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QRD #47 - Record Label Owner Interview Series
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Record Label Owner Interview with Josh Vanek of Wantage USA
January 2011
Name: Josh Vanek
Label: Wantage USA
City: Missoula, Montana
Artists Roster: First off, not to sound shrill, but a roster’s what the Yankees have. We have bands that we dig. They include the Lights, Fire Witch, Vile Blue Shades, Japanther, Volumen, Pygmy Shrews, White Shit, Big Business, the Whip, Last of the Juanitas, Red Fang, Miss Lana Rebel, the Narrows, Federation X, Mountain High, the Pope, etc!
Websites: wantageusa.com, totalfest.org

QRD – When & why did you start your label?

Josh – In the summer of 1994, to put out a cassette by two bands I liked. Squelch was a total revelation in Yakima, Washington in the early 90s. They were punk, loud, fun, & sort of dangerous.

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

Josh – Summer jobs. I worked for a frozen foods company.

QRD – How many releases have you put out?

Josh – About 56 or so.

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

Josh – Two or three.

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

Josh – Seven to 10, I’m happy with the number!

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

Josh – Listening to music, getting stoked about sharing it with other people.

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

Josh – My motivations are about the same. Painfully simple stuff, just really documenting music I think deserves it; sharing it & helping it get some attention. It’s sort of one of those things that once you start doing & find a rhythm for; it’s difficult to get out of.

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

Josh – Hmm, I don’t know honestly. Deleting spam from Sean McKee’s (Narrows) hacked email account. I’m a pretty simple, let the word spread without much in the way of pushing or advertising-kind of an outfit, so I guess I have the luxury of wasting my time in other ways.

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

Josh – X-Mist, SS, Dischord, K, Kill Rock Stars, Union Pole, Sub Pop, Touch & Go, Feral Ward, Nonesuch, Pink House, World Circuit, Sublime Frequencies. All (or most, I guess) are larger & more professional than what we are, but are labels with a real wonderful way of making you excited about their catalog.

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

Josh – It kind of worked vice versa, I was 20, hadn’t done much of anything professionally & it was a good crash course in problem solving & doing something I was interested in & cared about.

QRD – What makes you label special & unique?

Josh – Good question. I think there’s an aesthetic that’s authentic & inspiring about the stuff on Wantage. It’s all over the place musically, or within reason, all over the place. Some metal punk from the Whip & Big Business, some outsider rock gems from the Lights, insanely beautiful country from Lana Rebel, weirdo psych-punk from Mountain High. I think the bands I’ve got records out by Play Music for the correct reasons, which are to explore, to contribute something beautiful & exciting to the world & to add some diversity of sound to a landscape polluted with imitation.  I’m sure everybody says that & I’m not sure what makes my claim to it any more authentic, but I do think essentially what a “label” is in 2011 is somebody curating a collection of music, like a more interactive museum. Sure, file sharing is making the “label” a far smaller consideration among listeners, but there’s nothing stopping a person from looking into the back story & essential person or people who helped make the recording be where it was when you found it. The main difference between people of my age (36) & folks younger than say, 25 or 26 is that I think dorks like me always look to see who put out the recording & try to see what that says about the music. I like associating the Faith/Void split with Fugazi, Lungfish, & Nation of Ulysses; even if those bands maybe never hung out & swapped ideas in person or whatever. So, if you hear something you like, check out more on the label because the good ones run deep. I’ve struggled with being a small label without a well-defined sound niche, because people want simplicity & to be able to say: “you’re that noise rock label...” or whatever genre. But if you attempt to keep beyond genres, you have to work hard at thinking about who might want to buy different sorts of records each time you put one out.

QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?

Josh – I don’t know. We’re relatively isolated geographically here, so we get to make up our own minds about what should get our attention. I like that about Missoula. I also am regularly inspired by Missoula bands like Mordecai, Fag Rag, Shahs, Keys Knees, Volumen, Bird’s Mile Home, Goddammitboyhowdy, & 10 Year Old Girlfriend.…

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

Josh – More. Doing the label’s helped me to easily sort out what I really enjoy & spend time listening to it, rather than trying to figure out stuff I think I should like or that one gets bombarded with in this country where the lines between business and art are stupidly, aggressively blurred where music is concerned.

QRD – What’s your demos policy?

Josh – Loose. I constantly listen to stuff that I get sent & occasionally, like in the case of Fire Witch, put something out & as a rule I’m bad at writing back to the 27 greek stoner rock bands whose god-awful CDRs keep coming.  I think the whole idea of “demoing” like it’s not the finished deal or whatever, where bands look & look & look for somebody else to put some money & effort into their music is mostly misguided. Honestly, most bands are better served working on their music, developing a unique voice & sound, & then I think the rest happens naturally where fans, people, labels, etc. come out of the woodwork to help.

