From a listener perspective, the most important department at any record label is the A&R department. They're the folks that sift through demos and pitches from pushy managers and attorneys to decide which acts you can buy at your local Walmart (or wherever you pick up your Krieg records). And while the A&R capacity of a label is surely an important one, picking bands is just a small part of what any record label has to do to stay afloat. We asked Chris Bruni and Kate Richardson, the head honcho/honcha of respected (and respective) indie labels Profound Lore and Housecore, to pull back the curtain on how they do business. If you prefer the smell of printer's ink, find an abridged version of our interviews in Decibel issue #120 (Electric Wizard cover). Chris, you and some buddies had pooled up money to start up Profound Lore. What kinds of things did that early money go to, and how long did it take to make back?
Chris Bruni: Essentially it all went to pressing the first release (with a few other miscellaneous costs), a limited (500 units) 10” vinyl EP from the band Melechesh. From what I can recall it didn’t take that long for the release to sell out but at the same time, it’s not like it sold out right away, it still took some time. But it helped a bit, I guess, that the band was already well established.
Kate, is there anything about your own background that makes you great at what you do with Housecore?
Kate Richardson: I had a lot of experience working at the student-run radio station when I was going to university. I was a DJ, Metal Director, and then President/GM. There are a lot of industry people I met over the phone or at conferences during that time that I still work with in some capacity. I was also a promoter in Grand Rapids, MI for a few years. Myself and two friends started a production/promotion company. We probably broke even over those 2.5/3 years, but the experience I gained was invaluable. I also worked at commercial radio, all of that, and what I actually studied at university has been a great background and applicable in my jobs today.
You and Phil Anselmo co-own Housecore. Do you have an official corporate structure, LLC, etc.? Why is that important?
KR: We have an LLC. Philip is actually the sole proprietor, and I am an officer/VP. It's very important, banking and tax-wise, to be able to put things in the actual legal business name. I have invested in the company, probably the most money I've ever put into anything in my life, because I believe in it!
Do you normally sign the band itself to a deal? Or do you license already-existing albums?
CB: I’ll usually work out a direct deal with the band, with the occasional deal being a licensing deal.
KR: We do both. It's more of a challenge, but we would prefer to sign the band.
When you're dealing with an album that will be released in a separate format on another label, do you consider what kind of deal that label is making with the band? Or is it a completely separate thing?
CB: Very few times, there will be the deal where I and another label work our separate deals with a band to release the album in its respective format (e.g. I release it on CD/digital and the other label will release it on vinyl). But for the most part, especially since I fund the recording, mastering, and artwork costs for the majority of the releases, if another label wants to release the album I funded in a separate format, they will have to work a licensing deal with me directly and get my blessing, where I can then license the album to them for vinyl or whatever.
Of course I will want the band to be involved as well, since they have to approve of the licensing deal too, and be aware of what it entails. Admittedly these days, I find that I have to be a bit more strict when I allow another label to release an album of mine in another format, because I’ve had one too many experiences dealing with enough flaky people through stuff like this (not including, though, the people I’ve dealt with on a somewhat regular basis to whom I’ve licensed stuff in the past). Sure, everyone has this so-called “underground DIY mentality” or whatever the fuck it’s called, but there needs to be quality control when it comes to stuff like this, even though a lot of the times there is that trust factor you base your dealings on because you know that person well. I mean, I’m a really easy-going guy to deal with, but I’m still running this thing professionally, and need to run it in a professional, discriminating, and strict sense in a way, almost on the same kind of level as the bigger metal labels.
Can you give a general idea of how you structure your deals with your bands? Do you take % of album sales, give them an advance, etc.?
CB: For the most part an advance or studio fees are involved and they tend to vary, cost-wise. Basically I factor in all production costs and what number of units the band needs to sell to recoup before their royalties commence, at which point the band will get a certain percentage royalty rate.
Sometimes, instead of factoring the specific number of units a band needs to sell to recoup, I actually calculate every cent brought back into the release from sales to recoup all expenses put in, and all expenses and debt moving forward as well too. Through this, the band will get a much bigger percentage from the profits. But this is a much more meticulous kind of deal that has its pros and cons (since any impending future expenses also get put towards the release for it to recoup). In some instances, some deals are even more straightforward: the band will just get a percentage of the product pressed (every time it’s pressed) as their return from the deal. These are usually the releases where a much lower budget, or barely any budget, is involved.
KR: I think we are unique in the way we like to consider signing a band [to be] a partnership. The harder they work as a band and all that entails, the harder we can work. It's a 50/50 split in most cases. There was a time when that was absolutely unheard of! Every project is different. If they record here at our studio we give them a great deal and take care of them in-house at The Compound, so a big advance may not be necessary. We let them know, the bigger the advance, the longer it will take to recoup. From there we discuss their actual needs and negotiate. We are very artist-friendly.
Do you have a financial stake in your bands' touring income, merchandising, publishing, or any income streams aside from album sales?
CB: Not at all. The only other financial stake I have from a band, or specifically that band’s particular release’s income, is through stuff like licensing. That’s one of the other main avenues for album income I’ll be involved in aside from album sales.
KR: We definitely do not take anything from touring income. We get some exclusive merch designs to sell on our store, but whatever they do on their own or on the road is all theirs. Publishing depends on the project…sometimes we may sign the publishing back to them after a certain period of time.
