Owner Interview with Richard Johnson of Fourth Dimension &
Lumberton Trading Company
Labels: Fourth Dimension & Lumberton Trading Company
City: Krakow, Poland
Artists Roster: Circle, Tabata, Steve Marciana, Hannis Brown, Zsolt Sores, Steven Severin, Andrew Liles, Human Greed, Theme, Sion Orgon, Merzbow, Glass Out, Robert Hampson, Cindytalk, Thighpaulsandra, Formication, etc.
Websites: www.lumberton-trading.com, www.fourth-dimension.net
QRD – When & why did you start your label?
Richo – Gary Levermore of Third Mind Records started Fourth Dimension in 1983 & did two releases before I took over the following year. The reason I took it over was that the second release was a flexidisc I put together for my Grim Humour fanzine (that Gary helped me with) & I’d already considered the idea of commencing a label as a logical extension of the zine & my dedication to promoting new & interesting music. When Gary told me he wouldn’t be operating FD after this second release, it just made sense for me to continue with the name. My second label, Lumberton Trading Company, however, began in 2005 as a collaboration with a good friend of mine, Hassni Malik. He has subsequently left it, but I like to think that I’m now operating this label from a somewhat more experienced position than with FD at the beginning & can avoid certain mistakes. The labels co-exist now due to slightly different aesthetic sensibilities (which themselves may of course converge, but this idea remains in principal at least). FD, I feel, is still my “free” label & a little more anchored to a “punk rock” approach. LTCo is more mannered by comparison.
QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases?
Richo – By working & saving surplus funds. Between 1983 & 2005, I worked at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Most of my spare money went into either my activities or buying music, books & films outside those everyday commitments.
QRD – How many releases have you put out?
Richo – Fourth Dimension is now up to its 76th release, & LTCo is currently preparing its 15th.
QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year?
Richo – I would like to do as many as my money, time, & energy allow to be perfectly frank. There is always music around I would like to support.
QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?
Richo – Working on a label means everything from dealing with many emails daily, establishing new contacts & pushing my releases as far as possible besides handling the releases themselves & the promotion, sending out of orders, etc. I would contend I spend around 20 hours a week on this, which may not sound like much; but, for me, adds up to a significant amount of time given I also still work & am engaged with various other activities (also mostly music-related).
QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?
Richo – The enjoyment for me is simply having a hand in the production & promotion of new music by, mostly, people I personally respect or feel merit such support. Through my involvement with the labels I also get to meet many other like-minded or interesting people, outside the music side of things itself. For me, this is also extremely rewarding. Of course, there are exceptions, but I have largely found the people responsible for creating the music I’m interested in releasing or supporting invaluable as individuals also.
QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed?
Richo – They have changed very little. The only thing I would like now is to be able to dedicate more time to the labels & have them operating more efficiently, but I need greater support first (& this has always been my dilemma).
QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?
Richo – Without exception, Post Office queues. Barely a week goes past without my having spent a couple of hours of my life standing in the fucking things, waiting to mail out several packages. Next to this, my second most hated activity of packing orders pales almost into insignificance.
QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?
Richo – On a rudimentary level, I admire all labels that are borne of true passion, irrespective of the music concerned. However, over the years I have forged a particular bond with Dirter; a label operated by a friend of mine whose interests & attitude to it compare very well with my own. Otherwise, I will always hold a lot of respect for Factory, Crass, Susan Lawly, certain old punk labels, Industrial Records, Ralph, etc. & countless, I suppose, contemporaries of mine that are equally dedicated to making interesting music available from a wide variety of fields. I should also note that I work quite closely with Poland’s AudioTong, too; another label operated by a close friend whose general stance & philosophies compare well with mine. & I love labels such as Ideal, Dekorder, Tourette, Ektro, Black Rose, VHF, etc. as none of them can be identified by a particular sound. They are the work of open minds, & this is another factor extremely important to me.
QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?
Richo – All experience with work has inadvertently helped me; as work, by its very nature, usually means having to deal with other people. As a result, I like to believe I’m very patient, tolerant, & understanding. On the other hand, however, working with other people equally means that my bullshit detector is very finely tuned. Whilst I am happy to work alongside friends & artists whose work I want to champion, I do not tolerate the “artistic temperament” very easily. I can be just as arrogant or combative as any other rampant ego whenever necessary.
QRD – What makes your label special & unique?
