Interview: Reckless Yes
"Ethical to us means doing everything in a way which is as fair as possible to the artist, and which shapes the label into a force for social good. It means looking for different ways to do things in parts of the industry which as standard undermine the artists they rely on"
Reckless Yes have been one of our favourite labels for a while now but over the last year or so they seemed to have really upped their game & signed a whole load of bands that we absolutely love, so we thought t was about time we sat down with Sarah & Pete from the label and pop them a few questions.
(((o))): Can you give us the backstory? What’s Reckless Yes about, how long have you been doing it & what on Earth possessed you to start a record label?!
Sarah: Alongside writing about music, running a label was something I’d always wanted to do. But Reckless Yes started almost by accident, really. Pete and I are both from Derby and our paths had nearly crossed many times over about 20 years, but we didn’t really get talking until very late in 2015 when he had an article to submit while I was editor at Louder Than War. We got chatting about a weekly radio show he was doing focused on underground music, and him wanting to put an all-dayer locally on to showcase some of those bands.
I was encouraging him to say a ‘reckless yes’ to it – to go for something which is just outside your comfort zone because that’s often where the best rewards are found. We started putting on some DIY gigs together – a sort of rock n roll tea party called Six Impossible Things – and bringing a few bigger bands to Derby too. We were set to do the hometown reunion show for Bivouac, who Pete has known since his Cable days, and as they’d written some new music we decided to become a record label sooner rather than later. We put out that first 7” in July 2016 and we’ll hit RY100 in our catalogue this year.
Pete: It was something I’d always had in the back of my mind that I’d do one day. As an artist I’d put records out on various labels from the tiniest indie to the corporate machine that is a major label – they’d all had their pros and cons – the obvious ones being that a major can fund the records you want to make, but is all about the big business, so if you don’t sell tons of records you can find yourself out of a job pretty quickly – whereas on a little bedroom indie, you don’t have that worry, but you get frustrated that there’s very little money to give the record the launch and the promo it deserves and there’s no guarantee that they’ll stay in business long enough to keep putting your records out.
(((o))): You describe yourselves as an ‘ethical’ record label. Can you tell us a bit about what that means? What’s the philosophy behind the label?
Sarah: Ethical to us means doing everything in a way which is as fair as possible to the artist, and which shapes the label into a force for social good. It means looking for different ways to do things in parts of the industry which as standard undermine the artists they rely on – with streaming for example – while also being able to guide our artists through the pros and cons of doing things differently so all decisions are made with as much understanding as possible.
It’s a definite strength that we have such a deep level of knowledge between us on how the traditional industry works as well as being natural constructive disrupters – we both work around digital and innovation in our day jobs too. Being ethical also means doing the right thing, not just the easy thing. We want to be a voice for those who are under-represented or suppressed in the industry, make positive changes socially and environmentally, and generally run with more compassion than your average company.
Pete: First and foremost it meant doing right by the artists, as I’d experienced the world of major record deals as an artist, which is weighted heavily in favour of the label not the artist. You are also forced to relinquish control of so many things, including the ownership of your own music, which in my eyes is simply criminal.
So once we’d got that in place, we wanted to expand on that – setting our sights on addressing the fact that 80% of the music industry is made up of white males. As of January 2021 more than 60% of our artists are female, non binary or Trans with a significant amount of them being of ethnic origin. We give a certain amount of our label profits to charity too. We pay to plant trees to offset the production of our vinyl and CDs and make sure we’re a climate positive workforce, we make sure the packaging of our physical releases contains no plastic. Some of these things can be viewed as small gestures, but we still like to shout about it, not because we think it’s cool, but because we want other labels to think about these things too – if everyone made small gestures then the industry we’re in would soon become a better more thoughtful place.
(((o))): As part of that, I know you try & find the least environmentally negative way to release music. How easy is it to do that?
Sarah: Some of it has been fairly easy – planting trees each month through Ecologi, fully recyclable mailers, pressing on eco vinyl, and ditching the plastic trays and not using CD cases for example.
Other things are presenting more of a challenge. We’d love to move to certified card stock for CD and vinyl packaging but that’s a big financial outlay when we are still a small label. It’s similar with ditching shrinkwrap – the alternatives are usually quite expensive or going without means we’re risking damage to the product. We’re trying to work out how we do those things while making the changes we can. We’re signed up to Music Declares Emergency and really think about how there is ‘no music on a dead planet’ in all we do, and take what actions we can, however small. I’ve got Kyle Devine’s Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music on my ‘to be read’ pile, which is about how recorded music has always been and continues to be an exploiter of natural as well as human resources. I can’t wait to get into it as I think about that stuff a lot. As with a lot of the big challenges facing us things are often boiled down to a binary ‘this action good, that action bad’ when the truth is more nuanced and small steps are better than no steps.
