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QRD #45 - Record Label Owner Interview Series
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Label Owner Interviews with:
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Exotic Fever
Fluttery Records
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Moving Furniture
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Label Owner Interview with Todd Berry of Greyday Records
November 2010
Name: Todd Berry
Label: Greyday Records
Artists Roster: The Heligoats, I Was Totally Destroying It, Hammer No More the Fingers, The Old Ground, Patrick Porter, Grey Anne, Sam Humans, Piney Gir, Shipbuilding Co., Head of Femur, Still Life, Minmae, Southerly, Mayday, Sean Madigan Hoen, John Larsen, Leaving Rouge, LKN, Polly Panic, Consafos, Books on Tape, Gone Done Wrong, Bronwyn, The Empty
Websites: www.greydayrecords.com, songaweek.greydayrecords.com

QRD – When & why did you start your label? 

Todd – We started in 2002, mostly to release that Still Life EP.  The band (old friends of mine) had decided not to bother doing a full release & were just going to CD-R it.  I felt like it deserved more, especially after their long history of releases, so I talked to Paul about it & we decided to just do it.  From there it just kind of snowballed.

QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases? 

Todd – The money I’d saved for grad school (never went).  & my severance package from my job.  Followed by a series of loans & credit cards.

QRD – How many releases have you put out? 

Todd – We’re releasing our 49th official release in April 2011.  Including tour only releases & digital only releases, that would bring us to around 55.

QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year? 

Todd – 6-8 is optimal if the funding is there, though with the current economic climate it’s difficult to pull off more than 4 properly.

QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?

Todd – Around 80 or so.  I’d like to get that down below 60.

QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?

Todd – Working art you really believe in.  Considering slumping sales & rising costs, you really have to love the art you’re working with or there’s little point to working this way.

QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed?

Todd – Money is definitely a bigger factor than it used to be.  We used to release solely what we wanted to when it was ready; now previous release debt, tour scheduling, & marketability are factors that weigh into our decisions.  It sucks, but until we’re all millionaires that’s how it has to be.

QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?

Todd – Honestly, retail.  We love all the indie retailers out there, but it’s frustrating when so many returns come back these days.  No blame on the stores - they’re ordering & stocking the records, people just aren’t buying them as much as they used to.  Not that I mind digital sales (less cost for more return, can’t complain), but I personally have a love for neighborhood record stores & my fondest memories of my teen years are the hours I spent hunting through countless little record shops all around the LA area.  Most of which don’t exist anymore, of course.  I wish there was a way to encourage kids to do that now, searching the web & iTunes just isn’t the same experience.

QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?

Todd – Dischord are amazing; when we were starting out, literally working on our first record, they were nothing but helpful even though they had no idea who I was.  Answered every email, were friendly & just incredibly supportive.  Same with Saddle Creek (though they weren’t strangers, I’d known them well before starting the label).  In Portland, Tender Loving Empire are smart, artistic, & incredibly nice people.  There are dozens of other PDX labels I’d add to the list if I had time.

QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?

Todd – Very few, I had NO IDEA what I was doing when I started.  I still feel that way some days (I’m constantly amazed when people ask me questions & I know the answers).  I did work as a project manager for a couple of years, which helps with workflow, but mostly I was just a guitarist without a band who had friends without a label.

QRD – What makes you label special & unique?

Todd – Our roster.  I’d say the same is true of most labels, so I’m not sure if that makes us unique or just our roster.

QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?

Todd – I love this town.  Portland is a vibrant, great place to run an arts based company, if you’re stubborn enough to stick it out.  We’ve found at least 1/3 of our bands just from talking to people or going to random house parties or shows.

QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?

Todd – I love everything we release.  I know that sounds like the type of thing you HAVE to say in my position, but since I have the last say on every release, it happens to be very true.  However, I don’t really seek out music the way I used to & I definitely don’t go to shows as much.  It’s like asking out a bartender - the last place they want to go is a bar, no matter how much they love booze.

QRD – What’s your demos policy?

Todd – You send ‘em, we listen to ‘em.  Though we’ve only ever signed one act from a demo, we do try to check out everything that comes in.

QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?

Todd – Our bands do a lot of our A&R for us.  & friends.  Really those two.

QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?

Todd – If I knew that, we’d be a much bigger label.

QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?

Todd – Physically it was Head of Femur’s Ringodom or Proctor.  That record was just the dream situation - good folk, great recording, solid songs, a style that was timeless enough yet in the moment enough, & some great tours aligning.  Digitally I think The Heligoats’ Goodness Gracious is now edging HoF out & I think that is mostly due to the songwriting & the band’s work ethic (200 shows over the past year & a half or so) combined with the love NPR has given it.  So the formula as I see it is real talent + hard work + a bit of luck & timing.

