with Chris Jeely of Lathelight Ltd
Name: Chris Jeely
Label: Lathelight Ltd (& previously Scarcelight Recordings)
City: Birmingham, AL
Artists Roster: present: Black Thread, A.M. (Antony Milton), Llarks, Unfollow, Silver Reich, The Northern Rattle, The Trust Riots.
QRD – When & why did you start your label?
Chris – My first label was Pitchcadet Records started in 1996 to release a cassette of my solo electronic work. I co-founded an MP3 only label in 1999 called aii.fm (there were only 3 other MP3 labels in the world at the time, & not many people were doing MP3s then if that can be imagined nowadays, https://archive.org/details/aiifm). Eventually I started Scarcelight Recordings in 2001 & began releasing works by other artists besides myself. This morphed into Lathelight Ltd which I’ve run since 2006. Each step along the way has been to search out kindred spirits & release music by them as well as my own projects.
QRD – Where did you get the money to finance your first few releases?
Chris – My own money plus a friend who co-founded the label with me. After the first one broke even, we put that money back into doing another, & so goes the cycle of spending, & trying to break even so you can do it all over again.
QRD – How many releases have you put out?
Chris – Nearly 20 on Lathelight (2005 to present), close to 50 on Scarcelight (2001-2006), & a few more handfuls from Pitchcadet Records.
QRD – How many releases would you like to do a year?
Chris – There isn’t any set number, some years I am more active than others. I slide on & off the radar from time to time.
QRD – How many hours a week do you work on the label & how many would you like to?
Chris – Too many sometimes, it really is a labor of love.
QRD – What are the fun &/or rewarding parts about running a label?
Chris – Seeing & holding the final published work. Meeting other artists & getting to glimpse their creativity.
QRD – How do you feel labels are more & less useful to artists now than they were five years ago?
Chris – Manufacturing a record, particularly vinyl can be time consuming. However, it is easier to get something manufactured today because there are many places to do it & minimum runs have decreased greatly. My first cassette release had a minimum of 200 from the tape duplication house & CD minimums were 1000 for a long time. That has all changed for the better.
QRD – How have your motivations for having a label changed over time?
Chris – I don’t really think they have. I have released many records that were artistic choices rather than business ones, those choices are easier to balance now because I feel more comfortable knowing my limitations & where my strengths & weaknesses lie.
QRD – What do you feel is the biggest waste of your time running the label?
Chris – After releasing music for this long, all wastes of time have been minimized or eliminated thankfully.
QRD – What are some labels you admire or feel a kinship to?
Chris – I greatly admired the original Mego Records (before it became Editions Mego), & Dischord has been a huge influence on me as well. I feel a kindred spirit with Swill Radio, Precious Metal, VHF, & Siltbreeze.
QRD – What other work experiences prepared you to have a label?
Chris – I think growing up playing in bands & coming from a time before the internet has helped. Realizing that there is no substitute for hard work & perseverance would most certainly be the best lesson.
QRD – What makes your label special & unique?
Chris – Hopefully just the music.
QRD – Has your physical location effected your label?
Chris – Yes it has, shipping costs can be a lot more if manufacturing something on the west coast. There is a good scene in Birmingham to support what the label does, but that has only been in the last few years. Once again, flying under the radar is just fine by me.
QRD – Do you enjoy music as much now as you used to & how has running a label effected how you listen to/hear music?
Chris – I probably enjoy it even more so now.
QRD – What’s your demos policy?
Chris – Send it, it will get listened to & I will respond regardless whether I am able to release it or not.
QRD – How do you find out about new artists for your label?
Chris – Just my regular listening habits & personal records I buy.
QRD – How do most fans find out about your label?
Chris – Doing interviews like this.
QRD – What’s been your biggest selling release & why do you think it was?
Chris – It is a tie between the Birchville Cat Motel & Merzbow discs on Scarcelight. Obviously Merzbow is a well-established artist with a built in fan base. Birchville Cat Motel because at the time he was prolific & had begun playing live more often.
QRD – What release that you’ve done was the most important & special to you personally?
Chris – Punani Shell by Evol. It is quite simply one of the most challenging releases to listen to, & I was able to bring them over from Spain to play ten dates as part of a tour I did for my solo work that culminated in a gig in New York with 6 different label artists on one bill.
QRD – What are some things that make you want to work with a band?
Chris – This is impossible to answer. I just kind of know it when I hear it.
QRD – What are some things that would make you stop working with a band?
Chris – It hasn’t happened yet, but if an artist or band isn’t willing to get out & play live or ends up focusing on some other aspect of their art at the expense of promoting the record I just put it out.
