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QRD #47 - Record Label Owner Interview Series
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Record Label Owner Interview with Sean Gray, Chris Berry, & Tracy Soo-Ming of Fan Death Records
January 2011
Names: Sean Gray, Chris Berry, Tracy Soo-Ming
Label: Fan Death Records
City: Baltimore-D.C.-Montreal
Artists Roster: Clockcleaner, Puerto Rico Flowers, To Live & Shave in LA, Broken Water, Pleasure Leftists, Locrian, Homostupids, Psychedelic Horseshit, Twin Stumps, Lamps, Screen Vinyl Image, Jason Urick, Taco Leg, FNU Ronnies, Screen Vinyl Image, Pfisters, The New Flesh, The Chickens, Neon Blud, Broken Neck, Bodycop, Drunkdriver, Ringo Deathstarr
Website: www.fandeathrecords.com, www.myspace.com/fandeathrecords, www.twitter.com/fandeathrecords

QRD – When & why did you start your label?

Sean – I was doing a label off & on for a few years called Hit-Dat Records. I decided to get serious about school & put that chapter of my life to rest. In reality, though, I still wanted to do a label. The label was about on its last legs & Chris bought a record from me. He was going to the same college I’d just gotten into. We made some small talk through email, nothing serious. A few days later I was at a show & he overheard me talking about the record label. From that point, we became really good friends.  Clockcleaner had just played a show opening up for Negative Approach & what made this show special was the fact they covered a NA song while opening for them. Weeks later I heard it had been recorded & I asked John Sharkey III of Clockcleaner if one day I could put it out & he said sure. I told Chris & then got the idea for us to work together on that project. We never really took it too seriously, we really thought we’d put out 2-3 records max & call it a day, but now it’s something more. Getting Tracy involved has saved this label, she can tell you more about that.

Tracy – I’ve known Sean for about 10 years now. When he started Hit-Dat, I helped him out a bit with website & backend stuff, so I offered to help him out with Fan Death, too. They had 2 or 3 releases & were disorganised. But they both had the motivation to run Fan Death, so I just organised things a bit & mom’d them. I essentially went in & cleaned up their bedrooms.

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

Chris – Sean & I funded the first couple of releases by selling chunks of our respective record collections on eBay (and in my case, on Viva La Vinyl).  I bought 200+ records off some guy at a garage sale for $15, & sold a private press psych record from that collection to a guy in Japan for $1750. 

Tracy – I’d been helping out with label stuff for about a year & had been putting aside a couple hundred bucks here & there. At some point, they needed some extra money for a release & so I “bought in”. I still do exactly the same work as before, but now I’m “legit” & I have less money.

QRD – How many releases have you put out?

Tracy – 24, with 4 more in the pipeline.

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

Tracy – We need to slow it down a bit. Maybe 6-8 releases a year? It’ll be nice to feel like we aren’t in over our heads for once.

Chris – I think we’re going to shift gears towards releasing fewer records, spaced throughout the year, & mostly putting out LPs.

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

Tracy – There are weeks where I work on the label from sun up to sundown. Then there are weeks where I won’t even check my e-mail.

Chris – I mostly deal with distribution, promotion, & fulfillment, so I probably work on label-related stuff an average of 15-20 hours a week.

Sean – Sometimes all day, sometimes a few hours each day, it depends really. Also if baseball &/or football is on, the label takes a backseat for a few hours. 

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

Tracy – I like it when stuff turns up in unexpected places. I live in Montreal, but I was visiting a friend in Atlanta a few weeks ago. He pulled out an old Double Dagger/Economist split that Sean put out on Hit-Dat (based out of Baltimore) back when I was helping him with it. That blew my mind. Another friend from Lexington did a double take after overhearing me on the phone talking about label stuff with Sean. It turns out he stocks his record store with Fan Death stuff & had no idea I was involved with the label.

Chris – My grandmother asked me if she could hear a band on my label when I was visiting her for Thanksgiving, so I played her a Dave Matthews Band song.  She said, “I was expecting something with a lot more screaming in it!”

