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(Credit: Sasha Litt/Far Out)

Music

24 hours in the life of a label boss: a conversation with DeepMatter Records

@SamWKemp

If you’re looking for an insight into how the music industry actually works, you’re best off asking one of the people keeping it afloat. All over the UK, indie labels such as London’s DeepMatter records are carving out a space for themselves in an industry dominated by major ones. Offering greater creative freedom to their artists, many of these grassroots ventures have cemented themselves as national and international tastemakers, throwing down the gauntlet to the likes of Virgin EMI, Island Records, and Sony Music Group with a wry smile.

In the second week of April 2022, the UK Association of Independent and Major Record Labels (BIP) confirmed that indie label sales have been growing for four years on the trot, with consumption now at 26.9 %, up from 22.1% in 2017. BPI’s chief executive Geoff Taylor welcomed the findings, noting: “The UK has an enviable independent music scene, and enhances choice and variety to new and existing British talent”.

DeepMatter has been a key in bringing the fresh sounds of London’s underground music scene into the mainstream. Boasting the honey-sweet R&B of Stella Talpo, the virtuosic jazz revelries of Pyjaen and the innovative drumming of Myele Manzanza DeepMatter has earned a reputation as a purveyor of intoxicating beats and sun-drenched horn sections, gaining the support of Gilles Peterson in the process. But it hasn’t been an easy road. To gain an insight into the ins and outs of running a venture like DeepMatter, we sat down to chat with the big cheese himself, Tom Pickford.

A conversation with DeepMatter Records…

Far Out: Hi Tom, thanks for talking with us. First off, what does an average day at DeepMatter look like?

Tom: “It’s a mixture really, depending on how busy we are with releases and everything. But on my end, it generally starts with lots of emails in the mornings, then checking over our release/rollout plans for any projects we’re releasing at the time or have coming up to make sure everything is done. There’s always some sort of pitch to be done too, or a conversation to be had with the DSPs about releases, so between myself and our distributors (IDOL) we’ll work across those. I’ll always have a few meetings and catch-ups with IDOL and other partners to make sure we’re all up to date on things.

“We still handle our Bandcamp shipping, so at about 9am they get sent off for posting. George, our marketing assistant, heads up our promo mailers to send upcoming releases to our radio and press connections; he also makes sure things are in line on our and the artist’s YouTube pages. He also does outreach to indie playlists and popular YouTube accounts to support our releases. We have two designers we work with as well who head up most of the visuals for the label and our artists, so there’s always bits going on there too. One of the things we try to stay on top of is our demos email. At least we listen to everything that’s sent our way, so we’ll run through anything that’s been sent in there most days. Last but not least: checking in with the artists. I think I spend a large amount of my time keeping up to date with our artists, for both music and what’s going on in their lives. I like to have a personal relationship with them all if I can, so I speak to a lot of them daily”.

How and why did you set up DeepMatter?

“Before we became a label, we were a collective of musicians, beatmakers, rappers etcetera. Three of the artists we worked with got signed by major labels/big indie labels, and that was the moment where I thought, ‘damn, I’ve obviously got an ear for music’. So I had a chat with one of them, Abhi, and his exact words were, ‘just start a fucking label man’. It was literally that which started this journey into an official label.

“The ‘why’ comes from a few things really. I had a deep love of music from an early age thanks to my parents. But also, I was told I wasn’t creative at school and not allowed to take art or music as GCSEs and, honestly, it stuck in my mind. I guess I always had a point to prove in my own head to those teachers. I’m also a big people person. If I love someone and love their music, I naturally just want to help them, and I think that’s my personal biggest push. Being able to help people is what I thrive on, and if I can help people discover some really good music along the way, then it’s a double bonus.”

How do you source acts and establish if they’ll be – for want of a better phrase – a worthwhile investment?

“We have the demos email which historically hasn’t led us to signing many artists. However, we’ve just announced a new signing on our sub-label Root Records called The Offline, and that came from our demos email. The music was exactly what we were looking for and also a great example of how to send an email to a label! Beyond that, we have an A&R called Josh Mason, who has found us a few amazing artists for us over the years and then it’s just hearing artists myself and liking their music tends to be the final step.

“Most of our signings come from me just loving their music; DeepMatter is very much based on my music taste. I’ll then have a conversation with the artist and get to know them a bit, and if all the stars align, that’s where we’ll take the step to officially approach and work out what the investment will be. It’s probably quite different from the ‘traditional’ way, but I’m a big believer in people and have always found that if the individual is nice and the music is good, the investment is worth it”.

OK, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Talk us through the process of releasing an album on the vinyl market?

“Until one or two years ago, it was a smooth process. We’d have the music mastered for vinyl, place the order with the manufacturers, and send the music off to them along with the vinyl artwork. Then we’d wait for the test pressings to arrive, clear them and wait on the final pressing to touch down.

“In between, we would work with our physical distributors (SRD) to give them all the info they need to sell into stores. This is generally an overview of press and radio and who has supported the artist in the past. Essentially the stores want to know who cares so they know how many to buy. We’d also release the pre-order with the album going live on Bandcamp so that we can get those orders in as early as possible and build the campaign on Bandcamp some more. When the records arrive, we ship out the Bandcamp orders and make sure the artists get a bunch for themselves, and the rest are split between us and the distributors.”

How difficult is it compared to releasing the same album digitally? Which do you prefer?

