Thursday, 6 October 2011

Interview: Debt Records

Debt Records is a non-profit co-operative comprising like-minded creatives, including musicians, artists & film-makers. They replace record label bureaucracy with collaborative self-sufficiency, evoking a mantra that Debt's Louis Barabbas files next to "loose art collectives like the Bloomsbury Group, Pre-Raphaelites, Beats, etc.." Spurred on by questions supplied by Now Then Manchester's Ian Pennington, Louis and fellow co-founder Biff Roxby go into more detail about the aims of the label, gigs with wobbly floorboards and indifference towards comparisons with Factory Records.

Now Then: How did the label begin; who started it; how many bands were involved from the outset?

Biff: Soon after I joined the Bedlam Six Louis and I were having a beer in a park, playing songs with Tom our drummer. Record labels came up in conversation and we both admitted our teenage fantasies of owning a label. Why not, we thought. We knew enough people then to put a great roster together and to begin thinking about websites, venues for showcases, videos and all sorts. But it had to be different. Mainly because we had (and still have) no money. The label benefits hugely from its artists' other skills and their links to good people to make having no money a little easier.

Louis: Biff and I talked a lot about the traditional role of labels and how, when you ignore all the things that are now in crisis (traditional distribution, expensive marketing, etc) what you have is, quite literally, a label – a quick description to stick on a product, something that makes you know instinctively that a band put out by Subpop or Rough Trade is going to be very different to a singer put out on Sony. While the internet and affordable recording equipment are making the established record companies rethink their business strategies and abandon their traditional revenue streams, that doesn’t mean people don’t still benefit from filters and taste-makers. The best independent labels are just that, a badge of recommendation that helps artist and audience alike. It was that model that we sought to follow rather than, say, EMI.

NT: Have you modelled Debt on any other labels, either contemporary or historically? If so, which one(s)? If not, how is Debt individual?

Biff: We intentionally avoided trying to be a 'proper label', sick of the images those two words imbue in an artist or musician. We opted for a transparent and friendly approach, perhaps somewhat idealistic in its early days but one that focussed on artists and listeners instead of profits. Many aspects of how we run are similar to those of other independent labels that we have met along the way. This only helps to strengthen our resolve, knowing other people want a change in their industry too.

Our artists were already active on the live circuit. We believe strongly that live is where it's at and that records are something that can supplement that as a means to earning, whilst also being a valuable documenting of an artist's output. The idea is to give artists the ability to make a sustainable career for themselves. As artist and label, you realise quickly what works and what doesn't.

Louis: Early on we were compared a lot to Factory (ie Manchester based and useless with money). I’ve always seen us more like those loose art collectives like the Bloomsbury Group, Pre-Raphaelites, Beats, etc. – not in the things we do, say or wear, but in the fact that there’s no rigid infrastructure and that, essentially, it’s a league of independent creators under one banner. That’s where the idealism ends though, we’re pretty practical and understand that the modern social obsession with networks is a phenomenon that could become the saviour of all artists – penniless and profitable alike – Debt tries to establish a context for those on the roster that can help with broadening their appeal, marketing their projects and, ultimately, helping them make a living.

NT: How much debt is Debt Records in? Can you put a price on artistic freedom?

Biff: We aren't in a huge amount of debt. We started with hardly anything and only have slightly less than that now.

Louis: In money terms the label is down but in every other respect business is booming: our name is growing overseas, the network is spreading and the artists are all touring and producing great work. That was always the goal. We try not to let money ruin our progress, in my experience once you start making it you invariably have to start spending it and that’s when it gets complicated.

NT: You often facilitate collaboration between artists affiliated to you; what’s the secret to your successful fusions? Do you just pick names out of a hat?

Louis: We don’t force anyone to do anything. Most of these things just happen because it’s very common to have members of two or more different bands in the same room sharing the same wine. What happens after that doesn’t take much facilitating, indeed it’s hard to stop!

NT: Do you ever collaborate outside of the broadly folk genre?

Louis: We’re hoping to do some more radical cross-overs soon. We plan to start a more regular remixing operation of the records we put out, hopefully open things up to other influences.

Biff: I'd say all our artists have a strong folk influence but are developing outside of that themselves. However this is no doubt informed by collaborations made in both live and studio situations.