QRD – What is the thing all releases on your label have in common?
Chris – A combined sense of noise/melody, beauty/noise, light/dark.
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?
Chris – I will often do final mastering if needed. I will certainly weigh in if asked & on a rare occasion I will speak up if an artist seems to be uncertain of something.
QRD – How involved do you like to be in the artwork design for a release?
Chris – Always final layouts with logo & cat# & double-checking everything fits the specs needed for the manufacturing house. As far as the actual artwork itself, as little or as much as needed according to the artist.
QRD – How long is it from when an artist delivers an album to you until release date & why?
Chris – 6 months at the most. This has gotten a little longer since vinyl is difficult to get manufactured in a timely fashion. But you just make the adjustments needed & get in a longer line than before.
QRD – If a band breaks up between the recording of a release & the release date, how does that effect what you do?
Chris – It has not happened thankfully, but that could be very difficult, especially if you rely on the band playing live to promote the release.
QRD – What do you wish bands on your label would do?
Chris – I don’t really sign anyone to the label really. So it is more of a “what needs to be done for this release” sort of a thing. To date all the bands or artists have done great jobs.
QRD – What’s a record you’d like to put out that you’ll never be able to?
Chris – I would love to discover & reissue something that has been lost in a studio archive or something where only an acetate recording remains. I won’t say never, but it just seems unlikely.
QRD – If you really like a band, but aren’t sure you could sell many copies of their record; what do you do?
Chris – Sometimes I will release it anyway, but generally I need to feel like it has the potential to at least break even.
QRD – How is financing of a release split between artists & the label?
Chris – 100% the label. Sometimes an artist will help pay for shipping costs of their personal copies, but I only ask that in a few cases.
QRD – How do you split profits from a release between artists & your label?
Chris – Until the last 3 years it has always been 50/50 after costs are covered. With the advent of a digital version that requires very little time or money to release, I simply take sales from physical & digital copies, pool it together until costs are covered & then after the break even point hits, the artist gets 100% of digital sales & a 50/50 split of physical sales. This is the general label policy, although details have varied at times depending on the release.
QRD – Do you have written contracts with your bands or handshake deals?
Chris – I’ve done both. I prefer handshake deals where all aspects are discussed & agreed upon very thoroughly before hand so that there isn’t any confusion.
QRD – Do you take a cut of a band’s publishing?
Chris – Never. The bands always maintain their copyright & I encourage all of them to join a performing rights society & to register all their work. The only thing the label “owns” is the right to reproduce the recording on the format with the artwork & in the amount we agreed upon. Represses require approval of the band. All I ask is that the material remain exclusive to the label for one year or until the record breaks even, whichever comes first. Recently the label philosophy has evolved to include using digital sales to help pay for the physical pressing.
QRD – How important is it to you to have touring acts on your roster & what do you do to encourage it?
Chris – I rarely release anything from an artist or band that doesn’t play live.
QRD – Do you handle promotions in house or hire out & why?
Chris – All in house, although the band should be promoting it on their own as well.
QRD – How do you maintain contact with your fanbase?
Chris – Email newsletter, announcements on website. Extra inserts in releases or when someone orders a record. I used to have a catalog I published from 1996 until about 2002. The internet has made that unnecessary.
QRD – Do you have intern & street team programs & if so, how do they operate?
Chris – No.
QRD – How big of a staff do you have & how big of one do you need?
Chris – No staff.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with record stores?
Chris – By staying in regular touch, letting them know about each release. I offer wholesale prices direct to stores which make it cost effective for them to buy directly from the label.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with radio stations?
Chris – This used to be a regular part of the label, but our pressings have gotten smaller & our focus has narrowed.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with magazines & websites?
Chris – These kinds of relationships are usually more with a particular writer than a specific magazine or site.
QRD – What do you do to build relationships with bloggers?
Chris – See the previous question.
QRD – Do you view advertisements as a way to generate interest & revenue or more as a way to financially support magazines & websites you like?
Chris – The label advertises only in places it wants to financially support. So definitely the latter.
QRD – What is the job of your distributors?
Chris – To let the stores know what is out there & hopefully move things in larger quantity than the label can on its own.
QRD – How do you decide how big the initial pressing of a release should be?
Chris – Sometimes the format will dictate that to an extent. I prefer to press enough that it is available, but also will sell out.
QRD – What percentage of a pressing do you use for promotions?
Chris – It depends on the format actually. About 10% is average.
QRD – Do you sell merchandise other than the music (t-shirts, etc.)?
