Label Focus 01 – Super Star Destroyer
This would be the first time I’ve ever done anything like this before, writing an article. So essentially dearest reader, I am letting you be my first. Congratulations, you’ve taken my writing cherry.
I’m in a band (Trojan Horse) and, as you’ll probably be able to tell from the state of my writing, I’m more used to musical notes than constructing sentences that aren’t filled with slang. As we’ve been featured on this site before, this is all inconsequential really, but I’m going to give you non-Mancunians a little bit of context to go with the feature that I’ve asked the lovely Echoes and Dust people if I could do.
The reason I mention my band is because we are lucky to be part of a musical revolution/renaissance/evolution, call it what you will, that is going on in the fair city of Manchester. One that isn’t based on trying to ape the simian gait of our forbearers, relive neither the hedonistic excesses nor the cold grey lows. We’re at a point in time and in the right place, surrounded by like minded individuals, bands and small organisations who are intent on pushing what music can and will be, purely for the fun of exploration of our chosen unbeaten path. Once again the lines between art and music are blurring. People are getting back into putting on a show to remember, giving the people who come to see them something to go away with that is special to each individual.
That’s not to say anyone sent out a memo, “FAO: All Manchester Musicians; now’s probably a great time to do something radically different.” And that’s what makes this time so wonderfully exciting…excuse my boundless enthusiasm, but after toiling away for 5 years, to now be at a point where people are all making and experimenting with such truly, mind blowing results, all separately, but under one umbrella of ‘progression’, it’s refreshing to be party to and I hope that anyone who came to a show, bought a release, delved into this rich sea, which I have no doubt will become an ocean, would agree with me.
Anyway that’s the context of what’s going on. I’m personally shining the spotlight today on the awesome dudes over at Superstar Destroyer Records (SSD), who have in the past couple of years, moved from a group of students operating modestly from bedrooms, into a fully fledged independent label, who are putting their own time and money on the line to release some of the most progressive bands to come out of Manchester in the last few years, as well as organise gigs for bands from all over the UK.
I caught up with Alex and Jonny to ask them some shit about shit…and that (writing skills +10)
Hello gents, so firstly give us a little bit of history about yourselves. Where you’re from, why you’re here?
Alex: That’s kind of a big question. I guess the short version would be that Jake (SSD’s co-founder) and I started telling people we ran Superstar Destroyer before we knew what it was. Anderson and Tom joined to help out with whatever we were up to. We met Black Market Serotonin and ‘SSD’ became a clubnight and then a label. I met Jonny at an open mic and then stalked him until he joined my band, and the rest is history. We’re still here because we’re bad at saying ‘no’ to good ideas.
Jonny: Popular belief would have it that I’m from the internet, and there’s an element of truth in that. As Alex said, I met him at an open mic night which I volunteered to film and put up on youtube as I was quite enthusiastic about the youtube music scene at the time. I never did get around to uploading it, but I did end up hanging out with him more, joining the band and building the website for the label. I only found out in retrospect that it was stalkery on his behalf. I guess I’m just unassuming like that. I’m still here because it all seemed like a good idea at the time. That, and Alex needs people around to tell him when not to do something ridiculous.
What was it specifically that made you choose Manchester as a base for the label?
A: Well when SSD started we were all students here, and most of us have stuck around. Personally I moved here in 2008 because it’s where Oceansize were from, and I figured there’d be a progressive scene. I was wrong then, but in 2011 there finally is, so why would I leave now?
J: I moved here in 2008 to study at Uni. Part of the decision was because Manchester has quite the reputation for being a musical city and at the time I had the pretensions of a singer-songwriter so it seemed like a good city to be in. Interestingly enough, lots of people have the same thoughts which lead to the bitter observation of an oversaturated scene made up of profiteering promoters, lad rock bands and shoddy singer-songwriters. Part of joining the label was because I thought it should be better than this. As of now, it seems things are better. Either that or I’m now looking in the right places.
Was the plan initially to focus on progressive bands, was there even a plan at all to start off with?
A: There was no plan. We just made it up as we went along and my student overdraft paid the bills. I think if you look at the bands, you could call them all ‘progressive’ in the strictest sense (and I mean in a kind of post-progressive, post-Ok Computer way) but not necessarily ‘prog’.
J: Personally I thought Alex was either brave or stupid wagering student overdraft on this project, but from the start, if there was any guiding idea, it was to make something cool. To quote Almost Famous “ What I’m talking about is the buzz!… And the chicks, the whatever…is an offshoot of the buzz” In reality we’re probably going to be waiting on those chicks for quite some time.
Whats the selection process for bringing a band onboard?
