Owner Interview with Shane de Leon of North Pole Records
Label: North Pole Records
Artists Roster: Miss Massive Snowflake, Rollerball, Road Race, Dramady, Pink Widower, Rainstick Cowbell, Squarcicatrici, Bill Horist, Bob Corn, Remora, El Ten Eleven
QRD – When & why did you start your label?
Shane – This is my third record label & the first one that I have tried to run as a business that is self-sustaining. My first label was Jalopy Grotto & its first release was a cassette by Freak Seen released in 1991. The second label was Felina y Magia & it had one release by Rollerball in 1999. North Pole Records is my third try at it & I started it to release Miss Massive Snowflake recordings beginning in 2004. I love the idea of creating a community of artists & also having an aesthetic that pervades through diverse artists work. Being a visual artist & graphic designer I try to do most of the layouts & design.
QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases?
Shane – Work, credit cards, my wife’s money.…
QRD – How many releases have you put out?
Shane – Jalopy Grotto did 14. Felina y Magia had 1, & North Pole Records has released 23.
QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year?
Shane – Four or five.
QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?
Shane – Currently I am working a full time job to pay off some of the debt accrued by the last five years of the label & am only dedicating a few hours to it a week. Mostly filling orders & getting the next releases in order. The past two years I was spending 20 to 30 hours a week at it. In 2011 it will be some sort of mixture of those two.
QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?
Shane – Making my friends happy & seeing other people excited by a release by some strange artist. I think that album cover art is its own art form & I like expanding the form.
QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed?
Shane – I am becoming more interested in doing small run vinyl & digital downloads with merchandise as opposed to making 1000 CDs & hoping to sell those. Making art & artifacts that transcend just the music part of the release. Something people keep around for its aesthetic merits.
QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?
Shane – Trying to find distribution & get radio play.
QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?
Shane – Silber for Brian’s unfaltering dedication to all forms of music, drawing, writing, & art. Nillacat for the sheer artiness & dedication to one’s own aesthetic, Polyvinyl for releasing vinyl in beautiful packaging & promoting their bands despite the artistic changes those bands make, ESP for which established that the artist is the visionary, Temporary Residence for succeeding where millions have failed, Columbia & Warner Brothers for releasing so many bands that I love & supporting some really arty bands with all that money they make. Drag City, Thrill Jockey. All the hip ones. Westbound for releasing Funkadelic.…
QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?
Shane – Being a musician & artist plus having printing presses to print posters, covers, & fliers help. Being able to silkscreen shirts & artwork. Did I mention I suck at business?
QRD – What makes you label special & unique?
Shane – Well, I love all the releases & artists that I work with & they are special to me. I get to ask friends to do a cappella albums or make crazy videos. I have helped document a part of Portland, Oregon’s outsider experimental bands along with Nillacat since 1994.
QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?
Shane – Portland is awesome. There are a lot of record stores still that carry our releases. Tons of artists, tons of love... little money.
QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?
Shane – I love music just as much as always, though I have burned out a bit on “experimental music.” I would rather hear something catchy nowadays & short. Amorphous sounds need to be heading somewhere for me.
QRD – What’s your demos policy?
Shane – I listen to them & am excited that someone liked my releases enough to want to be on the label. I have not released anything by just hearing a demo though. I work with artists who I know & I let them decide what is on the release.
QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?
Shane – I want to release something by all my friends’ bands first & then maybe move on to people outside the circle.
QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?
Shane – Touring bands & the internet. I have been advertising in The Wire, The Big Takeover, & Magnet for the past couple of years & some German magazines as well & I think that has helped a bit.
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?
Shane – Bob Corn has sold the most digitally & was the first artist to recoup all costs of the release & even surpass it. He is one of the Italian artists that I work with. He is a nonstop touring machine & due to Spotify we are making pennies a day. Road Race & Bill Horist are doing pretty damn good, but I spent a ton on the Bill Horist cuz it came out on vinyl & CD as well as doing quite a bit of advertising.
QRD – What release that you’ve done was the most important & special to you personally?
