Colin Newman interview
Splendidezine.com's Justin Kownacki and George Zahora [SE] talk to Colin Newman [CN] about Swim Records
SEZ: First of all, please tell us who you are.
CN: My name is Colin Newman. I run a label, with my life and artistic partner, Malka Spigel, called swim. I also seem to be drawn increasingly into running Wire's label pinkflag but I'll stick with swim for this.
SEZ: When did your label start?
CN: We started off with Malka's first album, Rosh Ballata, in September 1993. So it's coming up to that crucial 10 years. In weddings is that 'Tupperware'?
SEZ: Let's go on with the predictable stuff. How did you come up with your label's name? What other names did you consider?
CN: Okay, like all the good swim-related names it was down to Malka. It's kind of simple and positive. Erm, can't remember thinking of any others!
SEZ: Do you have a slogan or tag line? If so, what is it? We eat that s*** up.
CN: Of course, we've got tons: We are the world's premier post-electronic label. How's that? We have in the past been 'genre-bending' and of course 'pPost-everything' but we gave that one to another little venture we are involved in.
SEZ: Every label seems to have horror stories about would-be signees sending godawful, inappropriate demos, emailing MP3s or generally embarrassing themselves. Please share some of yours!
CN: We get some stunners. Firstly a piece of advice to all would be submitters: emailing unsolicited MP3s—just don't do it! You should never assume anyone has a fast connection, lots of people have dial-ups and if someone sat for half an hour while you blocked their connection (and possibly their phone line) they are not only not going to listen to your demo, they are going to hate you. Also, don't send unsolicited links to MP3s if you couldn't be bothered to post the company a CDR, why should anyone bother to download your MP3?
Besides that stuff, which is just plain annoying I think, the main mistake that artists make is lack of research. We are a very diverse label but you have to draw the line somewhere! I guess the most 'famous' example was one particular Siberian artist whose particular brand of 'entertainment' made James Last sound left-field! Had we been more cruel we would have put it out as a concept album, as its lisping gaucheness had a few friends in stitches. But to be honest we aren't really into exploitation.
SEZ: What does your label do that no-one else does? What's your niche, in other words?
CN: We hate niches. We don't release stuff just to keep up the schedules. If we don't have anything to release we just wait until we do. We also rarely release stuff straight from demo. We are quite pro-active with our artists, we want to get the best results from people.
SEZ: What do you know now that you wish you'd known when your label started? What would you do differently?
CN: I think it's less a case of knowing more than just being more confident. We haven't really changed our philosophy but we'd be a bit more bold.
SEZ: When it comes to dealing with bands, do you favor contracts or handshakes?
SEZ: Tell us, about the most painful lesson you've learned—business, poor judgment, watch your footing on the stairs, whatever—since the label started.
CN: Never trust expatriate Brits from post-punk bands who run record labels.
SEZ: Now, to cheer everyone up again, tell us about something good—the event (or whatever) that made you realize that your label would be a long-term concern rather than a glorified hobby.
CN: I guess it goes right back to the beginning. We never planned to be a record company, actually! Malka was in a group called Minimal Compact who have been the only (mainly) Israeli group to amount to anything in terms of international credibility. After they split, the two guitarists went back to Israel and became major local stars. There was interest to get Malka to make a record but the interested party was only interested to get her to do something there with session musicians. We decided to make the album (Rosh Ballata) ourselves in our own, then very limited, studio. The idea was to either try to get the original party to pay us for it or maybe someone else. In the end we licensed it to NMC (CBS Israel at the time) just for Israel, which meant we had it for the rest of the world. We made swim (fundamentally to release that one record), pressed up some CDs, got some rave reviews in NME etc., and then ended up considerably outselling NMC. "How hard is that?" we thought. Little did we know!
SEZ: If you could pay half the rent you currently pay for office space (if you have it), or have twice the space for the same amount of money, which would you choose?
CN: I'd definitely go for the twice the space, same money formula every time.
SEZ: An independent label is, like any other operation, a business. What day-to-day aspects of business most get in the way of the fun parts of the job?
