Andrew Talks to Distorted Tapes about STA At Ten
After 10 years in the business, Andrew Ferris passion for independent music hasn't waned. In fact, his hard work is paying off - or at least being recognised for the significant achievement it is. Earlier this year Ferris was awarded the Entrepreneur of the Year prize at the Derry Business Awards for his work with independent artists. Andrew kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me regarding the 10th anniversary of his label, as well as give slip that a new Jetplane Landing album could be on the cards...
Congratulations on making it to the big 1-0! You started Smalltown America back in 2001, with the first release being Jetplane Landing's Zero for Conduct. Why did you decide to release the album yourselves, and did you imagine yourself still releasing records 10 years later?
Thank you very much, it's been a blast. We released ZFC ourselves because Jamie (Burchell label co-founder) and myself felt that no one else would want to put it out. It was an odd record with lots of influences and we felt like we were quite old to be beginning a commercial career with a major - so self-publishing felt like the least stressful path, no-one to answer to and everyone to impress. I'm very proud of that album; it has a lot of passion and some great songs. In the back of my mind, I kinda hoped that I would have a career in the music industry, but I didn't really have it figured out how that would work. My hero was/is Ian MacKaye and in later years people like Alison @ Southern have become great inspirations. From what I read and know of the people I admire, they are music lovers first and believe in the power of songs as a changing force - the actual dealing with bands and their management is pretty shitty, I don't really like bands - but I love their music. We're ten years into this and making plans for releases over the next 18 months, so we seem to be rolling well.
How has the running of the label changed over the past 10 years? With labels like Deep Elm switching their distribution to purely digital, and others disappearing completely, has STA had to make any changes to survive?
The label is now my fulltime job and I have people who help me now as opposed to doing everything myself. To be honest, I was a shocking label manager; I did my best - but was generally late with most things. We've put lots of procedures and checks in place now to make sure our artists are being fairly treated and looked after. It's quite complicated now to sell music; as there are many little 'pots' of money that have to be collected. When Deep Elm went digital, it made sense for them as they have a big back catalogue that they were faced with either repressing or deleting; as the physical sales aren't there anymore to run 2000 vinyls of an old record - labels are faced with little choice. I like the way they have streamlined things, changed it up and refreshed the brand. STA changes every day - there are mistakes and successes to be analysed, repeated or not repeated. The biggest change we have made is to focus all our attention on our customers rather than splitting it with stores; we were too slow to make that change - I see that now as a mistake, but we're back on track.
One of my favourite releases from the STA back-catalogue is the Calories LP. Being from the Midlands myself I've got a bit of a soft spot for them, they are mainstays of the Birmingham 'scene' after all. How did you come to work with them?
I love that record too 'To Encounter A Deer' is one of the best tracks we've released. When the band were called Distophia we shared a live agent (we might still do actually I'm not sure) and he gave us a copy of their first demo. It had 'Robert Redford' on it and a bunch of other songs - I thought they were great pop tracks. We took them on tour as Jetplane and offered to put the Distophia record out, we couldn't because they were tied into a deal already, which was a pity. As soon as they became free from that, I called John - he agreed to let us help out and we put out the record really quickly, I think we did the whole thing in 8 weeks. I love music from that region - in my altered universe Johnny Foreigner would be as big as Biffy Clyro. The world doesn't work like that, more's the pity!
The past couple of years have seen an emergence of fresh Irish talent who, in a lot of cases, are giving their English contemporaries a run for their money. From your perspective just how healthy is the Irish rock scene at the moment? And have you got any tips of bands we should be keeping an eye on?
Axis Of, Event Horses, Key Of Atlas, Ram's Pocket Radio and More Than Conquerors would be the current breed of younger NI acts that might bother people. There is a band called Eaten By Bears that are pretty good too. Sea Pinks are very well thought of. For me the electronica scene is the most exciting space in NI, it's really underdeveloped - but very cool. I don't think the Irish scene is particularly healthy, I'm not down on it but for every Villagers there are twenty fuckers that sound like him; for every Two Door there are fifty drummers playing that disco beat. It's kinda annoying - but I'm hungover today, so perhaps slightly grumpy!
What's in the pipeline for the rest of 2011 and beyond?
Okay - we have a compilation of new bands coming out, a documentary about the label on DVD/Digital, a book of artefacts and thoughts about the last few years and albums from JPL, LaFaro, More Than Conquerors and Fighting With Wire - so all pretty busy.
A burning question that I've had since 2007s Backlash Cop: Are we ever going to see another Jetplane Landing record?
As above - absolutely. I'm remaining tight lipped about the title, but I can say that some of the riffs are the best we've ever had and some of the lyrics are the most bonkers. It's probably closer in sound to Once Like A Spark - but it's not finished yet so I could well be bullshitting you.
As a label you've been fortunate to work with some great bands, however, if you could work with any act - past or present - who would it be? Everyone would like Arcade Fire or Radiohead I guess but for me I'd take Tom Vek, At The Drive-In, Ron Sexsmith, The Band, Rage Against The Machine and Talking Heads - if I had to pick one it would be Nirvana 'cos that really started this whole thing and I would have liked to have watched it blow up from the inside.
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