Tuesday, December 4, 2007

INTERVIEW: Mike Turner, label-head, Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records

I recently sat down with Mike Turner, label-head of Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records (Athens, GA), to ask him a few questions about his label, the music industry & Athens' distinctive music scene.

ICTH: What's the relationship like between you and the bands on your roster?
Both business and personal.

MT: Well, some bands are really close friends, and other bands are folks I'm
just beginning to know. There are a few bands that let the label have more
control than just releasing the record, and there are a few bands that the
label is just releasing, promoting, and distributing the record. I guess
the main thing is knowing which bands you can work more closely with than
others. For instance I work more as a manager with the Lolligags than say
Red Pony Clock. I handle all aspects of the Lolligags from booking studio
time, to booking shows, to about everything but writing and performing the
songs. Then you have bands like Casper & the Cookies which are a bit more
developed professionally as far as having a press agent, a booking agent,
and pretty much the label just focuses on distribution and manufacturing,
yet the Cookies are some of my closest friends. I really handle each band
differently. It depends on what the band is looking for, and what I can
afford time wise.

ICTH: Are bands under contracts/obligation to the label?

MT: Some bands are under contract, some are just hand shake deals, and others
are based album to album. I don't mind contracts, but it's not always
needed. Plus the bands that are under contract it is written to where
there is a way out for either party if need be. However now that the label
is working with film and tv folks, we are having to negotiate terms with
all the bands on how to handle licensing of their songs for such. So I can
see in the future having each band being under a contract with really
defined terms due to all the new areas that the label is starting to

ICTH: How do you go about getting artists for your roster?

MT: Bands come to the label in a number of ways, I either see a band live and
am just blown away by their live show, or get a demo in the mail, or a
band on the label will suggest I check out a band they played with on the
road. It happens a number of ways. The main thing that matters most about
a band being on HHBTM is that they understand what the label is about. We
mainly ask that a band will help out their label-mates which could mean
helping them book a show, give them a place to stay when they play in
their town, try to get their local store to carry their record, just treat
the other bands as family. It's also really good for the band to tour, or
at least understand that being on a label does not guarantee record sales.
It's very important to tour, and if there isn't any touring then to
understand the record might not sell as well as other bands on the label
that do tour.

ICTH: Why did you start an independent record label initially?

MT: Well, I never meant to start a label in the first place, it just sorta
happened. I was getting ready to stop doing my zine at the time the Bee's
Knees. So I contacted a bunch of bands that i was into and knew from doing
the zine about giving songs for a compilation CD to give away with the
zine as a blow out last issue. Then once word got out on who was going to
be on the compilation a bunch of distros got in touch and started placing
these big orders, so in about 2 days of posting ordering details on 2
message boards or I guess then it was newsgroups I had orders for twice as
many copies as i had planned on printing and pressing. I hand made all the
sleeves with the help of my mom who sewn 500 cloth sleeves for me, and my
friends who helped cut out cards tock slip sleeves and helped me fold,
glue and stamp the other 600 sleeves. From the fun I had doing the
handmade packaged CD comp, I then took on doing a 7" singles club with
each single having a different handmade sleeve. I still can't believe I
handmade over 7,500 sleeves in just over year. Then once doing the club I
started getting people sending me their full length albums and it just
sorta progressed from there. I don't hand make all the sleeves like I used
to, but now I do some hand making for preorders or special edition
versions of albums that we release.

ICTH: What has changed (if anything) since then?

MT: As a business in general, almost everything... the way your promote and
market records has changed not only in the last 7 years, it's changed
drastically in the last year, and will do so even further in the year to
come. Blogs, itunes, napster, distros closing, mom and pop stores closing,
myspace, facebook. There have been many great things come up, and just as
many bad. I think the record industry as an industry will be fine, it will
just be different. I'm not too worried. I just know when it's more of a
head ache and no longer any fun, I'll stop doing it. It's a scary time
and a very exciting time. I think you just have to keep moving forward and
to look at what you are doing personally and what seems to work and what
doesn't, and be willing to change constantly. The labels, bands, and
record stores that keep their heads buried in the sand won't be around,
and the ones that adapt and keep moving forward will be around for many
years to come.

