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Modern Radio's 7 ways to make it as a record label

The Minneapolis indie record label celebrates its decennial with two shows this week

It's not easy to keep a labor of love alive—that's certainly true for indie record labels, and even many successful ones have been wrecked by bad luck, bad decisions, or plain old burnout. But Minneapolis label Modern Radio has been happily plugging away for a decade thanks to both a passion for documenting the Twin Cities music scene and a pragmatism focused on long-term survival. "I’ll be the first to say that I’m not surprised that we made it to 10 years," says founder Tom Loftus, "and I won’t be surprised when we make it to 20." Technically, it's already at 10 and a half, since Loftus started Modern Radio in summer 1999 with three releases—including a split single from punk band Killsadie, who broke up almost immediately afterward, but its members found success later in Pretty Girls Make Graves and Minus The Bear. The following year, Modern Radio released important first efforts from local punk combos The Plastic Constellations and Motion City Soundtrack.

Loftus and Mielech first met on their high-school basketball team.

As the label grew, Loftus partnered with his old high-school friend Peter Mielech and went on to work with nationally prominent artists like William Elliott Whitmore, Portland singer-songwriter Mirah, and San Francisco noise-rockers Deerhoof. But Modern Radio's prime focus has always been on local indie-rock; some of the Cities' best bands, including STNNNG and Vampire Hands, call the label home. The Modern Radio website's message board has also become an important nexus point for the local music community, generating over a million hits a month. The label celebrates its 10th anniversary with a pair of shows this week—Friday at the Turf with five bands including FT (The Shadow Government), Daughters Of The Sun, and The Chambermaids, and Saturday at the Cedar headlined by a reunited Plastic Constellations.

Loftus and Mielech talked with The A.V Club at Modern Radio's "head office"—Loftus' living room in northeast Minneapolis, home also to a pair of rambunctious kittens—and shared seven secrets behind their success.

1. Anyone can do this.
Tom Loftus: [At] St. John's University, I got to set up a few shows; the best one was Killsadie. Most of the people at [KJNB, St. John's college radio station] said that it was the worst band they had ever heard. I thought it was one of the greatest shows that I had put on there. The room was so small and it was so loud. Needless to say, the crowd did not last very long. It was awesome.

The A.V. Club: How did you make the leap from there to actually putting music out on your own?

TL: It just seemed like it was moving that direction. I had booked a lot of shows on campus and even in the Cities. As that was happening I thought, “Aha. This is something that anybody could do." It just seemed like my way to contribute. I didn’t know how to play an instrument, and this was a side of music that I could do. I was aware that you had to be smart about what you were doing, and take care of the artist.

2. Don't be flaky.
TL: There were [record labels] that were notorious for screwing people over. They would [ask people to] send $100 to join some 7-inch fan club, and it never happened. And that to me was always the wrong thing to do, because being a music fan first, the fact that someone would give you money to buy a record, it reflects poorly on the band. You wouldn’t want to pay $10 to buy a record and not get it in the mail. I think a lot of people never understood that being flaky about that was bad business.

3. Break even, think long-term.
TL: It would be nice to have offices for both of us outside of our houses, but realistically, the level we would have to be at would be not something I necessarily imagine.

Peter Mielech: If we have an opportunity to put out a record by a band we love, versus having an office, we’ll probably choose the project.

TL: [It's bad business] not setting yourself up to break even, like spending thousands of dollars on recording and promotion. For me it was like, you find a cheaper way, from setting up shows to finding other ways to get the word out, and just use those avenues. If an opportunity arises where you get a little bit more budget, you spend a little bit more money. I’ve seen so many people who broke the bank on the first release and that ended the label. They couldn’t afford anything else.

PM: Losing money and making money are obviously two different things. We’re not in this business to lose money. We firmly believe that nurturing the creative process is a good business solution. Certainly there would be a different way of running a record label when you are thinking profits only.

TL: If we don’t have any sort of pool to draw from, then we’re not able to do everything that we want to do without digging into our own personal bank accounts, which we both have done, but the goal is always been to be less concerned with things breaking. I didn’t care that the Killsadie split single didn’t work. It was a good way to share my excitement about the band. But if you can’t recoup your expenses, then you can’t do more stuff… There’s so many people in the business who jump out when they realize that it’s not easy to make a buck, let alone survive. You have to put in a lot of hours just to get by. If we quit our day jobs to do this we’d be collecting welfare and living in cardboard boxes.

