In part five of our series – The Business of Music – in partnership with iMusician, Attack’s Oliver Payne talks to Jimmy Asquith from Lobster Theremin about the business realities of running a vinyl label.
Jimmy Asquith – founder of Lobster Theremin, Distribution & Records – originally from Brighouse in West Yorkshire, has established a landmark brand in London’s vinyl community where he’s become a respected figure. It’s his driven devotion to underground music and nurturing of upcoming talent that has been a fundamental part of the growing business. Staying ahead of the curve and setting trends through Lobster Theremin shows that although now the head of a burgeoning business, the artistry of the label is more intact than ever.
Close friend Jay Donaldson AKA Palms Trax, a regular DJ at club night Find Me In The Dark, which Jimmy still runs at Corsica Studios, played the soon-to-be debut release, ‘Equation’, at an after party in 2012.
“I was like ‘Jesus, what is this?’ He was like ‘It’s one of mine!’,” he says. “That became the first release. I was riding solo, I did all the design and I didn’t know how to use the guides in Photoshop so I used to hold a ruler onto the screen. But, you know, you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do and if it works then don’t worry about it.
“I was contacting pressing plants, mastering houses. I picked a few records out my collection and saw who mastered them, contacted them for rates and went from there, setting up a distribution price and a Bandcamp.”
Experience working at Hackney’s Kristina Records gave Jimmy his knack for vinyl distribution meaning he could run that side of things from his flat in Stamford Hill.
“If you’re going to do that it’s not handy to live on the third floor of a Victorian building with no lift!” He laughs. “There were hundreds of units. I was lugging them downstairs, meeting UPS and hand stamping them all.”
[quote align=right text=”Not losing your values and the reason you started the label – the ability to do that is the strongest asset.”]
Later, at Jimmy’s new place in Limehouse, distribution service Lobster Records was started.
“It was me and Callum in the kitchen packing boxes: him for mail order, me for distribution. There was no central heating and smashed up windows; we had the tumble dryer on and the exhaust blasting out at us to keep us warm. Those moments are make or break.
“Over nine months I had the idea to start a distribution proper as I’d been asked by a lot of labels if I was distributing the Lobster [Theremin] records and if I’d be happy to do theirs. Within a week I had 70 labels on the distribution. I immediately took on an extra member of staff; they were doing one day a week and they suddenly went to four days and essentially became the other distribution person. In some cases, it can change overnight – week to week. You have to be ready to pounce and up your game and take people on.”
Jimmy’s ability to constantly evaluate Lobster and keep it evolving is what has made it such a success. “My background is in science and chemistry so I loved applying myself and learning,” he says. “I found the whole process of refining and having a fresh look on some of these processes exciting.”
It was this scientist’s application of learning on the job and a confidence to jump in the deep end that helped Jimmy at first, rather than studying certain manuals on how to start independent record labels, which felt ‘overly complex and academic.’
“Try to get rid of any insecurities,” He advises. “I tried to simplify everything in my mind and was like ‘actually, this isn’t too difficult.’ The resources are out there to learn. The best thing is just go out there and do it. Fail, fast. Do as much as you can. Be creative and be creative fast. Suddenly you’ll turn round and be quite experienced.
From the outside in, London’s vinyl community can seem impenetrable, but finding friends in fellow music lovers opened up new opportunities to starting a business with like-minded individuals of which 10 now work for Jimmy across the business. London is an ‘environment for people to grow their ideas and make them commercially viable’, according to Jimmy.
“When I finished university I was either going to go to Leeds and do a masters in engineering or give music a real go and London’s the place to go to do it. I literally bought a one-way coach ticket, packed my bag. My mate put me up. I was out every day for hours handing out CVs, did music editing at Super Super Magazine and moved into a flat two weeks later.
“I enjoyed going to record shops. [Phonica] fostered my ideas. That’s where I met Rosy and Danielle who work for Lobster Theremin now. I think prior to that some of the stores could be a bit elitist but if you find the right persona there is no snobbery. It’s magical. I walked into Phonica and met Nick. He had seven recommended records and was just bouncing around talking about music. It’s hard for that excitement not to be infectious and for you to not feel like suddenly you are a part of something.”
Both inclusive and exclusive labels and record stores each play a part in a flourishing dance music ‘ecosystem’, and while Phonica opened their hearts up to Jimmy, it’s fair to say some communities will have ‘gatekeepers’ who like a sense of exclusivity.
“There are excitable and positive sides of the vinyl scene and cynical, snobbish sides of the vinyl scene,” he admits. “For people that are about to start a label: you don’t have to worry about those things. The sands of the vinyl world can shift quite quickly and you can respect the people that have been doing it longer as well as newcomers – I think that’s key.
“Leaving that door open means it’s open to everybody and not just an elitist outlet. That’s been my value all along. That is the foundation of the birth of dance music and it should be something that is kept and held on to.”