Sean – Demos we get. Some of the stuff is just weird. Oh, & also, sending the Bootleg Live in Spain vinyl of Animal Collective to Pitchfork, AKA Clockcleaner’s Ready to Fight LP, was pretty rewarding.

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

Tracy – I think that as we’ve gotten better at doing this, we’ve begun to ask ourselves, “What’s next?”  I think our motivations are the same, but our ambitions are greater.

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

Chris – Delays at pressing plants.  Some label people complain about mail order, but taking care of mail order really isn’t all that bad, because if I get bored, I just draw a weed leaf or something on somebody’s package.  The worst part about it is definitely filling out those fucking customs forms.

Tracy – Bands breaking up right after we release their stuff.

Sean – I dunno, thinking about it, I don’t think anything is a waste. It’s all a learning experience.

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

Sean – The typical ones, really. I grew up worshipping Kill Rock Stars. To this day I still do. I still remember the first KRS LP I bought 13 years ago or so... Free Kitten. Right now, though, I think we all love what Richie Records is doing. He has a very “eh” attitude to his label & it works for him (that Factorymen “Shitman” LP is classic). I love that. It’s funny, though. I don’t know label-wise who we relate to. We put out a Broken Water 7” then a Jason Urick 7”. I don’t know any other label that can jump from place to place like that. Though, it’s not without its negatives, but it seems to work for us.

Tracy – Yeah, Kill Rock Stars was a really big deal to me growing up. That’s pretty much what Sean & I bonded over 10 years ago. These days I just like talking to people about their hobby labels because we’re all in it for the same reasons. My friend Josh runs a label out of Atlanta called Army of Bad Luck that I bug him about all the time. My friend Shaun does Psychic Handshake Recordings, which I dig. Otherwise, I like what Sacred Bones are doing. & Ben at Load Records is a dream; he lets Sean bug him when we have questions.

Chris – Dischord & Load were the two labels that inspired me to check out their back catalogs back when I was in high school & they’re two of my favorites today.  Both of those labels are very well-curated - even if I’m not into a release, I can understand the context the record was released in & that’s something that we’ve all taken into consideration when we agree to releases.  Other than those, I’ll check out anything on Siltbreeze, Hanson, Richie, & Sacred Bones.

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

Chris – Before we ran the label together, Sean & I worked at a college radio station together, which was an interesting way to get a feel for how the “indie rock” world works.

Tracy – None. Running a hobby label works like this: Save up money, give it away. Work a lot, but don’t get paid. Save up more money, give it away. Work some more, still for free.

QRD – What makes your label special & unique?

Sean – The fact that you asked us 267,864 questions. In case these are asked later, I’m 5’4”, 120 lbs, a Leo, married, & I like Wild Turkey & Miller Lite.

QRD – How has your physical location affected your label?

Chris – Sean & I used to live down the street from each other when we were in school, but when I moved up to Baltimore it’s made it a little trickier to coordinate everything.  We manage pretty well; we talk pretty much every day.  There’s cool stuff going on in Baltimore - Double Dagger & the New Flesh are two of the best bands around, period, & it can be a fun place once you know where to look.  That said, Royal Farms sucks compared to Wawa.

Tracy – I live in Montreal. Chris is in Baltimore & Sean’ll be in DC next month, so more than anything, we operate via phone/e-mail/skype/whatever. I’m trying to move to either Atlanta or SF & I think Chris is toying with the idea of going up to NYC. We’re all spread out, but we make it work. The internet is great for that. I like that Fan Death doesn’t really have one specific home-base, because then we don’t feel like a label that only caters to local bands, though there’s definitely an element of that.

Sean – This is always an interesting question for me. Those who know me personally understand why physical distance can be a problem for Chris & myself, as I don’t drive. It’s tough, it’s not easy, but then again, if the three of us saw each other every day, I think we’d get sick of each other somewhat. We all like to have our personal space. It’s kind of like being in a band in some way. That being said, Chris & Tracy are my best friends so working with them is pretty easy to say the least. 

