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QRD #47 - Record Label Owner Interview Series
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Record Label Owner Interview with J.R. of Public Guilt
January 2011
Name: J.R. 
Label: Public Guilt
Artists Roster: Aluk Todolo, Habsyll, Ala Muerte, Zu, Darsombra, Terminal Lovers, Magicicada, Destructo Swarmbots, Aun, The Psychic Paramount, Strotter Inst.,  Decimation Blvd., Harm Stryker, Deadverse Massive, Perfekt Teeth, Cream Abdul Babar, Oblong Box, Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat, Still, Vopat,  Korperschwache, Trephine, & Planet Y. 
Websites: www.publicguilt.com, www.facebook.com/publicguilt
free 6th anniversary compilation  http://www.publicguilt.com/sixyears/

QRD – When & why did you start your label?

J.R. – May 2004. I had toured with a band for years & had also worked in publishing (as the managing editor for an arts journal). I wanted to take what I learned from those experiences & my own love of music & turn it into something.

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

J.R. – My grandmother left me a small amount of money when she died. She had an amazing record player, which she bought with the only money she ever inherited, so it seemed fitting to use the money she left me to start a record label. 

QRD – How many releases have you put out?

J.R. – 34 releases as of January 2011. One more will be out in the coming months & then PG will go on hiatus through the end of 2011, as I become “Label Manager” for another label. 

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

J.R. – 3-4, but I would happily do more if the money is there. 

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

J.R. – 5-30 depending on the week. If I could quit my day job, I’d happily work a 40-60 hour week.

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

J.R. – In general, working with artists to help them achieve their vision.  More specifically, I enjoy working out the art & packaging for each release. I love throwing ideas around with an artist, trying to find the best way to visually present their album. 

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

J.R. – My motivation is still about putting out good music that would not get released otherwise. I think I am a bit more conscious of money & sales now.  Not so much trying to make more money, but trying to lose less.  

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

J.R. – Shipping. Standing in line at the post office, filling out customs forms for overseas shipping, tracking missing packages, filing claims for packages damaged by Fed Ex, etc. It is all a pain in the ass.

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

J.R. – Utech, Crucial Blast, Tumult, Hinterzimmer, Wallace, No Quarter, RAIG, Porter, & countless more. 

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

J.R. – Touring in a band for four years & working as the managing editor of an arts journal.  

QRD – What makes your label special & unique?

J.R. – Hmmm. Tough one.  Not sure. 

QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?

J.R. – Not very much. There are a few regional acts on the label, but the PG roster is spread throughout the US & the world. In this day & age, if you are making compelling music, location should be irrelevant. 

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

J.R. – I went through a period where I was fairly stressed about the label (& the pile of debt it had accrued) & my enjoyment of music suffered a bit. I have made a conscious effort to set aside time to just listen to & appreciate music.  It’s a time separate from label activities, which is just about my personal enjoyment & not about work.  It has been really fun to rediscover what I loved about music to begin with. To hear old albums I haven’t heard in years & to be excited about new albums. My listening goes through phases & sometimes my personal taste is very different than what the label is working on.  There are days when I should be listening to demos or new releases from peer labels & all I want to do is listen to the Thin Lizzy.  Personal enjoyment should always trump business. 

QRD – What’s your demos policy?

J.R. – It used to be wide open, but I told people we had a full plate so not to expect anything. I have only worked with two artists based on demos. & one artist was not sending demos. They were sending self-released albums because they enjoyed what PG did. I received a pretty wide range of demos over the years, some of which are great, some horrible, & some just odd. The oddest was a Ukrainian Nazi band who based all of their music & lyrics on the teachings of a Latin American fascist from the 60s. The music was as bad as the ideology. 

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

J.R. – A combination of word of mouth from friends & other bands on the label & searching to find a band for my personal listening.  I have always sought out new & exciting music for my own listening, so now the possibility of working with bands is added into the mix. 

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

J.R. – I would guess mostly from album reviews from online retailers & press. I think there is a fair amount of word of mouth for PG as well. 

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

J.R. – Aluk Todolo’s Descension.  First of all, this is an amazing record that feels timeless. It will still be as potent in 20 years as it was the day it was recorded. Beyond that, I think it was timing. Black metal & Krautrock were both getting a lot of attention in the press & through reissues, etc.  Since the band fuses those styles (& more), their sound was very intriguing to people.  The album got some great reviews, was record of the week at Aquarius Records (who sold more copies than some of my distributors!! Yes, one store sold more copies than my US distributor!) & was leaked by writers with advanced copies onto some high profile blog & torrent sites.  People downloading albums for free sucks on one hand; but with enough talk, that can turn into sales. 

