Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Sunday Conversation with Bad Afro Records

As a slight diversion from our normal fun-filled Sunday mornings chatting with bands here at the Ripple office, we're going to spend the next few weeks digging deep into the world of the independent labels. We're going to lift up the hood and check into the brains of the cats who sacrifice their lives to put out the music they love. Risking financial losses, changing marketplaces, technological evolution, and a downturning economy, we at the Ripple want to raise a beer mug in salute to the indy Labels who continue to supply the world with fresh music.

Along those lines, we spoke recently with the main man at Dead Beat Records, today we're turning our eyes across the Atlantic to Scandinavia, the world of all things music and hockey. Specifically, we popped over to Denmark. There, we stopped by the office of Bad Afro Records and had a sit down with their resident creative force, Lars, and the legacy of indy music he's helped to create.

How did you get started running an independent record label?

One of my old friends Simon Nielsen and I started a fanzine called Moshable back in 1986. At that point I had recently discovered the wonderful world of fanzines and we wanted to make our own. In the beginning we mostly wrote about hardcore and punk but along the way our focus shifted towards the many shapes of rock'n'roll. We made the first issues on my fathers xerox machine but later on it got more and more professional and had colour frontpages etc. We made 20 issues in 14 years and ended it all with a big two-day party in 2000 where bands like The Hellacopters, The Nomads and The Flaming Sideburns played. What happened was that I knew all these upcoming bands through Moshable and we always wrote about the bands we liked. At one point I decided to try and release a 7" single just to learn how that was done. The result was the first single by a Finnish band called Trouble Bound Gospel. Second single was by The Hellacopters and after that I did a string of singles with Turbonegro, The Nomads, Gluecifer and the The Flaming Sideburns...and then the ball was rolling. I eventually discovered that it was more fun to release music that you like than to write about it. that is also why Moshable closed and I continued the label. The name and logo was inspired by blaxploitation movies from the 70's which I watched way too many of when I was a student and had time for that sort of thing. I probably also smoked too much pot back then ha ha.

What motivated you? Did you tap into a particular local scene or were you aiming to capture a sound?

Through Moshable we got all these promos from new bands at the time like The Hellacopters, The Flaming Sideburns, Cluecifer and many others. Somehow I could sense there was something on the way and in the mid-90s there came a big boom in Scandinavian rock'n'roll. The quality was surprisingly high and that was one of the reasons why I started Bad Afro - to try and document what was happening around here. From 1996 until 2009 we only released Scandinavian music with the slogan "Pushing Scandinavian Rock to the Man!" Now I have started to look for bands from around the globe and this year I have released The Mojomatics from Italy and The Dolly Rocker Movement from Australia.

Which was your first release?

Trouble Bound Gospel - Shakin' Ray 7"

Who's been your biggest selling artist to date?

That must be a split 10"/CD I did with The Hellacopters and The Flaming Sideburns. It sold around 15.000 copies - 5000 of them on vinyl which was pretty cool.

There's so much to learn about running a label, share with us some of the lessons you've learned along the way.

At least I learned that I would never start a label today. The odds that you will succeed today is simply too low. I know many quality labels who are really struggling and the conditions are just too rough. Having said that, I do believe in the future and it will be completely different from from when I started the label. I think that in the end download will save the independent labels but it also means that you really have to try and embrace the new technology. I believe that if you as a label survive the next couple of years the future will be bright.

What's been your label's high point? Low point?

The high point, especially economically, was when Lipton Tea contacted me since they were interested in using 30 seconds of a Baby Woodrose song from the first album for a commercial. They needed the master tape since they wanted to exclude the vocals but nobody knew were the mastertape was. After a lot of panic the guy who produced the album said: maybe it’s in the mystery bag in the corner of the studio along with a lot of other masters. And it was. Which earned us $200.000. Talking about Robin Hood.

