Label Profile: Blood MusicMonday, 10th October 2016
A Finnish label with only a handful of bands to its credit, Blood Music does not fit the profile of a typical free-wheeling metal record company. Owner/founder J. has dutifully placed the label’s focus on a string of well-received boxsets from Emperor, Strapping Young Lad, etc., while his A&R acumen has been certified by way of Russian cinematic post metallers Kauan, black metal force Grey Aura, and most recently, electronic maestros Perturbator. But, Blood Music does not chase the dangling carrot of trends, preferring to spend its time with unique, forward-thinking bands, and taking on projects that true fans and collectors will love. (In case you didn’t know, doing elaborate boxsets is not cheap.) This probably explains why the label has been successful.
October 2016 marks the fifth year of operation for Blood Music, which prompted us to track down the elusive, but obviously verbose, thoughtful, candid, and highly engaging J. for a chat. Here’s the scoop on one of metal’s more interesting up-and-coming labels…
Dead Rhetoric: You started the label five years ago. Has it met, or exceeded some of your initial goals?
J: The five year anniversary is coming up in October of this year, and it’s been a completely insane ride. It has definitely exceeded all my initial goals, with residual effects being anywhere from great to terrible! From the perspective of building fanbases, it’s multiple times beyond what I thought possible in the current record industry climate.
In the ‘90s, I remember watching labels spring up like Relapse, Century Media, and Candlelight and just thinking “wow.” They felt like awesome, towering giants who had access to all the best stuff before we could ever figure out who to follow. In fact, it seemed like a handful of labels was all you needed to follow in order to get your fix.
But, enter the year 2011, and I thought that element of the industry was dead. Based on current propaganda, I thought it was impossible for a new label to grow and turn an ongoing profit. I thought the same for bands too. I thought the only way to make a professional go of it in this business was to ‘sign your soul to the devil,’ either in a band (no matter the size) working at slave wages, or as a label having to sign stuff like Lacuna Coil just to hit payday.
So, I was looking for other work at the same time I started the label.
If I look around at what’s happening for Blood Music now and try to be objective, it probably appears to some fans like those labels did to me back in the day, and I’m blown away. I never intended for it to get this big, it was always supposed to be something small and manageable and a bit unique, mainly there just to do a good job and help bands out.
I now find the label fully financed from the amazing support of dedicated fans, as well as great placements in film, TV, videogames and even seeing multiple artists of mine living off their music, which is still kind of shocking.
So, on the business end, it’s just a big “holy shit” that I haven’t gotten over and maybe never will.
On the personal end, it requires so much deep emotional and time investment to do this properly. I remember hearing a quote (wrongly attributed to Kurt Cobain, I think) saying that the best place to be is right on the brink of success, just before it happens. You’re fully supported but no one’s trying to over-exploit you. It probably sounds arrogant, but I feel like the label is crossing over or has crossed over that threshold, and it’s getting frightening. The amount of undying energy you have to pour into every element to make sure things come out perfectly – so that your bands feel taken care of, so that fans feel taken care of, and so that you feel taken care of – is so large. The scrutiny you go under as expectations arise (timelines and otherwise) is all pretty brutal. Especially as I’ve tried to keep the label a completely personal venture. People just come out and start hating things vocally for the tiniest details and sometimes for no reason at all. Attention grows – some people’s expectations become unrealistic.
This is why I announced recently my plans to shrink down to only a handful of releases per year. Hopefully I can manage to stick to that cause so far I’ve sucked at NOT signing bands. I’m a sucker for great artistry, and I stumble upon too much of it and get myself into trouble all the time.
Dead Rhetoric: Was the initial premise to just do re-releases? When you did start to sign new bands?
J: Precisely. It began because I was annoyed that there were many great albums I couldn’t find on vinyl. It was right before the current vinyl boom spiked, and my focus was on bands that had achieved cult levels of popularity but never mass popularity, so it was just a pet project to start. When I realized the amount of money and energy that went into those reissues, I realized I couldn’t run the label and get a ‘real job,’ so I had to commit to doing the label full time.
Those re-issues brought in a dangerously low amount of profit, even when sold out, and I noticed that the real prize for labels seemed to be signing bands, so I wanted to try my hand at it and just get an understanding of that angle.
I had been listening to Kauan a lot and following them on Facebook. They announced a new album being written, and I wrote to ask if they had a label. Usually when a band mentions a new album, they are already signed, but in this case, Kauan was not. So, we spent a really, really long time knocking out the terms of the deal cause both of us are very particular.
