Monday, January 21, 2008
People in a Position to Know - Interview
People in a Position to Know has for sale right now a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone's square 8" color disc and it's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Owen and his brother Gordon's collaboration on the Bruce Springsteen covers are incredible. The psyched out electronics and phased robot vocals change 'Born in the USA' in such a good way....and the Streets of Philadelphia seems even sadder if possible, the minimal electronics and the vocals are perfectly Casiotone. I know it's easily going to be one of the best 7" records of 2008.
Mike from PIAPTK and I exchanged some emails recently over the various 7" series I read about on the site, and I asked if he wouldn't mind also answering a few questions about his label, pressing all size tiny records and this amazing square 8".
Were these cover songs done with this series in mind? Is it something you suggested to Casiotone or were they originally intended for something else?
No, I invited Casiotone for the Painfully Alone to be a part of the second subscription club (now defunct, although the Trust series (a MUCH smaller version) is still alive and well), and the Springsteen tribute collaboration with Concern (his younger brother Gordon) is what he recommended. I believe they had it in the works before I approached them, but felt like the shaped vinyl would be a good place for it.
I'm curious about what the legalities are in releasing a record like this. Is it endorsed in some way by The Boss? Are you doing such a limited run that it isn't really copyright infringement, or are you kicking some of the proceeds in some way back to Mr. Springsteen? Is this an 8" lathe cut?
Well, this isn’t a lathe cut record. This is a fully pressed record that I had made at Erika Records in Los Angeles. There were 1100 copies made.
I do all of my SUPER limited run records (100 or less) with Peter King in New Zealand. However, I also do a lot of full-press records (still limited to 500 or 1000, with other pressing plants domestically).
A lathe cut is essentially a dub plate, which is the first step in pressing a record. They start with a smooth piece of vinyl and physically cut the grooves using a “record lathe”. With a large run record, they make molds of the lathe cut, turn those into plates, which are essentially molds, and then make the records in them. With the lathe cuts, they stop at the first step. Each record is a piece of smooth plastic that is cut, one at a time.
This record is not officially endorsed by Bruce, though I hope he would like it (probably Streets of Philadelphia more than the vocodered out (but equally great) Born in the USA).
When you release covers you have to get what they call a “mechanical license”. Essentially, you are paying the publisher for the right to record and release that song. There is a company called The Harry Fox Agency that handles about 80% of all songs that are out there. The charge is 9.1 cents per song, per copy made, plus fees. So, for this record, I had to pay about $250 for the total run to use those songs. Anyone has the right to record and release any song they want, as long as they pay the appropriate licensing fees.
How has your experience been with Peter King (lathe cutter extraordinaire) in New Zealand?
Peter King is AMAZING. I can’t stress that enough. He is an incredibly nice guy, and really funny. Working with him is always a pleasure. He does round, square, hexagonal, heart-shaped, triangular and I think now saw-blade shaped records on a clear polycarbonate material. That being said, the nature of the lathe-cut beast has it’s downside. Because each one is cut by hand and they have to be shipped from New Zealand to the U.S. (and records are heavy), they can be pretty expensive to make. Peter makes them as affordable as I think they could possibly be, though. And when you think about it, it is the ONLY way to get fewer than 300 records for a decent price. If you go through a traditional pressing plant, you have at least $500 just in setup costs BEFORE you press your first record.
Another down-side is that the lathe cuts sound mono (although even hard-panned sounds like guitars are appropriately represented in the mix), and the sound quality is sometimes not quite as clean as a traditional record. He is using record lathes that he bought from the BBC in the 70’s, I believe, and they were 15 or 20 years old when he bought them. So, this is vintage equipment, and you get a bit of a vintage sound. But, when you have something that is so limited, special, and in hand-made packaging, there are people out there that can appreciate it, and will understand the necessity of a high price.
Is he the last guy left doing these kind of handmade special orders?
As far I know, he is the only one who is producing lathe cuts that anyone can order. There is a website called The Secret Society of Lathe Trolls, that has a message board for people with record lathes. They have quite a few members, but not much activity. There is also a record label called AA records, run by Nate Young of Wolf Eyes, that does some really cool lathe cut stuff.
They cut records on mirrors, laserdiscs, and God knows what else. It’s mostly experimental noise stuff, which isn’t really my thing, but I’ve bought some of their records just because they are so amazing looking.