CN: I think it's quite hard to make that division. You can get satisfaction from the most mundane things (I just spent an hour re-casing a bunch of battered returns, now they are fit for customers) and sometimes the fun aspects can be less than fun. The best bit is when stuff works (lots of things only kind of work).
SEZ: How has your attitude toward music—buying it, listening to it, seeing it—changed since you've been associated with your label?
CN: Well, apart from the obvious—hearing/seeing unsigned stuff—I think I actually became more like a music fan and less snobbish. This is because of being in a band. When you start in a band then you absolutely have to have the idea that all your contemporaries are shit! It's that team-building thing. I loosened a bit when I started doing record production; you have to be open to each working entity's little universe. Running a label, you have to be pretty open in general—the artists are all different but if you are working with them you have to empathize with their worldview at least up to a point!
SEZ: What are the secret perks of operating an independent label?
CN: Being able to get blags of releases you'd actually buy, guest lists to gigs/clubs you actually want to be at. I write as well and increasingly do radio shows, so sometimes I get very cool stuff very early on and for free!
SEZ: We know you're proud of all of your bands, but who has been your proudest signing/biggest find? (If diplomacy prevents you from answering this with anything other than "I'm proud of all of our bands", we understand.)
CN: We are proud of them all but for different reasons in reach case!
SEZ: Of the artists/bands on your label, who would you most want on your side in a bar brawl?
CN: Without a doubt Silo! Partly because they are three (a lot of our acts are just one person). S¿ren the drummer is quite big and Mikkel is quite solid. We'd keep Fred more towards the back.
SEZ: Who is most likely to get hopelessly lost while on tour?
CN: Perhaps Klaus (Symptoms)—more likely he'd oversleep and miss the van.
SEZ: Who is most likely to record a two-disc concept album about elves?
CN: No one on swim!
SEZ: Who is most likely to be featured in Tiger Beat?
CN: If I knew what Tiger Beat is I'd tell you.
SEZ: Who is most likely to have a song in a Gap commercial?
CN: I could say that I'd prefer not to be associated with the kind of music that gets in Gap ads but then again if they offer the money you're hardly likely to turn it down!
SEZ: What's the most annoying/inaccurate preconception that people have about your label?
CN: At the beginning they thought all the releases would sound like either Wire or Minimal Compact. Now I think we are getting too tagged as being 'electronica' (a phrase I hate but not as much as I hate 'IDM' [Intelligent Dance music]—I ask you, that sounds like concept albums about elves to me!).
SEZ: If you were given $10,000 to create a tchotchke/doohickey/promotional item to raise awareness of one of your upcoming albums, what would you make? And for which album?
CN: Well, as we are just about to re-launch the label in USA (via NAIL distribution) and we are leading off with our sampler, Swim Team #2, I'd say the most useful purpose to put that money to would be to fly as many artists as possible to USA for a couple of big launch nights.
SEZ: Which three of your releases, taken as a group, best represent your label's philosophy?
CN: Probably the three samplers (Water Communication, Swim Team #1 and Swim Team #2). Water Communication, which dates from '97 or so, gives all the background. Swim Team #1 (2000) integrated phase one into phase two as we became more post than pre. Swim Team #2 is pretty much state of the swim art, leading on into phase three. There are strong hints about broad direction and clues about how the aesthetic of current Wire stuff was developed. Plus they are all priced at the price of a 12".
SEZ: If you had the funds and inventory to give just one of your releases to everyone in America, which would it be?
CN: Swim Team #2—we are virtually giving away those samplers as it is!
SEZ: You've been given the chance to take another label's entire roster and do with it as you please. Whose acts do you grab, and which bands particularly attracted you?
CN: Difficult question. There are artists I like on other labels with which I have professional (and personal) relations (as I have with the bosses of their labels) so I am very cautious about that kind of stuff. I hate those labels who approach signed (and name) artists to see if they've got any old unreleased stuff lying around. In other words, 'we don't want to spend time, energy and money breaking new acts, we'd rather piggyback on someone else's hard work'. There is a track on Swim Team #2 which is mix we did of Flying Saucer attack. We had it for years and only released it now (well we did freshen it up somewhat!) because we didn't want to cut across what Domino were doing at the time, and Dave went a bit out of contact. Believe me, we made absolutely sure everyone was cool about it before we went ahead to release.
