Running your own indie record label

Founders of the indie record labels Eightmaps and Loglady Records give advice on releasing your own music — and others, too

It’s no secret that an independent musician can release his or her own music today through numerous online music platforms without starting an indie record label. Simply want to share your latest opus with the world? Set up a free SoundCloud account and send the link to everyone you know. For some artists, the simpler the better, as their motivations may be as straightforward as sharing what they’re most passionate about without any inclinations to support themselves through their music.

Mike Sempert runs indie record label Eightmaps.Mike Sempert. Photo: Aubrey Trinnaman

Then there are the artists who invest time, money, and effort into self-releasing EPs and full length albums through their own indie record label to help generate income to support a tour, their next recording project, and their music career. In the process, they build an identifiable artist brand and look at their indie record label as any small business owner would. Most have no delusions about becoming the next SubPop or DefJam, but all share an appreciation for the artistic freedom and clear financial picture when self-releasing is compared to signing a contract with a traditional record label.

For these self-releasing artists, music aggregators like CD Baby offer a path to having your music available on all the major digital storefronts (iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, Rdio, Spotify, etc.) So just what are the motivations and experiences of self-releasing artists trying to build an audience and get paid along they way?

Eightmaps

Mike Sempert, leader of San Francisco-based Birds & Batteries, has built a recognized sound, image, and reputation for his band and their original synth-infused, hook-laden pop songs. His indie record label, Eightmaps, is a release vehicle almost exclusively for his own musical output; he doesn’t actively look for other artists to release. In fact, the Eightmaps website is a simple landing page with a logo that links to a SoundCloud streaming page featuring the indie record label’s five releases.

Google “Birds & Batteries review” and you’ll see just how successful Mike has been over the past five years in building music business relationships to a wide range of music reviewers, bloggers, print media, and other music influencers to help spread the word about Eightmaps’ releases.

Birds & Batteries indie record label releaseWhat prompted you to start a label?
I started Eightmaps out of a basic necessity to self-release the Birds & Batteries EP, Up To No Good in 2009. It made sense to create a separate entity to release that EP through, and other releases followed suit. I use the Orchard, formerly IODA, to digitally service those releases. Basically, that just means it goes to all the digital storefronts, like iTunes, eMusic, and streaming sites like Rdio and Pandora. You can do the same thing through CD Baby, but when I first pursued a working relationship with IODA, they were actively based here in San Francisco.

What are the benefits of having and running your own indie record label?
Self-releasing allows me to move forward with a release on my own timeline and on my own terms. There’s also more transparency and simplicity when it comes down to accounting, etc. When you release with someone else, whatever release budget they offer is essentially a loan. Until you recoup, you usually don’t see much, if anything. Self-releasing is essentially investing in one’s own artistic output.

What is your process for finding and releasing other bands and artists on your label?
Eightmaps has only released one record by an artist that wasn’t one of my projects: Cygnus by a band called Doombird out of Sacramento. We became friends through our mutual buddies, Two Sheds, and Doombird ended up doing a great remix of a Birds & Batteries song. I was a fan of their music and offered to release Cygnus on Eightmaps, simply to get them distribution. It’s a really casual thing, mainly due to lack of time and money. My feeling is that any bump in visibility is better than no bump.

What is your model for selling records through Eightmaps? Or is it strictly a labor of love?
I really don’t think much about trying to sell records. If a band is doing well — successful tours, good press, sync placements — their sales will reflect that. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to convince anyone to “buy” my record digitally. Of course, on tour, selling CDs at each show becomes a big part of financing that tour. The biggest challenge to running your own indie record label is simply having enough dollars to do it all.

How much time to you devote daily to operating your record label?
Very little. It’s only when I’m in full swing with a self-release that I’m really active daily. There’s not much difference between what I do as a label and what any independent musician does.

Do you find that running a label complements or inspires your work as an artist? How do you balance or mix those two worlds?
As an indie musician it’s exciting to know that, at the very least, my music will be readily available to listeners on the web. I know that’s pretty basic, but it’s meaningful to me — music is meant to be heard.

What advice would you give to artists looking to and wondering how to start their own indie record label?
If you’re an independent artist, you’re probably already functioning as your own label. Whether you choose to call it something like “Dog Pants Records” is entirely up to you. Either way, keep making music and take advantage of the resources you have. If you have time, research blogs and reach out to the ones that post music you like that also matches your sound somewhat. Follow up. Try to build and keep long-term relationships going with bookers, bloggers, whoever seems to care about what you’re doing. Try to build a network of support around your music. That’s what I’ve found to be effective.

