Thursday, May 29, 2014
A Ripple Conversation with Unable Records
Q: How did you get started running an independent record label?
A: I started Unable Records in May 2007, with the encouragement of my
wife, because I had started to feel out-of-touch with the scene. Back in
the late 1990's I had been in a punk band and had made an attempt at
starting a record label; both of which had fizzled out. There were about
7 years there where, other than going to shows, I didn't really have much
connection to the scene. As the years went on I realized, much like
anyone who's ever been a part of this industry, that music was in my blood
and I needed to find a way to stay involved. So, with 2 investors and the
lessons learned from my previous attempt, I formed Unable Records in
Jacksonville, FL in May of 2007. We moved to New Jersey (home again for
me) in August of 2008.
Q: What motivated you? Did you tap into a particular local scene or were
you aiming to capture a sound?
A: My motivation when I founded the label was pretty much the same as it
is now: to keep myself involved in the the music industry; to continue to
be around creative people, to be a part of something creative. I want to
contribute to the scene, I want to help out. With that said, I can't say
that I tapped into a particular local scene. At the time of Unable's
beginnings in Jacksonville, the music scene there was quite weak. We
tried to put on shows, and did, but it was always a huge challenge getting
people to come out, and even getting bands to play. I had to take comfort
in the fact that scenes elsewhere where thriving. That and my fond
memories of the 1990's New Jersey scene, that I grew up in, kept me going.
I wouldn't say that I was aiming to capture a certain sound either. Now,
having said that, I started Unable Records to be a punk rock label. Punk
rock is what I know, inside and out; it's what I play and what I listen
to. I've always been a huge fan of bands like The Queers, Screeching
Weasel, Mr. T Experience, Green Day, and being from NJ, the Bouncing
Souls. Bands with that sound where what I sort envisioned when I started,
but I never exclusively sought out those types of bands. My only real
caveat was that I had to be able to listen to, to really enjoy, any music
that my label put out. That caveat has been my guide ever since.
Q: You describe your label as a Co-op between bands and label. Talk
about that for a while?
A: This one is huge for me! I have always believed that competition in a
scene can destroy it, while collaboration can foster it. Time and time
again I have seen record labels exploit bands with terrible contracts.
I've seen booking agents make promises that they never intended to keep.
I've even seen bands step on one another, in fact go out of their way to
smear or denigrate another band, just to get ahead or to project the image
of getting ahead. In every case like that there's no winner. Bands break
up, record labels put out crappy records, venues collapse, people stop
going to shows, and so on. It can become very depressing, but I've always
wanted to solve those problems.
Part of the mission of Unable Records, from the very beginning, was to
give bands a shot that otherwise would have been "unable" on their own.
Rather than go out and grab a sure thing, we wanted to take a little bit
of a financial risk, put our money into a project that we felt was
deserving of it; use our resources to help bands that lacked money,
contacts, or know-how, but didn't lack talent and heart.
The projects that we've taken on have all been collaborations like this.
At the end of day, it's the band's music, but we like to feel that we
contributed too, because of the way in which we all worked together to
make it happen. We aren't out just to make a quick buck...we put our
heart and soul into these projects just as much as the bands do. Our
contracts are written so that once we have covered the costs of a project,
all of the income is split 50/50 with the band involved. It's a true
partnership. For me, as long as we make enough money to continue putting
out records, to keep contributing something to the scene, and helping
bands, then I'll be happy.
We really try to surround ourselves with, and work with, bands that see
the scene in this way. We encourage our bands to work with and help other
bands. We are always open to working with other record labels or
distributors to cross promote and help sell each other's merchandise, that
sort of thing. Some might see it has helping the enemy, aiding the
competition. I don't see it that way. I believe that if we all work
together the music industry will become a healthier place, capable of
supporting us all.
One last note on this: I believe in this concept so much that in the
summer of 2013 I co-founded a music and arts non-profit called 1776 Local.
It's mission is to build the type of scene that I've described by giving
everyone who is involved in some way, a seat at the table. For those who
might be interested, they can check out www.1776local.org.
