In the new music landscape, traditional models are modifying, morphing and changing. The record label is one of those pieces that is stretching. Neil Sabatino, owner of Mint 400 Records and songwriter in the band Fairmont, was kind enough to give Independent Clauses a long interview about the pros and cons of digital labels. (Mint 400 is the label of The Duke of Norfolk, whom I manage.)
How did you start Mint 400 Records?
Mint 400 Records was originally a joke. I would use it as my fake label that I said Fairmont was on when we were in between labels. I didn’t really intend to start a record label at the time when I first came up with the name. Then as I started working with a digital distributor he had told me he was signing me up to digital distribution as a label because Fairmont had so many releases at the time, and it got us around a loop hole that allowed us to control the digital distro for every record we had ever put out.
At first I planned on only releasing my own band’s material. I finally asked the question to our digital distro, “Can we help our friends put out their records through our digital distro deal?” The answer was yes, and the rest is history.
How does a digital label like Mint 400 differ from a traditional record label? What do you offer bands?
Mint 400 basically is focused on keeping the bands out of debt, hence releasing very little physical content and being about 95% digital. Occasionally the label has put out physical records for a select band or two and has helped other bands who have pressed their own material to get physical distribution but because of the way that the industry has changed it doesn’t benefit small bands anymore to press anything. One of the things I wanted to do when I first started out was to be able to sign a band, bring them to my home studio and engineer and produce their record for free. Then I wanted to be able to use my art background to design their album art, web page, and other media.
In addition Mint 400 tries to help here and there with PR and tour dates. So basically without costing myself any money only my time, I was able to give a band that had nothing a pretty good start. That was in the early days and now that we have grown we also started working with Pirate Radio Promotions who were nice enough to give us a very indie friendly rate to promote our records to college radio and specialty radio.
This in addition to licensing deals set up specifically for Mint 400 Records artists have been the things we offer bands that a lot of other labels can’t offer. Through a lot of trial and error I have found the most cost effective ways to spend on a band’s release without breaking the bank for them or for myself. I honestly believe that through being on a label like mine, prolific, talented bands are given a chance to grow exponentially and with my help can elevate themselves to the point where they can continue on as a band for many years. For some I will be the stepping stone for them to get to the next step bigger label.
Why should bands get involved with a digital label? What would they benefit? What types of bands would benefit?
I think bands who are prolific are the bands who will benefit the most from a label like mine. A normal label wouldn’t dream of letting you release more then one thing a year because they like to be paid back before moving onto the next thing. Through Mint 400 because we try to handle everything in house we encourage bands to release as many things as possible and they reap the rewards by having that material available for licensing and for radio. For this reason we have a lot of amazing songwriters that have the ability to record their own material and this limits them only to how much material they can write in a year. The bands who won’t benefit from my label are the ones who think they are the next big thing, we don’t buy into any aspect of the major label or even major indie label way of doing things. I would say my label is the most punk rock label that releases almost no punk rock music.
Digital labels get maligned as not as good as traditional labels. What would you say the biggest misconception about digital labels is?
I have been in my current band for 13 years now and have released something in every year of our existence, some years we even did two releases. My concern has always been to hone my craft and release as many great records as possible. That is all I really care about and is what I want the artists on my label to care about. The point for me is I have been able to have my records heard by people for over a decade and most bands can’t say that. I want to offer that gift to like minded songwriters who know that their humble songs deserve to be heard.
We are willing to get involved with an artist even if they only have recorded in the bedroom and never done anything else. Amazing songwriting is our concern, and I feel at some point there will be a backlash against the bands who spend millions on records to sound like a perfect robotic auto tuned version of themselves. It will always come back to tremendous musicians who write tremendous songs. I would never hold it against an artist who wants to work the stable 9 to 5 job, have a family and a house but still write records. Just because an artist is stable and doesn’t want to tour and be away from his loved ones for months on end doesn’t mean his work holds any less merit then a major label act.
If someone wanted to start a digital label, what would it take? What goes into creating a digital label?
If someone was looking to just start a digital label I would say all that matters is you have bands that you believe in. For me it helps that I have a background in art which translates to the ability to be able to help bands with everything from videos to web & album design. The other things like producing and engineering records took a lot of hard work to get good at and if you are hoping to do what I do and produce and engineer your label’s releases then I suggest putting in ten plus years in an indie band where you learn from seasoned veterans.
It doesn’t hurt that being in a band you get to learn what kinds of things get you heard more, like radio campaigns, and which things are wastes of time and money. However I would never discourage someone who has drive from attempting to start a digital record label. The only thing that really matters is how good your ear is and will you know an amazing songwriter when you hear one? I pretty much started the label with no cash up front, I mean it did help though that I had already spent thousands on the Fairmont records that became the initial first batch of what Mint 400 released. For the entrepreneur, I would say get good at everything so you can do it in house and cheaply and then you are ready to start your own label. The distro, the radio, the licensing will all come later if you have quality bands.
I don’t want to misrepresent the label at all, so I will disclose that you are going to need to pretty much spend all of your extra cash for a very long time on things for the label. However if you are smart about it and don’t exceed your limitations, then you can pretty much spend what you make to keep upgrading the label. I would say the label has grown tenfold with respects to earnings over our 8-year history and we try to then grow that money by putting back into the label.