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

J.R. – Strotter Inst. “Anna | annA”  7”.  I really enjoyed Strotter’s Monstranz album & I love how he played with the format as much as the music. We talked for months about the packaging of the 7” & how we could make it unique. In the end, it is 4 songs, 2 per side. The second track on each side plays inside out & each track ends in a locked groove. So, the tracks on each side share a locked groove & thus end the same way.  The “artwork” for the album is the absence of artwork. The cover is a clear plastic sleeve & the vinyl is simply black with no labels.  So the blank vinyl is the cover. Once the 7” is removed, you can read the liner notes (which are on affixed backwards on the backside of the sleeve) & see a map on how to play the record.  & since each track ends in a locked groove, the listener must manipulate the turntable to hear each one, much in the same way that Strotter manipulates his turntables to create the tracks in the first place. 

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

J.R. – Good music, first & foremost.  Beyond that, their attitude & approach to their music. 

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

J.R. – I’m pretty easy going & have worked through some big things with bands I still work with.  Only once have I stopped working with an artist. I was in talks with a band & we had set a timeframe to release an LP.  They had 4-5 LPs worth of material & we were sorting through it to figure out what would be best to release. A few months before our deadline, they decided to postpone our project so they could do an LP with another label.  We had been in touch for 9+ months & it seemed abrupt. So, they put out a record with the other label & I withdrew my offer to release an LP by them & also to help distribute their first, self-released LP. 

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

J.R. – Again, tough one. Not sure.  

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?

J.R. – This varies from artist to artist. Some have a completed product in hand & others have tracks that are mixed, but not mastered & sequenced. I always give the artist the final say, but I am happy to chime in on sequencing, cutting songs for overall length, thoughts with final mixes, mastering, etc. 

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

J.R. – It depends on the artist. Some come to me with a completed design. Some with nothing. Others in between.  I like to work with an artist to flesh ideas.  Paper stocks, inks, colored vinyl. It’s all fun stuff to play around with.

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

J.R. – Usually 5-6 months. This accounts for time at the pressing plant & for 2-3 months lead-time for PR & for my distributor to solicit stores & other distributors. 

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

J.R. – I would make the pressing a bit smaller to account for no sales during tours.  I would also do a smaller PR campaign as well.

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

J.R. – Tour, play shows, have fun making music. Put out albums on other labels. Collaborate with other artists.

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

J.R. – This is not necessarily a “never” album, but one that is not likely due to the time & finances that would be involved. I had often dreamt of a Zeni Geva tribute album. Two discs, the first being covers by bands & the second being remixes of ZG songs.

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

J.R. – I have a limited series that does short runs. Most of the previous limited releases were 3” CDR in custom packaging.  I have two new limited releases in the works, one of which will be a digital download card that comes with a t-shirt & poster (Korperschwache) & one will be CDR with photos & artwork in a hand-constructed box (Magicicada). So, limited runs of a physical objects & then digital downloads to keep the release available. 

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

J.R. – For the most part, the artist covers recording costs & PG covers everything else. Sometimes, I will provide funds for “final mixes.” Mastering, manufacturing, promotion, etc. are all covered by the label.

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

J.R. – The artist is “paid” with copies of the album from the first pressing.  The percentage of artist copies varies depending on how much PG paid for up front. If we go into a second pressing, we discuss it & decide if the band would like more copies of the album or to split the profits 50/50 with the label. With digital sales, profits are split 50/50.

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

J.R. – Handshake deals. I have never signed a single contract with an artist. 

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

J.R. – No.  

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

J.R. – Semi-important. Most of the artists on the label do not tour regularly.  For those who do, I will have posters printed & I will solicit reviews & interviews in the regional press around their tour dates. Also, since PG is small & I cannot provide standard tour support, I sell CDs to the artist at cost (below wholesale). The extra buck or two that would go into the label’s pocket may help them with a tank of gas here & there.

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

J.R. – A combination. It depends on the release. Some are worked in-house & some are run through Earsplit PR. I used one other PR firm in the past, but I was not happy with their results. 

QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?

J.R. – Website, Facebook page & a sporadic e-newsletter. 

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

J.R. – No.  I once had a street team link on my website. When you clicked it, you got a picture of a 14 year-old kid with a backpack giving you the finger. 

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

J.R. – One person.  One is enough for the label’s current size, but it would be great if I could quit my day job to spend more time helping the label grow.

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

J.R. – Sometimes while on tour with bands, I will go to stores in towns & try to sell direct to them. Also, I will deal via email with some stores. In the past, I sent out a sampler CD to stores in the US. I did not see an increase in sales, so I have not repeated this.

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

J.R. – Not much. I send out some promos but not many.  If I had a staff, I would have someone be in contact with stations.

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

J.R. – I take out ads in magazines that I personally like to read & that fit the label &/or particular release.  

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

J.R. – Nothing.  

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

J.R. – Both. Hopefully, I can support institutions that I like & respect & also get the word out about PG releases which, in theory, should bring in revenue. 

QRD – What is the job of your distributors?