A: The first release that Unable Records issued was a re-release of
material that was put out on my failed label in the late '90s. Unable
compiled several releases and put them out as the "Under the Radar" album
by my former band, Point Blank.
The first NEW release that Unable Records put out was a split record
called "Dropping Expectations". Released in December of 2007, it featured
a punk and reggae band called The Bastard Suns and a punk rock band called
No Fuego. Each band contributed 7 songs. We worked on this album from
start to finish, and it is still one of my favorite albums of all time. I
Q: There's so much to learn about running a label, share with us some of
the lessons you've learned along the way.
A: Most importantly, if you are going to run a label, you've really got
to have a passion for what you are going. You've got to love the music,
you've got to love the scene, and you've got to really want to be doing
it. It is HARD work, often very tedious and frustrating, and it is damn
near impossible to make any real money doing it. With that said, I can't
imagine NOT doing it. It is extremely rewarding to get a record
completed, see it selling, and hear positive feedback from critics and
fans. Just don't expect anyone to notice the record label; you've gotta
be content to make your contributions to the scene "under the radar".
It's about the art, not the recognition. But the recognition is awesome
when it comes!
If you were looking for lessons from the business side of things, let me
know when you find some: I need them. I've been making this up as I go
along for years now.
Q: What's been your label's high point? Low point?
A: I can honestly say that the label is at a high point right now. About
6 months ago I brought on a new business partner to assist in completely
overhauling Unable Records. His name is Jason Ruch, owner of 0x1 Sound
Studio in Cherry Hill, NJ. I'd known Jay for some time and had taken some
studio projects to him. In addition to being an audio genius, Jay is an
awesome friend and shares my "co-op" approach to the music scene.
About 6 months ago we decided to merge the operations of our businesses,
effectively creating one company with three separate divisions: 1.
Unable Records continues to be the record label that we know and love, 2.
0x1 Sound Studio continues to be, hands down, the finest recording
facility that I have ever seen, and 3. we created a full service music
distribution, licensing, and promotions company called Unable
Distribution. Unable Distribution does a lot of the same stuff that we
were doing at Unable Records, but we are now able to work with a
significantly higher number of bands because of the fact that we aren't
taking huge financial risks on every project.
The 3 partners in the company (Jason, my wife Amanda, and I) are jointly
and equally involved in the operation of each of our three divisions. We
have also been lucky enough to be able to bring on some outstanding staff
members over the last few months.
As for our lowest point...who cares? That was so 3 years ago.
Q: Who would you like to work with, but haven't yet?
A: I'm sure there are a ton of people out there that I haven't met yet
that would be awesome to work with. I'd love to work with them all. I
can't really think of some well known band or company that I'm dying to
work with. Instead, I'll work with anyone who shares my outlook and
values. It would be awesome, however, to work with Billie Joe Armstrong.
I'm just sayin'...
Q: What changes do you see ahead for the music industry?
A: This one is tough for me. I'm not sure if it is because I'm ignorant,
or I'm afraid of what might lay ahead for the industry, but I really can't
make a prediction on where things go from here. I mean, for years now
I've seen everyone involved in the industry, from bands to labels to
venues, becoming more and more isolated. No one seems willing to help
each other out. Bands work alone to promote themselves instead of working
with others to promote the whole scene. Businesses do all kinds of stuff
to make a quick buck off of struggling musicians. I don't get it. But
that's why the "Co-op" approach, and organizations like 1776 Local, are so
important to me. I think that this has to change, and will change. I
think that the sense of community can be returned to the scene.
On the business side of things, streaming services like Spotify and
Pandora have totally changed the game for independent musicians. We are
able to reach audiences that just 10 years ago would have been
unthinkable. On the flip side, pay rates for musicians using streaming
services are downright insulting. As more and more consumers switch from
purchasing music to streaming it on-demand, making a living as a musician
is becoming harder and harder, as these services literally pay fractions
of pennies per stream. Something will have to change here too, and I
think it will, at least I hope it will. I think that sooner or later this
industry will realize that it is worth paying a decent royalty to the
creators of this fantastic art that we so enjoy. Otherwise, not many
people will be left to create it.
