A Sunday Conversation with Engineer Records

Continuing on with our series on the dynamite, independent record labels that are keeping the indy music flag flying high, today we have the masterminds of the purely punk inspired, Engineer Records, taking their spot on the red leather Ripple Interview couch.  Sit back and relax, brew a cup of tea and be prepared to learn all the ins and outs of the indy music scene.

How did you get started running an independent record label?

Dave: It was way back in 1999 that we officially started the label. We’d all been playing in bands up to that point and helping run other labels, zines and gig nights, the usual d.i.y. positive punk stuff and I wanted to do something even more permanent that I could really develop. The label I’d been helping to run, called Scene Police, was doing quite well and had some great releases out, but the two other guys involved, Dennis and Emre, were going to college and wanted to slow things down. Also my band, Rydell, were gigging less right then and it gave me a little more time to do other things. Through Rydell’s touring and the other promotions I’d been involved in I knew a lot of great bands but this was still well before the main internet took off with MySpace and MP3’s with easily burnt Cds, etc so bands really needed help and the word had to be spread. Bands had to work hard to get releases out and it wasn’t easy to find labels. Often it was vinyl singles or EPs and CD albums if they could afford the studio time and even then, getting any kind of promotion or distribution beyond the hand to hand underground methods was difficult. We figured that we could at least help a few of our friends.

We set up initially as Ignition Records and from day one intended to release the highest quality records and treat any bands we had equally and well. We had friends in the UK, Europe and USA and had no real preference on style or clique, just good alternative music. It was mainly hardcore, but more often on the melodic side of things. Leaning towards emo I suppose, but with all sorts of great bands really. Our early releases were all bands I know personally and had either played with, put on shows for or corresponded with regularly. They included Hunter Gatherer and Hot Water Music – our first two releases, both of whom had toured with Rydell. San Geronimo, with ex-members of Lifetime, one of my all time favourite bands and Dead Red Sea, with ex-members of Cross My Heart, another of my fave bands. We also released compilations to get more new bands out there and heard. We produced the Firework Anatomy compilation as our third release to try to get coverage for some great bands who weren’t really well known then – these included Grade, Penfold, The Casket Lottery and Red Animal War – all well known now, as well as Speedwell, Crosstide, A Rocket Sent To You and That Very Time I Saw - all great bands that we later produced their own releases for on the label. We also set up a tribute CD to cover tracks by Shudder To Think, and this included tracks by Joshua and Elemae, amongst others - two more great bands who went on to release their own records on the label too. We just built the relationships as we went along.

The tenth release was Speedwell’sMy life is a series of vacations’ CD with a translucent foil printed cover wrap which we ended up having to press the entire run twice due to a mastering glitch. We gave away the entire first press of 1000 free at shows in London as promos as one track jumped. It helped raise the labels profile early on. The Planes Mistaken For Stars CD ep release was in the shape of a skull. The Chamberlain (Ex-Split Lip) albums, both Exit 263 and Five Year Diary, were on both CD and vinyl, with Five Year Diary being a double CD and gatefold double LP. The other vinyls we had were all coloured or specials with fold out sleeves and the CDs all had lyric sheet booklets, etc.

About 6 years ago now, Craig Cirinelli joined me as label partner, and opened up his own USA office in Northern New Jersey. It's not easy to jump into a label, but he wet his feet right away, picked up a lot, namely ANY stock of bands we still carried releases from, and stocked them in his USA webstore for Engineer that enabled North American fans/customers to purchase at a much more affordable rate due to decreased shipping (than only from the UK). Then he started scouting bands, and brought forth a healthy crop of bands that were up and coming in the tri-state area (NY, NJ, PA). Of them were Merciana, The Moirai, My Shining One, The Fire Still Burns, Catalyst, Calm.Murder and was impressed by a Kentucky band called Squarewell, enough to foster a relationship and in-turn assist in 4 releases for the band during their days of bandhood.

We also worked as closely as possible with other labels and we still do. The whole thing was about getting the releases out there and the bands heard by as many people as possible so the more labels involved the better as far as we were concerned. We have several split label releases and are working on more even now. Our label partners include Rise Records, Pop Up Records, Deep Elm Records, Schrodinger Records, Koi Records, Samuel Records, Funtime Records, Azteca Records and Embrace Records. We are always on the look out for more partners too.

