Owner Interview with Brian John Mitchell of Silber Records
Label: Silber Records
City: Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Artists Roster: Aarktica, Remora, Small Life Form, Vlor, Electric Bird Noise, Irata, Lotte Kestner, Jamie Barnes, The Wet Teens, Clang Quartet, Lycia, Twelve, Rollerball, Black Happy Day, Sarah June, Thorn1, Weather Machine, Origami Arktika, Kobi, Moodring, Carta, Alan Sparhawk, I’m sure I’m forgetting people….
QRD – When & why did you start your label?
Brian – I knew I was going to start a label in late 1994, but the first release didn’t come out until 1996. My goal was to help artists make enough money to be able to spend their 2000 hours of work time a year working on their music. I had no idea what I was getting into really.
QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases?
Brian – I dropped out of college & got a job working at a video store to put out my first CD. A few years later when I was getting Silber at full speed I started working at the airport around 80 hours a week for a few months & squirreled away $10,000; that paid for a lot of stuff for a while.
QRD – How many releases have you put out?
Brian – We just put out release number 091. I think we’ll make it to 100 at least.
QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year?
Brian – I like to do my releases in batches to save some of the time/labor/shipping expenses. So I’d like to do four batches of three albums a year as major releases & maybe a free EP (remixes, live songs, or out takes) associated with about half of those & then a couple of comps. So that’s twenty releases. I think the most I’ve ever done is maybe twelve? But actually putting out the twenty releases would have to mean that Silber was making enough money to have me make a living wage & maybe have a paid intern helping out about twenty hours a month. Which does not seem as likely as I would like it to.
QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?
Brian – Right now probably close to 65. If I was more organized I could probably cut it down to 40 & be more satisfied with a lot of things & be able to spend some time working on my music. But then I guess working on my music is still working on the label if it’s coming out on my label? I don’t know. I guess there’s debate whether working on QRD is working on the label or not. I say it is because almost all of the ad content is for the label….
QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?
Brian – The rewarding parts are sending artists checks & getting thank yous from artists & fans for doing releases. The fun parts? I think those have generally gone away. Maybe coming up with retarded swag items like buying mood rings from Hong Kong to send out with the promotional copies of the Moodring album or getting balloons made.
QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed?
Brian – Well, I’m not sure they really have. I’m still trying to get artists money & get music I like heard. But I have to admit there is a lot more about inertia keeping me going than raw excitement at this point.
QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?
Brian – It varies. I really hate invoicing distributors & trying to collect money. I feel like I should just get paid what I am owed, but that’s part of doing business.
QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?
Brian – Projekt is kinda the label I was most in touch with & most patterned myself after & I’m glad I have Sam Rosenthal as a friend & can talk to him about things. I have several other folks I’m drawn to like Kranky, Young God, & Atavistic that I’ve never really talked to much. Then there’s folks like Hand Eye/Dark Holler, Elephant Stone (RIP), N5MD, Exotic Fever, & Extemporate that I can talk to with a level of honesty as peers & that really helps a lot for not feeling alone. There’s a tendency in the music industry for people to act like things are going better than they are & it’s good to have people that will admit sales are low or give you tips on a good distro or whatever.
QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?
Brian – I was a DJ at my college radio station & I had my zine QRD so I knew some stuff about music promotions from those two things. Being in management at the video store helped me figure out how to do some of my paperwork. I had some previous experience as a vendor of some illegal things & that actually gave me a lot of false hopes for my ability to sell music.
QRD – What makes you label special & unique?
Brian – That it’s mine? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. There are other labels that would put out almost any disc in the catalog, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else that would put out both Thorn1 & The Wet Teens. I do suppose running all the comic book stuff & webzine & blogs on the side is a bit unique. Seems like more people should do that. Also I suppose Silber is more community/family oriented than the average business, record label or not.
QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?
Brian – I don’t think too much. There are a few local bands associated with the label & actually more so the past couple of years, but I like the idea of being an international label that could be headquartered just about anywhere in the world. I do think that if Silber was headquartered in Los Angeles or New York I might’ve had better abilities to get in with licensing for film, but I might not make enough money to stay afloat with the increase in overhead in those cities. If I could find a cheaper place to run Silber from, I probably would move.
QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?
Brian – I suppose it’s more that I don’t listen to music in the same way I used to as much rather than I don’t enjoy it as much. I don’t listen to music for ten hours a day anymore. It feels like work. I also feel like I glean more of what I like out of music sooner. I used to listen to a disc a dozen times to figure out why I liked it & now I generally can figure out why I like it (or don’t like it) by the second listen. Most of the stuff I put out, however, is something that I do have to listen to those dozen times to figure out.
QRD – What’s your demos policy?
