Airwaves Back Interview Andrew And Jamie On Public Service Broadcasts And Smalltown America

"It's like making a mix tape for a new girlfriend"

After a busy year releasing records from the likes of The Young Playthings and Fickle Public, as well as it's very own compilation and putting on live shows, I thought the new year would be a perfect time to ask Andrew Ferris (with the occassional, but delightful insight from Jamie Burchell) exactly what goes down in the secret basement of independant record label Smalltown America...

For those who aren't in the know, what exactly is Smalltown America?

Smalltown America is a record company in body and an art collective in spirit. Funded by record lovers and staffed by a decidedly odd bunch that love songs, gigs and artists. We try to make money but we normally just break even over the course of the year.

How did Smalltown America happen?

Jamie (bass player, co-writer in Jetplane Landing) and I wanted to make an album that wasn’t interfered with at any stage of the process. That record was Jetplane’s first - 'Zero For Conduct'. The rest is history. The glorious thing is that we’re still kicking five years later.

Is there a particular reason behind the work you all put in to the label?

To say "we love it" doesn’t really answer your question fully. People make choices with what they can do with their disposable time. We’re lucky that there are enough mavericks out there that want to dispose of their time via STA. Make no mistake, time is one of the most valuable commodities you own; we value every voluntary second. For me, it’s become part of my life – STA is woven into my synapses, so there is no real escape. I’ve been programmed to work for the label.

It must take a lot of work, especially as it's all voluntary. Is it hard to find the time to do the work involved?

Hell Yes! But I stopped worrying about hitting deadlines and doing things right about a year ago – we do our best with the time and money we have at our disposal. We’re becoming a lot more organised these days though, I have Ben (technical guru at Ash (Public Service Broadcast man) and Helen (Art Director) to thank for that. They’ve sorted loads of stuff out over the last six months.

Can you tell us a little about Public Service Broadcast?

The idea came about through touring with Jetplane Landing and having CDs given to us by bands. It seemed a shame not to do anything with these so we compiled the best of the previous tour to sell on the next tour, if you know what I mean. You can read loads more about PSB on the STA website in terms of how it works, it’s profits and loss etc. In a nutshell, it’s our way of getting new music out to people fast. We’re stopping the series at PSB#10 (the label has just released the excellent PSB#7) so it probably has a year left to run. We’re developing a new project to replace PSB in 2007.

You've done seven of the Public Service Broadcast releases now, are they getting more and more popular?

We took a big financial hit on PSB#6 – not many people bought that to be honest. Which was a shame because I think looking back it’s easily the best selection. However, in general the visibility of the project is higher. Evidence of that would be a review in this week’s Kerrang! for PSB#7 – stuff like that is very satisfying, because it’s a DIY project gone overground through the strength of positive purchase power. People putting their money where their hearts are.

Is it becoming harder to narrow down what you select to appear on the releases?

Yes and no. It’s harder to listen to everything we get sent because the volume is much greater. However, it’s very easy to identify the best things – good songs always shine through no matter what genre.

What's involved in putting the Public Service Broadcast releases together?

It takes several weeks to listen to everything that comes through the door – although that doesn’t get done at one sitting. We then meet up as a team, normally round at my house and compile a short list of about forty which we then argue about at length. We’re allowed one ‘wildcard’ each – which is basically a carte blanche allowing you to select something you believe strongly in that others don’t see the merit in. It’s not an entirely democratic process, it’s more instinctual.

Then Ash sequences the record on his i-River and my mate Colin masters it in his bedroom, squeezing out any recording nasties. He’s a good lad.

Next comes the boring bits, registration with MCPS and PPL – paying the artists their royalty, sorting out a release date and press release.

Then artwork, packaging, paying for the thing (normally on one of our credit cards) and lastly, manufacture.

The whole process takes about four months end to end. Throughout this time we’re badgering people for exclusives, myspacing new acts and going back to people that have done well across the series.

It’s a bit epic – but it’s like making a mix tape for a new girlfriend; you gotta put the effort in or you don’t get to go to the cinema with her.

Not only do you use profits from Public Service Broadcast to make the next release, but you also put on Charity gigs, for example the all-dayer/Range life. How is that all set up?

AD#3 will be next September 2006, it’s another epic stressful task, but certainly worth it when it’s all over. Last year’s event was one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. From start to finish – the booking process takes about nine months and a lot of phonecalls and begging letters to bands. About 90% of our pitches to artists and management get rejected, which is unsurprising since it’s a specific date in the year and there is no money involved.

It’s makes it all the more amazing when someone like Seafood, Hell Is For Heroes, Do Me Bad Things or The Pipettes say yes to play. It’s a fantastic buzz. When HIFH confirmed last year – I actually jumped in the air. This is a true (yet slightly embarrassing) story.

What is STA's biggest achievement thus far?

[Jamie:] For me it would be the fact that STA have managed to put out loads of tracks by loads of different bands that might not otherwise have been heard by such a wide audience. Also, the fact that STA have always paid anybody we own money to on time, which seems pretty rare in the record business.

What can we expect from STA in the future?

Fickle Public album March 6th; Oppenheimer Single April 17th and PSB#8 around Easter.

[Jamie:] Hopefully this year will see the new Jetplane Landing record, plus records by Fickle Public, The Young Playthings and possibly more too.

Finally, any new years resolutions?

I need to write more songs. We have an album to get ready!

[Jamie:] No, no new years resolutions this year. Last year I said I was going to teach myself French, but only made it to tape two of my twenty tape course, which leads to feelings of inadequacy and the taint to failure in the air. So this year I have decided to aim much lower: to just keeping going would make me proud enough for 2006.


- Sara Curtis, Airwaves Back