The releases came out fairly fast, even from the start, as we found that most of the distribution companies would only deal with labels who had ten or more releases. We had to get rolling. I guessed that this reluctance on the distros part to new indie labels was due to the set up costs or admin or something but I have to say that none of the big distribution companies have ever done much to help the label. In fact, we are still owed money and stock by most of those we’ve worked with and any decent promotions we have ever done have been done by ourselves and our bands. It is a tough business out there beyond the underground. A couple of years in we found that out the hard way again as our name, Ignition Records, was starting to be used by the management company of a little known band then called Oasis. They threatened us with court action and costs and although we’d had the name longer we had no contracts or legal proof so had no choice but to change the labels name from Ignition to Engineer Records. Ignition can be seen on all the early releases, about the first twenty, and then it changes to Engineer Records taking us up to date. This also explains our catalogue numbers, all starting with IGN and now appearing on the spines of well over one hundred great releases.

Back when we started we were living in a shared house with a band practice room in the basement and a record store and office on the main floor. We would go to every gig possible to support our bands and sell our releases, giving out flyers and promos every time. We would tour with the bands too and frantically answer post and emails. From sweaty shirts and breathless lungs at shows, to battered fingers and tired eyes in the office from late night promo packing sessions. We just kept on and on, keeping our local post office very busy and pushing our bands to anyone who would listen. It was a passion then and it still is, so it continues how it started.

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

Craig: I assume the answer to that one would be neither and both. Both David and I enjoy one facet of music together (melodic post-hardcore), yet stray from one another outside of the common bond. We've worked with both "local" bands from our regions, as well as many, many bands abroad. It's more about the music that moves us—for better or worse—not the marketability. We realize our fault, yet stick with it.

Which was your first release?

IGN001 - Hunter Gatherer: Low Standards For High Fives - CD

Who's been your biggest selling artist to date?

David: Hmmm. We don't really have big selling artists, more's the pity. We press a minimum of 1000 copies of each release and repress if we need to as we go along. We do send a lot of promotional copies and we also trade stock with other labels - this often accounts for a large percentage of the pressing but isn't really sales. We also have a lot of stock out at distributors at any given time too - this is awaiting sale. The most repressed release was the Rydell / Hot Water Music split 7" single, we did six pressings of that. We also did ok with the Chamberlain albums, the Canaan and Eden Maine CDs. We have quite a lot of releases more or less sold out now, but can't really justify represses now as everything has gone to downloads.

Craig: Many of our releases that are "out-of-stock" have been not only been sold retail--many need to understand how the underground ways of promotion work. They have largely been traded, wholesaled, given out in contests/promotions. Over the last few years, it's become quite necessary to do this just to get promotion rolling for a band—you know the routine—a D.I.Y. styled label such as ourselves uses elbow grease over income. There is a reward in getting music out there regardless of cost, or return---the awareness a band gets to help them jump to the next level. Whether that be hitting fans across the world they would have never reached prior, getting their CD in various underground distros, getting other labels to hear their stuff, etc...all of this is as important (if not more) than landing an indie band's CD into bigger distribution. We can tell you firsthand, as we do both, that the payoff is in the underground---to better your band. If band's know where they stand and work from the ground up, and rest assured knowing that we do too, we can better climb the rungs of the ladder together. Much better than staring at the stars and expecting to be whisked up by a gust of wind the moment their CD's street date arrives. Better chance at being abducted by aliens if you ask me.

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

Craig: Distribution is tough. You can get music out there, but you can't expect it to sell. Know who you're working with. We were burned by a few distributors over time, having financial difficulty themselves. (Partially I feel sad for them, partially anger that our stock/bands got roped in the mess. A hit like that is a nightmare.) It was a huge blow to us--knocked the wind right out. Limited resources gone. (BUT--we kept the heart of why we did this and built ourselves back in creative underground ways...every period is still a new challenge. We've tried to make better decisions since then. We are currently set up with a few distributors who are very up front with us. So the past couple years, as selling CDs get's increasingly tough, we are at least in the know of what's going on, and try to make decisions off this.

Another lesson is you need bands that are grounded, down-to-earth, hardworking, and don't pose for "rockstardom." Those bands make it more difficult and expect a silver platter, and quite frankly don't do shit. We've made some decisions on awesome bands that are blessed with a gift of music but cursed with traits of need/want/inexperience in getting their hands dirty. We are a tool—bands need to work with us, not against. Many bands though, make each day worthwhile.

One other lesson learned: 24-hour days are very, very, unfair.

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

Craig: An office staff. (hahahaaa)

What changes do you see ahead for the music industry?

David: We are already seeing the changes. Our physical sales are getting less and less and our digital / download sales are increasing. Things are more instant and online now, fast and easy I suppose, but it lacks the depth - the artwork, lyrics, etc. There also seems to be a lot more web based mags and zines for reviews, obviously, but also more internet radio stations now too, which looks set to keep increasing and we may get into.

