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Indie labels dead from downloads?

Jenni Stalmach discovers the story behind Manchester's independent labels

Published on November 20th 2008.

Indie labels dead from downloads?

Factory Records folded in 1992 due to crippling debts however it continues to assert a huge influence over Manchester's musical landscape. The legacy of Factory is known to the majority of music fans but what about the independents based in the city today? Are these labels able to prosper in the age of digital downloading or is a successful independent now impossible to establish?

Although there is no longer one dominant label in Manchester there continues to be a wealth of independents releasing an eclectic mix of music. There are currently more than 100 indie labels based in the city.

One of these labels is Humble Soul. The label was formed in 2006 by Howard Mills and Pete Fillery. The idea came about when the pair decided to invite local bands to perform at the studio that Howard Mills was running.

“I had started noticing a groundswell of really amazingly talented artists performing on the Manchester circuit,” explains Mills. “We decided to invite some of these to the studio with a view to releasing some of the results.” Although it's in its infancy Humble Soul has managed to achieve a modest amount of mainstream success.

“Liz Green is the most high-profile artist on the label. Even without having released an album she has had airplay on 6Music, articles in Mojo and played some pretty high-profile shows including the recent Nico tribute show at the Royal Festival Hall.”

Humble Soul released its first EP two years ago. At this point downloading had already become a well established phenomenon, but the label owners find it difficult to chart whether it has had an adverse affect on their business. Instead their biggest threat comes from the distribution of cheap CDs.

Says Mills: “One of the biggest problems we face was created by the majors several years ago when they were complicit in allowing supermarkets to use CD sales as a loss-leader. This has resulted in an expectation amongst the music-buying public that they shouldn't have to pay much for music.”

Independent labels have to stick to a tight budget at all times – it's why Humble Soul is run on a voluntary basis. The label has a small group of willing volunteers and artists who help out on a regular basis. Although running your own label is a risky business there are ways in which independents can produce and advertise their acts without breaking the bank.

“There is a new music magazine, Bearded, which has been set up solely to promote and support independent music. The advertising rates are kept low to make them affordable for small labels.”

Lab Records is another independent label based in Manchester. It started out as a Blackpool-based promotions company in 2006, then quickly morphed into a record label and online clothing store in 2007.

Founder of Lab Records, Mark Orr, states that downloads and competition from big labels have had little effect on his business.

“The only way majors affect us is by our bands striving to impress them, something we have no problem with. As for downloads, the majority of our bands sell a large percentage of units at shows. We keep a close eye on file sharing websites to ensure our releases don't appear. As a result, I'm not sure they have too great an effect on our sales.”

Although Lab Records was initially funded by part-time work and money from the promotions side of the business, it's now primarily self sufficient. Lab Records rely heavily upon positive reviews from the print media as publicity. Their main source of advertising however comes from the internet. Websites now play a vital role in the running of a record label. Rather than being a burden, the internet can help establish a label and keep it afloat.

Says Orr: “The internet is a huge source of advertising for a small label – websites like MySpace and Facebook, as well as music forums, are something of a necessary evil.”

Like Humble Soul, Lab Records have signed a number of artists who are enjoying a promising amount of success. Currently the label has five acts signed to its roster. Their most successful act, Mimi Mimi Soya, performed at Wembley Stadium's Nike event earlier this year.

The label is run by four members of staff, with Mark Orr managing the bands, a head of design and promotion, and two others dealing with the day-to-day running of the business.

Some may question why a person would want to set up their own label when it has never been a guaranteed way to make money.

“It's probably not the most secure financial decision you'll ever make,” Orr says. “Of course we remain optimistic that one of our current or future roster will have mainstream success, as that would set us up for the future. Ultimately though, if it isn't a labour of love, you may as well quit now.”

The incentive behind establishing your own label has remained the same – a passion for music. There will continue to be people who will dedicate themselves to raising the profile of fresh talent. Various counter-cultures are constantly emerging from the city, many of which are willing to support Manchester's precious independents. Labels like Lab Records and Humble Soul will always have to compete with developments in modern technology but there will always be music fans that want to dedicate their time and money to more diverse, underground forms of music.

Visit Lab Records online at:
Specialising in acoustic, pop-punk and indie.

Visit Humble Soul Records online at: www.humblesoul.net
Their latest release, 12 Ways to Count, the debut album from The Miserable Rich is out on 24 November, but you can buy it now from Piccadilly Records.

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Eddie MarshmanNovember 20th 2008.

I am in Liverpool and you would think that Liverpool and Manchester people were just as innovative when it comes to music, promotion and gigs. Where are the promoters in Liverpool nowadays. The band Northerndaze has been going for several years now and nobody has signed them although they are ground breaking and brilliant. Will you have a listen on http://myspace.com/northerndaze and give me your honest opinion?Kind regardsEddie

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