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Home Normal: Label Profile

img  Tobias Fischer

Most label heads tend to spend their days moaning about illegal downloads, declining sales and the depressing state of the industry. Ian Hawgood isn't one of these label heads. Despite the currently rough climate for creatives, his miniature empire – or, as he would put it, 'family' – of three labels (Home Normal, Tokyo Droning, Nomadic Kids Republic) has been a beacon of hope, going from strength to strength over the past five years. The success is the result of a personal philosophy and a constant tightrope walk between artistic ideals and economic realities, the desire to focus on nothing but the music and the need for promotion, between opening up and preserving a mystery. In August of 2011, we spoke to Ian in depth about this approach to running the label and excerpts of the conversation were later published in a two-part article in German printmagazine „beat“ and a tokafi feature on the growing power of the musical underground. As part of the fifth-birthday celebrations of Home Normal, we've now decided to finally run the entire interview. For anyone interested in starting their own label or in staying sane in a confusing era, this is an inspiring read.

What were your main motivations when setting up your own label?
On a very basic level, just to release really wonderful music with beautiful photography / art. I wanted to create a family where artists felt open and comfortable to release anything that was right and true to them.

How would you describe the situation for your label right now? What are the financial realities you're faced with, for example? How satisfied are you with the exposure you've managed to create for yourself?
The label is doing really well. We have great customers and excellent distribution. I wanted the label to be beyond having to promote the hell out of it and it got there quicker than I imagined. I am happy to promote but it is really great when a label gets such an identity that people just follow all the work you do, no matter how different each release is from the next.

The financial realities are a little warped after the earthquake in Japan. Much of our stock was damaged and I had to replace it all. Postage is incredibly expensive here and I charge much less than I pay, plus I have to pay customs taxes as we are printed in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, which amount to a great deal. Beyond that artist copies and promo copies amount to quite a lot.

However, I work two jobs and am a freelance lecturer, sound engineer, composer and designer so this keeps the labels afloat. The financial reality for us is that whilst I work like this the labels will be fine. We have the odd release which makes profit, but not much to be honest, despite the sales figures after promotion, taxes and postage.

How, generally, do you see the role of a label today? What can a label add to the music scene that myriads of individual artists can't?
I can’t really answer that succinctly to be honest. Running a label has taught me so much about making music and has changed the way I myself create. A label has an identity and is strict (or should be) in the way it evolves. I don’t think many artists work on that level – as an individual artist I don’t. Once I complete the music I have put myself into it so much that I need a label to get it into shops, do the promotion, art etc. I think it’s also part of being in a family as well. Most small – medium sized labels have a regular roster of artists who share a vision and work towards a mutual goal. That is very important.

Do you see it as a problem that so many people are setting up their own label nowadays – or artists selling their own music directly - thereby considerably increasing the overall amount of music available to listeners and potentially devaluing the label-concept?
Not at all. The labels that are run properly and well, with a strong vision behind them, will shine the brightest and stay the distance. Many people set-up labels but they often fall by the wayside because they are not set-up properly. I still think you could name the best labels in each genre on one hand easily enough which says it all really.

Most artists sell their own work plus work with labels. It is simply part of the environment now. It is not a problem at all in my opinion, but I do think when an artist releases every other day seemingly, it is an issue as it takes away from their message as it seems to lack vision and clarity.

Do you see the label-concept as tending towards a new form? In which way, do you feel, could labels either add new functionalities to their existing catalogue, or shed others to focus on their core strengths, to become more successful?
Very slightly maybe, but only in small ways. I think Soundcloud and Bandcamp for example, have opened up artists to their customers more. In fact, social networking has as artists and customers are more likely to be ‚friends’ now than ever before of course. Labels (to be ‚successful’) should address these and become more connected to their fans and customers. However, I have to confess I have little interest in being a totally open label – I like being in contact with people very much, but Home Normal is not controlled by this at all. I suppose an ideal for me is something like Moteer. They were never run worrying about networks and modern developments like Soundcloud etc … there was barely any visible information available yet they were respected enough to get lots of attention. Sure, they could have sold more by networking. But then their core strength (much like Home Normal’s) was a focus on quietude and being sort of timeless, beyond the world if you will. If you measure success in doing what feels right and correct to your vision, then this is what can be considered truly successful in the strictest sense.