QRD – What release that you’ve done was the most important & special to you personally?

Todd – Probably that first Still Life record.  I came up listening to & later becoming good friends with the band (via a high school newspaper interview I did with them in 1991), & their music really meant a lot to me.  Like a lot of kids from that era, it was just something that we could actually connect with.  So for me it was a very personal thing to be able to release that EP & later the final album, & really a large portion of how & why I got involved with this side of the industry.

QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?

Todd – First & foremost the music.  The majors can over-engineer some simple crap & put millions behind it & make millions off it; on our level, it all starts with the music.  If you have a band that writes strong songs, that’s your jump-off point.  In addition, the people involved & why they do what they do is big for me personally.  I don’t want to work with someone who expects to instantly be a rock star, or who expects that once they’ve signed with a label they can slack off.  The ONLY reason to sign to a label is to work harder, just smarter.  So talent, integrity, & motivation are all big, big things.  And, of course, touring.  Lots & lots of touring.  I mean, why wouldn’t you want to?  I’d be on the road right now if I could...

QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?

Todd – Not much, really.  Someone turning into a dick, I suppose.

QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?

Todd – My personal love for them.  I think there is some weird kind of aesthetic that could be found running through all of them, but I wouldn’t know how to describe it.

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 & mastering?

Todd – We try to keep our hands off as much as possible.  I view the art as the band’s, not mine, but I’m willing to offer advice or even come into the studio & help out, but that happens very, very rarely.

QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?

Todd – I prefer, again, to let the band sort that.  But I’ve done a few of our releases, some complete design, most clean-up/arrangement.  Some turned out well, others...

QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?

Todd – These days it’s a minimum 4 months, preferably 6-8.  Our distributor (NAIL) has a roughly 3.5 month lead time from catalog to store & we try to use that as a drop dead date, but it’s better to have product in hand at that time.  Promotion NEEDS to be done as far out ahead of the release as possible; there are more bands & labels than ever & while I don’t feel like that makes other labels competitors or enemies, it does make the push to get press & radio to review your records harder & you need to give them as much time as you can.

QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?

Todd – Well, a lot.  It would effect PR spending, advertising, etc.  We’d still release the record most likely, but we’d press a lot fewer & work it a lot differently.

QRD – What do you wish bands on your label would do?

Todd – They already do what I wish them to: make great music.  I wish it was a more comfortable economic time for touring, though.

QRD – What’s a record you’d like to put out that you’ll never be able to?

Todd – Neurosis’ Souls at Zero.  Because that was already released back in 1992. 

QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?

Todd – Go to their shows, maybe buy a t-shirt or CD/vinyl to support them.  Pretty much all I can do.

QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?

Todd – It depends on the release; when we started, all expenses except for tour were covered by the label.  Now it varies a lot, but the immediate studio budget is gone, that is earned.  The rest (production, promotion, incurred costs like shipping & materials, etc.) is all covered by us.

QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?

Todd – Also varies, but it’s usually 50/50 after the profit point.

QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?

Todd – Written contracts.  We used to just have verbal agreements, but contracts make referring to things a lot easier.

QRD – Do you take a cut of a band’s publishing?

Todd – Again, depends on the record & the band.  Some of our bands have us handle their publishing, others don’t.  It’s all a matter of what we all think is fair, no two contracts that we’ve done are identical; but even though the details vary, the end result seems to work out to be about the same.

QRD – How important is it to you to have touring acts on your roster & what do you do to encourage it?

Todd – Crucial.  We can’t release a record without a tour any more, those days are pretty much done.  We don’t do a lot to encourage it, really, it’s the band’s responsibility to do, though we try to help out wherever we can (including with booking, we recently hired & are training someone who will be a dedicated booking agent) & we help promote the shows.

QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?

Todd – Depends on the record.  We’ve hired out I’d say about 60% of the time.  In-house is obviously cheaper, but will rarely ever match the results of a mid-class or above PR agency.

QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?

Todd – Our website, MySpace... the usual channels.  We started using Twitter & Facebook too, but we’re a bit crap at keeping up with it.  Really we don’t have much of a fanbase, the artists themselves do.

QRD – Do you have intern & street team programs & if so, how do they operate?

Todd – We have interns a lot of the time, but right now we actually don’t.  Not sure why, just never replaced the last ones that left.  We tried the street team thing a few times, but it never really worked out for us so we ended up abandoning it.

QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?

