Kevin Browning on Nothing Too Fancy Music, Similar Skin and The Internet
Umphrey's McGee is constantly breaking down technological barriers as it continues past its fifteenth year together. Now, the Chicago sextet is upping the ante, starting their own independent label Nothing Too Fancy Music and releasing their next studio album, Similar Skin, off of that label. Ahead of the band's annual UMBowl event at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, we caught up with Kevin Browning from UM management to talk about the launch of the label, Similar Skin and why the Internet age is so damn beautiful.
I think the question on everyone’s mind is—Why now?
When we put out any record there’s sort of a couple lines of thought but the main two are that one, we want to serve our core fan base and take care of the people that take care of us the most and the second goal is to sort of widen the circle of fans, bring new people into the fold, turn on new ears. And we kind of thought going with ATO Records [for 2011’s Death By Stereo], who is a well established label and has some incredible acts that we thought maybe we could get some people—that they could most help us where we could still cater to our fans but at the same time bring new ears into the fold. But at the end of the day it didn’t quite have the impact that we wanted it to have. And then we decided that a lot of the mechanics of operating a label we already do. We put out 100 plus lives shows a year, we put out a bunch of specialty records such as with the hall of fame series, we do a vinyl release ever year for that and we do some best of stuff so we’re so we’ve sort of always… We’re already doing a lot of the label logistics without technically having a label.
So when it came time we started talking about 2 years ago when we started working on this record and talking about what we were going to do with it, the more and more we got into it the more I felt like there’s really not that much value that a traditional label can offer us anymore. We’ve built an infrastructure, we built an ecosystem that runs pretty efficiently and we have a strong grasp of sort of all the mechanics and partners in the deal. It’s speaks to our larger MO, which is we tend to do things in house because we feel like when we are closer to it, we’re better at it and we have a better ability to execute something.
So trying to bring in a label is just…the definition of what a label is and what a label does has changed so much over the years. Honestly we felt like we could do it as well or better than any traditional label. I spent a little time shopping around and looking at other options but sort of in the back of my head for the last couple years I really just wanted to do this ourselves because we can go have a distribution deal so we can get product in stores, product on shelves, digital distribution is really easy, I mean pretty much anybody can do that now. So then it’s a function of there’s…. don’t get me there’s a thousand things that go into and it’s a shit ton of work but we kind of do a lot of that work anyway even when we were with a label because we’re very particular about the way we want things done, we’re perfectionists and we see opportunities and we see lots of avenues we want to go down and we rely on ourselves to do that and not the label to go make things happen. So at the end of the day when you’re looking at the books and it’s like were paying, there’s this whole other partner involved and we’re still shouldering a lot of the work, why don’t we just take that last bit on ourselves and break ties and do it like we want?
You said you’ve been talking about this for a couple years. So you wouldn’t say that it was ATO’s problem but rather you wanting to do it on your own?
ATO is great. We like those guys and they like us. Honestly it was a very mutually beneficial thing. We didn’t have an obligation to do a record and they didn’t have an obligation to sign us to another either. So we basically said, ”Hey when it gets a little closer let’s talk about it,” and both of us felt like it was a good fit to have us do it and they were not… it was friendly departure on both sides.
Now that you have this outlet from a creative standpoint, what do you have planned for the Umphrey’s world?
In the short term all eyes on our Similar Skin. We’re not trying to undertake a bunch of projects. We’re focusing on this record, we’re setting up all the nuts and bolts to make it run and run efficiently so for now it’s all things Similar Skin. Down the road I think realistically you might start to see some side project releases, some solo project releases from some of the guys but all things that are tied to Umphrey’s in a real way. At this point we’re not signing bands and we’re not actively seeking a roster. We’re going to get this right ourselves and then we’ll take it from there, see what it looks like and then make decisions at that point.
This isn’t a label in the traditional sense of the word. Can you describe some of the differences for those who may not know?
The way that the label business has always been set up is totally broken. The advent and widespread use of the Internet and other technologies has completely disrupted what a record label used to do. Record labels used to basically control the pipe. So they controlled all distribution.
If you were in a band, you had a record and you wanted it to be heard, you had to sign to a label. A label then took your album and was responsible for distributing it and getting it places. Now anybody can go put their music on iTunes or on Spotify. Now it’s a matter of cutting through the clutter and being heard. Getting it to the end user is easy—it’s a matter of whether the end user gives a shit. So that’s traditionally what a label did and then honestly the other big piece of it is money. Labels front the cost for the recording, mixing, mastering, manufacturing, artwork, publicity, marketing and the dozens of expenses that go into making a record. So a label traditionally would front you that money and then the band would be indebted to the label until they paid off every cent that the label spent on you, which the labels were always curiously good at never quite letting you figure out how you haven’t paid it all back yet. I mean it’s a pretty sketchy business to be honest. While there are definitely good players in it, traditionally speaking it comes from a place of greed and graft. Though we are doing all of those functions of a label, we are doing it differently right now because we’re just doing it for ourselves at this point.
It sounds like a lot of homework had to be done before deciding on this. How extensive did you guys sit down and talk about the pros and cons of this decision?
There were a lot of discussions about what’s the opportunity cost of going in alone. What do we give up? Do we gain more? Ultimately it just became clear that there was no great reason. There are 10 great reasons why we should do it ourselves but there are not 10 great reasons why we should sign to a label. We don’t operate like a lot of bands. A lot of bands don’t have the infrastructure to sort of go all in and be able to execute and that’s not a knock at all, it’s just a reality of the way that we’ve built our business from the beginning and that’s the way that we chose to do it. So following the line of the way we operate it just made more sense because we already do it and can do it. Now it gives us way more flexibility, it gives us way more freedom, way more creative control, it gives us the ability to think and act quickly.
So now when we have an idea and we want to execute it, it’s just a matter of we have the idea, we figure out how to execute it and we do it. With a label there is often permission that has to be asked, “Hey we want to do this,” because if you want to make a video using a track that’s going to be released on the record you have to have their approval because they own the master. But we just don’t work well in those kinds of parameters. When we come up with a good idea, we want to act on it and to have somebody say no you cant do that good idea with your own music that you’ve created—that’s a non starter for us. Even the label deals we did with ATO Records and SCI Fidelity before, we had the most flexible deals that you could ever really sign with a record label. We had more freedom than most but we still didn’t have everything that we wanted. So the pros of being able to act quickly, to have the freedom to go when and where we want—those things ultimately trump the whatever upside we felt like we might have gotten from another outlet.