SEZ: We asked the previous question to a whole bunch of labels. Which of them, if any, named your label's roster as their most-wanted list?
CN: Erm. Didn't see.
SEZ: Who would win in a fight—ninjas or pirates?
CN: No idea what this means.
SEZ: How long has your label had a website? How has it changed over the years? How has it, and the internet in general, affected the way you do business?
CN: A long time—since '95. The original site was designed by Dorian Moore, who is now one of the directors (with me and Tony Morley of Leaf) of posteverything.com. For us, the internet changed everything. The most specific thing being email. Being able to have non-real time exchanges with artists or distributors half way across the planet is great! The biggest impact of the web has been through posteverything—we have been able to create a business (which amongst other things sells swim and pinkflag releases) with little more than savvy and the desire to do it in a cost-effective way. There have been so many models of attempts at commerce on the internet that have failed. We run posteverything pretty much like we run our own labels, i.e. not chasing round after the lowest common denominator, preferring to have something of worth rather than just any old stuff etc. etc. It's not going to turn us into Amazon.com, but then they don't make any money, do they?
SEZ: What's your attitude toward MP3s? How (if at all) has it changed over the last few years?
CN: We are just about to implement streaming MP3 on the next update to the PE site (instead of real audio). We'd go for Ogg Vorbis if it was more of a standard! For me the 'piracy' issue is just the same as for software. Some people never want to pay for anything. Some people, if they download an MP3 they like, will search out and buy the album. Some people will be more inclined to buy it if it's from an indie. In the end it comes down to some kind of formula between free time and disposable income. You can download an album, burn a CD and print a cover from some online artwork (or design it yourself), and if you've got time and not much money you'll tend to that. If you've got no time and some money, you'll probably buy it. Stuff I tend to keep MP3s of is either items no longer in print or stuff like bootleg remixes which are of dodgy legality anyway.
SEZ: Would you sign a purely studio-based band? Why or why not? (And if you already have, how has it worked out for you?)
CN: Only some of our artists can play live. They all would like to play live, though. It really depends on the project. You can play a tour and have little impact, but one show in the right place will do the trick. We all know that 'in theory' live gigs build a reputation, but there's more science to it than just playing anywhere.
SEZ: The most surprising change in music in the last ten years has been...?
CN: The return of punk rock in the last one (two if you've been awake) years in the UK.
SEZ: How many label profiles have you responded to before this one? Don't they suck?
CN: I never did one so complex! Is anyone interested in all that stuff? Don't they just want to know which are the best records to get drunk/stoned/shag to?
SEZ: I have $5000 in cash sitting on the desk in front of me. I could use it as seed money for a record label or spend a few months roughing it in Europe. Which should I do, and why?
CN: I have a feeling this may not be a joke. Are you serious? Having a record company is a very good way to lose money. There are absolutely no guarantees anything will work; both the labels I am involved in are effectively subsidized by the fact that I (and in swim's case Malka too) am an artist on the label. I've been trying to stop myself getting drawn into running pinkflag over the last two years but I'm realizing it's a battle I'm not winning! However, in a way, that puts me in your $5000 situation. I have nearly ten years of experience of swim which I'm bringing to pinkflag, and to be honest, it shows.
There are many ways to approach this, but ultimately there are no rules. You can understand distribution perfectly, but if you can't help generate a bit of excitement about your artists, then it's no help. You can have the hottest act but end up losing them because you didn't understand how distribution works...
The worst thing is that there are so many releases in the marketplace, and swim is virtually unique in adhering to the idea that if you don't have anything good to release, then you don't release anything. The industry is not structured in a way to encourage this, plus basic greed means that if people think there's a few quid to be made putting out less than stellar releases, they will. The question anyone who has a conscience, who wants to run a label has to ask is, can I add anything that's not there already? If it's just a vanity project, my advice: don't!
Justin Kownacki and George Zahora.
This interview originally appeared online at www.splendidezine.com.