Todd – It depends.  Currently there are just three of us.  We’ve run at times with a (mostly volunteer) staff of up to 8 & at times it’s been just me.  I like having either 3 full time or 5 part time, that is manageable & work gets done.

QRD – What do you do to build relationships with record stores?

Todd – Try to set up promotions, in-stores, stuff like that.  We’ve run events with a couple of them (such as Music Millennium, one of the best stores in the nation in my opinion).

QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?

Todd – We don’t, really; radio PR is notoriously difficult to keep up with & the one thing we are most likely to hire out for.

QRD – What do you do to build relationships with magazines & websites?

Todd – We try to keep in touch as much as possible.  We tend to focus more on the individual people (writers, editors) as if you’re just pitching things it gets boring, & people on this level of the industry are so passionate & really believe in what they’re doing; it’s not only good to have real relationships with them, it can also renew your own love for what you do.

QRD – What do you do to build relationships with bloggers?

Todd – We try to leave bloggers alone & just send them stuff most of the time.  They are easily the most burdened of press in terms of volume, as they don’t have a staff or interns going through submissions.  So we send them new releases & try to check in with them, but we leave them off mailing lists & announce lists, as they already get billions of those (I used to be one/write for a zine, it sucked how many emails I would get every day, & we were a nothing webzine).

QRD – Do you view advertisements as a way to generate interest & revenue or more as a way to financially support magazines & websites you like?

Todd – Neither.  Well, logically the latter, of course, & preferably the former; but as we don’t have much of an ad budget these days it’s a moot point.

QRD – What is the job of your distributors?

Todd – That’s an interesting question, actually.  As sales drop & staff sizes shrink, most sales-type PR really falls on the smaller label to do, as logically a distributor needs to spend their time focused on what makes them money.  So I tend to think of ours as friendly warehouses that are supportive & work with us, but I don’t expect them to do our job for us.

QRD – How do you decide how big the initial pressing of a release should be?

Todd – Mostly on previous sales & tour plans.  Also on the promo count we’ll need.

QRD – What percentage of a pressing do you use for promotions?

Todd – Depends on the record, but the initial pressing we usually press as many promos as retail copies.

QRD – Do you sell merchandise other than the music (t-shirts, etc.)?

Todd – Through our online store, yes.  We prefer the bands make & sell their own shirts/etc., though, as it brings in more money for the band on the road, which makes being on the road easier, which keeps them on the road, which is better for the band & the label.

QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?

Todd – We subdistribute a couple of labels & we sell friends & supportive bands’ releases in our online store.

QRD – How has running a label effected your own artistic career?

Todd – It’s pretty much killed it.  It inspires me to be creative, but it takes up a lot - read a LOT - of time & when the day is over (or the following morning, whenever) I’m usually too exhausted to pick up my guitar, cello, camera, pen, etc.

QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?

Todd – Probably not.  Maybe if I was in a band & I thought we could do well, but definitely not singer/songwriter or solo work.  Too whorish to consider how to sell it, it would just be weird. 

QRD – What do you do to try to build a sense of community within your roster?

Todd – I’d really love to do a lot more.  I have tons of ideas, but time & money never really allow me to do any of them.  I mostly just try to get the bands to come out to each other’s shows.  At this point most of our active bands are spread out quite a bit geographically, so it’s a lot harder than it used to be.

QRD – What’s your most common conversation with bands as far as balancing artistic integrity & financial viability?

Todd – It doesn’t come up.  Pretty much ever.  “Don’t compromise” would be the total of it, but if a band needed me to tell them that, I probably wouldn’t have signed them.

QRD – How often do you look at your “return on investment” & adjust your business model?

Todd – Not as often as I should, but it’s definitely been a mantra of the past two years.

QRD – Do you worry about search engine optimization & website traffic?

Todd – Yes.  But I have a background in design that includes web design & coding, so SEO isn’t a problem.

QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?

Todd – Fewer promos.  Due to the USPS constantly raising prices (and targeting industries such as ours with them), we actually spend a lot less a year on postage than we used to.  Also, we eventually had to dump the free S&H in the US policy in our online store, which was sad, but our prices are pretty low to begin with, it didn’t seem to effect sales.

QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?

Todd – No & I don’t think it ever truly will be.  I think the “record a bunch of crap songs with no continuity & only a couple of good singles on it” album is dead, & good fucking riddance.

QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?