I can see here in my inbox, the first mail I sent to the band was on May 10th, 2012 (so, only about half a year after opening), but that album was not released until December 15th, 2013. It was a long process of negotiating, writing, recording, and releasing, and it was a huge learning experience for me which kicked off a serious interest in developing more bands.
Dead Rhetoric: What type of criteria do you have when signing a new band? Obviously, your roster is rather varied…
J: This gets asked a lot, and it’s more basic than you think. The size of the fanbase is not the first criteria I look at, unlike many labels. If I hear a band, and it really jogs something inside me as an exceptional example of what it’s trying to do, and I think they ‘need help’ to reach more people, I send out a mail straight away, and we begin discussions from there.
Some are interested, some are not, and discussions continue or die. Over time, I’ve started narrowing my criteria simply because releasing records requires a huge commitment, so I made rules in order to deter bands from signing with me (i.e. if the bearing is on them to turn me down it’ll be a lot easier than me ignoring bands).
Just being honest (I know this is unpopular amongst fans) – I tend to like to do multiple album deals so I’m sure that the band and I will work together for some years and that I’ll be well-rewarded (emotionally, at the least) over the long term. I get written almost weekly by large bands within metal to do vinyl reissues, but I pretty much refuse to do vinyl only releases anymore. Things like that.
Some bands want to walk away based on these terms, and I have to stand strong cause I know it means if they walk, it frees up space for other bands who do accept the terms, and we will continue seeing eye-to-eye into the future. I know if we stick together for some years, then I can put everything I have into promoting the band alongside the artist(s) without ever considering “how does this benefit me?” cause it makes me feel like part of the band for a few years, after which point they are free to go off and explore other options.
I’ve had a good record so far of ‘breaking’ bands, i.e. getting them noticed within the scene, so I tend to sign smaller bands doing interesting stuff. Bands with built-in fanbases can already have very difficult demands, so I usually wind up signing newcomers and helping them grow into what they want to become but may not otherwise ever reach.
Dead Rhetoric: Out of your bands, who has been the most successful? Is it Kauan?
J: If we’re discussing artists for new releases, far and away it’s been Perturbator. I’ve had good success with the reissues of Strapping Young Lad and Moonsorrow and many others. Even Kauan’s latest album did very well, but Perturbator is definitely the best-seller as far as new material goes. He already had two albums under his belt when he came on board, so our signing together sent out a lot of ‘shockwaves’ inside both the metal scene and the retrosynth scene. It was a very happy accident on both our parts that created a lot of discussion inside the underground.
I have a lot of other bands who are growing a lot from album to album, such as GosT, Irreversible Mechanism, Dan Terminus, Dynatron, Aquilus, Corpo-Mente, Akhlys, Astronoid, Kauan, Xanthochroid, etc. I think just keeping on this same pathway will produce a lot of great results because so many artists on the label are starting to get noticed.
Dead Rhetoric: I read the story on your Facebook page about GosT and the band you were negotiating with around the same time. Does that sort of thing happen often? As in, a band backs out of a deal in the last minute?
J: Yeah, the story is that I asked a band if they wanted to work together, and the answer was a resounding yes. We met in person and things went great, but a day or two later, messages started flying and the discussion was getting nastier and more suspicious.
It eventually ended with the band insinuating that I was a liar and a scam artist and that if they signed to my label, they had to be more popular than GosT. Like I literally had to promise them that they would outsell one of my other artists, as a litmus test for how popular they would be. Which of course is not only impossible to promise, but insane to request that I would purposely keep an artist I represent – and a friend – down.
This left the sourest taste in my mouth, so that’s when I finally ended all discussion. I would rank this up there with the worst behavior of any project I’ve ever been in discussion with, and there have been a few weirdos. You know, I try to stand back and be objective and see where people are coming from, and in this case (like many), I think they had a lot of fear, and people display their fear in a variety of ways.
Add on top of that, that a lot of artists have virtually no understanding of the business, so they operate based on intuition. That intuition may be coming from a place of doubt and negativity – namely cause of negative music industry propaganda or some previous bad experience they’ve had on another label. I’ve seen a lot of bands make a lot of strange and counterproductive business decisions. I’ve even been turned down by several bands only to see them do way worse than they would’ve on my label. Simply put, there is a lot of drama behind-the-scenes no matter how forthright or transparent the artist or the business entity is – it is a marriage based on trust without much foreplay to get it started.
Fans can hold bands in some pretty high regards, but when it comes down to it, they are just people. Many of them are not savvy in the media business before they get their ‘big break,’ and it can take a lot of head space and several years to catch up. Overall, the industry is pretty crazy, cause there are no hard or fast rules and there are no basements nor ceilings to how well you can rise nor fall.