NT: What has been the biggest (and best, if different) gig you’ve staged as Debt?

Louis: The ones I like have been those that allow the label aspect of what we do to mingle with the live operation. For instance we recorded the launch for the last Bedlam Six studio record and then released that as the next album. There was a nice interconnectivity there. It sort of fills in the gaps between the various processes. Plus we always talk about the importance of live music so it suits us to make those big shows into material for release.

Biff: We've staged packed out shows at several venues around Manchester including The Dancehouse Theatre and The Ruby Lounge. They were a lot of fun but my personal favourites are always the smaller, more intimate gigs where people are standing on tables at the back to be able to see. We had nights just like that at Fuel in Withington. We ran free entry gigs there for two years where the same crowd would sit cross legged for an acoustic artist or poet and then half an hour later make the floor wobble (quite worryingly) when the dancing started.

NT: Are arts organisations deserving of public funding? Why / why not? Do you ever seek public funding? Why / why not?

Biff: If an arts organisation meets the necessary criteria then yes I believe they are deserving of funding. What the criterions are is another matter entirely. Some of our artists have received public funding, though the label itself has not. Those who have received funding have benefited hugely and I think the label would too although it is not for me to say wether the label is deserving of it. I'm far too biased.

Louis: The UK is in danger of being a nation that no longer produces anything. We’ll just be sitting there surrounded by crumbling castles, quoting our ancient poets and lamenting the lost empire. The arts brings in so much international interest and money for the country that it is a folly not to invest in it. That said, I think arts organisations need to be wary of reliance on funding. Look what happened to the Green Room Theatre in Manchester: its funding got cut and it closed its doors almost instantly. These organisations need to be realistic and be able to exist (at some level) independently or they become unstable and unsustainable.

If Debt had some funding we could do some great things but it’d be essential that we continued to operate in the way we already do, on a project-by-project basis. My friend Jeff at Un-Convention once said that funding is like morphine – it helps when you’re in pain… but if you start relying on it, you’re in trouble! What I’d like to see from the government is more respect for the arts sector, full stop. Everywhere is getting cuts at the moment and the arts suffer more than most, but saying that the creative industries are less important (and less deserving of investment) than other areas will spell disaster for more than just the artists.

NT: Which records are you playing the grooves off at the moment and which of your peers would you recommend?

Biff: I'm remixing 'Song of the Foundling' by Alabaster Deplume at the moment. I also helped arrange the choral parts for the original so I've listened to that song more times than I can count. I still love it.

Of course I'd highly recommend all of Debt's artists but outside of that I'd suggest The Moulettes and Moneytree, both with the Sotones cooperative label in Southampton who do great work. Jamie Harrison on Manchester's own Red Deer Club Label is also one of my current favourites.

Louis: I agree with Biff on those for sure. We’ve also been seeing a lot of Kirsty Almeida, Mika Doo and Liz Green recently, they’re all fantastic. Bridie Jackson over in Newcastle is another one to watch. It seems to be all women on my list, well I suppose it’s probably about time the independent scene was a bit more balanced that way!

NT: Describe the music lined up for the Now Then event...

Biff: Alabaster Deplume - performance poetry and songs that will make you cry with laughter, sadness and fear all in the same breath.

Louis Barabbas - high kicking, dirt swinging leader of The Bedlam Six. If he plays his pretty ones you'll swoon. If his foot gets too close in the raucous ones, you'll be knocked unconscious.

Honeyfeet - When these guys play, hearts move and dancefloors shake. Bring boogie shoes.

Images #3, #4 & #5: Simon Bray Photography (live & promotional photography) taken of Louis Barabbas & The Bedlam Six at Un-Convention 2010. Image #6 (The Red Tides) taken by Simon at the Debt Records showcase at the same event.
Poster design (image #1) by Craig Brown [Beards Illustration]
Image #2: logo courtesy of Debt Records.

Debt Records curate the forthcoming Now Then Manchester show on Thursday 13th October at Dulcimer bar in Chorlton. Wordlife will co-curate by adding selected poets between the music. Joe Kriss, Stan Skinny & James Lock are so far confirmed for spoken word slots. Pay what you like; £3 suggested.

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