Five Things I Know: Guy Blackman, Chapter Music

This year, Chapter Music celebrates its 30th anniversary – but don’t call the Melbourne label an institution. As its releases over the past few years – from Sweet Whirl, The Goon Sax, Chloe Alison Escott, Laura Jean and more – have shown, Guy Blackman and Ben O’Connor are still putting out singular records with deep emotional resonance. Blackman tells NME about the importance of community, the headache that is the vinyl supply chain and his tips for running an independent label

1. Location still matters, particularly for independents

I started Chapter Music in Perth, where I grew up, which is a very small town compared to some of the other parts of Australia. People were just very excited that I was doing something because not that many people were doing anything. The immediate response was really enthusiastic and warm: I would put out cassettes and they would sell out straight away. They got played on the radio and reviewed. Hundreds of people would come to the gigs or launches and dance. I think if I had been in Melbourne when I started, it might have taken a few more years to get such a response.

Record labels are still based on relationships, and community and location are so important to running an independent label. You have to create strong relationships with the people that you work with and that naturally happens in person. Maybe the last couple of years have changed that – you can create that community through online interactions. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but there’s something about the face to face, the real-life connection that you forge with people and the community of artists and musicians that surround you – like going out to see bands, or listening to things on your local radio station.

That kind of stuff really influences Chapter. I’d like to think we are an international label: we work with artists in different parts of the world and different parts of Australia. But we’re also still very much a Melbourne label and about our local community.

“I wouldn’t say vinyl is a money-spinner. I’d say it gives a release status and a physical reality”

2. The vinyl renaissance is about prestige

I think last year Chapter was lucky to get ahead of this current problem with vinyl pressing turnaround times. We got The Goon Sax’s record ‘Mirror II’ pressed in time and everything was fine, but now I think we have to plan a lot further in advance to make sure we get records back in time for a future release.

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I worry about the artists, because you make a record, you want people to hear it and you want to go out and play those songs live. You don’t want to wait a year from finishing the record to before it comes out. That’s agonising for artists, it messes with their minds. I’m hoping things change, but at the moment we’re facing a turnaround time of nine months.

I wouldn’t say vinyl is a money-spinner. I’d say it gives a release status and a physical reality. People believe in vinyl – if your record’s not on vinyl, your record hasn’t come out, which is not necessarily the way it should be… Vinyl’s expensive to make. If you make a thousand copies of a record to sell through record stores and a distributor, you probably only make a dollar or couple dollars per record. The profit margin isn’t the main drawcard, I think it’s the prestige of it.

Guy Blackman
Guy Blackman. Credit: Press

3. It takes people’s best efforts to foster inclusivity and hold misconduct accountable

I’ve been very heartened and encouraged by the way people in Australian music have lately been speaking up, demanding accountability and not taking the crappy treatment that seems to be accepted for way too long. Chapter has always tried to focus on voices that haven’t been prioritised and pushed forward in the past. We’re not interested in working with straight white male bands as par for the course. There’s no rules – we’ve had one or two of them in the past, but if it’s a band that doesn’t have a queer person or woman or a person of colour, you know, then they’re just not the band for us. They’re not thinking about what it is like to be a musician in Australia in 2022. They’re not a kind of band that we want to work with.

We have had instances in the past where bands have sent us demos and the music’s been great. And we’ve just told them we’re not interested – we like your music, but we’re not going to work with you because you’re just a bunch of straight white men. And in some instances, people have come back a year later with a new demo and a new line-up to their band and made some changes to try and be more diverse. People have to be told – some don’t think about these things until someone points it out to them. They’re complacent.

When it comes to #MeToo, it’s on all levels of music community. No one’s safe from it. That’s something that Ben and I, a queer couple, have been aware of. We’ve kind of been a female-focused label for a long time, but we’re not immune to it, too. People can slip under your radar. Everyone has to just try their best. I don’t think anyone’s perfect.

“We’ve seen a lot of people throw too much money at how they run their record label, grow too fast and then disappear as quickly as they arrived”

4. Want to run a label? Try everything else too

Something I say to people quite often is don’t just focus on the music if you want to run a record label. Try and do a radio show, write for NME, book bands, organise gigs. Try and do as many different kinds of things in the music industry as you can. Try and make as many connections, friendships and relationships as you can. Because the broader your understanding of the industry, the better you’ll be putting out records, the better job you’ll do for your artists. And the more people you know, the more people will pay attention to what you do.

5. Find a partner, but don’t expand too fast

We have interns that come in and help with mail orders and other odd jobs, and this is the year where Chapter is planning to take on a new staff member, finally. But for the most part, it’s just been the two of us. That has its pros and its cons. We’ve seen a lot of people throw too much money at how they run their record label, grow too fast and then disappear as quickly as they arrived. We’re in it for the long haul, so we try to keep it small and simple.

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Ben and I started running the label together basically in 1995 after I moved to Melbourne, and the difference in what you can achieve with two people who are passionate about something as compared to just one person – you can do more than twice as much. To anyone hoping to start an independent label – find a buddy, you know, team up with somebody. I think that’s really helpful and important.

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