Chris – We did a run of t-shirts once back about 10 years ago. It was cool doing them, but isn’t something that is a regular thing.
QRD – Do you sell music that is not on your label?
Chris – Yes, I will carry items by a few like-minded labels. If an artist I release something by runs their own label (& this is often the case) then I will offer to carry their titles.
QRD – How has running a label effected your own artistic career?
Chris – It has made it easier because I can self-publish if I want, or in some cases I have already established relationships with record labels who may want to release something by me.
QRD – Ideally, would you release your own material?
Chris – I do release my own material through the label.
QRD – What do you do to try to build a sense of community within your roster?
Chris – Letting everyone know what the other artists have going on.
QRD – What’s your most common conversation with bands as far as balancing artistic integrity & financial viability?
Chris – I put forth the question of how do we work together to break even on the physical record.
QRD – How often do you look at your “return on investment” & adjust your business model?
Chris – As long as I think there is a potential to break even.
QRD – Do you worry about search engine optimization & website traffic?
Chris – Not really.
QRD – What have you done to cut costs over the years?
Chris – Searching out best prices on manufacturing. Getting multiple releases manufactured to save on shipping. Drop shipping to stores or distributors when that option is available.
QRD – Do you think the album format is dead?
Chris – Absolutely not, if anything, it is more vital than ever. The sequencing & editing of material into an album is a lost art.
QRD – Do you think the return of vinyl & cassettes is a fad?
Chris – Anyone thinking that cassettes are a fad is probably new to independent music. Cassettes have been a workhorse format & in the past were the only viable option for a label. The renewed interest in the cassette has been nice considering major labels have lengthened the lines considerably at record pressing plants. Tape trading & cassette culture is immune to fads, just like truly independent labels continued releasing vinyl in spite of everyone thinking it was a dead format.
QRD – Is it important to have physical releases over digital ones or does it not matter?
Chris – Absolutely physical releases. I have done a few digital only things & they are great from time to time, but except in an occasional case I don’t consider it a proper release unless there is a physical version.
QRD – What do you think of ultra-limited runs of releases (less than 100 discs)?
Chris – With Lathelight that is our specialty so I like it quite a lot. We refer to our releases as boutique micro-pressings.
QRD – What do you think of “print on demand” discs?
Chris – These are like CDRs right? I am not sure because the label has only done CDR releases that are home duplicated or duplicated by manufacturing house.
QRD – How much content do you feel should be available free to fans?
Chris – They should be able to hear the entire record before they buy it. That is a new thing, but it seems to be the standard now. I like it when a cassette or vinyl record comes with a free download & perhaps a bonus track. That is one incentive for purchasing the physical copy.
QRD – What do you do about people distributing your music without financial compensation (piracy & file trading)?
Chris – It happens, I try not to have much of an opinion about it. It seems a lot of folks who are interested in the label probably buy physical records most of the time anyway.
QRD – What changes in things would cause you to stop your label?
Chris – I can’t really think of anything. I plan to be doing this 10, 20, 30 years from now as long as I am still around to do it.
QRD – What would you suggest to someone starting a label today?
Chris – Forge your own path & identity. Don’t try to be all things to all people, find what you are good at & nurture it.
QRD – Where do you think money is currently most available to labels/musicians & where in the future?
Chris – Touring & having something to sell while on tour.
QRD – Why do you think labels are still important to artists?
Chris – Having someone believe in your music. I think of the label as working for the band & the artist is working for the label. With that mindset then whatever is accomplished will be successful on its own terms & in its own way.
QRD – Music has had different hotspots on the internet over the years (newsgroups, MP3.com, MySpace, LastFM), but when MySpace died there was no real space that picked up the torch, what do you see as the place where “normal” people go to find out about & get excited by new music?
Chris – It seems like Soundcloud functions a little bit that way. YouTube perhaps? I really don’t know.
QRD – Spotify has become an undeniable force that has reduced download sales while (allegedly) fighting piracy. In the end what is good or bad about it for you as a label & do you embrace it?
Chris – Streaming music is like radio. Now there is a way to customize & individualize your own personal radio station. I think that is a good thing.
QRD – What social networks are you active on & what ones aren’t worth the time & energy to you?
Chris – The label does not have anything on a social network.
QRD – Do you think fan funding (e.g. Kickstarter) is the future, a fad, or an awful thing for the music industry?
Chris – I think it is great for artists, I would think of it as a possibility for the label to use too under the right circumstances.
QRD – In 20 years what do you think/hope your label will be known/remembered for?
Chris – Remaining steady & will still be releasing music.
QRD – Anything else?
Chris – Thank you for asking the label to be interviewed.