Pete: Like Sarah says, it’s not easy but we explore as many options as possible and do what we can. It is unfortunate that the greener options often cost double the normal ones, but if you keep pushing the manufacturers and asking the difficult questions, eventually they’ll change their business models too. We’re a long way off these options becoming the norm rather than a ‘special request that bumps the cost up.’
(((o))): You mentioned above that over 60% of your roster is made up of women & gender minority artists & this is obviously something that is important to you. How do you go about ensuring that balance is maintained?
Sarah: There are plenty of other labels for cis white males but it comes very naturally to us to have a roster which is mostly made up of women and gender minority artists – for us they are making the most interesting music around. We are a community which supports those who might not find a space elsewhere, and opens up the same or better opportunities than those granted to others by the wider industry purely on the basis of their gender, their sexuality, or their skin colour.
That is who we are as a label, and it’s definitely important on that level but to us individually too. The Reckless Yes community is undoubtedly something I benefit from personally too – I’ve found being a woman in the music industry very isolating at times. I’ve struggled to be taken as seriously as my male counterparts, had my motives questioned, been overlooked for the contribution I make, and had some really unpleasant experiences as well as some amazing. Reckless Yes means I’m now supported by a community, as much as we are supporting our artists, and at the same time I can help to change the industry so others following me are respected as equals.
Pete: We get a lot of demos and it’s true – under-represented groups try much harder to get noticed by being more creative, because they know they have to. To a certain extent they’re wired that way because they’ve spent their whole lives being passed over. Of course we listen to everything and this may sound bad, but when I open a demo submission and it’s four white lads with guitars I immediately get the feeling it’s not going to stand out for me and nine times out of ten I’m right, because there’s already so much of that out there.
(((o))): And more generally, how do you find the bands you sign? Has that changed since the pandemic?
Sarah: Many of the bands on the roster were those I’d covered as a journalist, or Pete had as a broadcaster, or who we came to know through other bands on the roster. We very rarely pick something up from a demo submission – and those we have we’re generally already aware of the artist before they get in touch.
We have a collaborative approach and are allergic to entitled attitudes so we’re only interested in giving our energy to bands who are already showing commitment to achieving whatever they deem to be success. We look to be a part of them building a team and look for three things in our signings: amazing music we are both genuinely passionate about, shared values, and a great work ethic. Things didn’t really change through the pandemic in terms of finding bands. When we first started out we would always try to see bands live but as our roster has become more geographically diverse and with our family and work commitments that was hard to arrange even before live music got paused.
Pete: When I was in Cable, we never sent a single demo to anybody. We seriously thought no-one would want to sign us anyway. A total stranger just approached us one night after a show and offered to put two 7” records out. John Peel played those records and we just kept gigging and suddenly we had record labels fighting over us. We never ever looked for a record deal. The guy that signed us thought that was brilliant and he once said to me ‘if you’re at the stage where you’re sending demos out to try and get a record deal, you’re not ready for a record deal’ and it’s true. If you’re good and you’re doing the right things, you will get noticed. You don’t need to send anything to anyone.
(((o))): Has the last year changed the way you work more generally?
Sarah: Being small has its benefits as it means we’re really flexible, and can adapt more easily perhaps than if we were bigger or following set paths through the industry. There were some frantic conversations when the schedule started to change last year but overall we found opportunities from the disruption, and made us become even more innovative in how we release and promote music.
I think it’s made us closer to our roster too, and made our commitment to releasing music compassionately come even further to the fore. As we’re up in Derbyshire and most of our roster is in London, or even further away in Berlin, Malta or the USA we don’t get to spend huge amounts of time with our artists even in a normal year but we’ve been checking in more on Zoom, and had some chaotic but fun whole-roster sessions too. This year we’ve started running monthly sessions for the roster to share experience and knowledge with each other on different activities – our first one was around successful funding applications, and our next will be about sync. I think this is quite different from other labels and ultimately makes our artists stronger with or without us, and gives a safe space to ask questions you might not want or know how to ask more publicly. We are definitely a community, with real friendships and consideration for each other as individuals,
Pete: It’s definitely brought us closer to our artists as we’ve all had to rally round and get smart about how we continue to release music and grow under the current circumstances. We ran a zoom session recently where a couple of our artists who’d managed to get funding shared what they’d learned with anyone else who was interested as to how to go about doing that. That was really heartwarming – that sense of community with a family type atmosphere cannot be beaten.
(((o))): You recently announced a raft of new signings / releases, including a number of bands we’ve put on or would have put on had it not been for the pandemic at Spectrum Gigs, & it feels like the label has stepped up a gear. Is that a conscious thing?
Sarah: I’m about as far away from a stereotypical record label exec as you can get, we don’t play the industry game and we’re not interested in personal gain, but Reckless Yes is becoming a label it’s harder to ignore and which is building a reputation for trusted curation as well as incredible individual releases. But for us this step-up feels like natural progression, and something which reflects how driven both Pete and I are I think.
