Part Four of Jamie Holman’s warts-and-all rumination on starting up and running a nobudget indie record label. While the world continues to turn its back, Jamie’s faith in the fledgling Winterbird remains heroically intact, so much so that he’s even signed himself to the label. While he dreams of glory there’s a gig at Blackburn Library to sort out…
The things no one tells you when starting a record label (an ongoing list in no particular order). No.78: “Rock And Roll is “90% hanging around”. It turns out to be true. And it’s really fucking boring.
It’s becoming harder to write this diary as there doesn’t seem to be an obvious line of progression. Everything moves slowly for ages, and then we have a sudden breakthrough which, as soon as it happens, disappears from the listings faster than a promoter with the door money. Give it a day or so for the hangover and bad accounts to clear and I’m on the phone again, dignity locked tightly in the kitchen drawer; begging for more shows. Picture a young Oliver Twist: “Please Sir/anybody/ someone, can I have some more?”
The reality is that’s its less the stuff of Dickens and more the stuff of Del and Rodney. This is made more complex by the addition to the label of my own solo project, micktravis. It means that I am pitching directly for myself as well as for the other artists. It’s a strange sensation, speaking about yourself in the second person. If asked about the artists, I speak or write about micktravis in a Bruce Wayne/Batman kind of way, often reducing the project to, “used to be in tompaulin… songs about girls and fighting”. This isn’t strictly true; I am keen, in fact, to lose the northern stereotype that has dogged my songs since the start – initially a strategy to avoid the twee trap. But it’s still preferable to stating: “best songwriter you never heard.”
The positives are that I can do the gigs no one wants, jump on a train with my guitar at short notice and expect much less in terms of fees than everyone else. With a handful of old, loyal connections it’s been easier for me to arrange solo gigs in this way and instead of treating it as two separate things I know that I can use my own small shows to promote the label. Not only does it get me back to work but it takes some of the pressure off the business of running a business. More importantly, it’s fun. In an odd way this gives the label a kick up the arse. micktravis (yes, me again) needs studio time and a release schedule and gigs. And he won’t take no for an answer. I tell my wife that I’m worried micktravis will leave the label if we don’t look after him. She tells me that I’ve cracked up.
At the end of July, Winterbird are offered a showcase in Blackburn, funded by the local council as part of a cultural festival. No begging, no crawling and… paid. The show kicks off a week of activity that sees micktravis play live in London and at the Indietracks festival; Fifth House supporting The Phantom Band and Django Django; and all our artists (with the exception of the awol David Boon) playing the aforementioned showcase in a Blackburn library. This is the venue which the council has requested we play – a theatre in a library, on a Friday night. By the time the doors are opening the street is rammed and its standing room only inside. We are playing to people we have never met but probably passed on the street 100 times or more. It’s a triumph against the odds (only a small PA, it’s in a library, there’s no bar and it’s a Friday night!) And so the week rolls on. We are caught blissfully in that remaining 10% where things actually happen. The 90% waiting around is a distant memory.
At this point, I find myself forced to reevaluate where I am going with Winterbird. Some issues have become concrete – the shops definitely don’t want us, so we will continue to chase shows and sell directly to punters at gigs and through the website. This is something I’ve become increasingly comfortable with, realising that unless you have a huge press and PR budget, there’s no point in bothering HMV. In the short term this suits us, staying lo-fi and existing as part of a community. While I accept it I have to confess that I am still as evangelical/= ambitious/naïve as I was a year ago when all this started. I still believe that the bands I’ve ‘signed’ have greatness in them. My daydreaming is fuelled not by my own PR but by experience – I’ve seen it happen, to former band members for example. You’re not supposed to admit to such naked ambition when you’re an indie label/ artist. But I do, and when you’re cursed with a missionary zeal that borders on psychosis, you think that it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world catches up. It’s this unfailing belief that keeps me going.
When you’re in a band you want someone else to be doing all the leg work and grovelling, while you write songs, have musical differences and try to shag girls/boys/both. What else do you do during the 90% waiting around? Bands are duty bound to pursue clichés while the label is expected to do everything else. And, as I’ve pointed out in previous columns; when it goes well it’s due to everyone except the label. When it goes wrong, it’s entirely our fault.
And so it is that I try anything I can to make the 10% rock’n’roll happen: emailing, texting and running up the phone bill. I am equal parts Oliver and Fagin, always asking for more, dreaming of more than I can handle and, thus far, getting fuck all.