drove you to start Silber, & who, if any, are the major influences behind it?
Brian – I wanted to get some artists I knew more money & exposure basically. I thought I could do a better job than the labels they were on. I was wrong actually. It’s a lot harder than I thought & anyone who is thinking about running a label should ask me about interning so they can find out they don’t really want to do it. The biggest influence to me was Projekt who were a bit different in 1995 than they are today. Also influential I guess were various folks I knew running their own little things that basically ended up with only one release, but it made it seem like I could run a label.
QRD – You started out primarily to help out some friends & ended up getting artists from all over the globe exposure. Something to be proud of, no?
Brian – It is something to be proud of & I am proud of it, but I do wish I’d done it better. As far as being international, the thing about that is it was never really about helping my friends down the street. I forget about it not being common to everyone, but in middle school (around 1987) I got into zine culture & pen pal & friendship book stuff. So I had a lot of “friends” from all over the country & by the end of high school around the world. So unlike a lot of labels that are focused on a particular city or state, Silber ended up with a much further reach. I think it might be more successful to start locally if you can find high quality acts. I think it’s easier to generate excitement with people you see face to face on a regular basis.
QRD – Can you remember your first po box demo?
Brian – Well, since I started QRD first, the shift to demos to Silber instead of reviews for QRD is a blur. I can tell you the first demo that was physically handed to me, Windows by Fade (Jon DeRosa’s band in high school). Me & Jon occasionally talk about doing some kind of limited release of it. I haven’t listened to it in a couple years now, but I think it’ll stand up okay.
QRD – Have you got any pointers for budding artist’s or band’s reading this & would like you to release their record?
Brian – Be a fan of the label. I fill every order myself; so if you’ve ordered things from me before, I know it. I get demos sometimes that I just don’t get at all (seriously, your Sublime knock-off songs are not going to blow my mind & change the label’s style). I think bands should only really try to work with labels they’re fans of. Do include some info about yourself, especially what you have to offer the label (are you willing to tour? how big is your current fan base?) & what you want the label to provide for you. Tell me who your favorite Silber bands are & why you fit into our family. Booking a show near me & asking me to be on the bill can only help your cause as well. Also, I don’t need your full album, just give me your three best songs. Most of this stuff applies to sending stuff to any label.
QRD – Did you think x-amount of years later you’d have 70+ releases under your belt?
Brian – Well, I thought I would have gotten to 70 releases long before this. I thought it was going to be a money making venture & snowball & I’d be putting out 50 a year. Which is what I would really like to be doing. If I was putting out 50 a year, that would probably be pretty much 100% of the things I want to & all I could handle as a one man show full time. But I can’t do that when only one in ten releases breaks even, but if I thought more things would break even I’d put out more stuff.
QRD – 50 a year is quite a lot. I get the impression Silber are a “quality over quantity” label or do you think there’s enough “great” music out there to promote?
Brian – Well, part of that has to do with me making money. If I was able to move enough units for someone to make a living they would be able to concentrate more on their music & make an album every year. I have put out releases by over 20 bands & so with a few comps that would be halfway there. Like I said, 50 would probably be really close to putting out every release I like that is even vaguely appropriate to the label.
QRD – The label’s sound is pretty evident to people who are familiar with the catalog. Is this a conscious thing? How would you define this sound?
Brian – It is & is not a conscious thing. I put out music I like & when I have ventured out on a bit of a limb with the folky stuff like Jamie Barnes & Heller Mason, it has gotten a bit of an attack back. Even something like Plumerai that is a bit poppy got dissed a bit by some of the Silber fan base. I’d love to put out everything I like, but my promotional abilities lend themselves towards indie ambient & post rock & drone. If somebody contacts me & I like what I hear I’ll often try to point them in the right direction to a friend’s label that could handle them better.
QRD – Does it have any effect on you if hardened “Silber heads” reject your seal of approval when you try to broaden Silber’s horizons? Guys that buy every release provide some type of stability, after all.