The low point was probably when I was about to release vol. 2 of the compilation CD series Pushing Scandinavian Rock to the Man! I sent out 1000 promos and then went on tour in the US for 3 weeks with one of my bands. While checking mails on the tour I could see a lot of mails ticking in saying “what the hell is this CD?” The printing plant had by mistake put classical music on the CD and there was nothing I could do from Austin, Texas. That really hurt.

Who would you like to work with, but haven't yet?

That would be bands like Black Angels, The Hex Dispensers, Wooden Shjips and The Soundtrack of our Lives.

What changes do you see ahead for the music industry?

Not really sure what to expect. It changes very fast right now and I can’t say where it all ends.

What are you doing to stay on top of new and emerging technology?

Personally I have never downloaded a song in my life. But if music fans wants their music that way I should deliver it. Everything else would be arrogant. So I have spent a good deal of time getting the Bad Afro music online and it’s available on iTunes and many, many other places like Napster, Rhapsody, E-Music etc. Even though I am in love with vinyl and don’t really understand download I feel good about the fact that people all over the world and in every little town have access to the music. Something that will happen with CDs and LPs.

What's the biggest challenge facing you today as an independent label?

For me it’s to get download to work. One thing is that the music is available, another thing thing is that there is millions of songs online and how people should get the word about exactly my music? The decline in CD sales is really hurting since the CD sales used to pay the bills. Online sale is increasing all the time but still not enough to compensate for the lousy CD sale.

How is most of your product sold? Mail order? Web-based? At shows? Is this changing?

I used to have distributions in most of Europe country-wise meaning one distribution to take care of each country. It doesn’t work too well with the music I do so now most of my records are sold through mail orders. Which is ok because since mail orders attract the music fans who are really interested.

Seems that the sound of the bands you sign keeps evolving. What do you look for in your bands?

When I released bands like The Hellacopters and Turbonegro in the 90s the sound was still fresh. What later has been labeled "action rock" was cool in the beginning but later on too many copycats came along and everything became a rock’n’roll cliché with flames, tattoos and bad ass attitude and I got really sick of it. So the past 5 years I have turned towards releasing psychedelic rock. I look for bands with soul who can write real songs and have originality (well, you can't re-invent rock'n'roll but you can put it together in your own way) but most of all it's a gut feeling telling me that a certain band is really good.

How do you find your artists?

I collect records so I end up looking for artists I would buy myself. Often I get tips from friends, bands or other labels - it's very seldom that I sign bands who send me music out of the blue.

Are you a club rat, constantly searching live venues for cool acts?

Well, I used to be a club rat going out to shows at least twice a week. In that sense my hometown Copenhagen is cool because many Scandinavian bands come by here when they tour Europe so you get the chance to see them pretty early on. And many foreign bands also play here. But that changed when I became a father 3 years ago - now I don't really have the time anymore. I probably go to 3-4 shows each month nowadays.

What are you looking for now?

I really don't know - something that would surprise me and knock me off my feet. I personally like many different kinds of music so it's hard to say. In my own mind I think Bad Afro has a certain "sound" even though the bands on the label does not sound alike. But if you like one of them chances are that you would like some of the others too.

Are you involved in all the creative decisions?

When I sign a band I pretty much leave it up to them to record their album or single as they see fit. In that sense I trust the bands to come up with something cool. I get involved when it's decided which songs should be on the album and what the running order should be. I'm also involved with cover design and other decisions. But in general, if I sign a band that I think is really good I should trust them to do a good album and have as much artistic freedom as possible. I am not a musician myself (oh, I tried but I soon discovered I had no talent so I quit. Something I wish many other people would do as well ha ha) so there is certain things I should not interfere too much with. But I do believe, after being an avid music fan for more than 30 years, that I have an idea about quality music and I try to use my experience to get the best result possible.

What would you like to see happen for the future of the music industry and your label in particular?

I would love to be able to live off the label and drop my day job. Being able to release music full-time is a dream for me.

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