4. The compact disc is no longer king. Vinyl and digital are the future.
TL: When we started the label, 1,000 CDs wasn't that hard to get rid of, but we saw that leveling off even as our bands were doing well. But it switched on vinyl; [at first] we weren’t doing vinyl runs because it was so cost-prohibitive.

PM: The 2000s were like the rise and fall of the CDs, and we had to adjust. We had done vinyl throughout the entire [history of Modern Radio] and being a smaller label, relatively speaking [the number of physical CDs or LPs we manufacture is] pretty modest. When we started doing the online iTunes thing, it was more "Well, this is just going to be a nice little extra, whatever comes." But now it’s a major part of what we’re doing. For the level that we’re operating, we’re a little recession-proof and not really affected by the music industry as a whole. I mean the country’s in the crapper right now, and we’ve had steady growth for the last three years… It’s hard to get your stuff distributed when you’re a Twin Cities label, and your bands play the Midwest fairly consistently but don’t really get out to New York and L.A. and San Francisco and Seattle and Portland that much. The nice thing about iTunes is that our music can get out there everywhere. So, as record stores and distributors are dying, it doesn’t affect us because it’s never been a huge portion of our sales. It’s always been a challenge, but the digital age has definitely helped us—if someone in France wants to buy a record on iTunes, they can buy the record.

TL: From a broader music-industry standpoint, the Internet and digital music leveled the playing field. It brought the majors down to Earth and it helped, probably, the indies.

5. Trust your bands.
PM: We don’t have contracts, period.

TL: That’s where the personal bond comes in. You know, it’s not a rule, but we work with people we know and trust. And the reality is at the level we’re at, record contracts really aren’t realistically enforceable on either end, so what purpose do they serve?

AVC: How much do you try to influence how a band sounds?

PM: I don’t think any of that has ever happened.

TL: Well, once. Hidden Chord had one song that was flat-out awesome, “I’ve Blown It Again.” [I told them,] "I will put out a 7-inch by you guys if that can be the A side. You can put whatever you want on the B side." It’s still one of my favorite songs by them. It’s like “Paperback Writer” meets “Satisfaction.” Awesome. Otherwise, it’s just like, "Give us your songs; we’ll give you some feedback."

PM: Certainly we want to hear it.

TL: We’ve said, "Well, I think this song should go before this song," but usually that’s the band’s choice. And we’ve just trusted them as much as we can. I think [the only times] when we’ve had to intervene is artwork, and ideas that aren’t realistic for the cost.

6. The cover should be a work of art. Example: The CD insert for Signal To Trust'sGolden Armour was designed to be cut out and reassembled as a diorama.

PM: Obviously, it’s the music [that's most important], but the way your record looks, the cover art matters.

The "Golden Armour" diorama, assembled

AVC: Does it still matter as much?

PM: Yes, sometimes more.

AVC: Because these days, with so much digital music, people often don't know the covers at all.

TL: It’s a way for a band to represent what they’re trying to do. Your average MP3 purchaser isn’t going to care, but the potential for the artwork to be great, especially when we’re doing limited, handmade vinyl—it could be someone’s first entry point for the band.

PM: It’s an opportunity. If you blow it, it’s an opportunity lost. If you’re not going to follow through with this, every step of the way, why bother?

7. It's not important to have a hit record.
PM: I don’t like to think about those things too much. Because even if somebody broke, so many things would have to happen to create a sustainable situation over a long period of time. And we’re really in this for the long haul.

TL: I feel like in some ways we are living the dream. I mean, I never thought I would be big—if  you told me in high school that I would celebrating the 10-year anniversary of a record label, I would be like, "Holy shit, I have a record label?"… I’ve always sort of kept one foot in, one foot out of the music stuff because I don’t ever want it to become too much business and take out some of the fun, because there’s so many things we get to do now in our position that are fun.

PM: The fear is always, like, if this becomes your primary job, does it then become work? Would it be easier to compromise if your paycheck is reliant upon it?