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

Josh – Read, talk to folks, go to shows. I listen to KBGA, WFMU, Maximum Rock N’ Roll’s podcasts, & try to look at some foreign information sources pretty regularly. Actually, that’s more to do with how do I keep what I’m listening to fresh. I guess mostly people email me about putting stuff out & once in a while I do.

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

Josh – Probably via bands they like or have read about. Honestly, I think the label loyalty thing is absolutely on the wane. I know I’m more selective about getting stuff strictly on label strength anymore. It’s so easy to sample now that a lot of the mystery that we used to rely on a label’s tastes to fill in the gaps on is gone. Sort of good in terms of giving more bands a shake at getting checked out, but bad in terms of the idea of a “curated collection” which I think is really all a label comes down to.
 
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?

Josh – Big in terms of fast was the Oxes fake split with Arab on Radar. It was a spoof & once it was out of print, which happened fast, that was it. Big in terms of long-term demand: Big Business’s Head for the Shallow. I think with that record it has to do with the fact that they work hard, put out great music, & are an awesome band. Simple formula.
 
QRD – What release that you’ve done was the most important & special to you personally?

Josh – Each one’s got something special about it. I worked really hard to make the 21st release Hits Omnibus compilation & it was a good exercise for me to process through some stuff in my head I thought was important to work out! I wrote something about each band for the liner notes, kind of added my spiel at the end of the booklet, & am really proud of the work I logged on it. That & I knew more people needed to hear about the Latvian bands on the comp. The 50th release was Miss Lana Rebel’s All I Need & it still has the power to occasionally bring me to tears it’s so beautiful.

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

Josh – First awesome music. First also trust & some sort of work ethic.

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

Josh – Bullshit like being racist, sexist, or homophobic.  Normally though, it’s just that they break up.

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

Josh – Not sure.  The word “WAN” on the spine?

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?

Josh – I only release stuff I’m 100% excited by. I try to leave the audio up to the pros, but if it’s off, I say something.

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

Josh – I like to be involved. I’ve done a bunch of the art myself. Some bands do it all themselves, others want me to do it.

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

Josh – Totally varies based upon dollars in the Paypal account!

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

Josh – Hmm, I think I’d press fewer records. I honestly don’t think this has happened & it sort of depends on how timeless I think the music is & how much I want to work on making sure it gets heard.

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

Josh – Challenge themselves & break ground in smaller towns, play all ages, figure out more venues besides bars to do their art.

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

Josh – Hmm. Like a theoretical “wish I’d been involved in that...” or “I wish I could release something by them.”
If it’s scenario 1: the Jesus Lizard: Liar
If it’s 2: I think I’m pretty lucky to have done a lot of cool stuff. I’d like to put out a Melvins record & I don’t think it’ll happen.

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

Josh – Press fewer or figure out some other way to lend a hand.

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

Josh – Totally varies project to project. Normally, I only pay for pressing & share other costs.

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

Josh – 50/50 after recouping.

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

Josh – Verbal.

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – It’s important... I ask people to tour & have booked tours for bands.

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

Josh – Both, more often than not, I prefer to hire it out to focus on the other side of the release.

QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?

Josh – Website, listserv, & Facebook page. All kind of passively.

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

Josh – Nope.

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

Josh – Basically me & my wife. We could use a couple more.

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

Josh – I leave that to distributors, generally.

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

Josh – Put out good records & answer requests in a timely fashion when they happen.

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

Josh – Figure out the good ones & regularly send them stuff. Send un-selfish recommendations & correspondence.

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

Josh – Yeah, see above I guess.

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

Josh – I view it as confusing & therefore participate less & less.

QRD – What is the job of your distributors?

Josh – To sell Wantage releases to stores, generally.

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

Josh – Ask the band what they think & divide by 4.

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

Josh – It varies, generally I try to mail a couple hundred of everything, but more & more often, I don’t do CDs… so it’s a trickier question. I think our niche increasingly is by doing vinyl, download cards, & iTunes & so I’ve used Kunaki, a CDR duplication company, to do promo copies. That allows me to do as few as necessary to put some into the mail.

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

Josh – Posters.

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

Josh – Yes, I run a small “distro” where I sell stuff that I really dig, or which is connected somehow.

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

Josh – Umm, it’s provided an outlet for me to do creative things, like make album covers, silkscreen, organize shows & festivals. It’s been awesome that way.

QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?

Josh – I have no material.

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

Josh – Share contacts, encourage that bands play shows together when their paths cross, Total Fest is good for informal fun.