Richo – I don’t run labels, or do anything else, to be “special” or “unique.” These attributes are for others to decide. Maybe I’m doing the very same thing as countless others, maybe not. I’m here for the music, what it expresses, the people behind it, & those who enjoy it.
QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?
Richo – Not at all. Since my labels began, I have moved from England to Krakow, Poland & it doesn’t make any difference, thanks to the internet. Perhaps the queues at the Post Office are smaller in England, though!
QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?
Richo – If I didn’t enjoy music as much now as when I started my labels, I wouldn’t operate them. Outside of this, I have always been selective when it comes to music or anything else in my life. When it comes to releasing music, though, I strongly believe my radar works very well. I tend to work with people who I can get on with in person, despite any differences we may have.
QRD – What’s your demos policy?
Richo – I always maintained a firm No Demos policy, but the reason for this is that it creates an instant filter system. I’m not as impressed by demos as much as what might lie behind them.
QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?
Richo – I am lucky in that I have an infinite number of contacts &, because I’ve been doing this for so long, a vast & sprawling history of good releases that serve me very well in working with artists I’m interested in. Having said this, my ears are always open, but I thrive on effort, passion, & dedication & must see these qualities in others before I consider working with them.
QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?
Richo – Through the artists I have worked with, the websites, word of mouth, my own hard work, & those many favourable reviews The Wire never give.
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?
Richo – Thurston Moore’s 10” & CD reissue on Fourth Dimension. Because he is in Sonic Youth, who are themselves successful & have a fanbase who’ll buy everything & anything to do with them.
QRD – What release that you've done was the most important & special to you personally?
Richo – This isn’t such a tough one to answer, as the Michael Gira Songs for a Dog LP on Lumberton Trading Company will forever rank as a personal achievement for me. I have loved Gira’s work inside, outside, & beyond Swans since about 1985. As a songwriter, I think he’s virtually untouchable & Swans themselves impacted on me so greatly when I first heard them that they left an indelible stain so amazingly colourful I don’t want to even try to remove it. For Gira to agree to a release for me felt like a huge triumph. Having said this, every release I put out is special for different reasons. Plus there has been tentative talk of a Cut Hands 7” on LTCo as well. Working with William Bennett in this capacity would also mean a lot to me, as he’s another person whose work has inspired me a lot over the past decade or two especially.
QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?
Richo – I have to like the music &, furthermore, I need to respect the people behind it as individuals. If they have questionable motives, I’d like to think I am extremely astute & can realise this almost immediately. I like to feel comfortable with the people I work with & have either an understanding or at least some mutually compatible ideas.
QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?
Richo – I tend to mostly do one-off releases, but there are a few exceptions. Over the years, I’ve worked with Circle, Tabata, & Andrew Liles more than once; & there are certainly other artists I’d like to work with again when the time & money allows. In fact, during more recent years I’d contend that I’d be happy to work with all of the artists I’ve collaborated with again. Once more, I think I’m rather fortunate with being in a position of selectivity. I like the people I work with & they largely tend to crawl from the same dank corner as myself & have a similar background or, at least, a deep understanding of it. As such, disagreements or whatever very rarely arise. If I felt I couldn’t work with an artist again, chances are that I wouldn’t be working with them in the first place.
QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?
Richo – They all come from the heart. It may sound corny & clichéd, but this is the one important factor that binds them all.
QRD – How involved are you with a band for acting as a producer as far as hearing demo ideas or selecting tracks to be on a release or mixing and mastering?
Richo – Each & every artist I work with is responsible for everything on their release, right down to the artwork. The only parameters are the budget &, in some cases, the artist’s own quest for guidance with selecting tracks or artwork, etc. By & large, however, I like the artist to remain as involved as possible with realising their release. After all, my role is simply to try & push it once out as far as possible. I’m not here to stamp my own artistic ideas on something that is not mine, although I might collaborate on some packaging ideas in the sense I’ll present them to the artist to see if they’re of interest or not.
QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?
Richo – Again, I prefer the artist to do as much as they can towards this as possible. I am fine with assembling artwork, but the images & ideas must be specified by the artist. As said, it is their release.
QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?