Of course it will differ from album to album, but what kinds of sales figures does it take to be profitable on an average Profound Lore release?
CB: Let’s just say for a mid-level priority release that gets a pretty decent budget (a decent budget within my parameters anyway, since I’m sure the term “decent budget” differs from label to label), once the release sells, say, a couple thousand or so units, then I could safely say that we’ve already entered into profitable territory. Or at least we’re about to enter profitable territory.
In your experience, what factors play into a "successful" release vs. the ones that don't do as well?
CB: The band’s intended goals, of course, and the kind of work they are willing to put in behind their release. Judging if a release has been successful is the culmination of several things. Every release has certain goals, with some goals for some releases not being as ambitious as goals for other releases (I mean, for some lower key releases, sometimes the goal is to get through and move the first 1000 units. Once that has been achieved, some form of success has befallen the release). Of course when I make my money back and we profit from a release, that’s usually one of the main factors to determine a successful release, but I usually like to see a combination of things; a solid press run with good reviews, year-end accolades, some decent touring and live activity behind the release, and of course decent sales, which reflect the results of the [other factors].
KR: The project's activity and touring. The obscurity or commercial viability plays a factor as well, but they're always going to do better if they are active.
Is part of your A&R equation whether other people will like an album enough to pay for it, too?
CB: I’d be lying to you if I said no, fully. There’s a part of me, of course, which does factor in what my audience (and even a potential outside audience) will ultimately think of whatever album I’m putting out. This is more prevalent with releases from bands who do not have much of a buzz going for them. Releases that are more of an uphill climb, so to speak, that I want the audience of the label to also be equally psyched about, or at least be aware of. But yeah, I do stay conscious of stuff like this sometimes.
KR: Not necessarily. If we like something enough and don't really care if other people are going to "get it," we'll just consider a more limited pressing.
What label responsibilities do you handle yourself, and what do you farm out to others?
CB: I pretty much do it all and work out all the dealings. I do have a graphics guy that works for me and also a reliable (fucking finally) webmaster. And other than that, the only thing I’ll outsource to other people is publicity for some releases, which I’m opening up to doing more of these days, as cynical and naïve as I can be, admittedly, about that whole aspect of working an album. But that’s another can of worms for me to talk about there.
KR: We both wear many hats! We are a DIY/boutique-ish label. Philip has proven to be a great producer. We both do a lot of artist relations work. We'll hire PR companies. I do a lot of the artwork, but we'll commission artists or get some local designers’ help. I have a consultant who I regularly bounce stuff off of and will have do some project managing as well. Our distribution partners are a great help as well, as is our attorney, and of course, my warehouse manager is absolutely awesome too!
How do you work distribution? Have you experimented with different models?
KR: We approach each project differently. Everything is available through our online store. If we don't put a release out through retail distribution, or smaller distros/mom & pops don't have a relationship with our retail distribution, they can always order wholesale through us.
What would you say is the most time-consuming job you have as a label owner?
CB: Definitely doing mail-order stuff, packing orders for distributors, scheduling shipments, and all that other annoying grunt work and stuff which admittedly has become a bit of a chore. Also for some reason, I never have much patience for doing basic paperwork. Every time I make a trip to the post office, I feel like throwing myself in front of an oncoming truck.
There are so many more indie metal labels popping up every year. From a business/promotions standpoint, what do you do to keep your releases from getting lost in the shuffle?
CB: I honestly don’t have some special formula for this. I’m at the point where I just wanna put out killer albums in the hopes people will gravitate towards them, embrace and be intrigued by them, and be confronted by them in whatever way. I do the regular kind of routine stuff to promote them in the hopes they are unique enough to stand out, somehow, within the massive throng of releases coming out. This year especially, considering that it’s been a crazy year for releases, there seems to be more competition than ever.
KR: Well, that's where Philip's notoriety really helps as well. He's got a personal, vested interest in everything we put out and that is unique and special. We don't put out a huge number of releases, so we can concentrate and give all of them individual attention. We try to time things right as well.
Obviously Phil's a legend in the metal world. Has having him as a partner (in business and in life!) helped or hindered Housecore?
KR: I'd say both, but much more help than hinder. For instance Philip's Facebook page alone has nearly 1 million followers, so we can reach a lot of people right there for free. Philip has always been a champion of underground and extreme music, and people know that, so that definitely helps as well! The hindrances come in forms of assumptions, or pre-conceived notions people may have about him.
Have you ever been approached by a larger label to buy out Profound Lore or bring you aboard as an A&R guy? If so, did you consider it?
CB: No on both counts, nor would I ever consider it.
Name two of the most important things you've learned about the business of running a label over the past decade.
CB: Always do your best to trust your intuition, and go with that feeling/inner voice you trust. Acting on impulse can be good too, sometimes. And try not to force anything. Don’t force yourself to figure out how you are going to sell or market a release or a band, because if you feel the slightest bit of compunction, you’d be better off second-thinking it. I learned it’s best to have things unravel naturally, and to have a set of realistic goals implemented for everything that surrounds the label.
KR: No matter how much planning, never anticipate anything will go smoothly, so stay on your toes! Don't underestimate the power of momentum!