Independent record labels are a force for good right? They afford bands creative freedom. They concentrate on the music rather than the money. They give a platform to up and coming talent. In short they are the friendly face of the industry, the musical equivalent of organic farm shops or family-run micro-breweries, catering for knowledgeable customers with discerning tastes. And like farm shops or micro-breweries, indies often don’t stand a chance against their huge and homogenised competitors. Their lifespans tend to be relatively short and their peaks early.
Take Postcard Records for example, still one of the most talked-about of British indie labels (and, for bands like Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura or even Franz Ferdinand, one of the most influential). It may come as a surprise to learn that Postcard, in its original incarnation, was only ever responsible for four bands and released just thirteen records, the sole long-player amongst them being Josef K’s The Only Fun In Town.
But that’s not the full story. In recent years many independents have managed to flourish. Some have achieved this by finding a niche and mining a particular genre for all it is worth. Others have been quick to diversify and adept at spotting or creating trends. In the case of Vinita Joshi, founder of London-based indie Rocket Girl, it seems to be a bit of both. Rocket girl has been issuing pioneering ambient, electronica, post-rock and dream-pop (amongst other things) since 1997 and is currently celebrating its 100th release with a fine collection of songs – some unreleased – taken from bands on its current roster, which includes acts as diverse as God is an Astronaut, Pieter Nooten and Jacques Caramac & the Sweet Generation.
There is no-one better placed than Vinita to talk about the ins and outs of running a record label. She’s a busy lady, but FRUK managed to pin her down and get some answers out of her.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions. Congrats on your 100th release! When you started out, did you ever see yourself getting this far?
Thank you! I think I always thought that it would be on-going, but I didn’t really anticipate how many releases I would reach.
How has Rocket Girl changed over that time, and has it all turned out more or less as you expected?
The label aesthetic hasn’t really changed but the industry certainly has. For example, there was no email and we used to print band photos and send them out with promos – things are so much simpler now, we can just scan an image and email it instantly when requested.
There were no digital downloads then and sales seemed to be quicker over a smaller amount of time. Press 1,000 12″ singles and they’d sell out. Now releases seem to sell over a longer period of time.
What first gave you the idea to start Rocket Girl? Was it a lifelong dream? Was it a huge change from working for other people on other labels?
I started Rocket Girl specifically because I was working on a tribute to Spacemen 3 album. I was at Che [now defunct, formerly home of Urusei Yatsura and Bis] at the time, and they didn’t seem interested in the release and I really believed in it and had a great roster of bands that had agreed to cover tracks. It took over a year to compile with bands having other recording commitments or touring schedules. Whilst that was happening, I booked a European tour for Windy and Carl and the Silver Apples. I suggested a split single for the tour and that became the first release.
I loved music from a very early age and was obsessed with music and bands. I didn’t really dream of having my own label but when I look at old diaries, they are filled with scribbles about music and bands. It’s obvious I was passionate from an early age.
You started in 1997. Who was the first act you signed, and what are they doing now?
The first act I really worked with fulltime were Piano Magic. Their contract with Che had ended, Che was going through so many changes after I left, and I guess I brought them with me. They are still recording but I think they have decided to call it a day with live shows / touring.
For the benefit of those of us who have a limited knowledge of how this side of the music industry works, is a label like yours more or less a one person operation, or is there a whole squadron of backroom staff helping you out?
It’s basically me as far as the day to day is concerned, I prefer to have control, that way I can oversee everything much more easily. There is a team however; I have a great designer that I work closely with, a marketing manager for bigger releases and interns from time to time. I also work with press and radio pluggers, so it isn’t really just me, but day to day it is.
Rocket Girl strikes me as a good old-fashioned indie label – almost a throwback to the days of C86 and labels like Subway. Do you think it’s important to retain that kind of independence? Is it the only way for musicians to retain complete creative freedom these days?
I do the old school 50/50 deals, I like bands to have an element of control over their single / album / artwork – I let them have approval and we work as a team not against each other. I was a big fan of C86 and spent time writing to bands and labels, telling bands that I would release their music if I had a label ;)
Musicians definitely have more creative freedom signed to an indie and I think that is important.
I recently did one of those highly dubious online tests that determine how left- or right-brained you are. My score was exactly 50-50. I get the idea that running a record label would require a similar split. How true is it to say that you have to weigh your creative urges against your business instincts, and do you ever have to make decisions based on economic rationale which are at odds with your artistic or creative preferences?
I am very numerical. I love mathematics and I find comfort in the security of numbers; having that business acumen has definitely helped with business instincts and the longevity of the label. My creative urges do tend to come through too though. The Azusa Plane box-set was definitely a no expense spared project, but that was particularly close to my heart. The unit cost was crazy but it has just about broken even now – that said, it was never a project about making money.
I have pressed vinyl at times when I probably shouldn’t have done, but that is because I love vinyl and I can be talked round sometimes. I rarely have been at odds though.
Was there a particular band or musician you listened to when you were younger who really made you think: ‘I want to be involved in this industry’?
I don’t think it was a specific band or artist that I was listening to that made me wish I was involved in the industry – it was a general love of music and it started as a hobby with friends.
Lots of record label bosses seem to have stories of bands they missed out on signing who later went on to be world famous. Have you ever missed out on anyone big? Are there any acts on your radar who we should look out for in the near future?
During my years in the music industry there are several bands that we missed out on including Suede (we had several meetings with them) Thieves (McAlmont’s band back in the day), Manic Street Preachers who wrote to Cheree as they were huge Telescopes fans and asked us to manage them… a lot of the bands we worked with went on to sign with bigger labels too. There was a time of feeling frustrated at being a stepping stone.
God is an Astronaut are an incredible live band – they have a huge following, have just toured across Europe and sell very well. I am very excited to be working with them again. I also think that Eat Lights Become Lights are growing and developing as a band. I am waiting patiently for the debut White Ring album – as I am sure many others are.
Is there anyone amongst the current crop of Rocket Girl acts who you would tip for massive, stadium-filling success?
God is an Astronaut undoubtedly have that potential!
Do you think advances in technology, such as the use of social media and the rise of downloading, have had a positive or negative effect on what you do?
I think they have put majors and indies on a more level playing field.
All that social networking takes up a lot of time and energy, but if you are passionate enough, it tends to just happen anyway.
I think the industry needs to make some changes when it comes to downloading and subscription sites, but I am not sure what the solution is yet.
The latest release – 100 – proves that the acts on your roster are as innovative as ever (I was particularly impressed with Pieter Nooten’s contributions; his recent album is one of my favourites this year). At this rate, for you to reach 200 releases, you would need to be going until 2029 (if my maths is correct). Can you see yourself carrying on this far?
I can’t see myself doing anything else. Maybe the ratio of releases per year will change and I will be there sooner than you think!
Interview by: Thomas Blake
100 is released 2nd December 2013 on Rocket Girl