Dead Rhetoric: You are responsible for pretty marvelous boxsets by Strapping, Emperor, etc. What’s the most satisfying aspect in putting these projects together?
J: I think the most satisfying aspects have been:
1) Landing the rights – which is extremely difficult to land an entire band’s catalog.
2) Seeing the thing finally printed and noticing that all the plans (made via computer in 2D) work as a 3D item.
In all other ways, these are death-defying challenges to attempt and usually are a scramble of papers flying in the air for two-three years straight from start to finish. Each one has been crazier than the last, but I think the Emperor one is going to put this task to rest, as I can never hope to best a 25-record box set for one of my favorite bands of all-time!
Dead Rhetoric: Do you have anyone else in mind for similar boxsets?
J: I had a list of several other bands I wanted to work with, but honestly Emperor is the most important one for me as far as an entire catalog goes, so I decided to end it there for metal bands. I had another non-metal box in planning, the negotiations were ongoing for over a year and getting close to being finished, but the sad thing is that the rights did not gel well with an upcoming six-month break I intended to take from the label, so I had to begrudgingly let it go before the agreements were signed.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on the current state of the music industry? Do you pay much attention?
J: Oh yeah, I’m constantly learning about it, and it’s a multi-layered, multifaceted being that’s interesting to study. I think the propaganda that’s out there is a huge ball of misinformation that’s very difficult to decode. To me, the industry is a lot healthier than I expected when I entered. A lot of money gets shuffled around to make things happen. It really is expensive as hell to run a ‘proper’ label! I think in light of a tightening economy, a lot of labels are shifting that pressure onto the bands, which is squeezing the artists for more money and more work than ever before.
Within niche genres like metal or retrosynth, it can be hard to make all the ends meet financially, so I have a lot of respect for any label who honestly keeps trying to make a go of it despite the rising costs of production and decreasing sales. Running a label is a very hard task, anyone who’s ever worked at one can probably tell you that. It would be so difficult to explain the ins and outs of the business in one interview answer, I’m still learning a lot after five years on the job.
Dead Rhetoric: How about streaming services? Are you in support of them?
J: I have a (sort of) unique stance on this not only because I came into the industry after the ‘crash’ of album sales but also because I work with a variety of genres, inside metal and out. So, I can see why streaming is much-maligned.
It’s based on a system that has potentially hurt major labels and major artists greatly, it has done huge damage to retail distributors (who are the backbones of sales for major labels and major artists), and it has done great damage to the ‘value’ of albums. But I believe it has also helped save some of the quickly-draining revenue that came along with mass-piracy. I believe at this point, the common rhetoric about fans ‘stealing’ from artists and labels being citizen’s justice against an unfair industry has started to subside, and I believe fans are happy to give back in whatever way they can.
I think streaming has become an easy scapegoat because some of the services pay terribly in my opinion (YouTube) and because it converts album buyers into casual listeners who generate less profits from their streaming.
However, I also believe it’s converted 100% straight-up pirates into revenue generators again, which is a very important thing to note. For ‘young’ and ‘new’ music, I believe streaming has a place.
However, for brand new black metal bands, even hyped up ones, I think streaming is pretty much a dead end. I’ve talked to some bands that sell thousands of copies of their music on vinyl but digital sales are absolute trash for them. Even on my own label, some metal artists that do really well physically sell like shit digitally.
On the other side of the coin, the new electronic darksynth stuff is doing quite well with both physical and digital, and bands with ‘younger’ sounds like Astronoid, Irreversible Mechanism, etc. are doing fairly well digitally, so at this point I kind of go into each project with an idea on how it could perform on various platforms, and you just work with that.
You can’t change fans as a whole, so I welcome all the services that are out there that are helping us keep revenues healthy for bands to continue. I feel like ultimately, it’s the major label artists that are angry at Spotify but from what I understand, the artists should be angrier at their label contracts and not at streaming services.
Dead Rhetoric: Finally, what’s on your agenda for the rest of 2016?
J: Finish out the year without collapsing, then take a long break at the head of 2017.
Emperor release is on the near-horizon, as well as a bunch of darksynth albums – GosT, Dynatron, Tommy ‘86. Also, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum on vinyl for the first time ever, Dan Terminus and Irreversible Mechanism and Astronoid on vinyl for the first time ever too. A pure trip hop album, which I’m curious to see how that goes over – by Digital Velvet. Tying up a lot of loose ends, trying not to collapse from exhaustion, crossing every t and dotting every i. Making sure everything gets finished and tied up in a bow.