Off the Richter scale
One Irish label is rocking the new world of streaming and free downloads with its innovative approach, says Kevin Donnellan, who spoke to the hardworking founders of The Richter Collective
Of all the doom and gloom out there, talk within the music industry can be the doomiest and gloomiest. The music industry is dead or dying. You can't make money from music. Labels are obsolete.
So how is an Irish label with only two years of experience under its belt not only embracing this brave new world of streaming and free albums, but actually succeeding? Well the trick may be to forget about what constitutes a successful label in the first place.
Barry Lennon, co-founder of emerging Irish indie label The Richter Collective, is leading me through a series of rooms and corridors. "It's a bit like Willy Wonka's factory trying to find our office," he says.
In reality, the collection of makeshift offices in a converted house in Dublin's city centre doesn't exactly bring to mind the charm of an eccentric chocolatier's playground. But this is in fact the home of one of the most positive stories on the Irish music scene at present.
In the very back room of the building sits the other label founder Mick Roe, along with Lewis Jackson and Danielle Walsh, who do most of the day-to-day work. "Lewis sleeps under the desk," jokes Mick. At least I think he's joking. The office has the cluttered warmth of a chaotic family home, so a night or two sleeping under the desk wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
The label was formed more than two years ago when Mick and Barry combined their own respective labels. "After a while of doing the same stuff [musically], we thought it was only logical to merge the labels together," Barry explains.
Now the collective has 12 bands on its books. The roster includes Adebisi Shank, whose second album is a contender for Irish album of the year; Not Squares, who are one of the most talked about live acts in the country at the moment; and Redneck Manifesto, who have been a staple of the Irish music scene over the past decade.
The company has adopted a mix-and-match approach to how they run the label, not basing it on one perfect model. Social networking is utilised fully, with all of the bands encouraged to have regular Twitter feeds and get involved with their own promotion. Music is released creatively and depending on the act.
For some bands that means entire albums being available online, for others a mix of free downloads and traditional store releases. There is no official scouting for talent, each band is brought into the fold in an organic way -- if someone hears a band they like, they'll check them out and let things evolve from there.
"We do like to build a relationship before we sign someone," explains Lewis. "There's usually some kind of friendship there, it makes it less complicated, and usually we don't deal with contracts." Business graduates might spit in their Corn Flakes at a 'friendship over contracts' concept, but this approach sits at the heart of what the label is about and why it has suited so many Irish bands.
Being involved with Richter has acted as an eye opener for the three lads, who are all musicians themselves; Mick is drummer with Adebisi Shank, Lewis is in Enemies and Barry is singer with Hands Up Who Wants to Die. All Richter Collective bands.
"It's a benefit having the experience of working at a label because you know the hardship you have to go through to release a record," explains Mick. "It's given me slightly less grandiose expectations about what can happen, but it's exciting because you get to control every aspect of the release; it's not just going out of your hands."
It's hard to talk about any new venture in Ireland without the R word being mentioned and, of course, it eventually raises its ugly head. But, refreshingly, the economic situation isn't necessarily seen as a bad thing.
"As far as the money goes, it's terrible. But as far as creativity goes, it's the best time to be involved in music," says Mick. "When there's so much money going around, people get complacent."
"No one has a job, so they're writing more music," adds Lewis, laughing. "Most of our money is recycled and it goes from release to release; you make money off one record and it goes into the next. But it can be a little scary sometimes in terms of basic survival."
The music is niche, from instrumental post rock to electro pop, and the label's succcess isn't measured in record sales. Reward comes from having genuine music fans appreciating the label's output, going to Richter gigs, blogging about their bands. None of the team are under any illusions that they are going to make their fortune out of this label, passion for the music shines through above everything else. They all have separate jobs, courses, businesses they are doing away from the label.
The bands they have brought on board are all actively involved as well, the 'collective' in the title means just that. Everyone pitches in when it comes to giving plugs, lifts being sorted, promoting other bands' merchandise. Craig, of Richter band BATS, has done design work for most other bands on the label. Many Richter releases will feature some manner of musical crossover between bands. A lot of gigs are organised under the Richter banner. If you like one band on the label, it generally won't be long until you like another.
There was always an awareness that this could all become a bit cliquey if complacency set in, so outside voices are always sought and welcomed. "I think with the addition of Lewis and Danielle it has expanded, they have introduced fresh perspectives," says Barry. "You can get set in your own ideas, so it's good to get the view of someone looking at it from the outside."
Danielle is the first non-musican to be welcomed into the fold and she now oversees all the publishing work. It's a big step in the evolution of the label and a sign that they are in for the long haul. According to Danielle, anyone looking to work within music, in whatever capacity, needs to be a jack of all trades. "I think you need to be doing a lot more things, not just one aspect," she says. "Things feed into it, managment, publishing, PR, it all ties in."
This is reflected in the way the label is run, everyone has knowledge, to some extent, of all aspects of the industry, between them all they are making this work.
We finish up, as Barry needs to get back to his day job; he works with a TV company. Danielle, Mick and Lewis return to their laptops and Barry walks me out. In a modest office, tucked away off Leeson Street, a new way of making music, a new way of doing business, is developing nicely. Not a perfect way, but interesting and passionate and, above all, honest.
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