How to run a small independent record label

Putting out amazing music from spare bedrooms, sofas and basements, three of the best indie labels going give a glimpse into their unique world, and pass on their most valuable tips.

Being a small and completely independent operation has serious perks. When you’re an indie label there’s no boss to answer to, along with zero emails from HR informing you that some anonymous suit has suddenly decided to “take the organisation in a different direction” on a whim. With nobody to answer to apart from themselves, small indie labels are often able to take a punt on the most eclectic, diverse and creative artists out there, signing up musicians that probably wouldn’t get a look-in at most major labels.

The pros: you’re the boss

“There is no one telling us what to do, and that feels damn amazing,” says Jessi Frick, who startedSan Francisco-based Father/Daughter Records with dad Ken Hector in 2010. Since, the label has put out albums from Diet Cig, Vagabon and Forth Wanderers, and have signed the likes of Dama Scout, Sir Babygirl and T-Rextasy to their varied and stand-out roster. “We can sign whoever we want, we can release whatever we want, whenever we want,” Jessi says. It’s no doubt a massive lure for all of the label founders who decide to strike out on their own.

It’s a similar story for South London-based label Speedy Wunderground, which mainly operates out of the basement of producer Dan Carey’s house. “It’s like Aladdin’s cave,” jokes Pierre Hall, who helps to run the label with producer Dan Carey and sound engineer Alexis Smith.

“If Aladdin had a big King Tubby poster on his wall.” The best part of running such a small label, he agrees, is “having complete control – being able to take a chance on things you normally wouldn’t; being able to work with who you want, when you want, in the way that you want to.”

The cons: no time and tiny budgets

Then again, total freedom has substantial challenges. There’s very little budget for anything, full stop, when you’re running your own ship. “It’s hard wanting to do more for our artists but knowing we have budgetary constrictions,” admits Father/Daughter Records’ Frick. And for the lone rangers and titchy teams who run small indies, there’s barely enough time to get everything done. In between scouting new acts to sign, overseeing physical manufacturing, tending to social media, plugging tracks to radio stations, arranging press with music publications, aiding artists’ creative development and – deep breath – staying on top of the countless other different aspects of recording and releasing music, many indie label founders also hold down a day-job to pay the bills.

Don’t quit the day-job

“I do freelance sub-editing, proofreading and writing work whenever I can, because unfortunately you can’t feed a family by running a label,” says Nat Cramp of London’s Sonic Cathedral . With  an unparalleled ear for all things shoegaze, he’s been releasing music single handedly from his sofa since 2006.

Meanwhile, Speedy Wunderground’s Pierre helps out with running thing while Dan and Alexis also act as the label’s in-house recording team. Their decision to venture into this brave (and occasionally tricky) new world stemmed from a desire to do shake things up.

All three of the team also work on releasing albums for their day-jobs (Pierre runs campaigns for a lot of well-established indie labels – namely MUTE, Bella Union, and DFA), and running a three-person operation offered an opportunity to press fast-forward on the whole process of putting out music. “All of us in our day jobs work on albums that are made, and then there is a long space of time before release. By the time it comes out sometimes the excitement is gone,” Hall says. “We want to capture that moment when it’s still exciting, warts and all,” he tells me. “We press it up as soon as it is recorded – so it’s all done over a few weeks. It also harks back somewhat to that golden era of rock‘n’roll, when albums and songs were recorded in a short space of time. Over-production can sometimes suck the soul out of things.”

Don’t overthink it

Sonic Cathedral, meanwhile, came about by accident after a couple of pints. Nat Cramp had been running a club night of the same name – jokingly billed as “the night that celebrates itself” – for about 18 months when he got chatting to Mark Gardener, frontman of veteran British shoegaze band Ride. “One night, after a show at the Bodega in Nottingham, I spontaneously asked if he’d let me release a 7-inch single for him and he said yes,” Cramp remembers. “I had no idea how to make that happen and I don’t remember having any particular ambitions to run a record label either. I’d just had a couple pints and thought I’d chance my arm!” Almost 15 years later, the label is still going strong.

Set clear rules, and don’t be afraid to break them

Whether it’s Art Is Hard Records’  love of weird release formats (the Bristol label once released a Warm Brains EP as a football scarf) or Oxford-based Big Scary Monsters’ knack for alternative rock, almost every small indie has its own clear niche.

In Father/Daughter’s case, you instinctively trust the label’s uncanny ear for searching out brand new music with “passion and determination” in its belly, according to Frick. “We chose to work with artists very early in their careers so data doesn’t really mean anything to us,” Frick says. “But when we come along someone who writes music that moves us AND has a fire inside, it speaks volumes.”

Elsewhere, Speedy Wunderground, have built their name on spontaneity. In theory, all the singles they release as limited run 7” records are written from scratch and then recorded in a single day at Dan’s Streatham studio; all takes are live. “The ‘rules’ are pretty tongue in cheek,” Pierre Hall explains. “When we first started it was more of a case of having them there so we check ourselves and don’t fall back into old habits. Now we kinda make a conscious decision to break some of our own rules – like doing our very first 10-inch [rather than 7inch] with Flamingods. Or pressing up an extra 250 as the first sold out in an hour [for hyped London indie punks Black Midi’s ‘bmbmbm’ single]. And doing a double A-side with two bands [London post-punks Warmduscher and Meatraffle].

To add an extra dimension, Speedy Wunderground also have all their artists record in a pitch-black room filled with hazy smoke and laser beams. The perks of setting your own agenda! “Obviously the smoke and lasers stuff is just fun,” Hall explains. “Who doesn’t like to record in the dark with smoke and lasers?” He has a point.

It’s tough, but really rewarding

Running a small indie can be an isolated occupation. “For me, at least – it’s a very lonely existence,” Cramp admits. “I certainly don’t feel like I’m a part of anything, sat here at home on my sofa.”

Ultimately, though, the labels I spoke to all agree that the slog is worth it. “Every day is a proud moment,” says Frick. “It’s crazy to think we’re looking at our 9th year as a label!”

Obviously hearing our singles on the radio is great, and helping younger or newer bands establish themselves is exciting,” Hall adds. “But I think really it’s when we have our events and launches that it feels really special. Speedy is a total family/community vibe. And we’ve had some special nights with our artists and the extended family at some of our adopted homes – like The Social or The Windmill in Brixton.”

Cramp is proudest “when I see one of my records in a shop, or when one of my records gets reviewed, or played on the radio – or when someone who has bought a record sends a message or posts something about how it has made their life better (rather than taking out a PayPal dispute because you haven’t posted it to them at Amazon Prime-speed). At the moment I’m really proud because Mark Peters’ album ‘Innerland’ is number eight in Rough Trade’s Albums Of The Year 2018. I realise that music isn’t a competition and lists are arbitrary and essentially meaningless, but it’s also important and heartening to get that recognition and validation that what you’re doing is actually worthwhile.”

Fancy giving it a go? Learn from this wisdom

Looking back to the very start of Father/Daughter, Frick has mainly learned to take her time. “Be patient,” she advises. “In the beginning I felt like I had to rush things out, which in hindsight, I was putting the urgency on myself. Nowadays, we try to give our records as much breathing room as possible.” She also emphasises the importance of supporting other small indie labels in the same boat. “There’s definitely a network of label folk who are willing to be a soundboard,” Jessi says. “No one understands what we do aside from our peers.”

Cramp, meanwhile, has more succinct advice for his past self. What does he wish he knew back then? Don’t do it!”