Captured Tracks’ Mike Sniper Wrestles with the Role of Record Labels, Promises Only to Sign Largely Unknown Artists

01/09/2012 1:12 PM |

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Ah, yes… With a new year comes a new debate involving the role of independent record labels. This ones comes from Mike Sniper, the man behind Captured Tracks‘ carefully curated roster (also Blank Dogs‘ murky new wave), who took to his blog this weekend to vent about the responsibility of indie labels to seek out new talent. He discusses what seems to be an increasing trend among a large portion of labels who dodge releasing an artist’s debut album and instead sign an already hotly tipped, blog-approved band (often with something self-released to their name) or, worse, swoop in to release a follow-up after a band sees relative success with another, smaller, label — what he refers to as “poaching” from peers. Too many safe bets, not enough chances being taken on unknown bands, he says.

It’s obvious to me that when you’ve grown to that size as a label and there’s a large staff to pay (as well as what I can only imagine is an ungodly overhead) you’re not going to be able to take as many chances as when you were smaller. But that doesn’t make it worthy to celebrate, and it doesn’t make you a purveyor of good taste, it just makes you a manufacturer of a known entity. The label, in a sense, becomes a press relations and distribution hub. The A&R staff, I can imagine, determine the value of the artist based on the sales and momentum of their previous release. I’m sure in many cases they genuinely like the artist’s material, but so do thousands of other people by that point. So why not just hire an accountant to crunch the numbers?

Which is a very good point, as challenging to the existence of labels as it may be. “Do we need them when a band can pull a stunt and get featured on Pitchfork or Stereogum and wait for the offers to roll in?” (For more on the smackdown between bloggers and A&R types, check this out). We assume he believes in a label’s potential to be more than that, going as far to get into specifics for a remedy to the problem: “If a label is to maintain any esteem or credibility, it should maintain a 50 percent homegrown talent base.” If it doesn’t, then it’s a “manufacturing plant with a cool logo” whose goal is to publish and license. And then he takes things a step further:

To sum it up, Captured Tracks is no longer accepting demos, LPs or CDs from artists who already have a significant release out. We’ll probably miss out on some great opportunities, but if we’re going to maintain any idea of relevance or respect in the eyes of the fans of our label, then this is the policy I feel we should take. If we want your record, we’ll buy it. If you don’t have anything out, please send it our way. And if we sign you, we’ll try to keep you happy and put out all your records like it was when labels mattered.

It should be mentioned that Sniper is careful not to fault bands for moving upwards when a bigger label comes knocking and acknowledges that running a record label is a business, ending on what’s more of plea than anything else:

If you work for one of the venerable, esteemed, lauded, classic independent labels signing bands second, third, fourth and fifth records, remember that you were lucky enough to be around when people were buying a lot more music and the money you’re signing these bands with comes from a lot of that catalog. If you’re going to collect the best sellers from labels who weren’t lucky enough to be around in that era, you owe it to independent music to take a chance once in a while on an unknown band.

Coincidently, this coincided with a piece the L.A. Times ran this weekend, championing Sub Pop for their perseverance and success in the industry. I have an undying, fan-girl love for Sub Pop, but one of their feather-in-hat gambles this year was releasing the The Head and the Heart album, which had already sold 10,000 copies before joining Sup Pop’s roster–as clear an illustration of Sniper’s point as you’re likely to find.

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