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

Tracy – I still love music. But I guess running a label has turned me into the kind of loser who “talks shop” with bands a lot.

Chris – Outside of the label, I work at a record store & write for a blog & a local alternative weekly.  Sometimes I feel like I get super analytical about a lot of the music I’m exposed to, but I still get blown away by stuff I’ve never heard before.

Sean – I don’t know... I find myself listening to less & less music, but when I find something I enjoy, it seems more satisfying that way. I used to need to hear everything & have every single record & be up to date on everything. Sometimes I feel pretty dumb when it comes to bands or music trends as I just don’t follow any of that as much. Now, though, I find that when I do like something, it means more, & doesn’t seem like I’m spreading myself too thin. I feel like I’m more interested in what we do, & the idea of music as a type of culture.

QRD – What’s your demos policy?

Chris – If I’m familiar with a band & they send me a link to an MP3, I’ll check it out.  If I’m not, I will not check out a band unless they send something to our PO Box.  We get some weirdos that way – one guy sent an open straight razor inside a tape case – but it definitely weeds out the people who are too lazy to burn a CD-R & drop $2 on shipping. 

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

Chris – Usually we find out about new artists through our friends.  Our friend Berdan was really enthusiastic about Twin Stumps, so we checked them out at a show they played in January of ‘09.  They were an absolute mess, but he kept pushing them on us.  The next time they played, at DNA Test Fest a few months later, they lived up to his endorsement & we wound up doing an LP with them. 

Tracy – Just about all my friends are in bands, promote shows or run hobby labels, so one way or another, new music is coming my way. & when all your friends are involved with bands, anyone they could introduce to you is likely in a band too, & so on.

Sean – Friends, really. I think at this point people come to us now, which is nice & I guess a good sign.

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

Tracy – Sean recently pointed out that if you Google “Fan Death Records”, it auto-completes to “Fan Death Records Tracy”, so apparently I have a creepy internet following. I mean, probably not, but the idea is funny.

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

Sean – It has to be Drunkdriver. I think that band connected with people in a way that I can’t explain in words. It was interesting to see a band like that with no real “machine” behind them do the things they did numbers-wise & hype-wise, which is to say pretty much based on the music alone, as they never really toured. Beyond whatever bullshit went down, I’ll admit it’s tough to find a band like that in terms of what they were able to do in such a short period of time & with so few releases. Right after is Puerto Rico Flowers. I think that’s another “band” that benefits in some way from the way it operates, but the songs are also pretty fucking amazing.

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

Sean – When the Clockcleaner Nevermind LP comes out, that will be the closest to being special to me, if only due to my personal history with that LP. We have another LP coming out in 2k11 I’ve just heard the mixes to & it’s mind-blowing to say the least. I’m proud of every release we do, though. Each one is special, if only because I know about all the work & care that goes into each record, on all accounts.

Chris – Sean & I might never have met if it weren’t for Nevermind, so that’s going to be a big one.  The Taco Leg 7”, too, because we helped them come over to the US & tour.  I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get a chance to meet those guys.

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

Tracy – The most important thing is that we like their music. 

Chris – A band’s work ethic is a huge deal in my book.

Tracy – Yeah. I get pretty excited when a band I like also tours a lot, gets involved in stuff (films, zine culture, you name it) & supports its music community. They become a band that I want to develop an ongoing relationship with.

Sean – With web 2.0  becoming vastly intertwined with how we communicate & spread information, work ethic is pretty much number one & having your shit together needs to go hand-in-hand. There are bands on the label I thought we’d have to struggle to work with, but they’ve ended up being the bands that are easiest to work with because they know what they want & how they want it. 

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

Chris – If a band watches Dig! or Some Kind of Monster & aspires to be the Dandy Warhols, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or Metallica. 

