Dark Descent Records is one of the underground’s most reliable, exciting, and consistent dealers of quality death and black and metal. The label’s discography is a dream for lovers of extreme metal, with upcoming releases from bands like Blood Incantation (review: it rules) sealing the deal: Dark Descent knows what they’re doing. And they care about what they're doing: for example, in an effort to not take away from an album's overall presentation, the label pays to have UPC codes printed as stickers instead of on the album artwork.
But who is behind the label? A gentleman named Matt Calvert is Dark Descent Records, and according to Calvert, the label started with modest beginnings back in late 2009 when someone he knew was in a band and wasn’t having much luck getting their album released.
“I went through a divorce and had gotten a second job to keep my mind off of things, and I had a few bucks laying around from that, so I told him I’d help him out,” says Calvert. “One thing led to another and, the way that I do it, I got a little obsessed and started signing bands, and here we are now.”
Decibel: Tell us a bit about you. The label is becoming one of the more known labels in underground metal, but who’s the man who’s behind it?
Calvert: I started it myself but I’ve had people along the way that have been instrumental with helping me, from day one. I’ll be 45 this year, so I’m not exactly a young guy starting out and deciding to do a label because it’d be something fun. This is music I’ve been listening to my whole life. I’m in a little different position than most people who do this and have to focus on how many units they sell and all that other stuff. Thankfully, because of my previous career, I have the ability to be comfortable personally without having to dip into what I have set aside or what we’re doing with the label, so I have that benefit that most don’t have.
Running a record label is an incredible amount of work—it’s around the clock and, at times, very thankless. Why do you run a record label and what do you get out of it?
I do it because this is the music I’ve always had a passion for. For me to be able to do these things and produce and get music out there to people that were like me 20 years ago, that’s definitely a really cool part of it. Another cool aspect of it is that I’ve been watching the growth of bands; it’s a cool feeling to be involved in it and knowing that you’re helping guys that you know have the right ideals and have the right sound, and you know they’re good. I do have some kind of obsessive personality as well, where everything I’ve done, failure has never been an option. I’ve done a lot of stuff over the years, I used to write for a sports website for a while, I’ve always had my hands into something else, and I’ve always been good at it, so this was just an extension of that.
What do you feel the importance of record labels is in 2016? It’s not like it was 10, 20 years ago. Lots of bands just go around labels entirely these days.
I don’t think it’s changed much. I think people are overstating this, “Hey, we don’t need record labels anymore.” That’s kind of nonsense. 90 percent of the bands out there don’t want to be fooling with manufacturing, they don’t want to be fooling with distribution, they don’t want to be fooling with advertisements or promotion, and they certainly don’t want to go to the post office every day. It’s still the most viable way to get your music out there if you’ve got a label that has those avenues and those contacts. More bands are doing the self-releasing thing, and I hear more people complaining and saying “labels are unnecessary,” but it doesn’t really change the fact that I get all these demos sent to me on a daily basis. These guys still see the importance of it.
Speaking of demos, do you sign a lot of bands from demos?
I get a surprising amount of physical promos, and I listen to every one of those. I get a lot of email demos, people on Facebook sending me stuff. I really appreciate when people take the time and when they put a submission together they make it complete. I’ve had discs sent to me in the mail with no correspondence information in there. I don’t have time to go look up somebody, and they might be really good, you know what I mean? I don’t need to know your genre and influences, I’ll figure all that out, but I look for somebody that’s prepared, because that tells me about your band a little bit.
What do you look for in a band?
I’m always looking for bands that take their art seriously; we don’t have bands that do jokey lyrics or images, because I was never really into that stuff because metal was something to me that was a personal thing. When you’re younger or going through tough times you really associate a lot of your feelings to the music, and I wouldn’t go to a show because I wanted to hear somebody making jokes about banging women and having parties backstage and eating pizza, you know what I mean?
In the past couple years, Dark Descent has got to the point where I know I can trust it. If something is coming out on the label I’ll definitely check it out, and it’s probably going to be good. How have you managed to find so many good bands?
