Running An Independent Label: A Year In Review

Running An Independent Label: A Year In Review

The label
More than a year and a half ago we started Heroic, our label group slash management agency. We are focused on Empowering Creators.

It started as a way to release the music we loved and artists we worked with. I was managing a few acts back then, all of whom were experimental in sound and yet unestablished. We experienced a hard time getting them signed to bigger labels, specifically majors. They wanted them to conform their sound to what they saw as the commercially acceptable format – whereas we had signed these acts with the conviction that their unique sound and style was exactly what could make them successful. Launching our own label to prove this point was the logical step, and so Heroic Recordings was born.

From the launch till now, it’s progressed from being a side-project while finishing our studies, to a full-time endeavor. We’ve put out music of over 15 artists, issued over 30 releases (including singles and EPs), are doing management for a selected few that we truly believe in, and have just launched a division called Heroic Audio, where we source our creative talents to create audio for films, advertisements and other commercial purposes. Also, we’ve just acquired our first sublabel – Rockforce Records – to become our outlet for bass heavy music.

In the last few months, our growth has gone from steady to exponential. The cumulative effect of our latest successful releases by San Holo and Ducked Ape have resulted in a snowball effect of social growth. It’s been a thrill to experience, and beautiful to see how momentum converts into sales and fans, allowing one strong release to support another. The growth we’ve realized in the past two months would have literally taken us over a year when we just started out.

The stats

Our Soundcloud has just hit 10.000 followers, Facebook is approaching 3.000 and Twitter just surpassed the 1.000. These aren’t huge numbers, but are built fully organically, and with it is coming strong fan-interaction. We’re seeing bigger responses to our releases, more fan submissions, more demos and more brand recognition than ever, particularly locally. To give you some insight into these statistics, look at the graphs below.


ToneDen.IO extract of our social statistics over the past 12 months. Notice how our Soundcloud following has grown over 4.000 followers in this past months, almost doubling the size of our total. Twitter follower growth of the past month nearly over 15% of our total followers.

Facebook insights extract from our label page, from it’s inception to now. Notice the peaks of growth in the top graph, which coincide with events such as releases and remix competitions. Total page likes growing at increasing rate.

Soundcloud extract of our label page, covering the last 12 months. Notice the 60k plays in September, accounting for over 35% of the plays in the total year.

We are fully aware that these numbers bleak in comparison to what the superstar DJs and artists have. But this growth is convincing enough to solidify our belief that we can build this out into something that can last. A platform to establish artists, create opportunities and someday rank amongst the likes of Mad Decent, Fool’s Gold, Inspected, Soulection and the other indies we look up to.

I didn’t put these numbers here to brag, but rather as a segue into the core of this article. As over the course of bringing this label to life, we have discovered lessons and strategies that really worked in our favor. We took a moment to reflect upon these with our crew, and have distilled the essential ones out for you. Some are universal truths, others very specific findings, but the majority are insights that can be beneficial to not just label owners, artists and industry professionals – but almost everyone in a creative field.

Quality attracts quality

When listening to our earliest releases there is a huge difference to what we are putting out today. The quality is uncomparable. The tracks have improved, the mix has improved, the masters sound better – but most importantly, our artists are on a whole new level.

This transition is the result of a gradual process.

“How do we find great artists and music… and get them to release with us?

That was the question we were asking ourselves at launch, like most start-up labels. We begun with a single act, Ducked Ape. Everyone that later joined us, we had discovered on the net – browsing on Soundcloud and YouTube for music that stood out to us. Getting new quality acts was tough… almost impossible. So we started building a roster of talented but unestablished acts – that made great music.

For every release we set out to raise the bar. Both for ourselves and our artists, on a musical and strategical level. We are very involved in the artistic process, as early as during the creation of tracks; we feedback compositions, arrangements and mixes. All of our mastering is done in-house, by our engineer Tim. In turn, we involve our artists in the creation of marketing strategies and outreach – communicating with them to figure out exactly which tastemakers, DJs, promoters and blogs they want their release to get out to.