How important do you rate the importance of distributors (including mail orders and outlets for digital downloads) for a label like yours? How hard has it been for you to find and work with distributors? What, do you feel, could be improved in this regard?
I’ve been lucky in that all the distributors I work with really appreciate the work we do and are very supportive. I was already in touch with distributors through my own work as a lot of my own releases were small editions, so I would get emails if I had any copies etc. So I loosely got to know the people we work with that way. I find all our distributors very easy to work with really but of course there is competition. If one of our albums is ‚album of the week’ in one store, another rival will write to me to apologise that they cannot make it album of the week for them. There is a lot of competition as it is so fierce given the low CD sales these days. Some distributors jump the release date on purpose but we try hard to keep that in check. I think a little more mutual respect would be good but it is also part of running a business.

One issue we have had is that of exclusive agreements. When starting a label things can snowball in a good way – however, as they do distributors will contact you to sell through them, but with exclusive deals your hands are tied and the label is tied to the success of a distributor in many ways. I don’t like this as I have had to say no to a few big distributors, purely out of loyalty to our original ones. I am respectful of this and as a label we have done well, but if things were more open and less exclusive, we could do better.

The final thing I would add is that in sales, labels like Home Normal (plus Nomadic Kids Republic and Tokyo Droning of course!), Hibernate, Sonic Pieces and Low Point for example, always sell really well. In many ways such labels are the current bread and butter for distributors and yet some of them have a real issue with ‚drone’ work or even minimal works which they always term as ‚nice’. It is frustrating that the scene isn’t given more support just because it perhaps isn’t considered fashionable right now.

How do you rate the impact of social media on running a label? How do you personally work on creating a community around the label and how would you rate the importance of these social factors compared to the actual music being released?
That’s a really good question. There is definitely a social factor as I mentioned. Fans become ‚friends’ of artists and labels, so the whole thing has become more personal. People used to just see labels, now they see the people behind the labels. It is a good development I think but the important thing is to keep ideals and no matter what relationship evolves, as a label owner you have to be cold and professional. It is very easy to just say ‚ok’ to someone who has been in touch over time but not necessarily the right option.

In regards to creating a community. Well I guess I am very much part of a community but I have shied away from it in many ways as well. I don’t want the labels to just be an extension of that, they need to be important and sustain themselves on the quality of the work. The importance of these social factors has become big and most labels embrace it, but I don’t really. I think people can feel like they are in a group but then they can become complacent of the work released. As a whole I think such complacency is becoming more of an issue but people are too afraid to say this as they need to sell records and don’t want to upset others in case it affects this.

Just like many artists and labels, the press have found it hard to adapt to the new playing field of the digital age. What kind of support and co-operation would you expect and appreciate from them?
None, I don’t care about the press. I don’t mean this negatively or positively but, like the above, 90% of press is bullshit. Labels and artists know the writers and get amazing reviews for absolute crap. This is especially the case for the classic labels and some well-known artists who can do no wrong according to press because they want to maintain good relations. I don’t care about that – if people hate the record and want to tell others how crap it is then fine. If they love it and want to spread the word then great. Either way, I would rather have something honest than anything else, however hard to take that is initially. I think the Silent Ballet, Fluid Radio, Tokafi, Milk Factory for example, are great examples of how to support the industry / scene without kissing too much arse.

From your experience, has playing live – or organising live events – really, as many have claimed, been a positive factor for your label? How would you describe the relevance of a direct communication with fans and supporters?
The first show we did for Home Normal was in Japan, at a tiny venue with myself and Miko, plus Yui Onodera and Taishi Kamiya. It was this incredible night and despite the fact that we hardly did any promotion and organsied it a few weeks before, the place filled up and we had a great night. People came from all over Tokyo and surrounding areas to say ‚hi’ basically, and this was the night of our fourth release only (Christopher Hipgrave ‚Day’). Soon after we had a Christmas show with The Boats, Danny Norbury, Konntinent, Isnaj Dui, Simon Scott and myself and it was much bigger, and people came from around England just to say ‚hi’ again really … it was bloody brilliant. I think it is easy to be in a bubble when you work so hard on label aspects, people buy the records but it is all faceless … so when you get to meet the people who are buying your records and following your work, it is very humbling for both myself as an individual and the label. Direct communication keeps everything real, soulful and just right.

