Record Labels Feel the COVID-19 Crunch

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There is no shortage of harrowing stories that illustrate the pain inflicted by every aspect of the music industry at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Record labels, major and independent, aren’t exempt.

As every scheduled tour, from stadiums to living rooms, has been postponed until later in the year (or outright canceled) and several anticipated albums shifting their release dates in kind, it’s certainly understandable to see the Chicken Little effect setting into the collective psyche of industry insiders. It’s scary out there, and stories like this harrowing depiction of the biz do very little to ease worried minds out there within the music business.  Artists haven’t been exempt from the crunch either.

Yet for more established labels, there are promising stories of hope as they bravely keep moving forward through this period of unprecedented dormancy. Whether it’s foregoing their share of online sales, putting together exclusive releases or hosting benefit events to support their artists impacted by the economic fallout of this outbreak, record labels working overtime to ensure the straits are not as dire as we are led to believe.

SPIN spoke with a number of noteworthy record labels to see how they are navigating these tricky waters we find ourselves all in for the unforeseeable future, and the inventive ways these companies are both keeping the lights on in their buildings while ensuring security for their artists.

Aaron Schultz

Founder / Co-President / Label Manager at Bastard Jazz Recordings

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

Things are good right now. We probably had our best month on Bandcamp in March, which I was really surprised about. Bandcamp might’ve dropped their fees for one day, but what was crazy is that it had a huge tail on it. So they dropped the fee that Friday, and we got a ton of orders. But on Saturday, we did almost as much as we did on Friday, and it lasted into Sunday, Monday and then Tuesday. Also, we make 80% of our revenue on streaming and about 20% on physical in terms of sales. We had started as a very vinyl-centric label, and a good portion of our audience remains dedicated to vinyl. And we’re still pressing records right now. Our plant is still up and running and our distributor is still open. Meanwhile, most of the record stores we work with have pivoted to online sales. So our distributor is still requesting restocks from us, which means we are still selling physical records as well as digital. It’s bananas that this is happening. What I think is really going on is that the music-buying community has really stepped up, and that’s amazing to see.

Michael Tolle

Director of Operations, Mello Music Group

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

People in the music industry are quick to adapt and sensitive to changes. We’re also a close-knit community that shares ideas in real-time. Everyone has been working from home with a sense of urgency. It’s interesting how the value of music at a time like this becomes so clear. It is an outlet for musicians and fans. From the logistics side, our distributor, The Orchard, has been incredibly sharp with product deliveries for our Mello Music Group webstore’s direct sales. This has allowed us to ship orders within 24-48 hours. In addition to online sales, shops like Music Millennium, Grimey’s and Zia Records have added curbside pick-up and extended store cleaning routines. Bandcamp is waiving their fees to support artists. It’s been a time of coalescing for the whole indie scene. Fans have been amazing in recognizing that picking up a new record right now ensures artists and musicians get through this time.

Logan Rogers

Head of Marketing, New West Records

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

In addition to being the primary income stream for artists, touring is vital to marketing records. Touring gives us a chance to promote new music gatekeepers at radio, retail, and press by offering access to our artists. The pandemic has made us come up with alternative methods to reach these outlets. The living room is the new stage. That could come in the form of live Q&As with fans, quarantine playlists, and “online in-stores” for independent retailers. Music shows a personal side to the artists who create it. Now we’re seeing even more of the artist – like what house shoes they wear.

Quinton Scott

Founder/A&R Strut Records

CREDIT: courtesy of the label

Like many, we are trying to make the best of quarantine and keep our artists inspired! We have our new Afro electronic signing Onipa creating a new live real-time track on Zoom and we have also started a new ‘chain’ track running across the Strut roster – The Souljazz Orchestra, Idris Ackamoor, Pat Thomas and Malcolm Catto (The Heliocentrics) and Plunky (Oneness Of Juju) are among the supergroup line-up creating parts online for a new collective track. Proceeds will go back to the musicians themselves. Finally, as part of our newsletters, we are also adding some general listening and viewing recommendations from the different artists and compilers on the label – UK jazz pianist Greg Foat is a huge fan of Italian film music so, on the last mailout, we included five of Greg’s recommended Italian composers alongside a list of classic Italian 1960s films to check out.