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

Josh – It goes: “don’t worry about financial viability ever, please.”

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

Josh – Never. It’s a horrible business & my ROI is an algorithm that has a lot of weird things like how much satisfaction I get from sharing in it.…

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – Hand print stuff, creative packaging, etc.

QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?

Josh – No. I think CDs are nearly dead, but I think albums & the album format are still important within the segment of the population (males 18-24 probably) with the ability to obsess over bands they like & listen to things completely, as they should be heard. It shouldn’t be a foreign concept to sit down with a record by a band, but MP3s & iPods have given us the option of massive choice at our fingertips & we’ve exercised it. So often though, it’s like being in a hotel room with 300 channels & rather than watch one good show, you watch literally 65 pieces of shows & never get any sense of beginning, middle, & end! I will fight actively to keep the album format alive while I live. It’s an important thing & I think that’s not just nostalgia. I don’t want to come off as elitist, but to be serious about something, like music, you shouldn’t just dabble around with a song a time! Think about if you only ever heard “Waiting Room” by Fugazi, their most pop melody, totally accessible & decided that was what Fugazi were? That’d be so god-awful on so many levels. That to me is why the album format can’t ever die.

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

Josh – Probably for cassettes. The environmentalist in me kind of wants to shed all the plastic that I touch on a daily basis & become a digital only label, but I still love touching things & handling records & I think other people like that too, so no. I think in our country, we have the luxury not only to buy records, but ridiculously heavy ones, with gatefolded jackets & shit. It’s a luxury & it’s because we’re a wealthy country that we mess around with this stuff. Other people know that music is music, no matter how you get it. I guess the answer is complicated. In short, until there’s political will to make oil-based products prohibitively expensive, I think we’ll continue to fill our lives with them! As luxury items, I’d really push for a luxury tax on vinyl records.

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

Josh – Complex answer too. More & more, I think it matters less. I still love big 12” records & Crass albums with foldout posters & turning over LPs & replacing styluses & all that, but it’s a lot of stuff simultaneously & one doesn’t actually need to have the stuff to have the music. So, the logical answer is that it does not matter. Logic comes into play very rarely however with luxury purchases, I think, so I guess physical media persists even when we don’t actually need it.

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

Josh – Cool, I think it’s a smart way to hype something up.

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

Josh – They’re good for sending promos to radio stations & allow one to press fewer than 500 of something & not feed into a wasteful system.

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

Josh – Feelings don’t enter into it I guess. It’s all there for free & one doesn’t need to be that enterprising to find it. I think fans should have a social conscience, & pay periodically (maybe even more than $.99 for a song!) for the music they enjoy. I think it’s important to tell people; while you got this for free, it wasn’t delivered for free so help make it somewhat of a viable enterprise!

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

Josh – Its total inevitability makes what I think less & less relevant, I think. & frankly, the music industry’s traditional ways of making profit were based on an insane bubble that was going to pop inevitably. I love the fact that it is easier for a kid in a place like Yakima, Washington or Topeka, Kansas or wherever else in uncool parts of the world to get a hold of his or her first Fugazi record, or the analog of that Fugazi record. There’s no excuse for not finding the good, harder to crack stuff now & hopefully it means less attention paid to idiots like Metallica who deserve none of your money because of their insane greed & hubris.

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

Josh – Don’t know... I think it’s unethical to sue people for finding free songs on the internet. I think it’s unethical to sell music to a company whose products you don’t personally use, nor agree with.

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

Josh – Moving on personally I think will cause me at some point to stop. I like how Sam McPheeters talks about ending his (very good) label Vermiform when he did. I think it’s easy for the inevitability of things & nostalgia to just become our M.O. rather than a strong purpose & reason for doing what you do. Those are the sort of factors & not really external ones, that would/will stop the label.

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

Josh – Go for it! Think smart, start modestly in terms of your pressing quantities, & work hard.

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

Josh – Well-organized & promoted shows, shirts, stickers, & sweatshirts. Coozies too maybe. Licensing deals.

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

Josh – They pay for recording.

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?

Josh – You’ve got to be a good consumer & dig around, I think. I love good podcasts & radio shows, like the Maximum Rock ‘N Roll podcasts, Diane’s Kamikaze Fun Machine, Cherry Blossom Clinic with Terre T & Brian Turner’s show on WFMU. I read message boards, but sort of struggle with the ability for them to be really shitty most of the time & more than anything I think tracking down opinions you trust & going back to them. I liked John Peel a lot for example, I like Scott Soriano (who writes for Z-Gun & does SS Records), I like my brothers’ tastes. I like what my wife listens to.

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

Josh – Having included venison jerky with a release. Having put on Total Fest & put out some killer records.