Brian – It shouldn’t effect me, but it does. When I released Jamie Barnes’ first CD I intentional put it out with Small Life Form to kinda show the two extremes of the label. I got a few emails asking why I was releasing such crap; mainly referring to Jamie & his record probably better stands the test of time. One thing I learned from a conversation with Sam Rosenthal (Projekt) is that you’ll feel better at the end of the day if you put out music you like rather than music you think your audience will like. It’s just too much work for something you don’t like. So I just try to be really open with descriptions. Sometimes I think it backfires a bit because by description Origami Arktika or Black Happy Day seem like they would appeal to Jamie Barnes’ fans, but they are probably more likely to appeal to Small Life Form fans. There are MP3s of everything on the website in this day & age, so I really feel everyone knows what they’re getting now anyway.
QRD – What are the pros/cons & high/lows of running an independent label?
Brian – The biggest pro is when you get to make an artist go from unknown to reviewed in some big magazines & getting airplay at big deal indie stations. The biggest con is getting those reviews & radio play & still not being able to sell units. I have never figured out what makes people go from hearing music & reading reviews to actually buying it; that has to be the most frustrating thing. A high is getting to actually write someone a check because their record made money, but the low is realizing how much money you don’t make. When I put out a record I know is amazing & has a market & it doesn’t sell… I feel like a failure as a label, a friend, & a human being.
QRD – Yeah, obviously I don’t know the ins & outs about your sales, but you’d tend to think good reviews plus radio play equal sales... Downloading maybe?
Brian – I have no idea. I hear that playing 200 shows a year for ten years is pretty helpful, but short of that I just don’t know.
QRD – What advice would you give to somebody who wants to start a label?
Brian – Don’t do it if you think you can make money. Try to get an internship or street team job to see what the work is really like (I offer internet internships at Silber). There’s a lot more to running a label than financing the manufacturing of a release & if that’s all you’re doing, you’re not really a record label.
QRD – Does anyone running a label actually make money releasing “indie ambient & post rock & drone” music?
Brian – Yeah, you’ve got a handful like Kranky, Important, Alien8, or Temporary Resident that I see as doing similar things to me, but a lot more successfully. It’s frustrating because I think Silber might be older than any of those. I should look more in depth to what those labels have done right, but off hand I would guess it’s touring bands.
QRD – Yeah, well, that’s it, a handful. Labels like Kranky are few & fair between. It’s debatable, but I’d imagine less than 1% of labels with 20+ releases actually make serious money. Thing is, the “also ran” 99% guys keep going, they still keep pushing out releases. I guess it’s what they love doing regardless of the money.…
Brian – It’s what you love doing & it becomes a bit of your social center, so it’s hard to quit. I mean, I could invest my extra 40 hours a week playing video games or drinking, but it seems running a label sounds more constructive.
QRD – Tell me more about the cogs in the Silber machine?
Brian – I’m the main cog myself. The other cogs help do the work I’m too burned out to do anymore, like updating what stores have gone out of business or who’s the new music director at some radio station that probably won’t play our music anyway. It was exciting to get all that info starting out, but after more than ten years it gets hard to remember that someone is 14 & hearing this weird music for the first time & wants to be the next Aarktica.
QRD – Silber have moved with the times & embraced digital distribution; is it just another way to sell music or does it spell the end of the CD?
Brian – To be honest I like that digital distro pays me money for nothing. The Lycia downloads are one of the main sources of revenue for the label at no cost. CDs really spell the end of themselves in a way because they are about convenience & ease of use; they’re a means to an end usually. When someone has special intricate nice packaging (like the Hotel Hotel CD) it is a different thing. But the future of objects is being objects. If you want people to buy your CD rather than buy (or steal) a digital version, make it about it as an object somehow.
QRD – There’s a big vinyl revival going on at the minute with experimental music. Is this something you’re interested in?
Brian – I’m very interested in it as a shift & cultural phenomenon. However, I am not interested in it for Silber because I used to work for the post office & I have no idea how any record makes it somewhere in playable condition. I do like the idea of going away from jewel cases to more physical objects though.
QRD – A free release series has just appeared on the site. What is the story behind that? I guess they’ll be more of these in the near future?
