(All photos by Tomasz Werner)
Singles Club was founded in 2014 as an attempt to bridge the gap between the physical and digital music landscapes. Singles Club is a record label that releases exclusively 7” singles, but the focus here isn’t on the commercialism of record production and sales. Rather they use the format to tell stories and create relationships through their unique subscription platform. Each record is considered an “issue” and is paired with long-form interviews and stories about the artists, photo essays, and other digital content exclusive to subscribers and record buyers.
Essentially they’ve flipped the idea of being a label into a magazine model. And while that sounds kind of like a gimmick, they are finding that the way people respond to this model is incredibly organic.
So far, they’ve released records by… Daniel Bachman, Small Sur, Woodsman, Wisdom Tooth, Monster Rally, You Blew It!, Michael Nau, and Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa. Check out all of their issues here.
Are you both musicians?
Yes, that’s right. Chris is a drummer and I’m a guitarist. We wrote, recorded, and toured together in a band called Secret Mountains for years while both living in Baltimore, MD. It’s safe to say we learned just about everything we know about labels, booking shows, touring, etc. from being in that band. Looking back, I think it gave us a lot of perspective. Chris has a bit more formal training than I do, however we’ve always played together really well. He’s one of my favorite drummers to watch play. There’s a sort of mutual understanding of how we both operate when behind our instruments. Somehow, I think that’s transferred to this project as well. It’s been a minute since we’ve played together. Maybe that will change soon.
Can you describe your relationship with publishing music and how this idea came about in the first place?
These days I’d say my relationship with publishing music is complicated. There truly is no right or wrong way to record, release, promote, or publish a song. However that’s what makes it equally challenging and exciting to be doing a project like Singles Club right now. Following along with the record labels I admire has always been a key source to my music discovery. I admire labels (and artists) that build a trust with their audience and can only hope, as time continues, that we operate in that way for anyone who subscribes or just listens to what we’re putting out.
Chris and I don’t like to sit still much. As the band we played in together came to a close, we began talking about a record label that could act as means to blend together parts of both the digital and physical music landscape we found to be most exciting. We wanted it to lean heavily on the storytelling aspect as well. Singles Club is what we landed on and we’ve been going strong ever since. Chris is a designer and art director by day. I’m a teacher, freelance writer, and artist manager. Our skill sets line up pretty nicely.
I love this project because it represents this idea I find to be very important right now which is just slowing down the process of finding new music and the way we consume it. It may have been yours truly who coined the term, but I like to think of our service as music discovery at a more human pace. We dig deep on these artists with our journals and by working with different writers, photographers, videographers, etc., we attempt to capture a full-view picture of the artists we feature.
How did your network as artists help to shape the culture of Singles Club?
It was crucial for us getting off the ground. Wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We’re lucky because we found ourselves in such a supportive and loving community of musicians in Baltimore who introduced to so many incredible creative individuals. The people we met on the road, booking shows, designing posters for, or just talking to set the tone of how we operate and showed us the importance of supporting other musicians. That carried over tenfold once we made the move to New York and I think we’ve carried that spirit with us ever since. Especially with our first volume of releases, the artists trusted enough to deliver a quality product and were very supportive of our new venture. It gave us a lot of confidence to keep the project going.
Do you think your offering has more value to the consumer or the artist?
Tough question, although I’d like to think we’ve struck a nice balance. For the consumer, there really is something for everyone. From the designer to the vinyl collector, the writer to the collage artist, our subscriptions and digital issues cover a lot of ground. I think it’s the reason we’ve had success with people returning to our project and wanting to spread the word. Artists always love having another item on the merch table, and what could be better than a limited edition 7” that only a handful of fans will ever get their hands on? The digital issues are really nice pieces of press/promo for the artist as well, especially when bundled with another big piece of news like an album or tour announcement.
Your records are actually called “Issues.” How does the subscription model work?