Richo – Because my labels operate on limited funds, releases can sometimes take a long time to be realised. It is unfortunate &, indeed, it is an issue I’m now addressing by the encouragement of pre-orders or even another subscription series (on LTCo). If I receive between just 40 & 60 pre-orders for any given release, I am, for example, over halfway towards actually seeing it out. The idea of getting more people to support my releases in this manner is becoming greater all the time &, despite my bemoaning my having to package up orders & stand in Post Office queues for painstaking amounts of time, I’m very happy to work in this more direct or hands-on way. It is certainly better than having to wait for up to a year for a release!
QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?
Richo – This is not something that’s ever happened to me & I don’t think it would be a problem if it did.
QRD – What do you wish bands on your label would do?
Richo – It would be good to see more artists take Gira’s example & actually buy more of their stock from me afterwards to sell on tour, etc.
QRD – What’s a record you’d like to put out that you’ll never be able to?
Richo – I’d be very happy to put out anything by anybody I like that’d sell well enough to fund the labels to become a more or less full-time concern. If Steven Severin & Robert Smith ever get round to doing another album by The Glove, I’d be perfectly happy to back it!
QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?
Richo – Given the nature of most of the music I release, my expectations regarding sales always remain fairly realistic (despite my forever surfing the waves of optimism on each & every one). Essentially, I release marginal music in a world already saturated with such music. If I stopped to consider the amount of sales my releases get, or the piles of unsold stock I have around me at home, I might sooner jack everything in than continue….
QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?
Richo – This is another option I’m now pushing with newer artists. It makes more sense. I invest less yet they still end up with a new release they can hopefully sell well enough to recoup their costs, plus they get promoted & distributed by me. It is a very nice way of working with artists.
QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?
Richo – Profit? I’m lucky if I break even on any given release. In theory, the idea is to share any profit 50/50 with the artist, but I usually end up simply giving them more of their stock as & when they want. Nothing has ever sold wonderfully for me beyond the Thurston Moore release on FD… & I was, even then, so heavily in debt to my distributor in London that I barely saw anything there either. No mansions with ensuite jacuzzis are likely to be happening in my life as a result of this music, I can tell you!
QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?
Richo – I try to avoid written contracts, but have had to do them a few times. The “deal” with me is very simple: I’ll release a record & all of the rights to it remain with the artist. If there’s any profit, we’ll then share it. I’m an honest person & do not want this undermined by a piece of paper. I always liked Tony Wilson’s approach to running Factory. It’s exactly how I prefer to do things.
QRD – Do you take a cut of a band’s publishing?
Richo – No. Their material is theirs &, as such, it is their responsibility to register their publishing rights themselves.
QRD – How important is it to you to have touring acts on your roster & what do you do to encourage it?
Richo – This does not really apply to me as most of the artists I work with, at best, play one-off concerts & tour very rarely. Steven Severin is one of several exceptions. He works very hard to play live performances throughout the UK & Europe especially, but he’s not a LTCo artist in the sense he’s been signed to the label. Rather, he has had a release on LTCo & several others elsewhere. This may help me a little as it raises some interest; but, ultimately, he’s touring to promote his work & ideas separately to the labels he works with & I’m fine with this.
QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?
Richo – These days, in-house because it is cheaper. I have worked with Dense Promotions in Berlin before, however, & Ed does a fantastic job there, but I just cannot afford this service these days. I have to save money wherever I can, unfortunately.
QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?
Richo – I think the ten or so people who religiously buy all of my releases tend to email me.
QRD – Do you have intern & street team programs & if so, how do they operate?
Richo – Definitely not.
QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?
Richo – I would love to reach the level whereby I could at least employ somebody part-time to deal with the orders & handle the websites for me properly. Again, it comes down to money, & I’m stretched enough as it is.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with record stores?
Richo – I’m directly in touch with a few, but most of this work is down to my main distributor, Cargo Records. I send out promos & release info sheets to several such places, though.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?
Richo – I send out promos & release info to radio shows that might cater for the music I put out.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with magazines & websites?
Richo – The same as above, really. I’m always happy to send out promos if there’ll be a review, but there’s no guarantee I’ll get one when I do this. Most of the time, these releases of mine just end up ignored or on someone’s selling stack…
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with bloggers?
Richo – Nothing. I’m not against the idea of blogging & have done it myself before, but it is largely the domain of people who’d never go beyond the comfort of their keyboard heroics. There are too many idiots there, too many lazy people, & it is a magnet for the illiterate, the misinformed & the, in some instances, downright insane. I’m not impressed by a blogger. I am impressed by someone who’ll get off their arse & cobble a magazine together. It’s that simple.