We’ve always been focused on doing everything as best we can and while we’re not interested in growth just for the sake of it, we are committed to building greater opportunities for our artists. At the end of 2019 we knew we needed to look to expand our roster – the plan we had for 2020 meant nearly all the existing roster had releases scheduled and this would have left us with a fallow year in 2021. It’s something which is quite hard to see as an individual band – the flow of releases across a whole roster and the length of time it takes to line things up well. While our 2020 schedule didn’t end up being quite as expected, with a few delayed releases, we expanded the roster with a set of artists who are all incredible, exciting and understand the benefit of community. Announcing them all in one go was definitely a statement – that despite everything we’re here and we’re finding ways not only to get music out but to empower each other as a collective.
Pete: Well we’re both naturally very ambitious and motivated people, so we’ve always had it in our minds that we want to grow and move forward every year. We also needed to get out of the trap that a lot of small labels get into and can’t get out of – the problem of living or dying by each release that you do – cash flow is always tight and you only have to have one record be a total disaster and you’re done – the money’s gone. We don’t take any money from the label, we use what we get from the profit split to grow and our growth has allowed us to take on more artists. This is the first year we’ve had budget and wanted to hire the services of other people to help out with getting press and radio, so that has kind of emptied the bank account all over again when it comes to cash in and out, but again, we need to do that to grow and reach more music fans. There’s been a couple of years in a row now where we’ve finished the year with a nice little pot of money and we could have said ‘let’s split it and have some pocket money’ but we just put it back into making Reckless Yes bigger and better.
(((o))): One of our favourite releases of last year was the Duck album. You put it out on vinyl after the digital release came out on Hell Hath No Fury, another label we love. How did that come about?
Sarah: We’ve known of Duck for quite a while as they’ve played with a few of the other bands on the roster and then we both absolutely fell in love with that album when it came out on Hell Hath No Fury (who I absolutely adore and also supported Breakup Haircut with their first release). The delays to some of our planned releases meant we fortuitously had a space in the schedule and so it all came together rather nicely. It’s been absolutely brilliant to have members and others discover this album through the vinyl release and fall in love with it as one of their favourites of the year. Helping music find its fans is exactly why we’re doing this!
Pete: We felt the Duck album just didn’t get the release it deserved and it wasn’t HHNF’s fault – it was due out right at the moment the first lockdown happened. Everything was disarray and no-one knew what was going to happen – radio stopped playing new records, shops suddenly closed and it just got buried in all that chaos. So we wanted to help the record get the coverage it deserved – we picked it up and gave it a second lease of life at precisely the time things had settled down – the pandemic was still here, but everyone had had time to get their head around what was going on and were now in a position to give it a second chance.
(((o))): What’s coming up for the label in 2021 that you are really excited about?
Sarah: This is our most ambitious year yet in terms of the number and scale of the releases we’re doing. There’s no one thing I’m really excited about but something about every single release, and getting to know our label subscribers, as well as pushing forward on those social and environmental commitments.
It’s a joy to be working with Nervous Twitch on their fourth album (out this week!), and will be great to get the Fightmilk album out to people after it was delayed last year. It’s really exciting to see where Eilis Frawley is taking her music, to hear how Japan Review have grown since their debut EP with us, and to get to work with Dee Sada (NEUMES, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump) and Fergus Lawrie (Urusei Yatsura) as their Paper Birch incarnation and Piney Gir on a really interesting release concept. There’s some really impressive visual treatments for the Hannah Rose Kessler release we have coming up, and it’s as great to be working on exploring the deep back catalogue of bands like th’sheridans as it is to work with bands early in their careers like The Other Ones, Bitch Hunt and Breakup Haircut. We’ve still a few surprises to announce too – honestly, it’s all just hugely exciting!
Pete: So much good music coming from us this year. It feels like such an awesome privilege to have connected with so many talented creators, so we’re really looking forward to bringing what they’ve got to offer to a wider audience. It’s also probably time we did some label merch as well. We’ve been meaning to for ages, but we just haven’t had the time, we’ve been so busy. We’ll be planting more trees as well, no doubt!
(((o))): And finally, pandemic permitting, any chance of a Reckless Yes festival so we can see all of those brilliant bands in one place?!
Sarah: And all-dayer was the original plan for working together as Reckless Yes and it’s the one thing we’ve not got round to putting on just yet. I’m sure once we’re able to safely say Reckless Fest will surface in some form, there’s nothing we’d like more than to get to watch and hang out with our roster, our membership, and anyone else who’s up for the party.
Pete: It’s definitely on my list as soon as it’s viable to make it happen properly in the way we want it. Once we start it though, I can imagine we’ll regret taking it on, until the last act plays its last chord and we can collapse – there’ll be so much organising involved, but I’m sure it will definitely be worth it!
Reckless Yes run a fantastic membership subscription service with choice of format, giving access to all their upcoming releases, and have very kindly offered a 10% discount to our readers who want to join. Follow this link & use the code ED2021 to sign up.