Andrew Ferris A History Of...

What boxes can I tick to make sure I don't get the sack when this record bombs?

Power is a funny thing, and not always desirable. These days it seems as though the potential to achieve success is an infinitely greater force than the power obtained at the end of the process. When a band has all the hype and is everywhere before a release has even hit the shelves it feels like they’ll change the world, but once the first album booms, where do you go from there?
Probably downhill.

Andrew Ferris has done all this with his past band Cuckoo, he’s gone through the major industry cycle, been the focal point of accolade to later be dropped when the goods were no longer considered ‘good’. But the process didn’t jilt him, instead it left him inspired and determined to start again, do everything he had done till now, but do it better. So with fellow Cuckoo member Jamie Burchell, the (ironically titled, considering it’s an English operation) Smalltown America label was formed. Since it’s inception it has grown over some seven years, and has become a pillar of the UK’s punk community, providing advice and support to aspiring bands, as well as inviting submissions for their quarterly compilations, the Public Service Broadcast, and a web-site that reads like an Encyclopedia of good bands. As well as this the label puts out Andrew and Jamie’s own band, Jetplane Landing, and that of Fickle Public and The Young Playthings.

Despite the services they offer the music community, this isn’t to say Smalltown America is a punk operation in a purist sense, though it is certainly ethical. Instead Andrew and the fellow label-staff work normal day jobs and the label acts as their inescapable Achilles’ heel, demanding more time and effort from them than even the most high-maintenance partner. They also engage in normal industry practices, they’re a label, a business, and that’s something Andrew won’t try and hide. The only difference is the priorities. Unlike majors, Smalltown America sole concern is the music, and they see themselves as a medium by which good music can be distributed, and if they have to take a financial drumming to do it, they will, if they have to make CDrs and put them in paper bags to get the music to people, they will.

Meeting Andrew Ferris is a pleasure, and helps explain his label’s success, as despite being such a small operation, they get their products in shops and in the media. Andrew is easy-going, patient in listening and eager to enthuse when talking, in other words, genuinely charming, and whilst he’s uneasy to define himself in accordance with the many variants of punk culture, he’s a punk obsessive, and brings energy and passion to everything he does. This quite doggedness has helped make his label a rarity in England, an independent that can swing with all the corporations, and leave them dazed as they release constantly outstanding music without a ‘hire and fire’ policy.    

Was the formation of Smalltown America a reaction to the way events at Geffen unfolded?

No it wasn’t a reaction at all, after Cuckoo split up me and Jamie knew we still wanted to make music. We had some songs so we just got on with recording them. Out of these songs we devised the band Jetplane Landing. It was in the process of recording the album that we realised, probably because of our personalities, that we didn’t want anyone to meddle with our music, and our experience with Geffen was that they needed to make things “better” or more palatable. “Let’s get this remixed by Dave Bianco”, “let’s get this mastered by Howie Weinberg” – or “what boxes can I tick to make sure I don’t get the sack when this record bombs?” We knew we didn’t want that. We wanted to do the artwork ourselves, put the tracks in the order we wanted to, and, we knew we’d have to create our own label if we wanted to run things our own way. So we did it. We got a plugger, distribution, press person, devised marketing plans and made a website. We realised we really liked doing these logistical things and fed off the excitement of seeing a product on the shelf.

But that doesn’t mean that absolutely everything has fallen to our favour and it’s been easy. The message behind the Public Broadcast compilation series is “good music must be heard,” and that’s as much a mantra for the dark times as anything else, because there are loads of dark times. This label’s funded by credit cards, overdrafts and borrowing from friends. So anyone who’s on the staff, will at some point have their turn at funding a release, we’ll say “OK, this is Ash’s turn,” and then the money is hopefully made back and we’ll clear that credit card, then it will be my go and so on. It’s not a new story, I’m not pleading poverty here – most small indies are funded this way.

So there’s little room for error?

As the stakes rise, say, on an album release you need to be more on it – but I wouldn’t say that you can’t make mistakes. Otherwise, no one would ever learn anything. I suppose I’ve softened with age though, and have been doing this for a while.