A: They have to be awesome. A bit of persistence usually helps too. Phil from Metamusic basically signed himself to SSD – we’d heard their early stuff and loved it but were kind of busy with other things at the time they wanted to put out World to Come – but he collared us and sort of said “you’ll put this out”. It wasn’t a question!
J: What Alex said basically. It very much helps if the band is there to meet us half way.
Ninetails – Rawdon Fever from Molly Hawkins on Vimeo.
I mean , I may be reading too much into it myself, but ive often thought it was no coincidence that you guys bear more than a striking resemblance, to the whole SST model of working, if only in the initials. Is this something you take inspiration from, obviously the music is different, but the DIY ethics of that early 80s hardcore scene, and more generally, who/what inspires you to do this?
A: I own a couple of SST records actually, but there wasn’t a conscious link to that particular label – what we always identified with was the DIY element. Jake and I had both gone through punk phases, and we had a lot of respect for the way the scene and labels organised themselves. When I was backpacking several years ago I went to an Asian Man show in San Francisco and there were these 40-year old bald punks pogoing with the 16-year olds; that was the day I really began to take the whole ‘punk ethos’ thing seriously, it’s very inspiring to me. When we started as well we had some great advice from Matt who runs Song, by Toad, and both Club AC30 and Sonic Cathedral have also tolerated me pestering them for information – they were all big influences when we started as well, so having a little support thrown our way really meant a lot. In terms of what inspires me to keep going, it’s 98 percent belief in the bands and 2 percent curiosity as to what comes next.
J: I can’t profess to know who SST records are though the DIY aspect was something that always appealed to me and it came out of seeing how various musicians were doing it on youtube. Jack Conte for one, is a musician who does it all by himself; all the way from writing to recording to distribution. The whole ‘I don’t need a record contract’ was a liberating concept, and in this case it was real; you could see it every step of the way as opposed to that PR spun “myspace band” business with The Arctic Monkeys. This combined with the writings of people like Andrew Dubber, Martin Atkins and some of people over at musicthinktank.com got me into that DIY ethos (though some discussions that go on over on that website need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but that’s another matter). What inspires me I guess is almost an academic fascination to see what will happen next.
Towards the end of the 2011 you embraced the pay what you want/free download model which that big famous band “started” a few years ago. was this something you arbitrarily decided yourselves as a label, or was there discussions with the acts too?If so did they take much convincing that this was a positive idea?
A: If I could correct you there, The Crimea did it first (er, actually, Marillion did it about 15 years ago without the help of the Interwebs – Ed). I saw them live countless times when I was growing up, and to me they were possibly the greatest live act on the planet at the time. They lost their record deal with Warners because their music was too weird and so gave away over 100,000 unique copies of the follow up for free; I paid for a CD anyway, so I know the model works. The free download thing came about because we realised three things: one, that filesharing sites had our records the second they were out; two, that if we were in a band on a label, we’d want people to be able to get the MP3s for free. The third thing was taught to me when I was working at Mixcloud – if you’re a business you have to have a plan for scaling, otherwise you can’t develop. We don’t have the capital of a major, or even a large indie, but we have hands, experience and ideas; therefore by offering free downloads we can grow beyond our ability to produce and promote physical; we don’t have to whore ourselves to iTunes or Spotify and ultimately the fans get a better experience too. Everybody wins! We explained this to the bands, and they were on board right away.
J: What Radiohead did was an excellent PR move for them at the time, but not a business model; you can’t still buy the album that way. Regardless I bought the album on vinyl later on anyway so I guess that speaks volumes about how I treat downloads. While I could regurgitate same ideas that people like Dubber have been banging on about for years about how music is a Listen, Like, Buy process rather than a Buy, Listen, Like process, the virtues of such a model have all been said numerous times before. As well as what Alex has already said, my view on it was firstly that such a model is a nice idea and we are in a good position to be idealistic. Secondly, it’s a matter of honesty and transparency. People are sick of this idea of businessmen profiteering off of music and it always annoys me when I see labels selling downloads of the album for practically the same price as the CD. By letting people name the price of a download we acknowledge what everyone knows already, that the unit cost of a download is marginal, and they decide for themselves how much they think the music is worth.
Are you a hands on kind of set up? Do you get involved with the decision making processes that go into bringing out releases, or do you just let the artists get on with it and bring you the finished idea they want to be produced?
A: It depends on the band, really; some are very proactive and driven, and some need a kick in the arse. Besides the artwork of the release though, we try not to have any say in the music. If it was shit, we wouldn’t release it, so as long as it’s good, we’re happy! Our job is to set release dates, make spreadsheets and shake hands, it’s not to interfere in the sacred artistic process.
