Alcopop! Records was founded in 2006 by Jack Clothier and Kevin Douch (the latter also founder of the Big Scary Monsters label). Initially launched as a singles club, the company has gone on to sign bands including Johnny Foreigner, Stagecoach, My First Tooth, Sam Isaac and Ute, while its compilation series ‘Alcopopular!’ has been called “the coolest compilation ever” by NME, thanks in part to the innovative range of formats its different editions have appeared on – including one as a message in a bottle and another inside a burger-shaped case with an accompanying menu.
In the run up to this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards – where Alcopop! is nominated in the Best Small Label category – CMU’s Chris Cooke spoke to Clothier about the label’s history, the challenges and successes of its six years in business, and more.
CC: Give us a brief history of the label – when and why did you set it up, and how has it grown since?
JC: Alcopop! was born back in 2006 with a three figure loan from my Dad and a fuzzy idea to mix up some classic 90s indie and some awesome new stuff and – via a series of handmade, special three-inch CDs – do our bit to prove that physical music wasn’t dead. We got drunk, bet a large chunk of the money on a football match, and Congolese striker Lomana Lua Lua ensured that we had enough cash to get going!
We kicked off with the hand-made three-inch rainbow CD singles club for a year, moving on to build longer term deals with bands we felt sad moving on from after just one release. Since then, we’ve got stronger from year to year, building our name, reputation and roster organically, while trying to stay true to all the awesome people who keep us alive and the reasons we got into music in the first place: namely, exciting releases, insanely good bands, a creative reason for everything we do, and feeling like part of a community who party seriously hard.
CC: Your co-founder Kevin also runs the Big Scary Monsters label, what’s the relation between the two companies?
JC: Kev and I founded Alcopop! together 50/50, and he was unbelievably important in helping us get established with his myriad contacts, indie experience and knowledge of all things independent. We still both play a very active role in Alcopop!, but he’s heavily involved with [label collective] Pink Mist and runs BSM too – and we took the decision years ago that we should make sure the labels had their own personalities.
So BSM and Alcopop! are two entirely different labels and have built distinctly different rosters, but we’re still very close, and regularly put on festival takeovers together – mix up compilations and things like that. Using the hackneyed ‘family’ analogy, Alcopop! is probably the starry-eyed, unicorn riding brother to BSM’s slightly hipper, ironic dog t-shirt-wearing older sibling.
CC: What were the biggest challenges when you first set up the label?
JC: I think the biggest challenge when we kicked off – once we’d realised that releasing a record doesn’t guarantee riches, girls and immediate retirement to a tropical island – was making ourselves heard and ensuring that Alcopop! became more than just another one of those fly-by-night hobby labels that release two CDs, make a huge loss and are immediately relegated to ‘just another bad idea’.
We didn’t have much money, but from the off wanted to make sure the label was a viable concern – and one that could at least sustain itself. In the first couple of years if we totally blew a release and sold no copies, that was pretty much it!
CC: What would you do differently if you could go back and start again?
JC: I don’t think I’d change a whole lot from those early days, though I would rethink our clever idea to hand print, cut, fold, stick, seal and number 3000 CDs in the first year – that led to some pretty delirious nights and serious scissor-wounds!
Of course there are a couple of bands I wouldn’t have signed in hindsight, and another few I wish we’d picked up, but that’s the nature of it, and all the experiences have taught us a lot. If I was to change anything, it would probably have been to push harder in those first eighteen months or so, when we were essentially just having fun with it all – and get a little more confident in bucking the traditional trends of what little I knew about the music industry as a fan.
CC: How do you choose what artists to work with?
JC: There’s no set criteria we use when assessing new bands, but first and foremost we genuinely have to love what they’re doing and, for the longer term, they have to work well with us as people. It’s great to see that a band are genuinely working hard as well, and whether they’re kicking off with a first EP or have hit the third album in, I always think you can tell (with some margin of error) whether a band really ‘means it’.
I tend to always have an ‘in my head’ list of around 20/25 bands I’m interested in keeping an eye on, compiled via word of mouth, recommendations, blogs and even occasionally demos – so at any one time I’ve got a lot in mind. But then sometimes something just arrives in your inbox/plays a show so absolutely awesome that you just have to get involved there and then!
CC: There’s lots of talk of labels working with artists on a wider range of projects than in the past, ie beyond just records. Is that something Alcopop is doing, or might do in the future?
JC: It’s certainly something we do look at, and over the course of the last few years I’ve taken on co-management of a couple of our bands and we’re currently actively working with the guys at Sentric Music on setting Alcopop! up as publisher. I do think that as an indie niche label we can maintain good, physical record sales – but to really push on we do need to dabble in other ways to bring money in.