When we started we had a mission statement of things we would and wouldn’t do. We adhered to some of them, but some of them really weren’t realistic, and even now seem almost Nazi-ish; too idealistic for their own good, so things had to change. For example we initially thought; “Let’s have no contracts”, but that lead to confusion, “let’s profit share”, but bands were slow to return money on sale-and-return policy and we ended up in crippling financial difficulties. In our own band we thought “Let’s not appear in the videos” – but that backfired because people who work for MTV and the like really don’t care for the politics of your video, they just care about its aesthetics and the music. We also made a 23 track single and on the press release we had a pop at majors for ripping off their consumers with multi-format releases, the record sold well but the NME hammered us for having the cheek to give people value for money. They reviewed it in their album section and ripped the shit out of us. The band part of us thought “fuck you” – the label part of us thought “ouch” so even if they weren’t mistakes, which some were - others were just being fucking decent in the face of businesses, someone will always see what you do as a mistake, or bad. At the moment our idealism is firmly entrenched in the musical output of the label rather than its dissemination to the world, so we’re always learning about new music and new bands. Our ideal is self-sustainability, we’re trying very hard to formulate plans and good practise that other new labels can adopt if they wish. Last year we broke even, so it was a good year and we obviously hope to build on it.

Your website comes across not so much as a web-site for self promotion, but almost as a breeding ground, or reference point, where bands, independent promoters and labels can all communicate together and form new allegiances and networks. Because of this, it is a huge document; did it take a long time to compile and what influenced it?

Our website took two years to make, which sounds like a lie, but from its inception to its realisation it was two years. As you say, I view it as a document and a record of all the things we do. I saw an Internet lecture with Steve Albini some years ago, and he said that he wanted to be so exhaustive that when people rang him he could say, “Have you seen our website? Cause it’s all there.”

That stuck with me, I thought that was one way I could actually do this part-time. Having a comprehensive website allows us a full-time virtual existence. The website works for us when we can’t be there, that’s why everything we can possibly think of goes on there, and of course we have loads more plans for it. I hope it turns out to be a phenomenal resource. There are 150 band profiles on there, 150 snapshots in time. Eventually, I’d like everyone to hit us first for news on our bands, as opposed to going to news sites or web-zines.

You’ve released the first two Young Playthings singles as limited releases, available solely through this website. Yet how do you view that method of distribution and promotion when only the more fortunate members of society will even have access to a computer, never mind the Internet?

Yeah, sure, that’s a very good question – I’ll be honest, in saying that it’s the cheapest way that we can get the music to people, a path of least resistance as it were. Also it’s a really accurate gauge of how much interest there is for the band. We have to be cynical when dealing with new bands, I don’t see the point, and can’t justify the expense, in risking all our money on any one act we work with – I view the whole enterprise as a collective so there’s no point in pressing 1000 records to have them sit in my flat. I’d rather sell 80 copies of the first Young Playthings CDR in a day and then sell 125 of the next single – to me that’s a better story and more fun. I do accept thought that not everyone has access to the internet. All our bands go on tour, which is the best way of broadcasting your music to people so we’ll always try to have the bands stacking CDs on the merchandise stall.

As a band and a record label we’ve always been using the internet, but much better labels than ours have existed with just with pen and pad and still function perfectly to this day. They may use email now, and have websites – but their emphasis is on different things, radio perhaps or magazine features. I admit you need a certain amount of money to be able to afford to use the internet and not everyone can, and because we put so much effort into our website, we appeal to a certain segment of people. To say it’s for everyone because it’s on the Internet and therefore than can hypothetically be accessed in any country, by anyone, in the world is completely naïve when looked at realistically. So one of our missions now is to reach out to people who maybe just listen to one particular radio station, or maybe like getting things through the post, maybe people who actually read flyers, so we’re now almost looking to more historical ways of getting our message across as there’s still a desire to distribute music that we feel should be heard.

Inclusiveness is something I care deeply about. Coming from Derry in Northern Ireland where no bands ever played when I was young used to really bug me. Again I’ve softened with time and I don’t worry about whether we’re punk rock enough any more. I used to, a lot, but now I’d rather make sure I was doing my best, that’s all we can do.

