First as frontman of cult Derry band Jetplane Landing and since 2001 as head honcho of Small Town America, a very successful independent record label based within the city. We wanted to go two rounds with Andrew… first up, Small Town America and how it has grown from first being simply a platform for Jetplane Landing records to what it has become today.
Round Two… we would be letting all those Jetplane Landing fans down if we didn’t also have a chat about the band as well, now wouldn’t we?
When you started the label back in 2001 as a platform for releasing Jetplane Landing records, did you think it would grow to be as big as it is today?
Not really. Inherent in the idea behind Small Town America is constantly asking “why not?” Why can’t we release our own records? Why can’t we make a video and get played on MTV? Why can’t we build our own recording studio? I think that question ‘why not’ has propagated and led to this and where we are now.
We still constantly ask ourselves ‘why can’t we do that’ and challenge dogmas that exist around the entertainment industry.
The label was first set up in London, what made you relocate back home?
I used to live in London until 2007 and then we moved back to Derry when we had our first child. In London it was just me on the label and now here in Derry we have 12 in the team.
I think that speaks volume about what you can do in a place like Derry. There are a lot of people that really want to work within the creative industries and are willing to get stuck in. Here in Derry we have found it really easy to get really good people to come on board and work within the team
Were any of the other guys from the band involved in the beginning?
Initially the idea of Small Town America was by me and Jamie, who plays bass in the band, and it was just a name for our record label. Jamie was heavily involved for the first few years but as we released more and more records I think he grew to realise that it was my passion to release as much good music, by as any good bands as possible. So he stepped away.
Now Small Town America, as a label is extensively run by the team, and I just have an over viewing role in it.
What were the main obstacles when you first set up the label?
There is no manual to running a record label… well there kind of is, but it doesn’t tell you how to avoid all the mistakes!
So every single mistake that could have been made, I’ve made it and suffered the consequence financially and emotionally. But the main obstacles are probably more about managing the flow of money which is very difficult initially.
The raw material that we deal with is plastic which is oil and with the cost of oil having risen enormously over the past 15 years, therefore the cost of making CD’s and vinyl have risen accordingly. However the number of people who are actually buying CD’s and vinyl has fallen.
In 2001 we belonged to a mass market whereas now it’s an artisanal market. Selling on an individual basis to people who are passionate about building a record collection.
We have a very committed customer base which has remained consistent, but what we have seen recently - which is refreshing - is the uptake in vinyl. We are now doing more international sales. We have seen records being sold to Greece, Japan, Czech Republic, so people are now ordering from all over the world which is great.
A very popular product line for us would be a bundle of goods. For example, we have a new record coming out here by ‘Blacklisters’, who are a band from Leeds, and a popular package would be to buy everything that the band have. So t-shirt, CD and vinyl in a couple of different colours.
How big has the change been in regards to band promotion since first establishing the label and to recent years with the birth of social media? Has it made your job easier or harder?
There is a lot more to do in order to get the message out. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… all these outlets that needs to be served, served by the label and served by the band themselves.
Social media is fantastic if done well but horrible if done badly. A lot of our work is about educating our clients, effectively our bands, how to interact meaningfully on social media.
But truthfully the best outlets for music remain the same, print, media and radio. They are still the most potent ways of getting your band known. 4 out of 5, or a 5 out 5 in Kerrang! is much more meaningful than 30,000 followers on Facebook because it propagates well across the industry.
Whilst digital is fantastic, I think traditional media has become even more important and even more premium.
But the best thing about social media is that it brings the individual fan right up close to the music that they’re interested in, there’s no distance between people anymore.
How would an artist or band make their way onto your roster… do they approach you or you approach them?
We typically approach them. Only once has a band submitted something and been signed off the back of it. Hopefully it’s quite clear what we like and what we do. We’re always on the look-out for those next bands to join the family. However that’s not to say people shouldn’t send their music in anyway. We are actually just about to start a ‘singles club’ so that we can turn over more releases in different genres and work with an extended family of bands.
I think Small Town America has become synonymous for a particular type of sound and a particular type of band that we’re looking for.
With the label obviously taking up a good bit of your time, not to mention being a dad too, would Jetplane Landing still meet up to write or jam?
No jamming but writing is something we would all do. Our drummer lives in Canada, our guitarist lives in Belfast and our bass player lives in England. So we are all quite to the wind.
But we’re four albums deep now and there’s definitely going to be a fifth album.
Your music has always been very well received…does that put added pressure for new music?
The pressure is just to make the songs as good as we can make them.
Do you think the fact that all you guys are doing different things is what keeps the band and music fresh?
Absolutely. We spent a four year period where it was very intense. We were with each other all the time which was very productive in certain ways. But we only start working on a record when everyone shares a common theme and a common creative goal. Once that’s set in stone it’s very easy for us individually to then bring our ideas in.
Typically looking at our career we have a two year gestation period and then the record happens incredibly quickly. We are still in that gestation period between our last album ‘Don’t Try’ and what will be our fifth, so everyone’s still having a think at the moment.
Have you guys set yourselves a deadline yet for the album?
As label manager I would definitely like to see it out next year because they’re key releases for us as a label. It’s a vintage act for us and people buy it and it’s good for Small Town America… that’s why I’ll be pushing for 2016!
Did you miss the touring scene when the band took a six year break?
Playing gigs is fantastic and we had the attitude of playing every gig really hard with as much as we could put into it. There were no regrets about stopping but it was great when we went out to tour ‘Don’t Try’ - it was amazing. I felt the band sounded really good and there was a great buzz.
But the days of playing 250 Shows in a year just aren’t practical so we just have to make the ten or so shows every few years count.
You guys went on a UK tour in 2013, did the music scene change much since you were away?
Probably not. Rock music is very reliable. I doubt the touring scene has even changed much in the last 35 years. The gear has probably got a bit smaller, a bit lighter and it’s maybe a bit easier to reach a few thousand people… you don’t have to use fax machines anymore!
YouTube is a phenomenon, it’s like virtually touring. There’s all that great stuff but the actual nuts and bolts of rock’n up and paying your eight quid at the door, buying the t-shirt, buying a pint, going to see the band… thankfully I don’t think that will ever change.
So the plans for the future… and Jetplane Landing fans can look forward to a new record?
Yes definitely. The plans are just to keep going. I love doing what we do and I’m really proud of what we’re doing here in Derry too. We work in a fantastic place with a great team so there’s no reason why we can’t be doing this for another 15 years.
It’s not a job any of this, it’s a privilege and long may it continue.