J.R. – First & foremost, paying the label for products sold in a timely fashion.  I work with several distributors, many who are great with sending checks.  Others, you have to bug & pester until they pay you. In an ideal world, I would have a much better answer for this question. At the moment, I am in a “the check is in the mail” scenario for a pretty large chunk of change.

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

J.R. – It depends on the band & their current audience size. Also, it varies depending on whether they tour or if sales will strictly be based on reviews/word of mouth.

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

J.R. – Varies per release. Anywhere from 10% to 20% of the first pressing, plus recently I have begun to use a digital promo service as well. 

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

J.R. – I have t-shirts for a few artists on my label. These are sold individually as well as in package deals with the CD or LP. 

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

J.R. – Yes, I stock albums from PG bands that are on other labels.  I will also sell related bands (side projects, etc.) & will occasionally sell a handful of a non-related release if I love it. PG used to have a full scale mailorder (over 500 items from 60+ labels), but the amount of work was disproportional to the amount of income & it began to take away from the label’s main focus, releasing records.

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

J.R. – Not much. I do not think of myself as an artist or a musician, though I have skills in those areas. I filled in on bass for a tour with one of the artists on my label, but outside of this I do not play music regularly. 

QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?

J.R. – No, never.  I was asked to play on a recording & I said if I did, it could not come out on PG. If the music has merit, someone else will release it. While I like the idea of self-releasing to keep more money in the hands of artist, the self-promotion aspect of it is unappealing.

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

J.R. – I try to keep all artists in the loop by making sure that artists get copies of other albums on the label. I also initiate remix projects between artists on the label. Also, a few US tours were two PG bands touring together & when European bands come to the US, I encourage other PG bands to play with them or at least show up & check things out. 

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

J.R. – I never have conversations like this. 

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

J.R. – Very little. I am a horrible businessman. 

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

J.R. – I have all of the meta tags in for search engines & “Public Guilt” is not a common phrase so it comes up easily in search engines. I never check my traffic activity on the site, so I have no idea how many people view it.

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

J.R. – Switched to digital press kits to save the cost of shipping out hundreds of albums & onesheets. 

QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?

J.R. – No, not at all.  

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

J.R. – I think vinyl has always been popular & I have consistently bought it over the years. I think it has gained popularity in recent years as a backlash to MP3s & iPods, but it has always been there.  & again, cassettes have always been around (primarily in the noise scene). I grew up on cassettes & while I loved them in the 80s, I do not see much point to them now. They stretch & the oxide rubs off & they sound like shit after a while. If you create a piece of music that is intended to degrade & change over time, then the cassette is an ideal format. But for long term enjoyment of something, not so much.  I don’t think either format will ever disappear. I do think cassettes will again be more of a marginal format with time.  Once the current crop begins to degrade.

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

J.R. – Yes.

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

J.R. – I am okay with this, but the album packaging needs to be unique & desirable. Not just a CDR version of a normal CD. Also, the album should be available digitally for when the limited release goes out of print. I love collector’s items, but if you really want your fans to hear your music, you need to make it widely available. 

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

J.R. – Seems pointless in the age of digital downloads. 

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

J.R. – I usually post 1-2 tracks per album for download/sampling purposes. I am fine with an entire album being available to stream, but I do not set this up on my website.

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

J.R. – Nothing. I have no problem with it assuming A) the person to post it paid for the album & B) the album is available for sale. I am okay with the music being out there (nice packaging will hopefully bring folks to the actual release), but the album needs to be for sale so that someone can have the option to buy after they download & preview. What I hate is when writers get a free copy months before the release date & they post it for free download. 

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

J.R. – Keeping things anonymous.  Label A released an album with an artist years ago. That release goes out of print. The artist signs with Label B, a larger label. Label A asks the artist to reissue the album & the artist agrees. The artist receives their copies, but then Label B says that the artist’s contract has a clause which states it gets a percentage of any release put out on another label. Label B gets their copies, holds onto them until they are sold out from Label A & the artist & sells them as part of a package deal for a lot of money. So the label who had nothing to do with the release, wasn’t interested in the band when the album came out initially & put up no money makes more money from it than both the artist & Label A.  Sounds like the definition of the word parasite.

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

J.R. – Being broke &/or burned out. 

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

J.R. – Wait a few years. The music industry is in a weird state & the economy sucks. 

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

J.R. – I have little experience with this & most of the bands I work with are outside of this realm, but... licensing music for movies, video games, commercials, etc.  The band I was in years ago saw a big check from a snippet of our song being in a movie. It was the largest check we ever saw.

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

J.R. – I think a good label will work with a band for a number of releases. I think the support that label offers allows the artist to develop & it allows them the ability to focus on the creative aspect of the music while the label handles more of the “business” end of things. 

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?

J.R. – Blogs.  For reviews &/or for free (illegal) downloads.  

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

J.R. – Putting out good records that hopefully have stood the test of time.