Originally founded by Sam Dyson to release music by his own band The Chemists, Distiller Records was subsequently launched as a fully-fledged label in 2009, releasing music by artists like Sound Of Guns, White Belt Yellow Tag, Losers and Sparrow And The Workshop in its first year, and signing Funeral For A Friend the next. The company also owns a recording studio where many of its artists work, and has expanded into management and publishing too.
In the run up to this year’s AIM Independent Music Awards – where Dyson is nominated for Independent Entrepreneur Of The Year – CMU’s Chris Cooke spoke to the label boss about the company’s beginnings and subsequent expansion, as well as the ups and downs of running an indie label.
CC: You started out in a band yourself, what motivated you to launch your own record company?
SD: It was out of anger and frustration at how some record labels used to treat young musicians and bands; they could make you feel utterly worthless. I was in a good band at the time, working with a big name producer, but trying to get an A&R to actually listen to something was like banging your head against a brick wall. The major label attitude and behaviour back then was terrible.
It was right about the time that the big labels were starting to do battle with the internet, and we felt that, because we could use the web as a marketing tool, we didn’t really need a major label deal, and we could release our own records instead. Though I did then spend about a year trying to get a distribution deal for the label we’d set up, which was almost as difficult! I had to do a lot travelling and bluffing about release schedules and other signings. We got there eventually, but it wasn’t easy.
CC: Give us a brief history of the company to date, when did you set it up and how has it grown?
SD: At first it was very much a tool for releasing our own records, but it was always in the back of my mind that at some point I’d like to grow the label and sign other artists as well.
The studio was an important part of the equation too. When I was eighteen I managed to get hold of a four-track and I instantly got the recording bug. Over time the gear grew and eventually we had a small studio in Bristol. I’d always had this rather romantic old school Motown vision of a label, where the company has its own studio that all the bands can record and write in without any pressure. I wanted the bands to feel looked after and respected, as if they were a part of a family; something the bigger labels had lost over the years.
About five years ago I met the A&R Director of Echo Records, who had just left the company. We seemed to have a shared vision for the studio and label, and discussed how we could develop and grow them together. I had just recently moved to the countryside where we had found a plot perfect for a new studio, and so building work began. We now have a great residential studio and a wonderful roster of artists and bands who come and record here whenever they like.
CC: You now have a label, publishing and management division and the studio – do you think it’s important for independent music companies to operate in the different strands of the music business to be successful in 2012?
SD: I think it’s crucial. There used to be a rule that as an artist you should sign separate record, publishing and management deals for fear of one company monopolising your career. The lines have now blurred as labels are having to take a percentage of all artist income streams in order to survive.
This has become more acceptable with artists, managers and lawyers as we all realise that you have to be in partnership to make things work. When you release a record now as a label you are effectively working as part manager, part label, part publisher and often live agent, particularly in the early stages of a band’s career.
CC: How do the different divisions relate – do they operate autonomously or together?
SD: In our company we all work together as a team in the same room. When we are working on a release everyone is working together on securing syncs, tours, press, radio etc.
CC: Does the label have a specific music policy – how do you pick which artists you work with?
SD: If we are releasing a record, then as a team we all have to love the band or artist. If one person isn’t a fan then we generally won’t do it. You can’t convince other people that something is great if you don’t believe in it yourself. The genre of music will be reflective of my musical tastes.
Publishing is slightly different. We have writers who write for other artists and bands, who are signed to us just for publishing. We can be more free on the type of music here, but it still has to be good.
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?
SD: I think it’s a fantastic thing for independents because it probably makes artists less likely to sign to the majors! Really I think artists and musicians just want to be personally looked after and respected. Some of the biggest records over the past few years have been released by independents, so I think artists realise that they don’t necessarily need a major deal.
We have a small roster and each band/artist has a personal relationship with everyone in the team working their record. They often come and spend time at my house which is where our studio is, so I have a personal relationship with every band. I often get physically involved with the making of their record, which you probably wouldn’t get from the CEO of a major label! Sadly, most of the majors, which started in this way back in the 60s and 70s, are far removed from that ethos today.
CC: What are your thoughts on digital – do you embrace every new digital platform going, or do any digital business models bother you?
SD: Honestly any platform for getting music heard can only be a good thing. We are constantly exploring new avenues. TV is virtually non-existent these days, and the volume of releases versus radio space is crazy. I’ll embrace any new digital platform if it helps artists to get their music out to an audience. We are about to launch an internet channel called ‘The Distillery Sessions’ where we film bands playing live in the studio and being interviewed. I would love it if one day we could transfer that to TV.
CC: There’s a lot of talk these days of artists going ‘DIY’ and not signing to labels. With both your musician and label boss hats on, what would you recommend aspiring artists should do?
SD: Well that’s exactly what I did – releasing my own records – so I would fully recommend it! And when I started, you had to secure a distribution deal for the physical release, which was very hard. But there’s no need for this now, because you can release it all online through a number of different outlets.
I think YouTube is a wonderful way for getting yourself heard and seen. One of our bands, Sound Of Guns, have just had their song used as the soundtrack to a YouTube video done by cyclist Martyn Ashton, where he is filmed doing crazy stunts in different locations. The video has now had over five millions views and counting, and has put them back in the charts. Fifteen years ago this would have never been possible, and you would have needed major label investment to get similar exposure.
CC: What’s the hardest thing about running an independent label in 2012?
SD: Making money.
CC: And what’s the best thing?
SD: Helping to develop artists, being a part of the process, and hearing inspirational music every day. I would be in our recording studio 24/7 if I could, and quite often am!
CC: What are your proudest achievements to date?
SD: I’m really proud of all the bands and artists on our label. I have personally invested in all of them and have a real duty of care towards them. I’m also really proud of the label and where we have managed to get to so far. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my wife Fen and our brilliant team.
CC: Are there any other labels or label chiefs – past or present – that you particularly admire?
SD: When we started I aspired to build a label like Domino, XL or Rough Trade, so I have a particular admiration for Laurence Bell, Richard Russell and Geoff Travis. I also love the way that some of the old labels were founded by totally inspirational pioneers who just did it for the love of the music. Chris Blackwell seemed to have that personal connection with his artists and totally believed in them. If I had been a musician in the 70s I would have done anything to sign to Island Records. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, sounds like he was a pretty special guy as well.
Read more interviews with indie label bosses conducted in the run-up to the 2012 AIM Independent Music Awards here.