Are artists expecting too much from a label, would you say? How important is their own contribution – in terms of promotion, for example - to the success of a release?
Yeah, some artists are a little short-sighted. They see the label and not the person sometimes which is truly bizarre. Many artists think you snap your fingers and money and attention come their way. A lot of them don’t seem to realise I work extra jobs (even in holiday time) to cover the releases. Most of the artists are friends, and those who have been around for a while know the responsibilities full well and are very supportive. But many (especially new artists) aren’t and need to be aware that it is usually one person funding these projects out of love for the work they do.

Most of the artists I work with I have known for a number of years though. These are people I met ages ago in one way or the other, but many are people who were releasing on the same labels as myself when doing a lot of netlabel work. People like Jason Corder (offthesky), Jonathan Canupp (Ten and Tracer), Nicolas Bernier, Marihiko Hara, Antony Harrison (Konntinent), Christian Roth, Jeremy Bible, Erik Schoster (He Can Jog), Rene Margraff (Pillowdiver, Le Mepris, Two People In A Room) and so many more, are people I have strong ties with from those days and are people with a real and genuine love for the work they and others do. They all worked in the netlabel scene and established themselves that way. So many newer artists have no concept of this, none. They don’t understand why you would simply release records for free – yet what it means is that these are people who really appreciate the money put in and the work done when you put out a physical release. They will also promote as much as they can, and this is fundamental – not in how many CDs or records you sell – but in the sense that you are working together. This attitude is so healthy, modern and human.

How do you define success for your label?
That the evolution of the label fits and doesn’t stray, no matter what. If people follow the work, tell you how much it means to them, then it is a huge success.

Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
The value of music has always been and will always be an ever-present no matter what bloggers and sharing sites do. I do not believe there is a huge crisis as people make out, you just have to be smart and have integrity. People will always follow that as it is part of the human soul and what makes us who we are. If people want to download illegally then fine, but from my experience the sheer love and professionalism of a label / artist presenting a physical object will always be more arresting than illegal downloads or even netlabels (no matter how much I love and respect a handful of netlabels). As a result, whilst on the surface file-sharing sites and blogs might seem to devalue music, they don’t really. The music has always been important to certain people and will always be. Illegal downloads only devalue the individual appreciation of the package, but then I don’t think these people would have ever valued the package in the first place if they think it is ok to download everything without caring for the work involved.

In regards to the number of artists out there, it is better to have lots of fish in the sea than a few big ones in a pond. There is so much good stuff out there, I get a little sick of people saying that too many artists release work. The great artists will be highlighted, but smaller names also deserve attention because it is in our nature to create. Why should that ever be an issue? People just have more choice now and if they are open to that then it can never be a bad thing.

How do physical sales and (authorised) digital downloads compare in terms of income for you? Do you see models like Spotify as a problem or a potential solution?
Digital sales are more or less non-existent by comparison. That is one thing you can blame illegal downloading on for sure. I don’t see Spotify as a problem so much for example though. It is just part of the natural evolution of our industry.

In how far do you see artful packaging as a way forward for you as a label? Are the objectification and value of music inherently related to each other, would you say?
Well, Home Normal was set-up with an absolute focus on a set design with unique photography. The aim was to have Home Normal be a complete series when it was done that flows beautifully. We are coming to the end of that cycle at the end of the year and will move onto a handful of releases a year only in really quite gorgeous packaging, as well as books and a couple of audio visual projects. Artful (and unique) packaging in other words, is incredibly important for all the labels I run personally. But you have to be careful with this - I don’t necessarily believe going over the top with the packaging is a good thing – it depends on the release and the overall ethos of the label. There is a world of difference between subtlety as a necessity and vain opulence for the sake of it.

From your perspective, what would be a workable model for the future for listeners, artists and labels alike?
I’m not sure about a ‚model’, but I do think that there is a better balance now than people might realise. I think Bandcamp, Soundcloud and social networking, whilst I try not to divulge in it as much as others would, is really important. I think having people so close to each other is a more workable model than simply complaining about illegal downloads for example. The ‚model’ (if that is the correct term here) is that the three (listeners, artists and labels) work as a Holy Trinity if you will – reliant on each other. They feed each other and whilst the Internet has opened up the borders, perhaps it is in networking that this model has found it’s footing. That is not to say I agree or like people networking everything about their label – there should be a calm, tasteful approach rather than shoving it down people’s throats. But having that closeness now, not being so distant and treating others as if you are far above or beyond them, is important but also quite scary. People can now see us for who we really are. Whatever is workable lies in that openess now.

Home Normal interview with Ian Hawgood by Tobias Fischer

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