Our website in its layout and style isn’t very punk either, it’s almost the reverse, it’s quite corporate in design and very slick. On our first Jetplane Landing press release we put a very antagonistic line in about how we wanted to redefine the word “punk.” That caused a lot of friction although there was no arrogance or malice intended in the statement. We were a touring band at the time and the term “punk” was being used as a marketing tool, English bands were being marketed as ‘unheard of/underground’ and selling kids fake zines; it made us sick to the stomach. It really was appalling. So it’s as though we took that approach and perverted it or mocked it, tried to use it to our benefit and so far it seems to work, it’s easy to use and we can store a lot of information, that’s what matters really.

I’ve thought about this issue a lot and again it’s something I’ve found hard to distance myself from, but the website’s great for so many reasons and for the fact that it’s the media we’ve grown up with.

So does your need to use business structures or tools leave you confused as to what you deem punk to be, or whether or not you are yourselves a “punk” operation?

Punk is a very emotive word. It means an awful lot of different things to an awful lot of different people. I’m sure if you asked Ian Mackaye what punk was, and then asked John Lydon what punk was, you’d get very different answers, but maybe that’s the beautiful thing about punk, it’s diverse. Warrick, from the Young Playthings, would say that punk was a commodity, like any other, I’m sure. Having grown up in Hong Kong and seen a place where there’s a native culture that exists in isolation, and then these Western cultures come over and exert themselves, and are seen as either liberating, or complete nuisances, so to him punk music is a branch of entertainment. I think Smalltown America is punk rock because it’s motivated and pro-active, that’s what makes me feel punk. Sure in some ways I feel like a complete fraud, I work at companies for periods of time and then use that income to go on the road for three months, so it’s hard to balance what this organization is, but I think our motivation, and the way we do things is subversive, if not entirely punk.

Your packaging is also changing to suit the artists you work with, whereas it had been quite uniform in the past. Is this another necessary negation of principles as the label expands?

I like collecting things, that’s the sort of label I want to be involved with. The music is embodied in a physical form and should be as nice, and as ‘suitable’ as we can make it. We are also in the process of discussing a digital distribution deal that will provide our whole catalogue to anyone who wants it on that medium but I think humans just enjoy tactility and owning things, I know I certainly do, I’m a completist, what we’re doing visually ties in with our interpretation of for example, the Young Playthings as a band.

Smalltown America also tries to associate good artists with the right designers for the right band. We’re always looking to marry up the right band with the right designers. That’s part of the service that we offer to artists, so when the Young Playthings came along providing this pure, unadulterated, guitar pop, it would have felt wrong to have the single come in some abstract, minimal artwork as their music is familiar and welcoming and the artwork should reflect that.

But you are, essentially, engaged in all these processes that happen, do you think you’ll be able to personally remain involved, do you even want to?

Well we have a litany of releases scheduled for this year so it could be tough. All our bands are bringing out albums this year: Fickle Public; Jetplane Landing and The Young Playthings as well as a new band, Oppenheimer. We’re forever working on the site, and forever looking for bands to join in with what we’re doing, but I think if I don’t remain personally involved though, part of the point, for me, would have been lost.

When you recollect over a large period as we’re doing now, you can only really focus on the main issues of interest, though it’s the hard work that goes unseen that is so essential to this label, and that I also enjoy being involved in. I realise that I’ve led a life of notable contradiction in that I signed to major label when I was eighteen and that has coloured the last ten years for good and ill. The best part was that the experience armed me to do what we do now at Smalltown and with Jetplane Landing; the bad parts we’ve already discussed. I love self-sufficiency and I love all facets of the DIY movement. Nothing has ever made me prouder than the records we’ve released. To be truthful though, I have no idea if I’m actually any good at running a record label, and I’m sure we’ll make more mistakes, but nothing would ever make me give it up. I think if I were to state myself as a punk, and therefore give my definitive take on what punk is for me, it’s exactly that, not giving up.

- Jon Boy, Unpublished