J: Well so far, artists haven’t really brought us anything more than the music itself and the associated artwork. We’ve never needed to interfere in the artistic process and we have no intention of ever doing so. I think the most we’ve had to do in that regard is ask ‘is it finished yet?’ As for packaging and distribution, that is almost always our affair. However we always listen and take in to consideration what our artists want if they have any specific ideas for a release.
What with piracy issues, artist rights and the monopoly that the bigger labels have had, and the knock on effect it’s had on indie labels. Where do you fit in and what do you think the ‘industry’ (in the loosest sense of the term) should be doing in the future to stop its decline?
A: It’s in our name. Superstar Destroyer. The A-Wing that destroys the Executor. My personal feeling is that scale and free combined with an acceptance of the trend towards app development in the digital space is where this is all headed, and that’s right where we want to be. Hopefully we can slay some giants along the way.
J: Well for one thing, our name-your-price business model has kinda made us piracy proof until someone invents and markets a cheap 3D printer capable of reproducing vinyl records from the comfort of your home.
Though in seriousness, what the industry should be doing is anyone’s guess, but it seems that many of the majors are hopping aboard the Spotify and streaming service train. We’ll be seeing attempts to abstract the act of paying for music by bundling billing together with other things such as your internet bill, or even your bank account. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do or not, but it’s not what I’d have ideally. The problem now is that there is so much music, the choice is daunting and it’s alienating. For an art form that is so expressive and ultimately personal, such business moves only seem to further alienate listeners and makes the whole experience less personal. This is reflected in the way that Spotify and Facebook are integrating in an attempt to repersonalise the whole affair. What I’d really like to see is less of a model that treats listeners as faceless consumers but instead as valued fans. I’d like it such that fans see labels as not the faceless people in suits behind the scenes pulling the strings, but as music lovers who want to support bands. I want more transparency and personality in the whole affair. If this is done with web app development so be it. I’m certainly not going to deny that music does appear to be going down the streaming route and what I say is probably just conjecture that only really appeals to other idealists. Where do we fit in? Man, if I knew where we were going, we would already be there.
Being in a band that isnt exactly going to have masses of ‘mainstream success’, we decided a long time ago that we couldnt measure our success on a traditional model that people value as a ‘successes’ (i.e. loads of money, big houses, fur coats, BLING etc) and that we’d have to invest a lot of time, and effort into for probably scant reward in ‘normal’ terms. Is this true for you? How do you measure success with what you’re doing at the moment?
A: Every time I see a positive review or see our bands play a killer show, when I heard Black Market’s Christmas single and shouted “YES!” at my desk, or when I first heard a rough demo of ‘Pedestrian’; those are the times when you feel like it’s all worth it. If we were able to get to a point where the bands could be part- or full-time musicians and we’d helped them to get there, that’s the grand prize. A hit record would be nice too. I think when Muse can be one of the biggest bands in the planet you’ve got to set your sights high and say “fuck it”.
J: See Almost Famous quote above.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
A: I remember when we bullied Black Market into coming out of the practice space and playing their first gig, it was awesome. Ninetails supporting Three Trapped Tigers was cool too; Dune getting ‘single of the month’ on Manchester Music; seeing the artwork for Now I am Twenty in the flesh; hearing the final mixes of World to Come and going “fucking hell”, I don’t know, there have been a few!
J: Ahh, man I’m just proud that we’re still doing this and we didn’t fuck up horribly yet.
What are your plans for the year/s ahead? Anything in the pipeline that you are dying to reveal?
A: We’ve got a new video and single upcoming for Ninetails and three albums currently in the works, plus some remixes by bands we bloody love. The only plan we have is to keep surviving and growing a little with each release. Hopefully in ten years we’ll have built something to really be proud of.
J: Well, personally I’ll be looking in newer more innovative ways in which we interact with music and the internet. Eat your heart out Trent Reznor. In general though, well… on youtube there is a community of people called ‘Nerdfighters.’ We fight to reduce world-suck, and we are proud to be unironically enthusiastic about whatever nerdy things we happen to be interested in. We have a slogan that I think applies to the label pretty well: DFTBA – Don’t Forget To Be Awesome.
So I hope that goes some way to opening your eyes a little bit more, about what’s happening at the moment. If and when I can think of some good questions for the other people who are around here, doing really interesting things, hopefully E&D will let me waffle some more. In the meantime check out the bands who are on SSD over at http://www.superstardestroyer.co.uk/ and perhaps buy some of the stuff they have for sale, because it’s all brilliant, and you should treat yourself to a present for being so thoroughly brill.
Glad I got my first one out the way…was it good for you too?
Nick – Trojan Horse
Tags: Alex Lymham, Nick Duke, SSD, Super Star Destroyer, Trojan Horse