You’ve got two options. Subscribe at any point throughout the year and you are guaranteed four issues. That’s four limited edition 7”s from new artists containing an exclusive single on the a-side and an interview with the artist on the b-side. We mail out one issue per quarter, all housed in a custom 45 box with die-cut inserts plus a lapel pin and adapter. This year, every artist also contributed one handmade print item to be included with their release. So far there has been a collage print from Monster Rally, postcards from You Blew It!, and a drawing from Michael Nau of Cotton Jones. Subscribers receive each release on clear vinyl, limited to 100 copies. If you’re just after a single issue, you can purchase individual 7”s as well on black vinyl.
And how is that subscription model working for you? What kinds of opportunities or roadblocks does it create?
Some of the biggest roadblocks we’ve faced are production deadlines. It’s no secret the limited number of vinyl pressing plants in the country are backed up big time right now with the huge resurgence of the medium. Since we are a subscription model, we’ve worked hard to make sure issues are delivered in a timely fashion, but due to delays at the plant sometimes releases get pushed back further than we would like. Something else that’s been challenging is approaching artists who are also gearing up for releases on other labels. We certainly don’t want to get in the way of a label’s release or promo schedule, so trying to time everything right with our announcements has been tricky. More recently however Suicide Squeeze bundled our Michael Nau 7” with their LP release which wound up working really nicely for both parties. We’re hoping to be able to work in this way with more established artist who are already signed to labels in the future. Other that, time is our biggest enemy. This is a passion project and with Chris and I balancing full-time jobs, grad school, and other commitments, finding the time to connect can be difficult. We just have to keep each other motivated.
I’ve actually tried running a label in the past. And besides realizing my heart wasn’t in it as much as it is in the process of making my own music, one of the reasons I got out of the game was the competitiveness in distribution. It’s really, really hard to find national distributors, and even the indie-distros are having to turn down small labels these days. Is this something you’ve had to deal with?
Totally hear you on this. Luckily, this isn’t something we have had to deal too much with as we do not have distribution at this time. We just started moving some records into some shops around the country ourselves. Currently, the only way to grab a Singles Club release is through us, at a show, or visit one of our stockists. Regardless, we’ve definitely heard stories about how challenging the process can be.
You’re also sort of a distributor, since you sell other records from the artists you present.
Right. That’s been a really neat part of the project as well and labels definitely get excited about it. Definitely a neat way for us to package a few items together. We’re hoping to continue to expand the shop more in 2016.
There’s something very old fashioned about the Singles Club. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels reminiscent of the 78 era somehow… Thoughts?
We take that as compliment! In part, I think it has to do with the fact that the vinyl are cut at 45 rpm so they have the bigger hole in the middle, giving it more of that classic feel. In addition, Chris’ design work for this project manages to have a throwback vibe while remaining entirely original and modern. I don’t know how he does it. Perhaps it’s this whole slowing down thing I was making mention of earlier as well.
As a company how have you focused on growth over the last nearly two years?
There are a few different ways to look at growth for a project like ours. One way is obviously our subscriber and single issue purchase numbers, which we’ve been happy to see a steady increase in from last year. Putting out small runs of records like this is expensive, and we’re really only at a point where breaking even on a release is a win. The other area of growth is simply in the community of labels, musicians, small business owners, writers, and more that we’ve been lucky enough to become a part of since starting. Through a lot of great conversations, I think we’ve been able to make adjustments to our model that have helped keep Singles Club feeling fresh and new. Our network of contributors and people looking to get involved in the project is growing every day. We’re really thankful for that.
What would be your best advice for aspiring musicians these days?
There is no making it. Good, honest music will be recognized one way or another. Don’t rely on labels, managers, PR, or an agent. Do it yourself first. Then keep doing it but with a little help along the way. If what you are creating means something to you, stick with it.
Singles Club just released their latest issue, Vol. 2, Issue 8, Winter 2015, Dustin Wong & Takako Minekawa. Stream the release, read the interview, see the art, and subscribe right here. It’s also available on Soundcloud here. If you’re interested in “discovering music at a human pace” consider subscribing here. And if you’re interested in hearing more about pioneering new music initiatives, check out the full Entrepreneurship in Music series!