Loglady indie record label

Loglady Records

Loglady Records was formed in 2010 by Jason Hendardy, vocalist and bassist for the San Francisco-based noise punk band Permanent Collection, and his graphic designer girlfriend, Lauren LoPrete. Combining their strengths, Loglady releases aesthetically resonant albums for various artists who share a raucous take on pop sounds and a DIY ethos.

Hendardy and LoPrete maintain a strong focus on analog releases, offering 12″ and 7″ vinyl and cassettes in their site shop. Their respect for hard-working, and self-making artists is evident from the label’s roster, including San Francisco stalwarts Terry Malts, and blogosphere-beloved Part Time, both of whom caught the attention of larger labels for subsequent records. Ultimately, Loglady is not just a means of release for their represented artists, but a structure of support for a community of like-minded, independent musicians.

What prompted you to start an indie record label?
Lauren and I were looking for a way to combine our common interests of music, design, and DIY ethics and wanted to release music from some of our friends. It seemed like the perfect hybrid of our interests.

What are the benefits of self-releasing?
You have a better grasp on the inner workings of the music industry and overall you have total control. Nobody is standing in the way of how you want it to sound, look, or feel. It can be both frustrating at times and totally rewarding.

Indie record label releaseWhat is your process for finding and releasing other bands and artists on Loglady?
I usually check out bands when my band, Permanent Collection, tours or plays. That or a friend will tip us off to a new band. We try to keep it personal and focus on releasing music by people we both respect and would want to spend time with. We aren’t a huge label so it’s best if we get to know who we are working with.

Which avenues do you utilize for distributing music?
We distribute [physical CDs and records] through Revolver USA/Midheaven, since Jason works as an Admin on the Midheaven site. [Midheaven specializes in the distribution of DIY bands to brick and mortar and digital retailers.] It’s a perk and makes our label pretty efficient. We typically release the digital music ourselves through a middleman like CD Baby to distribute it to iTunes, Amazon, and similar digital stores.

How much time to you devote daily to operating the record label, and what does that day-to-day work look like?
We’re working on the label nonstop, so there aren’t set operation hours because we try to keep on top of things as best as possible. We observe companies and labels that we are interested in and try to work in a similar manner, from the design of our site to how we handle our orders. We believe in shipping out orders on the same day if placed before 3:00 PM or next day if placed during the evening. Day to day we are always looking to make our label a little different from normal record labels. Music drives us, but the look and feel carries a heavy hand in each release. We’re constantly trying to reevaluate the things that aren’t working and to try new ways of doing things.

What are the major challenges you encounter while running Loglady Records?
When it’s just the two of us with full time day jobs (and bands and other projects), there’s never enough time to fulfill all of our ideas right away. The other challenge is that we’re two people with different but complementary tastes. We can debate over music and design for a long time before we figure out a solution that we’re both happy with.

Some days running a label feels like playing the stock market. Releasing vinyl isn’t cheap and in our case we’re putting a lot of money into a new or upcoming band. We have no way to gauge whether it will sell out quickly or sit on the shelves, just our gut instinct that it’s great music and it deserves to be heard.

Do you find that running a record label and creating a community of fellow artists complements or inspires your own artistic work? How do you balance or mix the worlds of artist and label-owner?
It’s inspiring. We want to focus on a diverse range of music and artists. We’re focused on musicians as artists who value their music as much as any other creative outlet they have. In that sense, it’s nice how the Loglady community is not one-dimensional or genre specific.

It’s motivating for me to play music while running the label. I feel like there is a good balance between understanding where the musician is coming from, and taking care of the music business side of getting their music released and out to fans.

What advice would you give to artists looking to and wondering how to start their own indie record label?
Some people in the music industry can be totally jaded and unhelpful. Don’t let those people discourage you from doing what you want. Don’t do it for the money, because you most likely aren’t going to make any and if you do make money don’t let that change your outlook on music and why you release music. You’ll also meet cool people along the way and for us, that’s what makes it’s all worthwhile.

Keith Hatschek is a contributing writer for Disc Makers Echoes and directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific. He’s the author of two books on the music industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How to Get a Job in the Music Industry.

Casey Newlin works at a video production and post house in San Francisco and curates music for covers-themed dinners presented by Noise Pop.