With Lobster Theremin ahead of the curve in dance, and with plans to venture into home listening, vocals and electronic indie inspired by big players Warp and Ninja Tune, it manages, and surely will manage, to balance the integrity of art while keeping revenue coming in.
What’s the secret? “For me it [Lobster] is always going to be the same thing: a fun DIY thing I do,” He says. “I have to keep it there. Not losing your values and the reason you started the label – the ability to do that is the strongest asset.
“I can see when people are trying to make money. It takes the edge off things, like ‘why have you done that? Why have you suddenly smashed all that good work by doing this one release that feels a bit contrived?’ It definitely creates a disconnect with people that are into the music that you’re putting out.”
[quote align=right text=”Don’t take on staff to do things that you do well, take people on to do things that you find terrifying. It keeps you doing the thing that you are good at.”]
It’s important to always believe in a sound, too, and not simply go with the flow of whatever’s popular and Jimmy has been keen to introduce new, daring tracks into his label. “Records over the last year have gone back to the early days of more techno-influenced, electro, UK influenced dance music,” Jimmy says. “Suddenly there’s a new pivot – a new thing. You’re not necessarily blowing up because of it but you persisted. It doesn’t feel as buzzy but you can see the genuine perception has changed to the people that matter and that message will keep resonating.”
Want to start your own record label?
“When I was growing the distribution I naturally thought I needed a larger space to store stock. I should have asked myself: ‘could we work with an external partner to store the physical vinyl so we just had an office to be more creative?’ That’s a question I asked myself two years too late. When the physical stock management gets on top of that side of the business you can end up with a lot of overheads. Rent is a big one.”
“We moved that [physical stock management] to an external provider and instantly a lot of overheads disappeared. It was a good business move and it was good for staff as well; ahead of this situation we were office-less, they were all freelance – it was a flexible way of working. It can add massively to staff value and in terms of them being happier and in terms of fixed costs.”
“When it comes down to things like designers and licensing, I know some people who really try and chop those margins [advert-inline] down but designers are artists as well. It’s important not to undervalue artist’s work. If you’re working with smaller freelancers it’s important to have a fair negotiation but feel free to be honest about what you can pay.”
“Keep an eye on those costs, the potential of a release with artwork, the price that sound goes for and sometimes how popular the artist is. There’s arguments about what vinyl should be sold for online but if you look at inflation it’s gone up fairly compared to most other things that have sold commercially. I think it’s totally fine to be honest about how much money you need for that product.”
“It’s a rare case the price of a record will dent sales. If people like a release they’re going to buy it. It’s fine to price it to where you need it to break-even but also be aware that if it’s going to be particularly expensive you may want to temper it and bolster that with some of the digital sales. Digital is a good complement to vinyl. Some people like that on its own, it makes it much more sustainable to run a vinyl label in that way.”
Jimmy Asquith’s essentials to starting a label
- A wide range of revenue streams opens you up to being a more sustainable business but it also means you can invest a bit more. If you’ve got sustainable revenue streams you’ve got more disposable cash that can be put into creative projects that aren’t commercially viable. Throw stickers in, extras, flyers, fun projects; do things that don’t make money and that will often inject more personality into the things that you do. But to be able to do that, you need more revenue. Merchandise is the one that can help bolster a creative business.
- Totally believe in what you are doing. Try not to worry about gatekeepers. Whether press are picking things up, reviews – you’ll hit the network of people who really bond with the thing you’re doing whether that’s in Facebook groups or friend networks.
- Embody the thing you’re doing. It was the only thing I talked about when I started the label and I told everyone because I wanted them to know about it. We did events, in-stores, merch. Just be a ball of energy and persist, keep working and work smart. Don’t put energy into a release and not promote it. If you have another job and if the first release might lose money put some money in and make sure it gets to people.
- Identify your strengths and the things that really worry you or scare you. Don’t take on staff to do things that you do well, take people on to do things that you find terrifying. It keeps you doing the thing that you are good at.
- Bring in permanent solutions rather than temporary solutions. Don’t give someone an answer to something that is probably going to be asked again in slightly different ways.
- Make sure everyone is trained. It is amazing if you can find an individual who has the highest level of initiative and can just click their fingers and learn something. Most people do not operate that way. It’s important to be there and help them.
- Don’t use your own expectations of yourself as a yardstick for other people. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and it’s likely your level of investment in the thing you’re doing is so high that you’re on top of everything and some things will blindside other people who don’t have that insight. I’m not advocating keeping on members of staff that don’t have the work rate but if you’ve got hard-working staff and they’re good at what they do, be more understanding about things that go slightly amiss.
And last but not least:
Even if you work in a fast-moving business try to slow down at least once a day.
Find Lobster Theremin on Bandcamp and Facebook.
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