I hope he (Peter King) is passing his knowledge onto someone, I lay awake at night worried that something might happen to him or that press and this could be the last shaped affordable record I ever see.
Well, as far as shaped records go, you can also get them made through Erika Records. But, again, they are expensive, and you have to order a lot. However, I have had a LOT of problems the two times I’ve gone through Erika. They’ve been in business a long time, but you wouldn’t know it from all the mistakes they made on my records. Everything from inverting the colors on the labels, to telling me that they could do something that they can’t and then I have to scramble at the last minute for approval from the band to change things that we’d all thought were set in stone for months. On top of that, they are one of the highest priced places out there. They do make thick records and I’ve always been happy with the sound of the records, but I don’t think I will work with them again unless I have to make a shaped record (they are the only place that makes them).
I know Peter has a couple of daughters that help him in the shop, but he’s a very young 40-something, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and works out daily, so I have a feeling he’ll outlive me, at least.
Any advice for someone setting out to press 7"'s for the first time? What mistakes have you learned from etc.
Wow, if I talked about every mistake I’ve made since I started making records, this interview would be epic. A lot of my advice is going to be pretty cliché’d and common sense, but at the very least, I won’t say “think outside of the box”.
1. “Do your homework” : Talk to people that have pressed records and see who they have had a good time dealing with. I just found a place in San Francisco called Piratespress.com that gets records made in the Czech Republic. I’ve known several people that are very happy customers of theirs, and they do some fantastic colored vinyl and picture discs. The specials that they have on their site right now for records with full color jackets blow away any other place I’ve found. The next record I make is going to go through them. I’ve also had a few good experiences with United Record Pressing. They are pretty cheap and have always been a pleasure to deal with as far as customer service. Quick to correct problems.
2. Think about parting out your job. Most pressing plants will do the entire package; plates, vinyl, and jackets. But, you might be able to save several hundred dollars by getting the plates made in one place (I’ve heard good things about Aardvark Mastering), the vinyl in one place (URP), and the jackets someplace else (Ross-Ellis or Dorado Press). It just depends on how much effort and time you want to put into it. There is something to be said for letting one person, who has the experience and connections, put it all together for you. Or, if you have the facilities, hand-silkscreen the covers yourself.
3. Choose your bands wisely. The profit margin on vinyl is very slim, and when you split those profits with a band, it means you have to sell about 75% of your records just to break even. So, if you are putting up several thousand dollars, make sure that that band is going to be around long enough to sell that many records. If you aren’t sure, go with a lathe cut and make 50 of them. Then you don’t have as much money sunk into it. Credit card interest can be a real bitch.
4. Register your label as a business and track your expenses – If you plan on doing several releases, get a business license. As a music business, you have the ability to write off pretty much anything you spend money on that is related to music; cds, lps, tickets to shows, mileage to get to those shows, musical instruments, travel that is music related, etc. It is amazing how much you can legitimately write off on your taxes; things that you would have probably done anyway. You have five years before you have to show an income, and a net loss can help offset the taxes you pay on the money you are making at your day job. You do have to show a decent amount of income (not necessarily profit) from the business to keep from raising flags with the IRS, but if you are keeping good records, not fabricating a bunch of false expenses, and working hard to make your label a success (and can prove it if you get audited), you shouldn’t have a problem. I actually think that a lot of touring musicians could really benefit from this as well. The whole thing has a pretty steep learning curve, but the more you work with it, the more you learn, and the easier it gets. You just have to roll with it. It seems like every time I do another record and I try something new, whether packaging or company-wise, something new goes wrong. I’ve made a lot of expensive mistakes, but now I know what not to do next time.
Where do you find the artists that release work through Piaptk? Is it stuff you are interested in and you track down the artists or do you know most of them personally one way or another?
I have been playing in bands and throwing shows since I was 15. So, I know a lot of amazing bands. I also go to a lot of shows. Most bands are very receptive to the idea of releasing vinyl, especially if you have interesting or unusual ideas for packaging. If they are already have a decent following and tour a lot, I normally go with a pressed record. If they are just a local band, or one that doesn’t have a wide fan base yet, then I go with a lathe cut. Some of the bands I’ve known for years, some I didn’t really know personally until we started working together.
I've heard of working out an arrangement where you as record co. press the records, the artist still own the music, publishing, etc, and you give the artist a cut of the albums pressed? Or do you pay for some kind of rights for a few hundred copies?