Q: What are you doing to stay on top of new and emerging technology?
A: Well, I'm certainly not in the "old guy" category, but I'll admit that
I do have trouble staying on top of tech developments. This is a problem
that Amanda and Jay (my two partners) suffer from too. So, we've decided
to surround ourselves with a young, tech-savvy staff; they "educate" us
daily in a "not-at-all snotty" way.
Q: What's the biggest challenge facing you today as an independent label?
A: Same challenge that independent labels have always faced: time and
money. Not enough of either. In addition, the same old challenge of
getting past the industry "gate-keepers" still exists. Things are perhaps
getting better here...we are more successful in getting access to things
like radio play and featured placements in retail outlets, but the walls
are definitely still there. It's still all about who you know.
Q: Seems that the sound of the bands you sign keeps evolving. What do
you look for in your bands?
A: As I said before, the biggest things that I look for in a band is
whether they share my values as they relate to the music industry and
whether or not I really enjoy their music. If the style of bands that we
sign has evolved over the years, it is probably because I've learned to
appreciate a wider variety of music as I've gotten older. Punk rock will
always be my favorite, but I've learned that there is certainly beauty
I've also found that due to the expansion of the company, with 0x1 Sound
Studio and Unable Distribution, I've had the opportunity to work with
bands of all different genres and styles that I never would have
encountered before. I've found it rewarding to get outside of my comfort
Q: How do you find your artists? Are you a club rat, constantly
searching live venues for cool acts?
A: I'm definitely NOT a club rat anymore. When I was a kid I went to
shows constantly. Now though, I just don't have the time. I have two
children, 6 and 4 year old boys, so my free time ain't what it used to be.
I do make time to go to the shows that are important to me. In fact I'm
looking forward to taking my 6 year old to a Bouncing Souls show, but in
general going to shows just isn't as high on my priority list as it once
We generally now find bands through demo submissions. Bands will send us
press kits, we review everything that we get, and if we like what we hear
we'll get in touch with the band. We'll do a little research on them,
hear more of their material, get to know them a bit and see what happens.
Q: What are you looking for now?
A: Nothing in particular actually. Just music that moves me to take a
chance. It's out there, just don't know when I'll find it. But I will.
We've worked with lots of great bands, lots of great people. I'm just
looking to continue that ride.
Q: Are you involved in all the creative decisions?
A: Not necessarily...it depends on the project. Some bands will come to
us needing and wanting guidance and advice. They'll want us to be a part
of their creative process. For those bands, I will definitely make some
creative decisions. I might go into the studio with them to produce, or I
might simply offer editorial changes.
Other times, bands don't need or want creative input from the label. Our
label is structured in such a way that we won't force our selves into a
band's creative process. If we don't like what they are doing creatively,
we probably wouldn't have agreed to work with them in the first place. So
generally speaking, I'll be as hands on, or as hands off, as the band
wants me to be.
For business decisions, and promo and marketing decisions the story is
different. All 3 partners are very involved in all of those decisions.
Q: What would you like to see happen for the future of the music industry
and your label in particular?
A: I would love to see more people adopt my "co-op" approach to the
industry. I wish more bands would work together, help one another out.
I'd love to see established bands begin to mentor the emerging acts, take
them on the road, introduce them to their "contact lists". I'd love to
see more businesses that understand that, at the end of the day, the music
is still the most important thing in the music industry.
As for my company, I'd love to see us expand. I'd love to be able to
create a ton of jobs. It would give me immense pleasure to pay people a
living wage to work in a field that they love. I'd love to be known,
whether through Unable Records, the studio, or Unable Distribution as a
company that exists for the betterment of the art, for the betterment of
the community. I'd love to see people embrace those ideals, and help us
become wildly successful because of it. I'd love for Unable to become a
household name, and a name fondly associated with a "community approach"
to the music industry.