If you do a simple search on the internet, you will find myriad small, independent record labels all over the world. The results will boggle the mind. Many come and almost as quickly fade away. But, there are some that exceed expectations and celebrate decades in the music industry.
Anyway Records is one of the latter record labels that is celebrating 26 years of putting out music.
Established in 1991 by Bela Koe-Krompecher, the label has released records by numerous bands and artists. In the past, these have included Guided by Voices, Ass Ponys, The Hellacopters and New Bomb Turks. Some of the label’s current artists include Mary Lynn, St. Lenox and WV White.
Bela and I met for coffee and had an extended conversation that covered many topics over the course of a few hours. I was curious as to what he looks for in a band before signing them, the biggest changes in the local scene in a quarter century and does Columbus have a “sound?”
What drives anyone to start an independent record label and keep it going for 26 years?
“I don’t know,” Bela said. “I guess… I have no idea at this point. Initially, it was fun and I love music. I worked in a record store (Used Kids Records), and being the DIY guy that I was, you just do it. There is no explanation, you just do it. Never did I think I would be doing it this long. At this point, it’s almost that it’s been around so long… it’s not like it’s huge, but people know it. In some ways, I’m a figurehead. But, I still do a lot of work with it.
“It’s a super-passion and I want people to hear music. It’s like anything, because you’re still like a kid with your favorite band, book or movie… you want to share it. A band like Future Nuns, I think they’re the best band in Columbus right now… who would hear that?”
His label may not be well-known locally, but it does have a well-earned reputation outside of Ohio that allows him to expose people in the music industry to music from Columbus.
“I know the label is probably more well-known outside of Columbus. I’m not that good at promoting, because I’ve never been that comfortable with it. But, I’ve been around long enough that I can say to somebody who owns a bigger label or writes for somebody that they should listen to this band because they’re really good.”
At this point, we needed refills on our coffee. After topping off our mugs, he delved into how extensively the music industry has changed since he started Anyway Records in 1991.
“I’m still like a 15-year old kid that loves music, I guess. Nothing has really changed except… the industry has changed. And how much time I can devote to it has changed a lot. I don’t make money off this. It’s been a long time since I’ve made any sort of profit from it. There are couple of years where I maybe made $2,000 or something.
“It’s so different. The way people access music is so, so different. The floor has bottomed out. When I was in Chicago recently, I had dinner with a friend of mine. They own a long-standing label, but they don’t know what’s going to happen. The infrastructure (in the music industry) that was built is just gone.”
He goes on to explain just how small digital royalties are. The numbers are appalling. Everyone wants to get paid a fair amount for what they do. Musicians are no different. But, so many people undervalue what music is worth that the term “starving musician” has real meaning.
“What is different is that more people are accessing music than they ever have before. In fact, I think more people are listening to Anyway than they ever did in the 1990’s, which was supposedly the heyday. But, the physical sales are not there. We get digital sales, yes. Digital royalties are different in every country.
“On average, Spotify pays 1/300th of one cent per stream. So, if you have a band that has 225,000 streams that equates to $750.”
Take a moment and let those numbers bounce around your cerebral cortex. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
“Mary Lynn (on his label) has upwards of 70,000 streams on Spotify of her new record (My Animal). But, there’s very little money there. So, what I tell bands now is you’re going to get more fans listening, but there’s less money. I used to say ‘think nationally or internationally and don’t worry about local sales.’ Now I say ‘if you think you can sell enough locally to support putting out this record’… Because unless you’re going to tour, it’s really hard to sell even 200 or 300 copies of a record.
“It’s vastly different now than it was in the 1990’s. I think the first Jenny Mae record sold about 2,500 copies. Revolver in San Francisco is my distributor, they were manufacturing everything, and that was disappointing for them. Now, that would be great news.”
Making headway, let alone turning a profit as the owner of an independent record label is a time-consuming enterprise. How much can you do and how much do you ask the band to do in order to see some success?
“What’s also different now is that it’s very time-consuming. I’m a social worker, I teach at Ohio State part-time, I have two kids… I didn’t have all that when I was 25. One of things now is working at getting video premieres, but it doesn’t really benefit that many hard (physical) sales. If Pitchfork runs something, that’s good for between 70-100 copies sold.
“Another thing that’s different, is that records don’t have ‘legs’ anymore. Now, it’s two months, if that. If you’re not selling what you need to sell in that first month, you’re going to lose money. It’s kind of depressing. Unless, a band tours. And it’s harder and harder for bands to tour right now because of gas prices and they’re not getting support from labels. I was never really big enough that I could give support (for touring).”
Although there are more venues now that have live bands in Columbus than there were in the 1990’s, knowing what’s out there can be a daunting task for the listener. Before the digital age, there was the wonder of exploring that came from seeing a band you’ve never heard before. There were also the fanzines that many would look to with anticipation to discover new music.
“The ‘scenes’ are smaller. The way people access music is different. Now, when you login to Spotify, iTunes or Pandora, your radio station is fixed to what your tastes are. You’re listening to what you like, which is great. But, you’re not exposed to other music. Music is much more fragmented now. I think it’s harder to expose people to new music.”
St. Lenox (Andrew Choi) is on the Anyway Records label and is seeing some success. He recently played at SXSW 2017.
“My success right now is St. Lenox. He’s from New York, but lived here in Columbus. He’s a fascinating guy with a Ph.D. in Philosophy. It took about three years to get his first record out. He doesn’t sell hardly any hard copies, but has almost one million streams and gets a lot of press. Virgin Airlines used one of his songs from his first record and he’s made more money from that than anything else. And, it was not that much.”
Gone are the days when a band made their money from signing to a record label. These days, the bands make their money from sales of merchandise and touring. They have to not only be musicians, but also be able to sell and promote themselves.
“I was talking to Chuck Cleaver, who was in Ass Ponys and Wussy (both are Cincinnati bands), and he said that they make all of their money from touring and merchandise sales. It’s completely different from what it used to be. If you want to make money, you’ve got to work and go on the road.
“At this point,” Bela concluded, “it’s more a labor of love than anything else.”
Part two of our Friday Spotlight with Bela Koe-Krompecher will run March 31.
St. Lenox – Thurgood Marshall