QRD – Do you view advertisements as a way to generate interest & revenue or more as a way to financially support magazines & websites you like?
Richo – I used to advertise LTCo in The Wire (a magazine I generally don’t like much, but does at least support some of the music & artists I’m interested in) for, I think, about a year or more. In that time, I had TWO people get in touch with me directly as a result of them, & the sales via the distributor remained around the same level. Mind you, I’ve also emailed labels which have advertised in The Wire & had no response whatsoever. I have my own theories about everything relating to that particular world….
QRD – What is the job of your distributors?
Richo – To sell my releases worldwide & help me recover the costs & promote the artists.
QRD – How do you decide how big the initial pressing of a release should be?
Richo – I work with small or less known artists, as a rule, so tend to keep to pressings that are accordingly realistic. If I can sell more than two or three hundred of any particular release, however, I’m happy.
QRD – What percentage of a pressing do you use for promotions?
Richo – Whatever is necessary. I would say that, on average, around 30 or 40 copies of any given release are used for promotional purposes. From these, I’m then lucky if I receive just a few reviews & the occasional bit of airplay.
QRD – Do you sell merchandise other than the music (t-shirts, etc.)?
Richo – No.
QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?
Richo – Yes. One of the ways I get my releases to other people from around the world is by exchanging them for those on other labels of a “similar” nature. This then helps my mail order service & brings in extra revenue for the labels. Additionally, it helps me keep abreast with certain other artists & labels I’m interested in. I have always enjoyed doing this.
QRD – How has running a label affected your own artistic career?
Richo – My own “artistic career” has not been affected in the least by the labels as it is both virtually non-existent & has vehicles of expression that run largely outside of them. There have been instances where it has crossed over with the labels, but it runs independently of them.
QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?
Richo – I have done so, & I’m sure I will again. I like nothing more than to have this control over work I’ve been directly responsible for, although it then runs the risk of seeming like an exercise in vanity publishing.
QRD – What do you do to try to build a sense of community within your roster?
Richo – I don’t. It is not my concern whether the artists I work with like or respect each other, or want to collaborate. Of course, there are a few who are part of the same community, but I already have enough to consider without adding this to the stack. It’s just imperative that I like them, that’s all.
QRD – What’s your most common conversation with bands as far as balancing artistic integrity & financial viability?
Richo – I don’t have these types of conversations. I work with people whose art comes before any financial considerations & wouldn’t have it any other way.
QRD – How often do you look at your “return on investment” & adjust your business model?
Richo – I don’t operate my labels as a “business.” The word itself leaves me cold. Essentially, I’m a music enthusiast, not a businessman.
QRD – Do you worry about search engine optimization & website traffic?
Richo – I don’t worry about anything.
QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?
Richo – My costs have always been limited, so they are impossible to cut. Perhaps the only thing I have learned is to not spend on advertising in The Wire. That 1000 GBP could have helped with another release!
QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?
Richo – Far from it. For all serious artists, it is the best format through which to express themselves as fully as possible. There’s more freedom. Singles have their purpose, but are generally either throwaway or serve as a mere portal to a greater world. Singles are compromised by their very nature, whereas albums help to illustrate artistic vision widely & more completely. Whilst I love many singles, albums are certainly my preferred format.
QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?
Richo – No. In fact, vinyl has always been around anyway & I know for a fact that casssette labels have either emerged or continued to thrive despite the governing format trends. It is well established that vinyl is better quality than digital formats, so it stands to reason that certain artists or labels remain committed to it irrespective of what the music industry may try to have us believe. I’ve always loved vinyl & many of the labels I like have always released it. I believe this format will stay around for a long time yet. Perhaps DJ culture helped perpetuate interest in it more widely, but any self-respecting audiophile would always opt for it over clinical digital formats. I always call it the format of kings & I mean it. Not only does it sound good but it LOOKS fantastic, too. Aesthetically, it’s a real art object & there’s so much scope there for the artist to fuck around with. I’ll always prefer vinyl. As for cassettes, whilst I understand their attraction & even released a handful myself back in the ‘80s, they’re not so good due to both the lower quality afforded by repeated playback & fragile nature of the tape itself. In a way, their disposability is consistent with the MP3 format. I’m not a huge fan of either, though.
QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?