Todd – There’s a return of cassettes?  Really?  Why?  As for vinyl, no, but I do think the “return” itself is a fad - vinyl never went away, there was just less of it pressed.  The hype surrounding it right now is good as it brings a whole new generation of vinyl lovers into the mix, but it will always have an audience as, at least compared to CDs, it has a deeper range to it.  I can see that range being available digitally eventually (it technically is now, direct from artists & some labels) & when the CD is completely dead perhaps that range will become the norm for mastering in both formats, but you can’t beat the warmth of vinyl.  You also can’t beat the “not having to get off my ass” of an mp3 player.  So I don’t think vinyl will disappear, but I don’t think it will ever be the biggest seller either.

QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?

Todd – It is very important.  A lot of people still like the physical product.  In ten years, who knows?  But right now, yes, as a lot of people won’t buy a download card from a merch table.

QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?

Todd – I think they are ridiculously expensive & wasteful & if we’re talking CDs, kind of pointless in the days of downloads, unless they are artsy (handmade by the bands is always nice).  For vinyl I think they’re neat, I’m a collector at heart.

QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?

Todd – Reminds me of those cassette mix tape machines they had in the 80s.  Amusing but kind of silly, especially since everyone is just going to rip the contents & transfer to the iPods when they get home anyway.

QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?

Todd – It depends on the fans, but usually I feel a good enough amount to help them decide if it’s worth spending the money on the record.  We usually do 1-3 songs per record, & we’ll have other goodies & such from our bands, like unreleased tracks, covers, etc, posted to our (now extremely inaccurately named) Song-A-Week blog.

QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?

Todd – Ultimately I don’t care that much.  Most of the time, people who download wouldn’t have bought the record to begin with, but if they like it enough, maybe they’ll buy the next one, or get a friend into it, etc.  Not to justify it, it’s still technically theft, but it’s somewhat benign.  The only people I get frustrated with are the ones who feel like they’re supporting the bands they like when they’re not; Google around, there are tons of ridiculous justifications for piracy & it’s really pointless, just cop to what you’re doing & move on.  Hopefully when those people grow up a bit they’ll realize that it’s worth supporting the art you like. But seriously, go ahead & download things to check them out, just buy the stuff you want to keep.  You probably don’t want all of that new Soulja Boy record anyway, but maybe there’s a song or two worth your iTunes $.99, you know?

QRD – What’s something you see other labels do that you think of as borderline unethical?

Todd – Everyone’s ethics are different.  Having close personal relationships with many of our bands & sublabels, I’ve seen a lot of contracts over the years, & most are needlessly complicated.  Ripping off your bands is a bad thing to do, but doing it in such a way that they don’t even know what they’re entitled to is worse.  Also, wasn’t there some label where the owner was throwing hooker parties & billing them to the bands?  I remember reading that somewhere & thinking “genius!”

QRD – What changes in things would cause you to stop your label?

Todd – If sales continue to plummet & bands stop touring.  The label itself is just work to push the art, so if that becomes obsolete, then so do we.

QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?

Todd – Resist the urge to expand early & go slow & really focus on the bands you pick up/releases you do.  Don’t get in over your head initially, especially financially & don’t expect to succeed without a fuck-ton of work.

QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?

Todd – Labels: digital sales & licensing, musicians: touring (merch sales & door) & licensing.  In the future likely the same, but smaller amounts.  When all the arguments from every corner of the industry about how hard they have it because of downloads & budgets being cut are said & done, those people are salaried in cushy jobs; it’s the bands who are getting screwed.

QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?

Todd – In some cases, as tastemakers, but in most I’d say it’s financial & supportive.  In my opinion, if you’re just wanting to put out a record & play local shows, maybe try to get some hits on YouTube or whatever, then you don’t need a label.  A label exists to do the work so you don’t have to & put forward the money that you would spend most of your time having to work to earn so you can focus on touring & songwriting.  A band that doesn’t just want to be out on the road as much as possible has no place on a label; they can do the work themselves.  The whole point is to free them up time & money wise so they CAN tour.  Just how I see it, but it seems to make sense to me.

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?

Todd – I’d love it if it was ReverbNation, I’ve been a fan of that site for a couple years now.  It’s a great format, & it’s really smartly run.  & they just acquired a company that makes iPhone apps for bands, so I think they have a really unique approach to what they’re doing.  But realistically, I think the same places they always have: their friends & their local scene.  Just that both of those can be virtual these days.
Also, just to state for the record, NewsCorp killed MySpace several years ago when they bought it, it was better maintained & run when it was independently owned.  Not a corporate vs. indie argument, more a “I vaguely remember a time when MySpace’s music player worked more than 1/3 of the time.”  We don’t even bother checking out Myspace links to bands anymore, we don’t learn anything new about them & most of the time can’t hear their music, so what’s the point?  Leave it to Fox to fuck up a successful & user friendly site.

QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?

Todd – The music & the people.  The rest isn’t important.