Brian – I still take in cold demos, but I rarely listen to them! If somebody sends me an email reminding me that they sent it, I usually listen to it. But I get so many people that seem to think, “I’m going to blow this drone ambient label’s mind with my salsa band,” that it’s hard to get excited about a demo. Most of the folks who’ve sent demos that ended up being on the label sent a letter about what they liked what was already on the label. I think that’s really important to me because I want to build a sense of community on the label & that helps to do that.
QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?
Brian – Usually recommendations of bands on the label or doing a live show with them or getting a demo or hearing them on the radio. I don’t really seek people out as much as they seek me out most of the time.
QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?
Brian – I’m not really sure. There are people that find the label because of a band they already follow joining the roster or because of one of the bands going on tour or getting radio airplay. It’s hard to say. I used to do targeted MySpace promotions, but the usefulness of that seems to have come to an end. I need to try to do more to push the label as a whole. It’s hard to figure out how to do that.
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?
Brian – I think Lycia’s Empty Space & Alan Sparhawk’s Solo Guitar are neck & neck as the best sellers. Of course neither of those has to do with me breaking those bands or anything. Lycia was already established & Alan Sparhawk is the main guy in Low. I’d like to one day have a break away hit that I felt was caused by me. Maybe I can take credit for the Aarktica debut, which is the third best seller.
QRD – What release that you've done was the most important & special to you personally?
Brian – Well, they’re all special or I wouldn’t invest my time & money in them. I think the first release I do by any band is really important to me. Probably the two Vlor records where Vlor is the Silber super group are the most important to me because they are good records & help build a sense of community within the label.
QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?
Brian – That they are decent human beings putting out good music. If they tour that’s a big plus. If they aren’t about to break up, that’s a big plus too.
QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?
Brian – Them asking for things I can’t provide. Like $10,000 advances or a $5000 advertisement campaign. Or I get a little pissy when they don’t do anything to help promote their record - no touring & they don’t even do interviews I set up. That’s annoying. Or if I find out that they are just a bunch of douche bags, I have to stop working with them because they are Silber ambassadors & need to be good people.
QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?
Brian – A certain level of angst & melancholy. Also a certain level of craftsmanship where things aren’t slick enough to sound dead & not crappy enough to seem amateur.
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?
Brian – It varies band to band. Sometimes you can hear my fingerprints all over a release like on the Sarah June & Thorn1 & Carta I think you can tell that I was involved in the mastering as well as all the comps & of course my own stuff. But most of the other stuff I haven’t been involved at all. I’d like to be more involved with everything really.
QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?
Brian – Usually I do the final layout. Sometimes things are almost done & I just need to lay in the logo & sometimes I need to adjust the sizes of the images & figure out the fonts & everything. It varies. Sometimes I wish Silber was one of those labels where you look at a release’s cover & know who put it out….
QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?
Brian – Usually three to four months. It takes about a month to get a release back from manufacturing & then I like to have a two month lead time for sending things out for press & radio before the official street date for stores & iTunes & such. Though nowadays it does seem like street dates are less important & I start selling releases as soon as I get them in my hands (& some of my distributors do the same thing, which is funny). But since I try to batch releases together sometimes a release gets pushed back a little bit so they can line up together.
QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?
Brian – Probably if it hadn’t gone to manufacturing yet, I’d do the release as digital only. If I already had the discs I’d promote it as normal & pretend the band was still together (& who knows, maybe they’ll get back together) so it doesn’t seem as dead in the water.
QRD – What do you wish bands on your label would do?
Brian – Touring would be helpful for promoting the records for sure. & I think right now people are pretty into music videos. But there are budget problems so I can’t blame them for not doing those things.
QRD – What’s a record you’d like to put out that you’ll never be able to?
Brian – A real solo record from Willie Nelson with just him & his beat up guitar. I don’t know if that record is ever going to come out on any label & it’s unfortunate that it won’t.
QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?
Brian – I talk to the band about the reality of the situation & try to come to some kind of agreement where neither of us loses too much money.
QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?
Brian – It used to be I paid pretty much everything except the studio time & sometimes that still is the deal. But lately I sometimes split some of the costs with the bands & give them a larger amount to sell themselves. It seems like it gets them to be a little more likely to tour when they have a few hundred discs in their closet.
QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?
Brian – 50-50 after recoup of cost.
QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?
Brian – I’ve had a couple written contracts. But usually it’s a handshake deal. If we can’t trust each other, we probably shouldn’t work with each other. Plus a contract never really has kept anyone from screwing me anyway (I’m not talking about artists on the “screwing me” bit, but actually other businesses).
QRD – Do you take a cut of a band’s publishing?
Brian – Nope. I know a lot of people do & maybe I should, but I don’t. In fact I get in arguments with artists to get them to sign-up so they can get their royalties as a lot of folks don’t understand that it is a way to make extra money for very little effort.