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

Craig: David and I probably have different views on this, but of recent memory, my personal high-point is assembling the Seaweed Tribute. (IGN110: Hours &; Hours: A Tribute To Seaweed). Such a rewarding experience. Labor of love for a band I hold in high regard. Most of the bands on there were a pleasure to work with and turned in what made a worthwhile album.

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

Craig: Selling Music. In-turn, funds for promotion, upkeep, etc...on the bands and label. I'm honestly not against the whole downloading for free trend. I'd by hypocritical to lead on that I haven't been passed many albums by bands I would have never heard of, and become quite large fans of. I talk to other indie labels--often trading goes on at all of them, even back/forth. I'm still such a music fan, I go to shows. I buy shirts and albums at gigs. So I can't deny the theory that using an album as promo, still helps out the band. Until someone finds a way to download shirts, merch and physically transport people under the radar of on-line tickets and door entrance fees, the band's still have an aim to make it. They just need to conduct their main business from the street. (merch stands, gigs/tours) Bands that play more, are further rewarded in on-point sales, and eyes set upon them. For the label though, the purpose of providing the band with an album release and to back it with gaining a fanbase is a labor of love.

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

David: Certainly if we have the personal time, we sell most of our product at shows, the old fashioned (and still the best) way. Though we have less time now, we're older, family obligations, etc, yet it's good fun too. We sell some through the label website by mailorder and some through distributers too. We are now starting to mainly sell through online digital downloads of tracks though.

Craig: Digital sales can't be returned - amazing fact that is importantly different than the physical CD sales. Returns on CD's from stores/distributors that stock are a main source of deprivation from the label. In turn, digital sales are more covering for these losses, and hopefully down the line will afford us to keep going with both formats without regret.

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

Craig: We just look for a connection to bands in something that moves us. That's a broad answer, I know, but their truly is no formula. We don't look for commercialism, we look for personality. We have so many releases &; styles across the board, we can only define ourselves as "Alternative" and not so much else. David and myself have a background we share musically, that brought us together years ago. We've both evolved since then, in different directions. I think this has aided in our diversity.

How do you find your artists?

Craig: Word of mouth, demos, already established Engineer bands whispering in our ear on other bands they've toured with, etc... Pretty much the norm.  Online music has made less "clutter" around, in terms of presskits, yet way too easy to be solicited via copy/paste from everyone's band in the world. There are far too many of these happening, and I've been copied into careless bands soliciting to a hundred labels at a time. Do these bands really think that "looks good." Presentation goes a long way.

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

David: I used to see at least two or three shows every week, and that was when I wasn't playing at them myself, then it could be even more. Now it is more like one or two a month. I still really enjoy them but have other priorities on my time. We mainly get new bands through word of mouth and demo Cds sent, and then if we like them we go and check them out live.

Craig: I still go out and see live shows all the time. It's the fuel that feeds these inspirations, I suppose. These are namely shows I seek out--but as far as seeing new acts and scouting for the label, that has and never will be a priority. As David mentioned above, we hear of bands all the time, get solicited daily by the over abundance of bans out there and have a lot of friends telling friends telling us type of thing going on. the more action a band has, gigging, in the press, etc.. the more chance they'll have in getting on our radar.

What are you looking for now?

Craig: David and I have decide to slow down. We need to pull in the reigns, take care of what is already in motion/on the plate for the both of us and not take on any new artists for the immediate future. There is label "clean up" such as web maintenance, label compilations that need to be tended to. We have a few releases in the pipeline, mostly on the UK end right now.

Are you involved in all the creative decisions?

Craig: For the bands...Involved? Yes. Dictating them? Definitely not. We try and make sure that things are professional and up to par but the bands manifest their own presence pretty much. David and I could care less about the frills and the fashion. The resolution on a printed piece of artwork, yes.

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

David: I'd like to see more tours for our bands. Getting gigs has become the hardest part as there are so many average bands all after the same shows. Things will keep developing and changing but the underlying message of independence and creativity is always there. Big labels will look for ways to charge more for online content, but I have to say, I think the kids expect it all for free now. There may be some life in merchandise such as shirts, but unless the kids get into it in an underground way of their own, even that will be controlled by big business. I'd like to see more d.i.y. punk underground ethics with small labels all helping each other.

Thanks guys.  Really, amazing, insightful answers.  Thanks for coming.

Craig: Thanks very much for the interview. We enjoyed it. Come see us and chat at www.EngineerRecords.com



Dan Goldin said…
this is awesome! great interview, so informative. really makes me scared to start a record label though, hah. Craig is the man, same one that does HOUSEWITHOUTWALLS, the design company who does lots of work for ExplodingInSound.