Tim Alborn runs Harriet Records, who just cerlebrated their fifth anniversary.
5 years, eh? What's changed in the US industry since the start?
John Peel said that the US indie labels are often more of a hobby than a business. And most of the US internet/record label people I know have day jobs while the UK equivalent are often trying to survive on record sales, so this seems a true assessment.
Would you agree with this?
Well, I also teach history at Harvard University -- more specifically, the history of your sceptered isle (I almost wrote "blighted isle" but thought better...) in the 19th century.
I don't know enough about the ins and outs of UK labels to offer an informed comparison, although the labels that find their way over here do seem to be more concerned with giving the impression of being well-capitalized. It's certainly the case that all my favorite labels in the states are not money-makers for the people who run them, with the possible exception of K, which seems to allow Calvin Johnson and four or five other people to live barely above the poverty line. And even those labels, like K and Ajax, only stay afloat because they also run distribution services or, in Ajax's case, a record store. I think a big part of the difference is that in Britain it doesn't take as much money to cover all the major media and retail stores, etc., so more people decide to shoot for quasi-major label status; whereas in the states the costs of even making a dent in the consciousness of all those consumers spread far and wide
is prohibitive for most people, so we just end up being satisfied with putting out 500-3000 records and assuming at least a small fraction of the intended audience finds out about it. I proudly wield Harriet as a hobby, and I hope my standard of living will never fall to the level that making Harriet pay seems like a good way to pay the bills. (Maybe the other reason UK labels are for-profit is because you people have national health insurance!!)
Do you see yourself doing this full time or would it never pay the bills? Would you take the major's manna if they wanted to license you, or do you have nightmares about 'selling out'?
I don't have nightmares about selling out -- it's just not going to happen. I did have a weird nightmare the other night, though, very Lord of the Flies-ish. All these juvenile delinquents had taken over Harvard and were collecting together all the professors to torture and deal with harshly, and I kept trying to convince them that I wasn't like all the other professors because I RAN A RECORD LABEL. And they were totally unfazed and tried to torture me as well.
Who's your most successful artist/rekkid so far? (And can you approximate on sales figures?) I only know Wimp Factor/Mecca Normal, and Magnetic Fields
I generally measure success in terms of "critical acclaim," the true sour grapes strategy. Magnetic Fields "100,000 Fireflies" wins on all standards of success, though -- around 1600 copies sold, and generally agreed to be one the ten most influential indy pop singles of the 1990s. Superchunk even covered it! This gem actually appeared in the UK, on Red Flame records (as part of an 11-song CD) and nobody caught on. So I guess I "broke" the Magnetic Fields, who are currently being "courted" by such labels as Geffen and London.
Any chances for any of the bands on your books to seriously crack it? And have you got them signed on nice binding contracts?
I don't sign bands to contracts, and if I did they would be unbinding. I suppose I do sell more singles when bands move on, but so far that's only happened with the Magnetic Fields. Usually bands just break up.
Any bands you wished you'd signed, or indeed would like to sign but couldn't afford their extravagant demands etc?
I try not to covet bands too much. I put out records by friends of mine and by other bands who come to me because they like what I'm doing. The one or two occasions when I've "gone after" a band it usually turned into me talking to their manager and beeing thoroughly disillusioned. I'm very happy with this arrangement and I think it has so far guaranteed that the bands on my label have been very happy with Harriet -- they know exactly hat they're getting and what they're _not_ getting, because they weren't "wooed" by me or anything.
How big is Harriet? I'm thinking of how you get stuff distributed etc. I suppose you just sign up with a big countrywide distributor who gets your records into the shops, but maybe that's more like how it works here rather than there?
That's basically it, except I sign up with anyone who'll carry my stuff. There are distributors in the US who do exclusive deals, but most of them are also willing to pick up things that other people are carrying. I find that the scatter shot approach works better for a label like Harriet, which doesn't have a single "sound" -- so sometimes Ajax buys more of one thing and Mousetrap or Parasol will buy more of another.
Mecca Normal were on Matador before they put a record out with me, so that's probably not a good example -- I'm one of something like eight or nine labels that's put out one-off singles by them. A better example is the Magnetic Fields, whose friost two US records were out on Harriet (they had previously released a CD on the UK label Big Flame). Under the guise of the Sixths they have a CD out on London and they're being "courted" by lots of major labels stateside; they're presently on Merge. That's pretty much it as far as fame and fortune. As far as I know Peel still plays my stuff when he first gets it in -- High Risk Group was one of his favorite bands ages ago, but they've since broken up. Crayon and Wimp Factor 14 are probably my two "best known" bands; although UK types might know about Hulaboy (side project of Eric from Hulahoop and Stewart from Boyracer). There's a Vehicle Flips (ex-Wimp Factor 14) CD due out in a couple of weeks, and by Christmans there will be new singles by Twig, The Ampersands, and My Favorite.
Any house style??
There's no "house style" apart from my own idiosyncratic taste, as you might guess from bands ranging from Mecca Normal to Wimp Factor to Shiva Speedway. I guess indy pop with the occasional punk rock wrinkle? Labels I've been compared to include K and Propeller (a great early-80s Boston label)
Reprinted from bigwig 1995