Brian – Well, I’ve been trying to do the free release series for years, it’s just it seems to go in spurts. Basically the idea is to take things that would traditionally be a limited release to promote an album (like a live EP or a remix EP) & give it away rather than lose money physically producing it. There is a double edge to it because sometimes the EPs get heard more than the album, so you need the material to be good enough to be released & not just throw away tracks. In theory I’d like each major release to have two free releases associated with it, one live or outtakes & another that is remixes; but that’s hard to make happen. The compilation series will keep going on like that as well & I have been thinking about doing something more in the series with folks I want to work with, but know I can’t make money off of.
QRD – The expectations & the abilities of a label & an artist are not always the same, or even complementary. Self-releasing your own music on Silber, did there ever occur any problems between you as being Remora/Vlor/etc. & you as label owner?
Brian – I’m often a little dissatisfied with working with Silber for my own material, because I only have me pushing things & everyone else has me & themselves. & I have been pretty upset in the end that some of my recordings could have used a more critical ear to say “re-do the vocal on track 3” or something like that. But when I have tried to work with other labels I’ve been equally dissatisfied. As a label of course I have problems with myself because I don’t tour enough.
QRD – Have you ever been tempted to release a “bigger” artist, more for the benefit of the label than for artistic reasons?
Brian – I have on rare occasion had the opportunity to work with some bigger artists that I didn’t feel quite fit on Silber & I have always passed. I probably should’ve put them out, but a lot of the time bigger bands need cash up front to cover studio expenses & I just don’t have the funds.
QRD – What advice would you give to the young BJM, just starting up the Silber label?
Brian – Well, the advice might just be to not do it. It varies day to day. Assuming it’s still me starting it in 1996 I would say to ask bands for partial financing & work with more touring acts. Also save more money to push the label forward & don’t be scared to work with bands. Probably just to learn to play my guitar & tour non-stop would be good advice. Especially when I was young enough to handle touring better than I can today.
QRD – What is on the horizon for Silber?
Brian – In the near future are releases from Remora, Vlor, Carta, Aarktica, & hopefully Darren Heyman. Also a DVD collecting the Lost Kisses cartoons. In the long term, hopefully staying in business &/or taking over the world.
QRD – I hear Aarktica are returning to the label, sounds exciting....
Brian – Yeah, that’s true. But I’m not holding my breath on the release date because Jon is a bit of a perfectionist. We’re actually going to be doing a lot to kinda push that. Doing some stuff to kinda remind people about how great Aarktica is because it seems like the past couple releases haven’t gotten as much coverage as they deserve.
QRD – How big a part do the cartoons/comics play in your life?
Brian – Well, I really feel like that is kinda more where my talent lies than with music. They actually take a lot longer to do than folks think (about 40 hours on the ones I draw, only about 10 on my side if I just write them). But I’m thinking about them all the time & I have other series in my head if I ever get the chance to get someone to pay me so I have to spend more time working on them. On XO I sent Melissa the story arc for the whole series recently & it’s about 300 issues if it stays in the current 40-panel format. On Lost Kisses I generally walk around with 3 or 4 issues in my head waiting for time to come out. Worms is only ever half an issue ahead because it’s not as close to my natural voice. There’s another comic called Marked if anyone knows someone who wants to draw a demon-fighter comic; it’s had four artists abandon it & I’m one of them. Right now I’m supposedly working on a comic series about Remora as well where I record music & fight aliens & depression from inside of a giant fighting robot, but I’m not sure it will make it to fruition. I also have a western I’m working on. I grew up on comics & the way I do them is nice to me because it makes me feel like a kid again, as opposed to music feels like work a lot of times.
QRD – I’ve got to admit you sound pretty jaded at times….
Brian – I don’t mean to. I know that I’m a really blessed individual. I have all my fingers & toes & both eyes & ears. My life is basically my pre-teen dream, except that I don’t have as much money & that girl’s aren’t really into my work. But once the next Remora album drops, I’ll make my millions & date some cut-rate celebrity… at least that’s the plan….
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