Sean – I have never asked what football/baseball teams any of them like, but if any of them said DC or New York, then they aren’t worth working with. I don’t wanna deal with any Mets or Yankee fans. Also, fuck the Redskins. 

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

Sean – This is a good question, I’ll hand this over to Tracy & Chris. All I can think of is that they are good & have the Fan Death name on them somewhere. 

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

Tracy – The bands have carte blanche to do what they want. The artwork for the Clockcleaner “Ready To Fight” 12” is hilarious. It’s just a photocopy on a yellow 8.5” x 11”.

Chris – If we trust a band enough to want to release something by them, we’ll trust them enough to get us good artwork.  We haven’t had to reject artwork yet.

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

Tracy – Stop breaking up. Tour more.

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

Chris – We’ve already expressed our desire to release a vinyl box set of the Longmont Potion Castle discography, but that’s going to have to wait until I win the lottery.

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

Tracy – Well, there’s a reason why we don’t make money.

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

Tracy – We’ve had some alternative arrangements in the past, but generally, the band covers their recording costs & we pay for artwork, mastering, pressing, you name it.

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

Tracy – We should probably devise a financial scheme at some point, but it’s not like we’ve made enough money to start cutting people cheques.

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

Tracy – Handshake deals, but based on some bullshit we’ve had to deal with recently, I might start pushing for at least the bare minimum written agreement.

Chris – If I’m leading the charge on a release, I like to send a band an email that just outlines what we’re going to do: release X number of records, give them X percentage of the copies, use X number of copies for promotional use, & so on & so forth.  I don’t want to leave anyone in the dark about something.

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

Chris – Very important.  We like to know if a band’s going to be actively touring or promoting themselves before we start working with them.  Sometimes we can help them with tours, too. One of our bands, Taco Leg, got a grant from the Australian government to tour in the US, so we helped them set up a couple weeks of dates on the East & West Coasts.

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

Sean – In house. I can see the benefit of hiring out; but really, when a record sells ‘cause you helped push it as opposed to some company, it feels better that way.

QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?

Sean – Facebook or by sending out pigeon messengers to each fan with news & updates attached to their legs.

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

Sean – If you wanna intern for us, go ahead. But no, no street team. Do people still use street teams? Isn’t the street now your Facebook?

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

Tracy – Three of us own Fan Death & we take care of everything. We’re a good size.

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

Sean – By putting out good records that bring them money.

Chris – We deal with 20 or so stores & specialized distributors directly.  If you have good releases, stores will be receptive to it.

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

Sean – Radio is dead, I really hate to say. Though WFMU, WMUC, & a few others still do some great stuff.

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

Sean – I don’t think we need to build anything, considering they are the first to leak our records, which is fine by me!

Chris – I like to build relationships with journalists who understand what we’re releasing & are receptive to it.  There are a couple of people that we’ve taken off our mailing list not because we got bad reviews, but because the reviewer had no idea what he was talking about.  I’d rather get a thoughtful negative review than someone copying & pasting our one-sheet.  Although we rarely get negative reviews because all of our releases are excellent!

QRD – What is the job of your distributors?

Sean To make us money.

Tracy – To give Chris a break with mailorder.

Chris – To get our records in stores that don’t deal direct with us.  I got a kick out of walking into Double Decker Records, an incredible store we’ve never dealt direct with, to find a copy of the Puerto Rico Flowers 7”.

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

Tracy – Not as of yet, but I’m thinking about it. 

Sean – You could cater to your fans, Tracy...  We can make tons of cash. Example: “I Googled ‘Fan Death Records Tracy’, & all I got was this shirt” shirts.

Tracy – I’m really just using Fan Death as a launchpad for my upcoming cam-girl website with paid subscriptions.

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

Tracy – We’re actually just getting back into distro after letting it slide for awhile. We don’t want to do much...  just a few things by some bands we really like, or other records by bands we’ve put out records by.

