DIY Label Spotlight: Song, By Toad

Based in Edinburgh, <strong>Song, by Toad</strong> Records is much more than an indie record label. Yes, that’s the primary function of <strong>Matthew Young’s </strong>label but there’s also a label website, a blog, a weekly podcast (which is highly recommended), reviews, live sessions from his house, gigs around Edinburgh – basically a lot of music related goodness. <!–more–><strong>Steve McGillivray</strong> sat down with <strong>Matthew</strong> during what must be a rare lull in his hectic schedule to talk <strong>Song, by Toad</strong> Records and get a little insight into what it takes to run an independent record label today.

<strong>SM: The Song, by Toad Records “brand” stands out in terms of you website and wider online preseence, your podcast and gig promotions. Was this intended to be this way from the outset? </strong>

MY: No it wasn’t.  I didn’t even intend to write a blog from the outset, I was just tinkering with the internet, faffing about on my website, and a blog accidentally emerged from there.  The podcasts came a bit later, and the label was even more random: we made a drunken promise to some friends and had to hastily figure out how we’d manage if we ever had to make good on that promise.

But while there was never a plan to begin with, it’s certainly something I am very aware of now.  I want to give people as many opportunities to get into the whole Toad project as I can, and just make it as accessible as possible.

<strong>SM: Did you have to to learn the whole process of running the label from scratch, or did you call on people with experience to help you get on your feet? </strong>

Yes to both actually.  I have pretty much had to make it up as I went along, which is something I don’t mind doing, but a couple of people have been extremely helpful.

Johnny Lynch from Fence and I spent about three or four hours drinking beer in the sun at the End of the Road Festival a few years ago, and he explained almost everything I needed to know about running a label, and even passed on the Fence Records press list, which was amazingly generous.

Also, Tom Robinson’s website has an incredible amount of information about how to release records, how to pitch to press and radio for coverage and all sorts of things.  That resource and the beers with Johnny were absolutely invaluable at the beginning.

Nevertheless, no amount of help shields you from the fact that basically, in this business, you are going to have to just wing it ninety percent of the time. Fortunately, in my old job as a design engineer, we took on projects dealing with things we knew nothing about all the time – it was just part of the job.  So you get to the stage very quickly where you really aren’t scared of not knowing stuff anymore, you just go for it.

<strong>SM: How much of a gamble financially, and mentally, is running a label like Song, by Toad Records? </strong>

MY: Emotionally it can be very, very wearing, I’ll be honest.  As soon as your head is above the parapet (and this is far, far worse for bands) you are forever dealing with other people having an opinion on you, with near-constant rejection or indifference every time you try and get some press for each new release, and with the mismatch between what you think bands deserve and what you can actually, realistically do for them.  So it’s tough, but it’s worth it.

Financially is a different kettle of fish.  I didn’t start this venture as a kid, I had been a relatively respectable professional for ten years before I gave it up to go full time with Song, by Toad.  That meant that Mrs. Toad and I had time to plan and to get certain safety nets in place.  So for all I have to turn a profit eventually, I do have a couple of years’ grace because we planned pretty well in advance.

<strong>SM: Do you think there is a definite Song, by Toad sound and does this influence the artists you try to bring to the label? </strong>

MY: I don’t think there’s a specific sound, really.  Would you really put Lil Daggers, Rob St. John and Inspector Tapehead on the same label, just listening to them?  The stronger common thread, from my perspective, is actually the attitudes of the individual artists.  They are almost every single one stubborn, intentionally perverse and unwilling to compromise.  They get on with their own shit and tend not to like being interfered with too much, which is cool, because I am very much the same way.

<strong>SM: Was there a label that acted as an influence on you when you were setting your own label up? </strong>

There are lots of labels I admire – Fence, Full Time Hobby, Night People, Endless Nest, Fat Possum, Chemikal Underground – but none of them ‘influenced’ me in the sense I think you mean it.  Not least because it was only as I became more experienced myself that I began to fully appreciate what it is that makes those labels so special, so at the beginning that was often something I didn’t fully understand.

More influential was seeing all the desperate commercial scrabbling and painful try-hard bollocks which permeates the music industry and deciding to set something up which encouraged artists to be as uncommercial as they wanted, to challenge themselves and their audience and not to worry about shifting units.  We didn’t want any of our bands to be in a position where they felt their music or the way they went about it was ever going to be pushed in a particular direction that they might not be happy with.

