Sunday 1 April 2012

Friends of the Stars and Misty’s Big Adventure: Two bands who take the long - very long - view

Grandmaster Gareth                     Craig Hamilton
Music-making for the joy of it first, and business second.  Running record companies. 

Wait a minute. Record companies?

The  20th century ways are well and truly gone. You don’t work in recording studios the same way  - see this post - you don’t promote the same way, you don’t get paid the same way - now, it’s even worse. Record labels are having a catastrophic time; sales have collapsed in the face of torrent sites.

And yet, and yet. There’s at least three bijou record labels operating out of Birmingham, two of them featured in this post,  that may just have escaped your notice.  The third – Spritely Records – has been known to issue a jar of chutney as a release, complete with Catalogue number – and another has issued packets of, er, fried chicken seasoning.

Commercially Inviable Records are the chicken seasoning merchants, and the album that goes with it – Faith’s Meat Kiosk – is due out at the end of April. Craig Hamilton runs the label and plays in Friends of the Stars… who are, of course, released on the label. 

You run a record label. And it’s 2012. Can I, politely, ask – what on earth possessed you to do this?
"We finished an album in 2007. Self-releasing and self-promotion on the internet had taken off in a big way. So I set up the label, in name only, to give that release a boost. I didn’t think any more about it than that, until people I know – and some who I didn’t know – got in touch with me, asking if the label would be interested in their material. James Summerfield, who’s a friend of mine, gave me his third album, and I put that out. Simon Fox did the same, and we released his album as World of Fox. By the end of the year, I’d put out about five albums."
Here's one of two tasters from the album: 'Railroad Towns': 

Tell me something about costs………?
"Initially I made the same mistake most small labels make – pressed up 1000 copies of Friends of the Stars, and another 1000 of James Summerfield’s album. I still have several copies of both albums at home… And I realised that wasn’t a sustainable way of doing things, having laid out the best part of £1500 for each album. The money does come back, but in a trickle…"
A trickle of bits and pieces, scruffy fivers at gigs….?
"Yes. And if it comes in in cash, it fritters away…"
How the hell do you keep track of all this stuff? Does it not take more time than it’s worth?
"Well, recently, I’ve reduced the size of the release. I now press and print the CDs myself. I’ve released more EPs, and they come in limited editions with hand-coloured sleeves. That makes the run more collectible.  I did a limited edition single release with Fields of Ypres – he’s a lovely folk guy from Wolverhampton. That sold out - 50 CDs at four pounds each - and actually turned a small profit after we split the proceeds. The artist has been paid, which is important to me, and the money that came back into the label paid for materials, and the funds are now sitting in the Commercially Inviable pot."
It’s lovely to turn a profit on a 50 EP sale, but… that means you’ve taken even more of the process in-house: the recording the publicising, and now the manufacturing…
"If I factored in my time, I would probably cry a little bit! But having done all this work, the next recording – the Friends Of The Stars album, 'Faith's Meat Kiosk' - will be the 23rd release on the label, and I’m now building up a catalogue of stuff. There’s about 150 or 160 songs on the label. And in terms of digital revenues, that’s starting to tick along on a monthly basis."
Does a physical release stimulate online sales?
"Yeah. I want the record, I’m that kind of person. Others like the downloads. It’s nice to be able to say that I’ve sold out, and getting a sell-out is good promotion." 
And here's another Faith's Meat Kiosk track - 'Wagons'

Craig, it must take as much time to manage a 100 unit run as a 1000 unit run. This can’t be cost-effective!
"It’s a labour of love. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. All of the artists – people I really like - have been really chuffed to have had a record released, even if it’s on a really small record label. .The other side of things is that as an artist, I’m really interested in the business side of things, how the nuts and bolts work…the other thing is that if an artist moves on to bigger and better things - and one of my artists may just be about to do that – that I’ll always be the label that first recorded that artists. And it will drive people back to my label." 
It's worth noting that, among those early artists who first had an outing on Commercially Inviable, you'll find the excellent Gurdan Thomas

Friends of the Stars go back a long, long way. Two John Peel sessions under their belt in previous incarnations.  Two name changes. Members rotating in and out… and the members now live in three separate cities. 
"We all still want to play together, we all still believe in what we’re doing. Over the last couple of years, we’ve worked out our way of recording. The second album is finished, and about to be released – but we’ve also completed material for the third, and we’re working on a fourth. The plan is to release a record a year." 
How does distance recording work?
"I’m in Birmingham, and Campbell is in Glasgow. Rachel, the bass player and the drummer are also in Birmingham, so the basic rhythm section is on one place.  The problem we’ve had in the past is - which is why it’s taken twelve years to release two records  - is that you wind up with something like a snare being very slightly late, and it’s very very tricky to fix and still make it sound like a live record.  
Folk For Free, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 2011
"Now, rather than record drums live, we use a digital midi signal, so when we do put everything else back on top, it’s a simple matter to move something if it’s not right. There’ll be a session in Birmingham; then it goes up to Campbell in Glasgow; then it comes back down, and so on. Everybody has an input, and we’ve all been working so long that we can be honest with each other."
What about the band – after twelve years? Are you going to step up a gear?
"Having put all this time and effort in… We’re doing it for the love of it, but we want something to show for it.  We’d be happy to do five or six gigs a year and to put out a record that appealed to between five hundred and five thousand people a year. We’ve be happy with that. And after that, as music fans, the beautiful thing about the internet is – once it’s out there, it’s out there. It’s now really important for us to compile and present our body of work." 