Richo – This is a subjective issue & I’ve heard many people counter my arguments in favour of physical formats with crap about the music itself being the most important thing. While this may be true, I would then wager that physical releases allow for further possibilities of expressing oneself artistically. There’s just more room there to play around with. It’s an area I’m interested in personally though, so naturally prefer to see maximised. I don’t like the glibness & overt laziness attached to downloadable music, however. We live in times where people favour the company of their computers to physical contact. There are wider issues that can be addressed here, of course, but I am a firm advocate of physical contact next to the spiralling complacency & corpulence otherwise presently happening around us. Culture is getting fat & everybody not only expects everything for free, but also RIGHT NOW! The quick & instant fix reigns supreme, & the substance is diminishing as a result. Likewise genuine passion. But, hey, at least a generation or two of computer addicts are CONTAINED, right…?
QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?
Richo – Sometimes, due to the very nature of the music on them, they are inevitable. I still have a problem with labels who seem to subsist on their capitalisation of such releases; but I think, conversely, they also have their place. They can help generate interest in a release, for example, or help a small label to glean a little extra revenue. They can also be, & let’s not forget this, “fun.” It partly depends on the label & artist concerned, really. I am more critical of such releases when they arrive from people more concerned with making money than promoting the music.
QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?
Richo – This is a more recent development with smaller labels &, for me, there’s a certain logic to this notion. Again, it depends on who the artist or label is, really.
QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?
Richo – There’s plenty that’s free to them already on the net; & I feel, again, that it depends on who or what we are referring to specifically. It’s a complex issue contorted by subjectivity. Some labels & artists allow certain songs or releases to be made available free & others are strongly against it. I’m not against any artists I work with making their music available free, but I do object to others doing this on the net without prior permission to do so.
QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?
Richo – Trading of this nature has always existed & has both its pros & cons. What I don’t like is people making my releases available to download without permission &, in turn, whilst I’m still struggling to sell the actual releases themselves.
QRD – What’s something you see other labels do that you think of as borderline unethical?
Richo – I’m not as concerned with ethics as much as pure & simple honesty. A lack of this basic quality automatically lowers a label, or anything/anybody else, in my estimation.
QRD – What changes in things would cause you to stop your label?
Richo – Terminal illness. I’ve been doing this, & many other related activities, for 27 years now. I have a vague hunch I’ll be doing it for a considerable while yet. Over the years I’ve seen countless people fall by the wayside or give up at the first hurdle. Giving up has never been in my nature.
QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?
Richo – Interestingly enough, I was asked a similar question recently after my own group played a concert in Poland. The interviewer asked what advice I have for anybody starting a band &, well, I’ll have to virtually repeat what I said to him here: I have absolutely no advice or suggestions beyond stating that anybody interested in pursuing such things should simply follow their hearts. Through doing this, they’ll find themselves if they are strong enough &, equally, will be able to cope with all the shit encountered along the way. Of which there will be a LOT. The music industry is notorious for attracting chancers, wannabes, ego-caked cunts, losers, & those afflicted with all manner of personality defects. If one is determined, focused, & strong enough these people won’t get in their way.
QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?
Richo – I wish I knew! I’d love to have a little!
QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?
Richo – Labels are not necessarily important to artists, but can be useful. The crucial thing is to collaborate &/or establish a working relationship that strives to achieve the objectives for both. It is a two-way arrangement, or should be. Labels are supposed to be there to help artists & the artists can help a label develop its profile or objectives. A modicum of mutual respect is the perfect platform for this.
QRD – Music has had different hotspots on the internet over the years (newsgroups, MP3.com, MySpace, LastFM), but with MySpace’s decline, what do you see as the place where ‘normal’ people go to find out about & get excited by new music?
Richo – I have little idea. I’ve never been particularly into these virtual spaces for finding new music myself, but then I’m fortunate enough to have never needed them for this purpose. I don’t have enough spare time for all the physical releases I have piled up around me! Without doubt, there’ll always be these channels available on the net for discovering new music. It’s not completely a bad thing, either. There’s much to be said for the net in respect of this. Maybe it is vapid opportunism for the large part; but, as with everything else, I believe there are some healthy kernels tucked away amongst all that shit, too. It doesn’t compare with going to a record shop, for me; but it still has its place. To dismiss this completely would be rather stupid.
QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?
Richo – I have never thought in such grandiose
terms. I doubt my activities will be remembered by anybody except a cluster
of family members & close friends, anyway! Ultimately, I’m too occupied
with what I’m trying to achieve right now to think so far ahead.