This leads to a stronger catalog, which provides a stronger pitch to new talents we want to bring aboard. Quality attracts quality. Yet what we considered quality a year ago, isn’t even close to what we consider quality today.

The best is taken, not given

With the exposure of our latest releases, comes an influx of demo submissions.

We have an email address and demo form on our website, and we check everything that comes in. Sure – not every track gets an attentive four minute listen, but we flip through it all in the search for something that stands out.

On an average week about 30 demos come in, yet:

We have never released an original that was received by demo submission.

Not a single one. The only submissions we’ve accepted have been the winners of remix competitions that we hosted.

Every original that we put out, every artist that we do management for, we are involved with because we reached out to them ourselves. Only recently have we received a demo submission that was up to our standards, but up till then every artist that we worked with, we found by prowling the web, looking in our close environment or via friend recommendation.

The universal lesson here is that until you reach a certain threshold, you will have to actively reach out and fight to work with the people you want to work with. If you’re starting out, the best aren’t going to come to you – no, you need to be eager, show them you want to do business, whether those are labels, artists, or whomever else. Then once that threshold is reached – you’ll see that better qualified parties start coming to you out of their own initiative.

Working with artists that have a clear vision

Our business model goes beyond that of a regular record label. We release music, but then exceed that by offering management, booking and publishing services to the artists that stand out to us.

I have been managing artists for four years, some of whom I still work with, like Ducked Ape, however other relationships have failed. For a plethora of reasons, such as a disconnect between their goals as artists and mine as a manager, developing different musical tastes, and levels of ambition just not matching up. I have worked with big egos, small egos, the talented but lazy and the talented and driven. Ducked Ape, my initial act, are the reason i got started in the music industry. They, just like myself, have gone from loving music – but being clueless about the business, to driven and goal oriented individuals.

Finding the right artists to work with has been quite the journey.

Three years ago, I was happy to expand, bringing artists under my umbrella that stood out to me musically. I was eager to learn, eager to work, and eager to lose the dependency on my then only act – Ducked Ape. Those were the conditions on which I signed and work with acts… of course, screening for a fit in personalities, but never in the way that I do now. Four acts that I worked with turned out to not be the right match. All of these people have become good friends of mine, many still are, and I owe a lot to them – yet in retrospect, I would not have signed them today.

What my team and I found is this:

Great artists stand out with exceptional music and work ethic, but most of all – with vision.

Our artists that are experiencing most success, but also those around me in the industry, and that friends of mine work with, all have that one thing in common: VISION.

From knowing exactly how their music has to sound, to who should play it, to which artists to remix, what parties to play, how all visuals should look, all of it – is subject to that vision. For these artists, it serves as a filter and standard of quality control, for both themselves and everyone else.

This works, because once you have figured out exactly what you want, achieving it is a matter of moving towards that goal. For me, this trait in an artist, changes my job from ‘being the bad guy that forces you to do what you don’t want to do – and takes care of business’ to ‘facilitating and creating whatever opportunity to realize that vision’. The distinction here, is that in the first scenario, as has happened in the past, I am typically the one with the vision – not the artist. And that’s no recipe for success.

Regardless of whatever you do… producing music, running a label, or whatever else… ask yourself: Do you have a clear vision of what you want, how you want to get there, and what it will take? If not – go back to the drawing board.

Running An Independent Label: A Year In Review

Building a team – and the art of letting go

Much of the things that we’ve created, from the visual branding to our label, to the consistency in mastering, wouldn’t have been possible without the great team that we have.

Up till half a year ago, this consisted of Tim (our engineer, and one half of Ducked Ape), Frederik (our designer) and myself. Tim taking care for how everything sounds, Fred for how everything looks, and myself for strategy and marketing. Yet between managing multiple acts, running the label, writing this blog and rounding off university – I found all of my time taxed. We needed help.

In the past my experiences with interns had been bad. In the first year, two people had come aboard. They started out driven and enthusiastically, but over time this diminished – to the point where it made no sense to have them in the team. Part of this will have come because they wanted to work with us, mostly because they thought being with a label was cool, more so than an internal drive to develop themselves in the music industry. Another part will be because of my difficulty with delegating work to people, and giving them autonomy.