What I’m keen not to do, though, is try to secure a share of revenue streams where we’re not actually playing that much of a part in making things happen. Sure, I can see the reasons behind 360 deals, but if the work we do behind the scenes builds a band’s profile, that’s a reward in itself, plus it should lead to greater record sales and has the potential to push Alcopop! as a label, and to expand the worth of our licensed catalogue. I wouldn’t expect a cut of live revenue/merch sales just because we’d helped the band move from 100 to 500 capacity venues, for instance.
So I guess yes, we are interested in working with bands beyond their records… but every time we look to source a new revenue stream, we need to make sure we’re worth it!
CC: As the boss of an independent label, how do you feel about the big major music companies, Sony and Universal, getting even bigger via the EMI sale. Does that kind of thing have any impact on you?
JC: My initial reaction to the EMI sale was one of some surprise that two global mega-corporations were allowed to take such a huge share in the music industry (I read somewhere that they’d now be operating over 50% of the market between them). But, to be honest, I think that for a smaller indie like us, the effects will be minimal. And indeed, it could be beneficial in signing seriously awesome bands who are completely put off by an increasingly corporate top end of the music industry who will be further focussed on sticking with highly profitable artists and back catalogues, rather than investing in new talent.
CC: What are your thoughts on digital – do you embrace every new digital platform going, or do any digital business models bother you?
JC: Personally I’m all for streaming, and making the consumption of all sorts of different music available to the consumer, and am always dead keen to scope out new platforms to see how they can benefit us in different ways. SoundCloud, for instance, offers a world of different benefits than Spotify, and we’ve had lots of editorial love from ‘smaller’ sites like 7Digital and eMusic, which help sell our physical releases. Also, there is some really great work going on in the digital space, with the likes of Fairshare Music doing something genuinely ethical and different.
I think the key challenge caused by the flourishing of all these digital options, though, is that the amount of music out there is so huge, meaning labels and bands need to keep innovating to make their stuff relevant. Gone are the days when giving away an album, or offering pay-what-you-want on an EP, generates interest – so we need to stay creative in how we use these digital platforms. Art Is Hard are an indie label that seem to be doing exceptionally well in that regard.
CC: What’s the hardest thing about running an independent label in 2012?
JC: For me, there’s no one thing that’s necessarily the hardest. The biggest downside is when it comes to the little day-to-day disappointments that you have to keep hurdling. Whether it’s the band who you can’t quite work with, or the journalist who won’t get back to you on some news that has been exciting you for weeks – every one of those is a real bitch that I can’t help getting a bit gutted about – and they collectively go together to create the hardest thing about pouring your heart into an indie label: that, quite understandably, not everyone feels as passionate about your bands/ideas/inspirations as you do.
CC: And what’s the best thing?
JC: The exact opposite of my last answer. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I kicked Alcopop!, because the thrill I get when things work out for us and our bands – we have a great party show or get a nice email from a customer or anything like that – is so great. And the longer we go on, and the bigger we build the brand and the more exciting stuff we take on… well, the excitement levels just keep getting bigger.
Running a label can be an ultra-frustrating headfuck at times, but when it’s all going well it’s an addiction, and I find it really hard to just turn off and forget about Alcopop! as a result. I went on my honeymoon recently and really tried to keep label activity to a minimum while I was there. But I still managed to sign Oh No! Yoko while lounging around the pool in Thailand! I just love it.
CC: What are your proudest achievements to date?
JC: That’s a tough question, and there are a load of things that I’m really proud of from the last few years. Signing Johnny Foreigner was a big thing for me personally, as they’d been a favourite band for quite some time; seeing Stagecoach top off their best year at the Reading and Leeds festivals was awesome; and really well turned out takeovers at 2000 Trees, Truck, Southsea and an insane party at The Great Escape were highlights this year.
This AIM Award nomination means a lot as well, and working with Fierce Panda on a release this year is massive, partly because they were the label that inspired me to have the dream of getting into all this in the first place, back when I was singing with a jobbing metal band. It’s difficult to pick an absolute favourite though.
CC: Are there any other labels or label chiefs – past or present – that you particularly admire?
JC: I’ve touched on it before, but I’ve rarely seen anyone who works as hard, or consistently creatively as my co-founder Kev. And there are plenty of labels who are doing interesting things, the likes of Art Is Hard, Smalltown America and Lazy Acre spring to mind.
Though, as I just said – by far my favourite label of all time, and the guys who really inspired me by signing all of my favourite bands, and developing a really warm personality, and essentially soundtracking my teenage years, are Fierce Panda. They’ve always done ‘fiercely independent’ so right – and have survived strongly throughout a turbulent couple of decades of insane change. So yeah, they’re the ones.
Read more interviews with indie label bosses conducted in the run-up to the 2012 AIM Independent Music Awards here.