“Currently, it’s a nightmare. The turnaround times right now are still crazy due to, well, just about every reason possible. That’s making it slightly hard for a smaller label like ourselves. Trying to hit album release dates has been a struggle over the past 1-2 years too, and we’ve struggled to get records delivered on time, despite promises from various suppliers, which is not great for cash flow or for the fans who are buying the records. Fortunately, we aren’t alone, and it seems like most people have gotten used to it now, so we don’t tend to get any comments. Before all these issues, it was smooth though. Right now, the joy of doing physical is reduced just a tiny amount. Though it’s still amazing when they finally arrive, and you get to have that first listen.

“I’m 50/50 on what I prefer. On the one hand, I collect records myself and holding a brand-new record of an album you love will never get old, especially when it’s one you’ve had a hand in making come to life. But digitally, there’s something about the wins that really gives you extra life. The music industry has evolved, and most artists really want those digital campaign wins more than physical it seems, which is totally understandable. There’s also a lot more competition when it comes to the digital side I feel, so having a campaign land a strong amount of support across a lot of different DSPs feels really good. Also, the digital definitely feeds into the physical. It helps build an artist so much, building audiences and fans that will buy the records. It’s starting to sound like I prefer the digital here [laughs], but I’m definitely 50/50”.

What are the challenges of being a small independent label in today’s industry?

“For us personally it’s the cash flow. In the past two years, both the label and our artists have grown incredibly, to the point we need to up a few things like radio and press on some artists, which come with much greater outgoings of cash. With vinyl, we’re also waiting up to a year in some cases to make back anything from on a pressing. To be totally honest, it’s been a real challenge. We’re quite lucky we have great connections and relationships that we’ve built, and the partnerships we have with distribution are perfect, so I always feel quite lucky on that front”.

What can indie labels offer that major labels can’t?

“Freedom. Historically, indie labels give artists a greater opportunity to express themselves through their music and visuals. Indies still offer some guidance, but there’s no hidden clauses in the contract where an artist is signing their life away or is going to be told what they can and can’t do. Not all majors are scumbags, but we’ve all heard stories over the years about artists not making money from their catalogues or making tiny amounts from huge catalogues. That’s what indies are here for, to offer artists a more honest and transparent approach.

“Obviously though, indies don’t have the bank that majors have, so the appeal as an artist looking at a major is totally understandable. It all depends on the artist: what they’re looking for from a deal and various other things. But for me, indie is key, and there’s some big and small indie labels out there that offer more than a major ever will”.

What’s been your best moment with DeepMatter?

“This may sound silly, but about three years ago I was in NYC visiting a friend who was on tour. I was heading to a meeting with an artist that we had just signed from Brooklyn, and I went to grab a coffee. I was wearing my DeepMatter hoodie, and the guy serving me went, ‘dude, DeepMatter, the record label?! I love your shit!’ Honestly, that was so surreal for me. We were at a bit of a low point at the time, so it was a real pick me up and gave me the push that I needed.

“On top of that, I think having support from the likes of Gilles Peterson across a bunch of our artists. He’s someone I’ve always listened to over the years and look up to. We also have a feature on an album later this year from a legend whose music I grew up on, and that will probably be the tip-top, but it’s not released yet, so I’ll hold that one back!”

Consider my interest peaked. What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own label?

“Try not to scale too quickly. The music industry can be a real rollercoaster, and when you’re a label, you have a lot of artists to think about, so focus on a small amount at first, or even one, and grow as they grow and do it sensibly. Also, be patient. Artists don’t just blow up overnight. There’s a lot of work that needs to be put in, and you often don’t see any of it. With this, you also need to manage expectations across the board so that everyone is on the same level and nobody over-promises or expects everything from day one. It can really knock an artist’s confidence if something doesn’t go too well, but unfortunately, that does happen and managing expectations here will definitely help.

“Work another job until you can afford to live off the label. A few years ago, our royalties dropped to the extent that if I’d carried on taking my salary from the business we wouldn’t have been able to invest in campaigns. I didn’t take it for almost a year, and it was just very, very stressful on myself, which ultimately means I probably wasn’t doing my best work, but for me, the artist always comes first, and we’re in it for the long run with them, so it was a risk I was willing to take. I wouldn’t advise doing that, though; it’s way too stressful.

“Don’t be afraid to ask people for help either. I’d be nowhere without the help I got from people I just reached out to. Find the people that inspire you or run your favourite labels and try and chat with them. Ask for five to ten minutes of their time, be precise and to the point, and you’ll learn so much from them. You could also join things like AIM (Association for Independent Music) – there’s a yearly fee, but so many good resources, events to meet people and connect, and they throw a great Christmas party! It’s worth it. Remember, trust the process. If you have good music, a willingness to put in the work, and a vision, trust it. Finally, be nice. It goes a long way.”

Does music still have a part to play in today’s climate and how will it need to adapt to maintain itself as a business?

“Definitely. Artists, labels, distributors, press, radio and so on play a huge part and continue to be vocal on social and cultural issues. There’s such a great reach, especially when people come together. You see this throughout music and the arts. No doubt there’s still room for improvement, but I think it’s heading in the right direction, and businesses are more aware of the part they play, whether it’s internally, publicly or through the voice of the artists they work with.”

All things considered, are you hopeful for the future of music?

“Personally, I am. There is a lot of negativity surrounding it at the moment. But I think even with streaming platforms (who should definitely pay more) the industry is in a much better place now. There’s more opportunity for more artists than ever before. Yes, there’s a lot of artists that maybe don’t get the credit or the support they deserve, but you’ll always have that to an extent. Looking at the bigger picture, the music industry is in a good place, and I think with people getting more and more vocal, we will continue to move towards a greater future for music.”

Thanks to Tom for talking to us about his work with DeepMatter. You can find the label’s latest releases alongside artfully curated playlists on the DeepMatter website.