Personally I moved from Florida to Athens in 2004, started the Athens
POPFEST that same year, got married that same year, and decided to finally
end my zine the Bee's Knees in it's tenth year of publication. I also
turned over my promotion company Yum Yum Publicity to one of the folks
involved in the label. I also recently started a show promotion company
with one of my closest friends Gordon Lamb called Buddies Helping Buddies.
We are promoting one show a month in Athens with booking, handling the
fliers, all the press, and putting the bills together. Athens relly didn't
have anyone promoting, so we decided to give it a try. So far our first
show was a sold out show, and the ones we have lined up for January and
February are looking to do well.

As a label I have learned what publicity is, and how to go about getting
it, how to work better with distributors, jumped into soundtrack and tv
licensing, and shaped up the roster quite a bit from the early days. Been
on a few tours with bands to better understand what it is like on the
road, and sat in on a few recordings to see that as well. I am really
excited to start learning about song publishing, and to keep learning more
of all the legal side of the music business. I have a lot more to learn,
but I still want to work a bit at a distributor to see fully what goes on,
and to work for a bigger PR firm to see that side as well.

ICTH: Do you make a living solely off of the label?

MT: No, the money the label makes is put right back into the bands and the
label. I work at Wuxtry Records in Athens, and I help my wife with her
business Pancake Meow with her shipping and packaging for her crafts.

ICTH: Where do you see the music industry going in the next few years?
Especially for the independents.

MT: I see the bigger indies turning into majors over time. Majors trying to
rethink things and be indies, and both somehow still staying around, but
with more equal footing than before. Music pirating will become harder, or
more people will get prosecuted for doing it. Digital distributors and
stores will grow and grow to where the download will continue to get
cheaper over time, and hopefully better quality as well. DIY will always
be there, but only the bands that have it together will make it. Indies
that do the 50/50 will hopefully always be around, but it will only be the
ones that embrace the new technology that will really be profitable, or
the ones that have a good grasp of what their customer base or fans of
their bands and label really want. Radiohead' s pay what you want will
work great for bands that are at that status, but say for a band no one
knows of this will not have the same effect at all. It's very brave to do
this type of promotion, but I am sure live revenue, song licensing, and
t-shirt and record sales at live shows is where they will make more anyway
in 2008 than on actual record sales. I could be wrong, but I doubt they
really bank their livelihood on physical sales that this point. Vinyl will
over take the CD , and CD's will get cheaper since most folks prefer to
download anyway.

ICTH: Finally, what do you like/dislike about the Athens music scene?

MT: Athens music scene is all over the map, so you can come to Athens and
catch some great pop, rock, and experimental bands, but if looking for hip-hop and R&B you might just want to drive to Atlanta. There is never a
shortage of house shows, clubs, or bands, as since Athens is so small, and
there isn't much going on, people just form bands to kill some time it
seems. Most people that are in bands here are usually in multiple bands
which can be great at times, but on average the bands that tend to make it
outside the loop that surrounds Athens tend to be bands that focus on just
one band. I love that Athens is so cheap to live in, and that it's still
small enough to know everyone in town if you live here long enough. Also
with the college the town seems to remain young, and it keeps some of the
older folks in the scene like myself young at heart. It can be really
great being around so many kids that aren't jaded yet. Also it's a very
polite town, at shows when you say excuse me people move aside for you,
which never happens in bigger cities. Athens has the advantages of bigger
cities without all the attitude. The main thing I dislike in Athens is the
late shows. I'd prefer more early shows, but this is a late town, so you
just have to deal with it. Overall the music scene here is pretty tight
knit community, and you find bands that don't match musically sharing
bills which is always fun. You can create and grow at your own pace in
Athens, which isn't the case everywhere, and I think that's one of the
things that keeps me from moving away outside of the close friends I have
made since moving here.

HHBTM is home to some great musicians including Casper & The Cookies, The Lolligags, The High Water Marks, The Keith John Adams, Elekibass, Fishboy & Red Pony Clock.


youichi said...

mike turner is good!!!!

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