Well, every label and every band do it a little differently. My main objective is to split any profits 50/50 with the band. There are a lot of ways to do that. Normally I give the bands some copies of the records up front, and then once they have sold those, they can buy more from me for $6 or $7ish. It kind of depends on the record, and where we are at with the costs and the recoup. I don’t ask for “rights” to the music, just the ability to release them. With lathe cuts, I normally give 100% of profits to the bands in the form of some records for them to keep and sell. Because they are such a high cost item, I only mark them up enough to recoup my costs and give a few copies to the bands. If I tried to turn a profit on them, I would have to sell an 8”, for instance, which costs me about $7 or $8 or more, depending on the covers, for $15. A single for $15 is a little much, even if it is limited and has cool artwork. It is more important to me that people can afford to buy them, than for me to make a bunch of money on them. When it comes down to it, I am a pretty horrible business man, as far as that goes. I try to make reasonable decisions, but the bottom line doesn’t rule what I do.
Is the main mail order 7" subscription plan ever coming back? Or they will just be sold individually through the site?
Possibly, but not likely in the near future. Some of them will be sold separately, some might not make it. I’ve got at least one record slated, and two of the records might end up being combined into an LP. A lot of it had to do with the cost and problems I experienced getting the shaped records made with Erika. I wanted to step the series out of the lathe cut realm, because I had some bigger bands lined up, and felt like 100 copies would be a bit brutal. Then, one of my main headliners washed out, and I wasn’t sure that I would be able to sell 500 $70 subscriptions (and that, again, was COST). All of the bands I had were great, but some of them didn’t have the “buzz” to “move the units”. The fact that I only had ONE option for shaped records, was another nail in its coffin. So, I felt it would be best to put it to the side. If it DOES come back, it will probably be a more traditional 7” club, but really, there are enough of those out there already (and I subscribe to a lot of them). I want to try to offer something a little different whenever I can.
Can you 'out' one band from the Trust series...please... and are there still subscriptions available?
Honestly, I don’t think that outing any of the bands would make much of a difference. These bands are largely unknown. They are all bands I love, but it’s not like you will be able to turn them around 2 weeks after they come out and sell them for $150 on eBay (like someone did with the Wooden Wand record from the first series). These are bands that may or may not ever get the recognition they deserve. This is my way of showing them how much I like them, and once all of the series have been sold, I will list them as the records come out. I still have a few of the Series left, because people obviously feel a little squeamish putting up $80 sight unseen for 7x8” EPs. They will sell eventually, and whoever gets them is guaranteed to listen to them.
That Poster Children triangle 7" looks amazing, and unreleased tracks?!!? That's really amazing. What are some highlights from your 7" collection? (You must have seven inches...)
To touch on the unreleased tracks thing, I was really surprised at the response I got from the bands when I approached them. Because they were going to be so limited, I half expected to get some throw-off tracks, but all of them gave me amazing tracks, many of which were recorded specifically for that record.
As far as my 7” collection, I have a lot of singles that I love. I am especially fond of some the records I bought when I was teenager growing up in the Dallas area from bands like Centro-Matic, Baboon, and UFOFU (who went on to form Secret Machines). I have a couple of really rare Little Wings and weird Jad Fair 7”s (one of which came with a nice thick booklet of his papercuts). I’ve also got a lot of Sub Pop singles club records (one of the inspirations for my label in the first place).
What is immediately next for PIAPTK? What's the next record we can expect...
Well, I put out almost 20 records last year. I’m going to bring it down a notch this year. I’m probably going to move to Austin in July, and the more records I press before that, the more I have pay to move to Austin. My priorities right now are on finishing up the Trust Series, and a What Made Milwaukee Famous rarities compilation that will come out a little bit after their new record comes out on Barsuk in March. There will also probably be a split LP between The Long Winters and Rat Cat Hogan sometime this year. I have some really amazing tracks from Saturday Looks Good to Me, Emily Jane Powers, the Impossible Shapes, and Buffalina that would have been on the next series that I can hopefully release at some point.
Thanks so much Mike, I'm still going over all this info, it's staggering, this is practically 7" pressing for dummies...I so appreciate this advice from an expert. I know anyone buying these amazing looking records or hoping to someday press a 7" will find your information invaluable. I know will.