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

Sean – Well, let me tell you, I had an exhibit in Tokyo set up, but had to cancel it due to some mastering issues with an LP we are doing. So many investors lost money cause we had to cancel the exhibit... Jesus.... Really, I don’t think any of us are artists. I’m not. I’m good at Madden though & Final Fantasy games. Tracy won’t admit it, but she’s a RPG head too. 

Tracy – I just got a bunch of Final Fantasy games for my DS so I don’t even get out of bed anymore.

Chris – The extent of my artistic talent is using Photoshop to put words on an image, so running a label has opened up a wide range of possibilities for me!

QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?

Sean – If we all could do comedy records & they were good, then yes.

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

Tracy – Out of the three of us, I’m definitely the biggest stickler for money stuff. None of us are in it to make big bucks, but we were losing money in really dumb places so I did a complete assessment of our stock & finances & developed a bit of a business strategy. I revisit this strategy from time to time to see what I can improve.

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

Tracy – Not website traffic. There’s a Canadian electro band called Fan Death. I just want to make sure you don’t Google for Clockcleaner & end up listening to club hits.

QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?

Sean – This is a dumb question, so instead let me tell you I just had the McRib for the first time & it’s better than any dorky record or band you can see live. Really!

Tracy – I dunno... The McRib gave me some of the worst acid reflux of my life.

Chris – I’m glad they only bring back the McRib once every couple of years, because that’s how frequently I feel like eating one.

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

Chris – Judging by how our CDs sell in comparison to our vinyl & tape releases, no.

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

Tracy – I download MP3s, & they’re good for hearing new music, but there’s nothing satisfying about having MP3s. There’s still a market out there for physical releases because people like owning “stuff”.

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

Chris – Not my thing.  I’d ideally keep all our releases in print, so if someone finds out about one of our records a couple years down the line, they won’t have to trawl eBay or Discogs & pay a stupid amount of money.

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

Sean – I think if you want something physical, something tangible, then I see no issue with the prices we have set for records. Though music is not something that should itself have a price tag. We are not in the arena of trying to pull one of these “pay what you want” or get it from us for free things. We work hard to put out a physical product. That all being said, I have no issue whatsoever with anyone downloading music or album art from blogs, etc. Hell, if someone comes up to me or emails me & says they can’t afford it, I’ll tell them where to look. Though I think when music or art you love is on some kind of physical medium, it’s somewhat “natural” to want to own & support it. Downloading isn’t killing music, it’s the idea of bands & labels struggling to find a happy “in between” that is & with the internet, much of the time there is no such thing. People will support what they like & ignore what they don’t.

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

Chris – We’ve actually leaked a couple of our releases ourselves.  I can’t buy all the music I want to hear, so I download a ton of music.  It works to our advantage - whenever a release gets posted on a blog, we get a spike in orders.

Tracy – It happens. I do it. I download tons of music. It allows you to try new things. & then if you really like something, you can go ahead & buy the actual record/tape/whatever.

Sean – I don’t care. I’m downloading some records right now as I type this.

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

Sean – Take themselves too seriously.

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

Chris – Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Listen closely to your test pressings.

Tracy – Get ready to lose money. Get ready to be okay with it.

Sean – Just don’t start an MP3 label.

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

Sean – In some way I think labels are like a home, a place where you are surrounded by people you know & trust & who can help you get things done the way you want them done. A label can be an umbrella of sorts. For instance, because we might put out two releases you like, you might pick up a Locrian record just based on the consistency of the label. I’ve done that myself & more often than not have discovered new bands I love because of it. 

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?

Chris – Normal people are boring people, so I can only assume they find out about new music from Starbucks & the soundtrack to Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist

Sean – Myspace has been replaced with Google: “artist album title mediafire”. People are catching on. I am all for it. A lo-res copy of a streaming song would & has pissed me off. 

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

Chris – Taco Leg.

Tracy – Taco Leg.

Sean – Taco Leg... or the prank phone call tape we found at a Northeast Baltimore Wendy’s, if that ever comes out.