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QRD #52 - Indie Label Interview Series
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Indie Label Owner Interviews:
Bar la Muerte
Cape & Chalice 
Dusty Medical Records 
Gilead Media
I Had An Accident
Listen Loudest
Low Point 
Prairie Fire Tapes
Saxwand Records 
Silent Media Projects 
Sloow Tapes
Tompkins Square
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Silber Records
Silber Button Factory
Cerebus TV
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Interview with Indie Label Owner Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square
March 2011

Name: Josh Rosenthal
Label: Tompkins Square
City: San Francisco
Artists Roster: Charlie Louvin, James Blackshaw, Michael Chapman, William Tyler
Website: tompkinssquare.com

QRD – When & why did you start your label?

Josh – Oct 2005 - Left my corporate music job & wanted to do something interesting.

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

Josh – Self-financed.

QRD – How many releases have you put out?

Josh – About 50.

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

Josh – I do 12 or so, would like to do ten times that.

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

Josh – Work on the label all the time.

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

Josh – Not reporting to anyone, doing whatever I want, helping living artists, re-discovering dead ones.

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – Shipping stuff.

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

Josh – I like Light in the Attic

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

Josh – Worked at Sony Music for 15 years, other major label stuff before that.

QRD – What makes you label special & unique?

Josh – That might be for others to say, I like moving around from new artists to old stuff. I love the guitar stuff obviously, & I love doing the reissue stuff.

QRD – How has your physical location effected your label?

Josh – We just moved to SF. Tompkins Square can be anywhere. We’ll see if being in SF affects what we put out.

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 – I listen to less of what’s outside. I’m not sure that’s bad. A lot of the indie rock I hear is crap. I don’t have a lot of time to delve into what others are doing.

QRD – What’s your demos policy?

Josh – I just shut down our PO Box. Open to having folks send links via email.

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

Josh – Different ways. I learned never to ignore a cold email. Sharon Van Etten emailed me, said I should check out William Tyler. I didn’t know who she was, or who he was. Less than a year later, I put out his record.

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

Josh – I don’t know. I guess each individual release leads them here. We are lucky to have label fans. That’s not so common anymore.

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

Josh – People Take Warning is one of the best selling historical sets ever. Fire In My Bones, Mike McGonigal’s gospel 3CD set, is probably the best selling historical black gospel set in recent memory.

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

Josh – They are all personal in some way. The Imaginational Anthem series (4 volumes) is probably the most personal, as I compiled them & wrote all the notes.

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

Josh – I have never signed a band to my label.

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

Josh – Bad manners.

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

Josh – Me! My interest. & hopefully saying something about the culture at large.

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 – It depends. Sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all.

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

Josh – I usually conceptualize & then give that info to my art director to create/improve upon. Sometimes I hire outside & let someone do everything.

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

Josh – Depends, usually four to six months. Everything takes time to come together.

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

Josh – n/a

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

Josh – No bands.

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

Josh – There have been some reissue things that have had rights issues. Not much of this.

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

Josh – I am never sure I can sell anything & often I don’t. But that’s not my criteria for putting it out. I love Shawn David McMillen, think he is one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, & I’m extremely proud to have released two of his records & a couple of songs on comps. But I can’t sell his music. Maybe someday he will be re-discovered by someone!

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

Josh – Depends. There often is not enough to talk about.

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

Josh – Depends. I don’t do handshake deals & I try to own the master as often as possible unless that’s the only way I can release something I love. I want a durable catalog.

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

Josh – Written.

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

Josh – I have a publishing company & artists can sign for admin if they want. Again, we are not talking about any money, yet.

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

Josh – Someone like Wm Tyler or Frank Fairfield are on the road & it helps when they buy CDs from me. I don’t require or expect any artist to tour though. Most don’t in any sustained way.

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

Josh – All in house, because it’s cheaper & I can control the flow.

QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?

Josh – The usual overrated methods of FB & Twitter. Email is still effective.

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – Just me

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

Josh – I used to work closely with indie retail at Sony, so I know a lot of these folks. I wish I had more time to talk to them.

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

Josh – There are about 15 radio stations that get our records regularly.