Peanut Butter Wolf

Founder/CEO Stones Throw

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

I know that when most chain record stores like Virgin, Tower, and The Warehouse permanently closed down in the mid-2000s, we got hit with tons of CD returns that we literally had to just throw away. A lot of smaller labels had to close their doors at that time, but thankfully, we were lean and mean (a small staff, cheap rent, etc) and I was making money as a DJ and pumping it back into the company while we restructured things. And, we were doing sales direct-to-consumer as our website was doing pretty well for us compared to other independent labels. This is a bit different because I’m not on the road DJing and our acts aren’t on the road promoting their music or even making money for themselves. And we now have 3 intertwined businesses that are being hit (the label, our studio which we rent out to others, and our vinyl bar downstairs). And many have a fear that customers aren’t gonna be able to afford to buy physical records or continue to pay monthly to stream. And obviously the movie industry is hit, which is another income stream we lost. I’m more hopeful than some others I’ve spoken to. I think this will only temporarily set us back (not permanently) and I also think people need music more than ever in this time so I don’t personally envision people canceling their streaming subscriptions. They won’t be spending as much money in bars, restaurants, live shows, clothes, etc, so should even itself out a bit until we recover from this.

Fabian Almazan

Founder/Director, Biophilia Records

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

My heart goes out to the thousands of humans suffering throughout the world during these difficult times. I truly hope that you and your loved ones are all well.

Biophilia Records hinted at some pretty big news a couple of weeks ago— I would like to update you on some of the actions we have taken in response to the Coronavirus:

We were enthusiastically on track to launch the inaugural Biophilia Records Festival at The Jazz Gallery in New York City, which was scheduled to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, from April 22 to May 2. This festival was set to have 13 performances featuring all of our Biophilia Records Artists and an explosive new band that is set to release its debut album with us.

We had teamed up with Riverkeeper and organized a public volunteering event in which all of our fans were invited to join artists including Linda May Han Oh and myself in cleaning up the Hudson River on the morning of May 2nd, culminating with two sets of music from both of our bands at The Jazz Gallery that same night to close out the festival. Although we hope that things improve, it is more likely that we will postpone the entire event.

I have been brainstorming a way to help both our fans and our artists. On the one hand, our artists are facing months of no pay; if they are lucky, they are being forced to dip into any savings they may have as a result of lost touring income. On the other hand, society needs the solace that art and music have to offer, but not at the cost of having to spend money that could go towards feeding our families. So here is what Biophilia will do:

Every couple of days, one album from our catalog will be made available for FREE or pay what you like/can afford via Bandcamp— this includes digital and Biopholio™ formats. Please be on the lookout for social media announcements and email newsletters to find out which albums will be featured and when. By no means are we asking for a handout, but if you have the means to donate, your money would flow directly to the artist(s) you support. Biophilia Records won’t keep a penny.

If you prefer to donate to all of our artists collectively rather than individually, Biophilia Records is taking donations via PayPal (one-time donation) or Patreon (monthly) on behalf of all of our artists to assist those who need help paying their rent, buying food or maintaining a basic existence.

We must respond to this crisis with courage over fear and empathy over hysteria.

Bettina Richards

Owner/Operator Thrill Jockey Records

CREDIT: courtesy of the label

Thrill Jockey has a dedicated team of staffers and I am so grateful for that. We are in the middle of moving our UK office to Berlin- and our fearless European leader Matt Fidler continued to move and then had to rush to the last flight he could get to get in Germany before the lockdown. He is up and running and has set up his stereo, and is playing the music too loud we expect. We are all trying to support indie retailers by mail ordering records–Matt is grateful for an excuse to exceed his typical record-buying budget. Carlton Cook, who went home to Detroit for a bit, is working with Matt to organizing lots of at-home concerts from their new home offices. We are going to be featuring new release artists for a week and sharing as much content as we can from touring bands whose tours were canceled in which all our artists have been invited to contribute. We want to share the joy of this creative community that is our goal. We think that is healing in these times. Cool things like using Zoom for meeting artists, having conversations, broadcasting concerts live and recording free music. We are also gathering conversations from our friends around the world- in Italy a booking agent will talk about the Italian underground. We will check in with our artists in Spain — Elena Setien and Colleen. Mike Boyd, our PR guru is trying to still get the word out while coming in and helping with mail order. Chris our mail order shipper is out sick- and will be out for a bit- but he is doing fine! I have been trying to manage all the production shutdowns, release date shifts and even headed back to the future, packing mail orders like I did in 1992 when it was just myself. We are very grateful for mail order customers—they keep us going so we got to keep the music flowing for them. And also, for those who are out of work, all music streams on the Thrill Jockey Records website for free.

Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang

Owners of Pi Recordings

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

Yulun: Our focus right now is to figure out ways to directly help our artist get some money into their pockets; less so about Seth and me staying afloat. We are a record label that’s always had a super low overhead—it’s just Seth and me. And therefore, if payments are delayed, it’s not like we are going to lay people off. Unfortunately, I know some record labels out there where that’s going to be a major concern. You can’t keep paying payroll when nothing’s going on. So this is one situation where years of being very careful with the bottom line and doing everything we can to limit our overhead is really helping us right now. For instance, we have a new Dan Weiss Starebaby album coming out with Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell, Trevor Dunn of Mr. Bungle and Ben Monder, who played guitar on David Bowie’s Blackstar. It’s amazing, and it sounds like electronic doom jazz. But we’re postponing it until we have a better visibility to what’s going on, and we are okay with that. We’re just keeping our heads down and our overhead low and just dealing. In other ways, however, what we’re trying to do and I’ll let Seth speak to that, is thinking about ways to help our artists—who are really being hit the hardest here—and help keep them afloat.

Seth: Primarily, I think it’s twofold. What Yulun and I do and have done pretty well is help to present the music of our community and our family of artists, and grow their audience while growing the label’s audience. And I think we’ve done that in any number of ways. Our roster’s pretty diverse, but we’ve cultivated a certain trust from our audience that even if they aren’t familiar with one artist they may check their music out because they are fans of two or three of our other artists. So we recognize at this moment where people are spending a lot of time at home. So we had to postpone Dan Weiss’s release, but we don’t wanna handicap Dan. Dan had a lot of expectations from what was gonna come out of that release, primarily a tour, movie music and the ability to grow his audience. So we’re talking about doing a limited-time release of digital-only music, where the majority of the proceeds will go to them. And it is different than how we normally do it, because there’s overhead and expenses and mastering and such. But we feel this is the most direct way to ensure the revenue that comes in goes directly to Dan and his band. And hopefully, it’ll help to offset a lot of the lost revenue they would get from playing live shows.

Seth Hubbard

Label Director, Polyvinyl Records

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

We are taking things day by day, and obviously it’s super concerning. We had something like 18 bands cancel tours all within the span of a week. Obviously that’s a huge marketing driver for us and a major source of revenue for our bands. And for that to be gone essentially overnight is pretty brutal. So we’ve been trying to come up with ideas to help our bands. When Bandcamp waived their percentage a couple of weeks ago, we went ahead and did that as well. We didn’t take a cut from BandCamp through April 1st so any money that came in digitally through Bandcamp went directly to all of the bands just as our way to help out. Seeing how much money was spent on Bandcamp that Friday was super encouraging, and it felt like such a beautiful community to be a part of with so many people supporting the artists they love. It gave us hope that we’re gonna get through this thing. We’re gonna figure it out. This weekend, actually, American Football will be playing inside the Minecraft video game for a benefit concert that came about thanks to one of our other bands Anamanaguchi, who have done these in the past.

Caleb Brateen

Owner, Sacred Bones Records

CREDIT: Courtesy of the label

“Sacred Bones has really taken this time to check in with our artists, figuring out ways we can help them out in this difficult time. More than anything we’ve wanted to create a community with the label. So now is really a time to come together and take care of one another. We’re encouraging our artists to try and use this time to create, even if it’s not for a future release or anything but just to try and use this time in a meaningful way. I think the existence of the record label as a trusted source of music is going to be more important than ever during and even after these difficult times. We’re not going anywhere, we will come out of this stronger and more united than ever.”

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