Early on, it was really tough, because nobody knew who I was. I was 38 or 37, approaching these guys, “Here I am, I’ve got this label, you haven’t heard of it, but I’d really like to release your stuff.” It was really hard to sell yourself, and that’s what I had to do—I had to be a salesman. I had to go and do a little selling to some of the early bands I signed, like Adversarial and Corpsessed. I do really like the feedback about the label and people have the same kind of sentiment, where they’ll check everything out. That’s what we want; that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s the platform of a label. You want to trust in a label. And for the band, it helps them get more visibility, so it only makes sense. I think sometimes there are some of these so-called underground labels who use the fact that they don’t have to spend money on advertising as some kind of badge of honor. It’s under the guise of “We’re so underground,” but what it boils down to is “We’re pretty cheap.” It leaves me scratching my head because bands put so much effort into making an album, rehearsing, gear, all the time and effort into recording, and if I didn’t actually do my job, which is promoting the album and getting the most out of what we can with our resources, then I’d feel pretty bad.
There’s been so much talk of labels not selling as many records anymore. I’m curious, how many copies do you sell of an average Dark Descent record?
It’s different for each record. We press a lot more than what we were even three years ago for a standard release. I don’t necessarily want to give any numbers. As people have talked about sales diminishing, we’ve seen the ascent of the label; I don’t have any correlation because I didn’t start 15 years ago. Sometimes it does get harder and harder to sell people stuff when they can find it free, but at the same time we’re doing music in a genre where we’re lucky enough that there are some maniacs out there that still value that physical product, and we appreciate that. But we also sell a lot more digital than we did two or three years ago. If I’m doing a new band and it’s an EP, we’ll do 1000 units and we’ll go from there. It’s all feel, what I feel an album is going to do, and what kind of publicity it’s getting, or if I see a lot of people are talking about something, we’ll adjust numbers for pressings. I’d rather be prepared when an album comes out rather than doing 500 LPs then they’re gone instantly.
What’s the best thing that’s happened to you during the time you've been running Dark Descent?
I’ve got a son, he’s almost four, that’s probably number one. But if you’re talking more specifically for the label, you know, I don’t think there’s one specific thing that’s happened. I thought with Horrendous’ last album, having a number one album in a publication like Decibel and being number two on iTunes, and having them get the exposure they did... that was kinda cool, you know what I mean? It validated the fact that you don’t always have to be a Nuclear Blast or a Century Media to have some success, and it’s really cool to feel validated that people are listening to it. If you do stuff, and it’s genuine, people will listen.
Has there been a particular low point while running the label?
There have been times where I’ve sat and wondered, well, I’m taking a pretty big risk here and I didn’t really have the money at the time, maybe early on, but it all worked out. When you’re going to do something, I don’t think “no” is on your mind. It’s always going to work out. The things that bother me along the way are waiting six or eight or nine months for records being pressed, and it’s disappointing when the bands are waiting. Those are low points for me because I like things to run smoothly, and they don’t always run smoothly. You’re not always relying on yourself, you have those external issues you can’t control, like manufacturing and other people screwing up your jobs. For instance, when we did a repress of the Mitochondrion LP, it took three pressings on the vinyl before they could repress it. The stampers were already done; in the end it took nine months. The pressing they did, they sent in the wrong stampers to the plant and I had Sex Pistols and some Mariachi music on it. It’s totally stupid and makes you upset, but it’s one of those things. There’s not much you can do. It’s out of your control. Packing up boxes, paying out the bands, those things I can control. Some things I can’t.
What’s the association with Unspeakable Axe Records?
I told you earlier that I’ve had people along the way who have helped from the beginning, and that’s one of the guys. His name is Eric [Musall], and since the first release Eric has been doing graphics for me. A couple years back he approached me about wanting to do his own thing. Eric’s supported me so I feel the need to help him out. We set it as a sub-label, we do all the distribution for Unspeakable Axe, but his stuff deals with the thrashier side of things. I know Eric has great taste, and he’s had some great releases that have gotten a little bit of attention as well. We do official distribution for The Crypt and Dark Symphonies; a lot of people think The Crypt and Dark Symphonies are part of Dark Descent, but it’s not. It’s something separate, but we do exclusive distribution with them.
So what’s next for the label?
[We just released] the Sheidim album, it’s a black metal album out of Spain. In August we have the new Blood Incantation album, which a lot of people are talking about, so I think that’s going to be one of our bigger releases of the year. In August/September, we have Nox Formulae, which is occult black metal, really killer stuff. We also have the new Krypts album in October, and I know a lot of people are looking forward to that one.