Shane – They are all pretty special. Road Race is pretty unique. A nine-year-old autistic friend who sings songs about all sorts of characters that populate his imaginary world. We have done two releases by him & chose the songs from around 200 different recordings. Plus the covers are printed in 3D & come with glasses.
QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?
Shane – They are nice, they are my friends, they don’t expect much besides having some free copies & being on North Pole Records.
QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?
Shane – High expectations from them, yet no work on their part to achieve those expectations.
QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?
Shane – I know the people & love the music.
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?
Shane – Completely uninvolved. Except for Miss Massive Snowflake, which is my band, & Road Race which I record & pick the songs for the release.
QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?
Shane – I like to do it all.
QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?
Shane – I like to have 4-6 months for production, promotions, & advertising; but have worked on much less.
QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?
Shane – Haven’t had it happen yet.
QRD – What do you wish bands on your label would do?
Shane – Tour nonstop. Be happy & make money.
QRD – What’s a record you’d like to put out that you’ll never be able to?
Shane – The Rollerball box set of all 15 albums to date with singles, compilation appearances, & rarities on vinyl.
QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?
Shane – Release it.
QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?
Shane – Depends. I have fully financed most of them & would like to do that with all the releases, but if it is not going to be a big seller I will have the artist pitch in. Some releases I have worked more as a promoter after the band paid for manufacturing.
QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?
Shane – 50/50 after costs are recouped.
QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?
Shane – Handshake & hopefully a kiss.
QRD – Do you take a cut of a band’s publishing?
Shane – No.
QRD – How important is it to you to have touring acts on your roster & what do you do to encourage it?
Shane – I believe touring bands progress faster & encourage it whole-heartedly. I print posters & saturate the touring markets with promos & posters.
QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?
Shane – In house. I do an all right job & it is so expensive other wise. Haven’t had much luck when I did hire out. Seemed a waste of money.
QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?
Shane – Poorly but with an email list, newsletter, & website.
QRD – Do you have intern & street team programs & if so, how do they operate?
Shane – I usually get the artist to do a bit of work as far as assembling promo packs & mailings. I enjoy doing this aspect & keeping a tight rein on the label aesthetic.
QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?
Shane – My wife, Meredith, assembles product & also is an idea person. My mother-in-law & daughter also assemble product & do mailings. I could use a full time sales person.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with record stores?
Shane – Shop at them. Visit them & sell them each release here locally. I reach out to places in Seattle through email & the phone. I get bands to do in stores.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?
Shane – Send them each release & hopefully a few play it. Some have been extremely supportive. KFJC has always been there for us & WFMU has given us some props. OPB & KBOO have done some live shows & promotions for North Pole.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with magazines & websites?
Shane – Send them each release. Pay money for ads.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with bloggers?
Shane – Send them releases. Hope to hear back. It is just all so much work. Pretty much I just produce the release & give it a big push when it comes out with mailings, ads, getting it to my few distributors & record stores & see what sticks & then follow that lead.
QRD – Do you view advertisements as a way to generate interest & revenue or more as a way to financially support magazines & websites you like?
Shane – Both. I like advertising in the Big Takeover, because Jack Rabid has been personally so involved in the music world for so long & I appreciate his dedication. I advertise in The Wire because I think some of our artists like Rollerball, Bill Horist, & El Ten Eleven could really be noticed there & I am hoping it is some sort of payola scheme where they eventually give us some ink.
QRD – What is the job of your distributors?
Shane – I will let you know when they really do something for me. I like that CD Baby has my digital back. They take 1/3 of the cut but they are always finding digital outlets that I don’t have time to do alone.
QRD – How do you decide how big the initial pressing of a release should be?
Shane – Make it up. What works for that release. I’ve never done more than 1000 CDs or 500 LPs.
QRD – What percentage of a pressing do you use for promotions?
Shane – Usually around a quarter of them.
QRD – Do you sell merchandise other than the music (t-shirts, etc.)?
Shane – Oh yeah & we plan on doing more. Planning on some releases that are just limited edition letterpress prints of artwork with a download code.
QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?
Shane – Yes, usually other releases by bands or side projects of bands on the label, but I will trade with bands that I tour with & promote them at venues when selling at gigs.
QRD – How has running a label effected your own artistic career?
Shane – I have somewhat successfully married the two, but I don’t draw as much as I would like nor play music as much due to having to do the business side of the label.
QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?
Shane – I do & I love it.
QRD – What do you do to try to build a sense of community within your roster?
Shane – Book shows, gigs, & tours with multiple label bands. A lot of our bands share members & are already interconnected. I am just showcasing these pollinations.
QRD – What’s your most common conversation with bands as far as balancing artistic integrity & financial viability?
Shane – They can do whatever they want. If I say I will do a release, I would expect them to give me their best expression & I will try to promote it. Really my label is just an expensive hobby, but it does affect other people positively for the most part & I get warm feelings from that.
QRD – How often do you look at your “return on investment” & adjust your business model?
Shane – I had to slow down at the end of this year because in the last year we released three full-length releases on vinyl & CD. Bill Horist, Miss Massive Snowflake, & Rollerball which also contained a DVD. Released a couple of 7” too. Needed to step back, work a bit & pay the bills down. Taking around a 6 month breather & then we will be releasing some more great stuff next year on vinyl like Squarcicatrici, Miss Massive Snowflake, & also doing some limited prints with download codes by Paint & Copter & some others that aren’t fully confirmed.
QRD – Do you worry about search engine optimization & website traffic?
Shane – Not much.
QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?
Shane – Purchased & learned the tools of production. Silkscreening, die cutting, offset & letterpress printing. If I could acquire a cheap vinyl lathe & press, I’d be in hog heaven.
QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?
Shane – Probably to most, but not to all.
QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?
Shane – I think that physical objects that are beautiful & have a multi media approach will never go out of style. I love purchasing the Polyvinyl Of Montreal records cause I love the music, I love David Barnes visual artwork, I love the lengths that Polyvinyl goes to manufacture a beautiful object on 180 gram vinyl with booklets & posters. It is a way to collect beautiful art for the price of a pizza. I never loved jewel cases or plastic tape cases, but others do. Aesthetics is key. No matter what, I usually just use the download code & listen to it on my iPod or computer, unless I am playing records for fun or DJing.
QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?
Shane – I like the physicality, but I don’t think it matters. We will always release some sort of physical object with ours, but we get most of our money from digital distribution at this point.
QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?
Shane – All my records & CDs are alphabetized
by artist except my Christmas albums & my Nillacat collection.
I think I have about 3/4 of their 70 releases or so & they are all
handmade. Some in editions of 7 or less! The album as art.
I love it.
QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?
Shane – Sounds beneficial for some.
QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?
Shane – I try not to worry about it. If someone wants something for free, they can have it. I wish that everyone saw the worth in art & investing in our societies artists more, but whatever. I have dined & dashed repeatedly, downloaded music from the net & the library, stole food from the store.…
QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?
Shane – Nothing.
QRD – What’s something you see other labels do that you think of as borderline unethical?
Shane – Shooting each other gangland style.
QRD – What changes in things would cause you to stop your label?
Shane – Sometimes I just want to do my own artwork, but I do get a sense of pride from helping others; so I imagine that this is one of my hobbies that I am stuck with.
QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?
Shane – Get a bunch of credit cards, dare to dream, marry someone rich, be ready to work 50 plus hours delivering kegs to pay off those credit cards. Love music, have good friends & better ideas. Know some people who give a fuck.
QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?
Shane – I think that most money is available in the commercial art & music realm. I have never been in that realm & I enjoy what I do. Get into films, get good agents, pay promoters, develop software...
QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?
Shane – We all like someone who believes in us & it is exciting to not have to spend your own time & money on your own art.
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?
Shane – I just can’t keep up. Hopefully they will find their way to northpolerecords.org.
QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?
Shane – Releasing weird beautiful music
in whatever format with interesting visual art.