<strong>SM: Is there anything you’d go back and do differently in setting up and establishing the label? </strong>

MY: No, not really.  I think we’ve done pretty well actually, especially considering how totally clueless we were to begin with. I might have not embarked on a couple of expensive projects which I wasn’t that certain about at the time, but that’s the kind of mistake you can make at any time, not just when starting up.

<strong>SM: Do bands approach you to try and get you to release their music, or do you approach the bands? What’s the split between these to approaches? </strong>

MY: Generally speaking almost no-one approaches us to release their music.  I guess people just submit stuff to the blog and assume that if I am that carried away with it, then I’ll offer to release their stuff as well as writing about it, which is pretty much spot on really.  But considering the number of submissions other labels get, I suppose I am a little surprised so few people approach us directly.  If I was paranoid I might worry about it, but I’m not.

<strong>SM: What do you plan for the future? Do you hope to expand or are you happy with the current size of the label? </strong>

MY: I don’t want to expand the label too much.  I do want to be in a position to be able to effectively invest more money in bands who have shown that they have the potential, the drive, the audience and the work ethic to go beyond our current, rather modest release model, but that shouldn’t really involve actually growing, just being more organised and finding a bit more money to invest.

If I want to improve anything it’s probably the multimedia features on the blog.  The video stuff I do always seems to go down well, and I would like to be able to make the time to do more of it, but it’s time-consuming stuff.  More house gigs, more live streams, more video diaries, more sessions and stuff like that.  Mind you, I said that last year, and for all I’ve improved, it’s hardly been a sea change.

<strong>SM: What’s your views on the music scene in Scotland at the moment?</strong>

MY: It’s a good place to be.  The independent label record fair at Summerhall recently really emphasised that, for me.  It was really friendly, uncompetitive, easy going and felt more like we were all in it together than a bunch of people fighting over the last scraps of what remains of the revenue from recorded music.  There was also a refreshing lack of grasping ambition or status-whoring, which I liked.

There are times when I think the general level of enthusiasm is somewhat out of proportion with the actual talent on display, but that’s just the nature of opinions.  We probably all agree that the wheat needs to be a little better separated from the chaff, but I doubt any of us would agree on which is which.

<strong>SM: How do you see the role of Song, by Toad Records in the music scene at present? </strong>

MY: Umm… well I suppose it’s entirely in the eye of the beholder.  To some we’re a shining beacon of gin and swearing, and to others a rancid pile of self-important shite, I suppose.

We’re in a slightly privileged position because I think we have a little more resources than most DIY projects of this nature, so more than anything we try and spread that benefit around as much as we can.

<strong>SM: Do you feel with the advent of Soundcloud and Bandcamp that labels are becoming marginalised, or do you think they’re more important than ever? </strong>

Neither – they’re just as important as they have ever been.  The best thing about stuff like Bandcamp and Soundcloud is that if you can’t actually get a record label then you can just have a go yourself.

However, although the extra time, effort, experience, resources and contacts a record label can (or should) bring to the table can easily be done by someone else, like a good manager or someone in the band who knows what they are doing, it still has to be done by someone.  Generally that’s a record label, but it doesn’t have to be.  But for a band to make serious progress someone has to do it, and that role certainly hasn’t gone away.

<strong>SM: What has been the highlight so far for Song, by Toad Records? </strong>

MY: Every new release, honestly speaking.  Every one is a genuine thrill.

<strong>SM: If you could sign any band in history, theoretically of course, who would it be and why? </strong>

MY: Ach, I don’t really succumb to this kind of wishful thinking.  I really don’t care at all about unrealistic imaginings, so actually the bands I kind of wish I could have signed are all bands I could realistically have signed, but didn’t. Had circumstances been a little different, had I played my cards a little better, had I been a bit luckier with this that or the other, or even just been in the right place at the right time… it’s usually very small details which make the difference in these cases.

So for all I love Tom Waits, you’ll never catch me fantasising about releasing his records.  On the other hand, not having had the opportunity to release the likes of Withered Hand or eagleowl, or having missed out on Jonnie Common’s amazing new album does give me regret, because they’re all amazing, and I could conceivably have ended up working with them if I had actually done things slightly differently here and there, or even just been a bit luckier.

Still, even entertaining this kind of speculation feels a bit like an insult to the bands I do work with.  I wouldn’t swap our roster for anything.  This is all obviously subjective, and massively so, but looking at what we’ve released this last year, I honestly don’t think many other labels can compete. But I would think that of course, because otherwise I wouldn’t invest so much time and money in it all, would I!  Actually, l think if you don’t think that about your own label then there’s something a bit wrong somewhere.

<strong>Steve McGillivray </strong>

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