Read More
Developing Your Artist Brand
How to achieve success as an indie artist
Five elements of your artist brand
Online music platforms for connecting, distributing, and networking
An independent musician needs to make CDs
How To Submit Your Songs to Music Blogs, Record Labels, Radio, and Press

Planning your album from beginning to end

16 thoughts on “Running your own indie record label

  1. Hi, great tips here. One question I have though… Don’t the costs of incorporating a label (and perhaps a publishing co.) put a serious dent into the overall cash flow? I’m basing that on the presumption that most indie artists aren’t selling at least tens on thousands of units. Thanks.

    1. Incorporating in the state of Wisconsin is only $100 and you can do it online by simply filling out a form.

      Almost certainly it’s cheaper in other states (especially New Hampshire, which likes to get the revenue from companies incorporating there).

      Not sure about pros/cons of setting up a publishing company. Probably more profitable for a label with a roster of artists who don’t want to bother.

      Good luck to everyone reading this article. The world needs more record labels (and great music!).

      1. I think Renate’s question, like mine, was trying to ask if independent artists still get paid the same rates as an unsigned artist for album downloads and song streaming? Or does a DIY ‘record label” categorize you as a signed artists? Which clearly get paid significantly less than unsigned artists. Thanks.

  2. Nice article. However, I believe it ought to also mention the importance of being a part of a community and a scene. Articles on this platform tend to be a bit on the technical side as opposed to talking about true artistic matters. Those would be far more important and relevant for an indie artist to be aware of, than simply saying “release an album and start touring.”

    1. Hey there, Mika – thanks for the follow up comments, we tried to point out that Loglady is very careful about which artists they choose to work with, but it may not have come across clearly. If you go to their website and click on a few of the sample links, you can see that there is a certain musical style and sensibility to the artists found in their roster. So there is a community of what might loosely be termed “noise pop” artists all working in a similar direction. So I would argue that’s a kind of community and the bands share gigs, open for each other, and provide mutual support.

      San Francisco has a good, healthy indie music scene in large part since there are still small clubs that offer local bands a chance to play, refine their sets, and build their audiences. The two indie music festivals (Noise Pop and Treasure Island) also always put a number of up and coming, unsigned bands on the stages and that also creates a lot of visibility. Community is essential, glad you brought it up, not only building a community of fans, but also a community of artists supporting each other – both are essential.

  3. Great article! As an indie artist, the greatest advantage vs being on a label is maintaining 100% creative control over your music. That alone is priceless since there is no need to compromise your sound or vision.

    Kurt, if you’re just releasing music then you don’t need to start a label. However, if you plan on pursuing it as a career then a label would be beneficial in the long run for many reasons (personal and professional).

  4. It’s indeed a brave new world many artists live in. For us the choice is simple since I’m a sound engineer and media maker first and a studio musician second. “Starting” out as an digital artist, I soon discovered no one seemed to need our services, whether it’s because cheap quality DSLR’s have become so commonly available? I don’t know. Same trend have tremendously hit the music industry, I’m not trying to say that’s a bad thing but it’s gotten to the point, where bands blindly rely upon, not only their own acoustic recordings, but also their, often newly realized mixing/mastering experience. And that does often enough not come without a tremendous price tag. Worse is that it seems harder to find musicians looking to save money through collaborative efforts with small independent Studios like BorsingStudios.com. Our Project studio didn’t just pop up as a moneymaker, but as a personal necessity for the creation of digital instruments as well as personal future album releases..

    -Sir Carl..

  5. There is a lot of good information in this article. However, what I was looking for was the difference between self-releasing your music and starting your own indie label, whereas this article seems to focus on self-releasing VS. being on somebody else’s label, and the challenges of running a label with a plurality of artists on it.

    My question is simply this: If I am only interested in releasing my own music, why should I start a “label” for my own music rather than simply *releasing* it? Does it matter at all?

    1. Hi Kurt – it really doesn’t matter at all, if you decide to just put out your recordings under your name (without any “label” name) or go ahead and start a label.

      I have found that for some artists, the concept of having a self-owned indie label is attractive, as it does offer the chance to create a logo, a look (just check the difference in the album artwork between Loglady and Eightmaps album art and you’ll see how the identity of each label becomes part of their overall image) and from a pragmatic point of view, sets up a separate business to account for expenses and income in a very direct way.

      One other point, should your home grown label reach a certain level of success, you may choose to grow it further and hire some staff, or sell it to a larger indie label, if you have assets such as a substantial mailing list, inventory, well visited web site, etc.

      Ultimately, if you are releasing music that people connect with, no matter how you get it to them, you will be able to make some money. There is no “right answer” other than follow your head and heart. The folks we interviewed, Mike, Lauren and Jason did just that and are enjoying the ride.

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