QRD – How important is it to you to have touring acts on your roster & what do you do to encourage it?
Brian – I think it’s pretty important to spread the word about the label. A touring band is the best advertisement for a label & for themselves. I’ll give a band merch for a tour & I’ll do what I can to give them what connections I have & try to help them get some radio sessions or something. I’ll send out MySpace messages to fans living in the cities where they are playing (though maybe I shouldn’t bother about that anymore). It’s hard to promote a show 1000 miles away, but I do what I can.
QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?
Brian – I do it all in house. I feel like I do about as good of a job as most of the agencies I could afford & that it helps me build a personal relationship between the reviewers & radio folks & that is part of building a community, which is what I’m trying to do as much as anything. Build a community.
QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fan base?
Brian – I have a daily blog. I have Facebook, MySpace, & Twitter. I send out a newsletter every six weeks. Occasionally I mail out postcards. That’s about it.
QRD – Do you have intern & street team programs & if so, how do they operate?
Brian – I don’t have a street team or reps, but I do have an internship program. It starts with people checking promotional contacts & ends with them taking charge of a compilation from concept to release. I try to leave people as ready to start a label as possible as far as knowing where the headaches are. Hopefully the interns that do start labels don’t do a one release & out thing because they already know how things work. I have an intern who is about to put out his first release & I’m really excited to see how he’ll do.
QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?
Brian – Just me & a couple of interns over the internet. Most of the time that’s about right, but occasionally I could use someone in person to help with some things & if I had more interns, work could get done faster. There’s always work to be done. Every little bit helps. If you can donate five hours of time just once, I’ll take the help.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with record stores?
Brian – Very little lately. I’ve tried sending stores promos to very little reaction. I send out some emails when there are new releases & I offer them my terms for ordering directly & list them some distros where they could get my records. If they explicitly ask for a promo I’ll send it to them.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?
Brian – I send them the music. If they like something, I try to get the bands to do station IDs or PSAs. I try to get touring bands to do radio sessions. I ask them what I can do for them. I even did a series of interviews with music directors & if there’s a new music director I refer them to it so they might get some ideas for fixing any problems at their station.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with magazines & websites?
Brian – It’s hard to. I send them the music & offer them to help set-up interviews if they like something. I offer ad trades for QRD. Occasionally I buy ads. It all varies.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with bloggers?
Brian – As much as possible I try to actually read their blogs & when possible comment on articles about things other than my music that I find interesting. Blogs are weird because one with two readers often looks exactly the same as one with twenty-thousand readers.
QRD – Do you view advertisements as a way to generate interest & revenue or more as a way to financially support magazines & websites you like?
Brian – Pretty exclusively offer financial support. Even if someone clicks on an ad, they don’t really seem that likely to buy anything from me. I have no idea what causes someone to buy music, but it sometimes seems like it has nothing to with advertisements, reviews, or radio play.
QRD – What is the job of your distributors?
Brian – I used to think it was to push my music into stores, but now I realize it’s just to make the music available to stores.
QRD – How do you decide how big the initial pressing of a release should be?
Brian – I generally go 1000 because the price difference between 1000 & 500 is usually not too much. You can always print up some more. But lately I’m thinking about doing short runs & digital only as less people seem to be buying CDs.
QRD – What percentage of a pressing do you use for promotions?
Brian – Usually 20%. I send out about 200 physicals for major releases.
QRD – Do you sell merchandise other than the music (t-shirts, etc.)?
Brian – Not too much. I really should get more into this end of things. I’m thinking about making effect pedals or something.
QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?
Brian – In general only if it is by a band that is on the label or if somebody hires me to run promo for them I might take a few discs on consignment.
QRD – How has running a label effected your own artistic career?
Brian – Without a doubt it has cut a lot of time out of my own career. I’d be a better musician & have more music out if I had dedicated the same time & money to my personal career.
QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?
Brian – It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ll put my music out on the best label for it. If somebody else wants to put out my record & they might do a better job than me, I’d let them for sure. I might let them even if I think they’d do a worse job than me, because it’s flattering that anyone would want to put my stuff out.
QRD – What do you do to try to build a sense of community within your roster?
Brian – I try to get bands to play together when they hit each other’s cities on tour. & then of course on Vlor I record the initial parts & try to get members of a bunch of the bands to add stuff to it. I’ll send the bands copies of each other’s records if they want them. I like it when I see that half of the Silber roster are friends with each other on Facebook & are posting on each other’s walls.
QRD – What’s your most common conversation with bands as far as balancing artistic integrity & financial viability?
Brian – Probably about packaging. Because sometimes the prices on cool looking things seems infinite. The letterpress packaging on Hotel Hotel’s The Sad Sea is awesome, but it cost me an extra $1 a disc & I didn’t feel like I could pass that fee on to consumers. Also, I’m not sure, but I think that packaging was actually my idea. I like the new Remora in the metal tin, but it’s a pain to construct & some people have complained that it’s hard to store in their music libraries because it rolls off the shelf.