I remember clearly a dinner with an entrepreneurial group I’m a part of, and expressing how the scalability of our company was limited by our time. Upon which my friends stressed that I hire an intern – a good one. As part of the start-up culture, they had all been building businesses largely reliant on legions of interns, and thought that I should do the same. They were right. Within that week we put out an ad, and to our surprised received over 15 submissions – some from abroad, some local. One of them was a great match, Yiannis, who has now become a full-time part of our team – moving out to our city to work with us.

In that time we have changed the way we collaborate. Tim and Yiannis have become crucially involved in day to day operations, with each of us focusing on a separate aspect of the business; Yiannis covering bass sublabel Rockforce, Tim overseeing production house Heroic Audio and myself doing management, strategy and marketing. For every big project, we pull together and combine efforts – particularly for releases. This division of work has allowed me to gradually become better at delegating – particularly as we’re educating Yiannis, and what better way to learn, than by having him try and experience things himself? This realization really set this process in motion for me.

Finding a group of people with aligned visions, letting go of any conception that I could better do everything myself, and transparently working together to best use each other’s strengths, has changed our game.

Monetized streaming is the future

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Monetized streaming is the future.

As we are largely focused on electronic music, we are likely ahead of this curve, but without any doubt, I can safely say that streaming will overtake downloading – shortly. When rounding off our latest quarter’s royalty statements, we found the following; 42% of income came in via Bandcamp, 29% via iTunes, 14% via Beatport and 13% via Spotify. This quarter, our Spotify income has already surpassed that of Beatport.

In terms of rates, with our current distribution deal, 170 Spotify streams bring in a $1 net royalty. And then there’s the YouTube monetization, which via our EdmDistrict network link amounts to 800 plays for a $1 net royalty. Soon, Soundcloud will also be added to that equation. Rates for that aren’t yet disclosed, but they’re rumored to become around that of the better YouTube networks – allowing us to both monetize the content on our channel, and use of it across the whole platform.

Free versus Paid

The ever lasting debate;

Whether to give music away for free, in exchange for social currency (followers and likes), or to sell it?

We’re always trying to find the right balance here.

There’s a lot to be said for exchanging free downloads for social currency, using content lockers. Tools like ToneDen.IO and Click.DJ now facilitate this for YouTube, Soundcloud, Twitter and Instagram, which in turn makes up for the loss of Facebook like-to-download apps. It helps content go viral, makes building social status easier, and expands reach.

But there’s value in music – and we have to make a living off running Heroic. As I explained in an earlier article, we typically distribute every release to all major online outlets, but also offer it for sale via our own Bandcamp. Here we don’t have to charge a ridiculous $2 for a track, but place a floor of $0,50 for every single – allowing our fans to pay more if they want.

With our latest releases, we’ve managed to find a nice equilibrium. The San Holo – COSMOS EP dropped with us two months ago, consisting of four tracks – two of which with single potential. A month before the release of the EP, we put out the single ‘Hiding (ft. The Nicholas)’ as a free download, which gathered a lot of traction and helped prime fans and targets for the upcoming EP. Later, when dropping the EP, we also gave out the remaining single ‘Fly’ as a free download. These helped spread the word about the release and were the prime drivers of it’s virality – yet the full EP was only for purchase via online retailers and our Bandcamp. In every upload description, we stated that the two singles were available for free download, but that people could support the artist by ‘paying what they wanted’ for the full EP.

The result?

Our highest grossing release to date. And simultaneously our most played.

This is a strategy we’re going to continue using in the future. People have said that the album is dead, and it’s true – but by spreading out the content, and finding a balance between free and paid, EPs and albums still make sense.

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I hope these reflections are of use to you. For sure, they are to us.

And perhaps that’s the last thing I’ll add. Reflect, often, on whatever you do. Have a meeting? An important gig? Just put out your latest release? Reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and figure out how you can improve.

We are still amazed every day at how much there is still to learn. We’re better than yesterday, but nowhere near where we want to be.

If you are interested in learning many of the strategies that we used to grow our label and artists to this size, you should check out my book – The Soundcloud Bible.

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