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

Josh – Again, email, calls, annoying people when necessary.

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

Josh – See above.

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 do rarely do it as support, but I see no sales lift from this. I would rather take out an ad in a literary journal or somewhere there is no music advertising. Otherwise, you get lost in a sea of music ads that mean nothing.

QRD – What is the job of your distributors?

Josh – It’s diminished. It used to be the timely targeting of regional placement, now that doesn’t matter, & there is no staff to call on anybody. It’s all on the labels these days to generate heat, then give the distro a reason to kick in.

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

Josh – Make an educated guess & don’t hurt yourself in the process.

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

Josh – Very few.

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

Josh – Used to sell shirts til they ran out. No, no other merch.

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – I am not artistic; that’s why I run a label.

QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?

Josh – If I had the time, maybe I’d make a Flying Saucer Attack record & put it out.

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

Josh – Good question. Peter Walker, who I love & re-discovered - we put a tribute album together with Shawn McMillen, Jack Rose, Greg Davis. That was nice. Things that connect the old & new. Max Ochs writing liner notes for Nick Jonah Davis’s record. I like that generational stuff.

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

Josh – We don’t talk like that.

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

Josh – You have to look away from it to an extent, because it will never all make any sense. You hope the successful ones pay for the “duds.” & you hope your catalog resonates for years to come.

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

Josh – No.

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

Josh – Less promos, less postage, less inventory, compelling repertoire.

QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?

Josh – Yes, although there are still folks who like the physical. I am very worried about the CD. No one wants it. Vinyl is a poor replacement as it is very expensive to make, poor margins, always issues with defectives/breakage/bent/etc, & it’s not that easy to locate in stores. Digital stinks. So you have a diminished primary format & two very poor alternative formats.

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

Josh – I think a lot of upper income fans have replaced a lot of their favorites on vinyl (Hendrix, Blue Note, etc) over the past few years, so that is probably on the wane. New vinyl, sure, there is a small audience for it. Quality used vinyl will always be in high demand. Cassettes are an underground thing.

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

Josh – I am delaying or not doing the digital release of some of my 2 or 3 or 4 CD sets. I don’t like people reading a review, downloading a track & being done. Let them rapidshare the whole thing if that frustrates them. I am trying to make margin.

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

Josh – Haven’t done it. I am not sure that scarcity is so great. Why? So only 250 people can enjoy something? I just heard about a box set that’s coming out that quite a few people are interested in from a very important artist that took years to complete, & there are only going to be 2500 of them. That makes no sense to me. The profit is usually in the next 2500 anyway.

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

Josh – Fine I guess.

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

Josh – Maybe one download. You can stream a whole album for a limited time, that’s cool.

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

Josh – Our industry completely screwed up in the early 2000s & devalued a product down to nothing by being greedy, charging too much for albums with one good song, jerking around the consumer, giving exclusive content to certain big box retailers, & now the consumer is flipping the bird.

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

Josh – Selling bad indie rock.

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

Josh – Well, the death of the CD would matter I guess. Maybe it’s happened already. I don’t want to stop, but I do want to explore the outside world!

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

Josh – Start strong with three releases you know are gonna sell - NOT just stuff you like. Stockpile a war chest & then you can indulge yourself. If you don’t have the three releases, don’t start it unless you are very wealthy or you can afford to lose whatever it is you are going to put in.

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

Josh – I think if you make a good package & the music is great & there’s a story, you can still sell stuff. I’ve proven it & there’s proof around.

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

Josh – Most artists do not want to take on all the business & logistics. They need to have someone do it & help them promote tastefully & get their music out there. This idea that artist should go DIY is very ill advised, except maybe for people who have already been established via the major label system & perpetrated by companies with a vested interest in charging DIY artists for their cockamamie “marketing services.”

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 – I don’t know. TMZ.

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

Josh – I hope the catalog survives. There’s some beautiful instrumental stuff with real depth & some great, important historical stuff & some odds & ends to discover. The aim is to GET BETTER, not to keep doing the same things over & over.

QRD – Anything else?

Josh – Thanks for the opportunity!