QRD – How often do you look at your “return on investment” & adjust your business model?
Brian – Not often enough. But lately I’ve been forced to do it every few months. The economy is kinda crappy right now & I’m hoping I’ll eventually be able to do more releases with more promotion & advertising. But I just gotta wait & see what happens & I’m not the only one doing that these days.
QRD – Do you worry about search engine optimization & website traffic?
Brian – Yes & no. I know those things aren’t that important for generating sales, but it makes me feel good when my stats are showing an upswing.
QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?
Brian – Learned to layout the artwork myself. Learned to master myself. Learned how to run the promo game a little better. Stopped spending so much money on advertisements. Slimmed down the promotions list. Do some releases as digital only. Do digital download promotions. I think that’s about it.
QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?
Brian – I hope not. I like albums. If your album has a song that is twice as good as the other nine, you need to cut nine songs & write more material. The reason there’s talk of the album format being dead is because so few people have bothered to put out solid albums.
QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?
Brian – No more or less so than silly bandz (the bracelets that the kids wear). I’m not really into any of these three things. That said I think I’d rather put out silly bandz than a cassette or vinyl record, but that’s just me. It seems silly to send a CD to get a record manufactured & then say it’s higher quality than a CD.
QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?
Brian – It is important to me personally because I don’t have an MP3 player or listen to music on my computer. The digital only releases on Silber I generally burn to a CD-R so I can listen to them. Kind of ironic.
QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?
Brian – I used to think they were bogus. But as less people are buying physical products & the people that do are really into the physical object aspect, you can do some things in that short of run that would be unobtainable in a full release. Like the metal tins & comic for Remora’s Mecha. I couldn’t afford to hire out to make 1000 & I don’t have the time/patience to do that many myself.
QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?
Brian – I’m not sure. I’ve seen some that looked all right & some that looked like crap. I’ve never ordered one so I don’t know the turn around time, but I know some of the print on demand books take nine weeks when I order them & that is completely unacceptable from a consumer standpoint.
QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?
Brian – I try to offer a free EP per album I put out & have at least one free MP3 available per release. I think it’s more important to make sure people have the idea that music is not something they’re entitled to for free nor are they doing artists a favor by listening to the music. Making music is work & artists deserve financial compensation for it.
QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?
Brian – I have Google Alerts on & if they send me a URL with a download link I get it taken down (usually it’s hosted by a third party & most of them are pretty good with taking a file down if you contact them). I write whoever has the website & thank them for helping to spread the word & explain to them I’d rather they just have a link to the free MP3 from the release. If they act like a real dick about it & call me a Nazi & say music is meant to be free, I’ll forward the message on to their webhost & get their site taken down. But I don’t bother trying to fight peer-to-peer networks or anything. Just something that comes up on Google.
QRD – What’s something you see other labels do that you think of as borderline unethical?
Brian – Having interns write reviews for major magazines & websites. Not paying their bands. Taking 100% of the publishing of a band. Not officially refusing a record so that it can be shopped to another label. Taking too big of a cut on film placements. Taking too big of a cut on licensing deals for other territories. Having a team of interns calling radio stations making requests.
QRD – What changes in things would cause you to stop your label?
Brian – I don’t know if I’ll ever stop doing it, but economics clearly alter the way I run things.
QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?
Brian – Get a few jobs in the industry to see how it works. If you write almost any small label asking to help as an internet intern, they would probably love the help. So I’d say, do a couple internships, do a radio show at your college station a couple months, work in a record shop a few months if you can, go on tour with a band. At least you’ll know what you’re getting in to.
QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?
Brian – At the moment licensing for TV & film. This is going away as more people realize it & offer their music for less & also as TV & film suffer from lower revenues. In the future I’m not sure, I’m betting on solar technologies.
QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?
Brian – It’s hard for an individual band to keep track of the 5000 people they need to contact about a release if they’re only doing a release every year or two as those people change every six months or so. Also hopefully labels offer a branding that helps people have faith in checking out a band.
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?
Brian – Right now it’s YouTube. Now that people can watch videos on their phones, that’s the hippest thing. I want to make some Remora videos of cats dressed up as people because those videos seem quite popular.
QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?
Brian – Having put out interesting music & being well thought of by everyone I’ve worked with. Some labels a lot of the bands that have worked with them don’t have much good to say. I never want to be one of those labels….
QRD – Anything else?
Brian – If people think there should be professional artists in the world, they need to be willing to put money towards it. If you can invest $1000 a year towards going out drinking, you should be able to invest that much to supporting the arts (be that music or writing or paintings or dancing or whatever).
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