Moving across town: here's Misty's Big Adventure: 'I See A Cloud', from the new album, Family Amusement Centre:
Sitting in the sun in King’s Heath, Misty’s Grandmaster Gareth also takes the long, long, long view…
"There’s eight of us. Has been for ten or twelve years. We started as a three-piece when we were 15. I guess the biggest fuss was around 2006 when we put out ‘Fashion Parade’ as a single. It stumbles along in a non-directional form."
Gareth’s being too modest here – ‘Fashion Parade’ is a brilliant slice of great pop… if you haven’t listened, fire it up now. More videos follow further down the post; they're well worth exploring, just to get a taste of one of the country's more unique operations. And there's a new video in the pipeline, which you might wish to participate in - read on... 
"We were signed to Sunday Best, which is Rob Da Bank's label. After that we’ve been funding our records ourselves on our own label, Grumpy Fun."
And how does that work for you? 
"Not that well in my case….We had a manager from 2004 to 2008, Matt Priest, who drums with Dodgy. He’s gone back to playing with Dodgy, so that’s handed back to me now. But for a while that worked really well for us."
So after all this time, with all this intelligent appealing pop that you send out, I would have thought you’d have built a reasonably solid following. Is that the way it is? 
"Of sorts… but it’s very cult. A lot of it’s word of mouth. We can go to Manchester or London and do well. And we have followings via the internet. There’s people listening to us in places we’ve never been to." 
Misty’s have been touring as Misty’s Little Adventure, working as a three piece, while their trumpet player has been otherwise occupied with Birmingham Opera Company. Their album - Family Amusement Centre - is out, and videos are in production as you read this - scroll down to the bottom of this post. 
"The main problem is always recording. We want it to be as good as possible, and that involves pulling a million favours. So it took us three years. We used the Guillemots’ studio – for free – and one or two others… and then I worked on it on my own…  We managed to get a 100-piece choir on it. The father of (Band members and twin sisters) Lucy and Hannah runs the Birmingham Choral Union. We managed to persuade them to sing on the album. It’s a long process…."
"When I was a teenager, a lot of the local bands I liked were the post-rock bands like Novak, Broadcast and Pram. I met them as I got older. So we’ve done stuff with Pram and broadcast… I was really lucky to be a teenager when that was going on. It got me into a lot of ignored sixties music."  
So you were watching those bands as they were wrestling with the industry?.
"We did a tour with the Zutons, which was great – we got to confuse thousands of people on that tour. What was clear was the… rigmarole… of what they were dragged into. They’d hardly played any pub gigs before they got signed. Suddenly, they were on a tour bus playing academy venues.  It seemed such a soulless vacuous experience. You can see how the drugs, and the boredom and the arguments with the others come in. So the Zutons, even though they had Valerie, covered by Amy Winehouse, even though they got sent to LA to record their album by Sony, they still got dropped.  It’s just weird seeing that happen. Dave (of the Zutons) is a brilliant songwriter, but you feel like their (new) record company is holding them back, because he has to keep delivering what they want. And at the moment what they want is another ten ‘Valeries’ from him…"
"We’ve been friends for twelve years, and we’re better friends now than we’ve ever been, while a lot of other bands have split up.  When you’re younger you think that’s exactly what you want - to get signed, to get a big deal. As you get older, you start to realise that what we’ve got is a lot better, because you can still be creative, we’re still going, and each album is an improvement on the last."
Misty's want you for their video! Over the next couple of weeks, Misty's are shooting a new video for their song 'Aggression' with director Mark Locke, who shot the video for Fashion Parade (above). Here's the pitch from Misty's: 
"This looks like being the most ambitious yet. It's set on a typical Friday night and we need extras (or essentials) based near Birmingham to come and be townies on a night out. If you're interested, please email for more information. The main night of shooting is going to be the 9th of April, but there are a few other evenings when we also need extras, including for a scene set in A & E. If you could ask friends too that would be amazing!
It's got the potential to be an incredible video, and if you think you could spare the time, we'd be really grateful."
Friends Of The Stars
Commercially Inviable Records
Misty's Big Adventure Wikipedia page

1 comment:

Paul Murphy said...

Another very interesting blog about two very fine musical enterprises. Great insights provided for younger bands. Helps to expand that feeling of a really vibrant musical underground in Birmingham.