STA is now Ten Years Old

Tour, Tour, Tour...

Here's a transcript of a recent interview I did, conducted for Hot Press (writer Edwin McFee) - thanks to Jamie for allowing me to paraphrase him in the last paragraph:

Take us back to the early days of Smalltown America, how did it all start?
The first Jetplane record ‘Zero For Conduct’ was recorded Jamie’s parents' garage, in 2001 – God bless Pat and Kath for putting up with us. There was no way we could have afforded to get into any proper studio at the time. We didn’t want to compromise anything that we had created - so with dwindling savings, lots of favours from family and a lot of naivety we set up STA. Both of us had major label experience at that point, and whilst it wasn’t wholly negative being on a large label – we felt we could be a lot more productive and release more music by scaling back the spend and doing things on our own schedule.

Did you always intend to run a label in conjunction with Jetplane?
We genuinely felt that no ‘real’ record company would be interested in the music that we were trying to make, looking the way that we did. We were pretty realistic about it. STA was formed out of necessity – the vehicle didn’t exist so we built it, MacGyver-style. The fact we ran our own label really helped the early career of JPL – we were able to react quickly to any attention we did receive from the media. It’s easy to be a priority act on a roster of one!

It’s seems like Smalltown America is enjoying particular successes at the moment with FWW and ASIWYFA. Why do you think that is?
In marketing terms, I think both bands have benefited from the things we’ve learnt over the previous fifty records. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the last eight years. We have a great team now at the label and everyone loves the roster wholeheartedly. FWW and ASIWYFA very different bands with unique musical ‘special powers’ – the thread that joins them is their commitment to touring. STA bands tend to be shit-hot live, simply because they put in the miles.

Cahir told me you were quite instrumental in sorting out the Atlantic deal. What’s your take on it?
STA exists to help our artists get to where they want to go, if the time is right for someone to migrate to a major we’ll do everything we can to help make that happen. Part of my job is to make sure our artists are represented properly, articulating their creative ideas in corporate language. To be honest, it’s pretty straightforward negotiating major record or publishing deals – they say a number; you double it and add a bit. The whole team at Atlantic is really supportive of STA’s values so doing business with them was incredibly straightforward.

You moved back to Derry relatively recently. What prompted the move?
My wife and I had a baby and we thought it would be much nicer to bring him up in Derry than London; we lived there for ten years. It was cool, but we found ourselves coming home more and more. I relish a challenge; setting up an independent record label in Derry during the worst market conditions imaginable seemed like a pretty good one!

As well as ASIWYFA and FWW you’ve a great roster of acts. Is there anyone you’d like to plug?
Our Autumn/Winter catalogue for 2009/10 is our strongest ever. New albums from The Young Playthings, Alan MX, Let Our Enemies Beware, Calories, 4 or 5 Magicians, Jetplane Landing and Ice See Dead People as well as new music from ASIWYFA. The book has never been this full and we’re really excited.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start their own label?
Work out how much time you are willing to donate, I choose 'donate' carefully because initially at least, you will see only a small return on your investment of time. It really is something that you do for the love.

You don’t have to spend a huge amount to money to get started, given the technologies now at your disposal. Print on demand is a valid way forward and it’s a buyers market for low-run CD/vinyl duplication. Digital distribution and order fulfillment is now a cinch via TuneCore, CD Baby, BandCamp etc. The money that you do spend should be spent thoughtfully; making lovely, bespoke product that people will cherish rather than rip onto their computers and abandon.
There is nothing punk rock about losing your hard earned, so make sure that you budget every project out in advance.

Create a spreadsheet of projected income versus projected expense, it need only take a few minutes and it ensures that you know what you're walking into.

Only put out music that you love, because if it speaks to you it will speak to someone else.

Tour, tour, tour and then when you get home – plan another tour.

The biggest piece of advice I could give to any band starting out on the whole DIY route is that if you really want to make it work you will have to feed some of the money you make into the individual band members pockets. Even if the profits are small. For a band to function and stick together everyone has to be happy. And it's unrealistic to believe that your band are going to give up all of the time that is needed for touring, while not working, and to never make any money out of it. It puts too much strain on people and eventually they will drift away. So keep it small and share it out.

- Edwin McFee, Hot Press