When the Toad Came Home…!

(Skip to 2:31 for one of the greatest moments in musical history.)

Hello there folks. Yes I am, contrary to rumour and vast, vast quantities of gin and wine consumed, still alive. And back from Red Hook, sitting at my desk like a grown-up trying to figure out exactly where I go from here.

Honestly, if I had the choice I would still be in Red Hook. Up until recently my whole life has been spent changing city, and often country, every few years. I’ve spent the last ten years in Edinburgh however, and I had genuinely forgotten the thrill of wandering a new city for the first time. It’s a great experience, and the sense of infinite possibility is pretty much impossible to replicate with a holiday. Still, there are a million reasons I won’t bore you with that Mrs. Toad and I can’t just up sticks and fuck off, so I am stuck in Leith building my own studio (working title: The Happiness Hotel – what do you think!) and wondering what to do with my record label for the next year. Such a hard life.

It may appear from the internet that I didn’t really do any work while I was over in the States and that is arguably true – I certainly just dossed around having an amazing time more than I rather naïvely thought I would, and in retrospect I don’t regret it in the slightest.

I did, however, spend time hanging out with my brother and recording the Toad Flake Paint Split 12″, which will be out later this year. I also caught up on something like three years of out-of-date accounting, meaning I now have a precise idea of how much every release we have on the label has ‘made’ (call my accountant, I am buying a yacht in the Bahamas right now). So it wasn’t like I was idle exactly, and the things I did get done are excellent things to have in the bag, so the time was far from squandered.

Most importantly, however, I also got a bit of distance from Edinburgh and from the label itself and had the chance to sit down and really think about what I am trying to achieve with Song, by Toad and how best to go about it. A bit of a think is an important thing for any artistic (and indeed commercial) project, but it can be very hard to actually achieve when the day to day running of the thing pretty much overwhelms you, so the presence of the Atlantic Ocean and some time in a neighbourhood where I knew more or less no-one was a welcome chance to just draw breath and take stock.

Despite this, I feel like I didn’t really solve anything, unfortunately. So why not lay out the dilemma here, so you can see the cogs in my head spinning with near-total futility.

When we first started the label we had no real intention of becoming a ‘proper’ record label. The plan was to help small bands and pals get a bit of traction and a bit more of a push for their stuff, in the hopes that they would then have the opportunity to move on to something bigger and better in the future. We weren’t supposed to be anything more than a starter label, really.

The problem with that approach was that a/ our first release sold over a thousand records, which makes you legit pretty much immediately, whether you like it or not; and b/ there are so few decent labels out there and so many bands that you will get pushed into professionalism (or as close an impression as you can manage) pretty quickly, because no band wants to be on a ‘just for fun’ label when they have a debut album to release that they’ve slaved away on for years.

So I find myself trapped between two identities at the moment and I have no idea how to resolve the situation. On one hand we have a loose collective of established artists which in my opinion makes us easily one of the best record labels in the country (feel free to disagree, I know this business is all about opinions, and you are welcome to be wrong if you want). This year we have new albums coming up by David Thomas Broughton and Adam Stafford, for example, and whilst neither of them are huge they are both well established and both need a well thought-out release strategy and proper attention to do them justice. If we based the whole label around a small core of artists like that and a limited number of releases I think we’d have one really good solution to what Song, by Toad could be.

Alternatively, between David Cameron’s Eton Mess, and a plethora of new tape and Split 12″ releases on the horizon, we are perfectly placed to become what I believe would be a really excellent ‘project’ label; not really signing artists per se, but just working on low-key things as and when they turn up, focussing more on strange and interesting projects, and giving exciting new bands their first formal releases, rather than trying to become a junior version of Domino or Bella Union. The warehouse studio that we are in the process of building would seem to lend itself to that, giving us the opportunity to make things happen whenever we have a good idea, and the chance to arrange more interesting collaborations like Bastard Mountain.

Either of those two models would work very well for me, but of course Song, by Toad Records is currently a bit of both, and I am not sure it works that well, to be honest.

At the moment I get the impression we’ve sort of managed to throttle both models by dallying with the other, if you know what I mean. We have too many bands formally signed to the label to really have the time and space to do the weird and interesting projects that I want to do, and at the same time we have too many weird projects going on to devote the proper care and attention to the bands who are on the roster at the moment, meaning we aren’t really doing them justice. And I honestly have no idea how to resolve this as I really get the impression that either approach pretty much entails a full-time job in itself.

It’s a classic case of having eyes bigger than your stomach of course. I would run about four or five record labels if I could: one traditional one and one weird projecty one as detailed above, of course, as well as one specialising in retrospective re-releases of previously self-released stuff from the last five years or so, one based around bringing non-anglophone records from around the world to the UK, and probably a modern-classical/experimental noise label as well. I could imagine an entirely Scottish-focussed label, one based around giving small US/Canadian bands their first UK release and getting them over here touring, one based entirely around collaborative projects with musicians mostly known for their other bands, recorded entirely in our warehouse – fuck it, I could probably have about ten labels if I had infinite cash and infinite time.

The problem I have is of course the obvious one; in the words of Jonnie Common “I’m only making one trip and I’ve only got one pair of hands”.

I have to pick one, and at the moment I am sort of trying to do two things at once. I don’t want to get rid of artists on the label because we signed each and every one of them for very good reasons: we really like them as people and we fucking love the music they make. And with the warehouse nearly ready I am really far too excited about getting in there to work to start worrying about restricting it already.

So what’s the solution? Well personally I think it is going to have to be twofold.

Firstly, we have tape releases now. We can release stuff on tape cheaply and easily, with a relatively stripped down PR process, and I think we should look to explore that avenue for stuff this year as a way of continuing to take risks with new stuff without necessarily breaking the bank or over-burdening me with extra work I can’t keep up with.

Secondly, we don’t have to commercialise everything. We haven’t done a Toad Session in a while, and the warehouse is perfect for Toad Sessions. We could even start doing collaborative Toad Sessions too – get a couple of musicians in with the idea that they work together on a couple of songs each, a bit like our second ever session with Mariee Sioux and Alela Diane. Or we could just record stuff for people but them give them the masters for release elsewhere.

But in future I want the warehouse to be the engine room of the label. It’s a brilliant space – informal, relaxed, and it sounds great – and so that is inevitably going to lead to changes in how the label operates. We’re currently in the process of redesigning our entire web presence, and once that’s done the blog will be less about my opinions on this album or that album, and more about stuff we are actually doing. Pictures from recording sessions, discussion of the mixing process, all sorts, but focussed mostly around actually doing creative work.

It will still be ‘Hello this is me and here are my wonderful opinions about music’ of course, but with much more focus on helping that music to happen, rather than just pontificating about it. Which I think we can all agree would be a good thing.

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