The History of sub:marine

(This was recovered from the Wayback Machine. Originally published in 2002.)

editor's note:i (matt) have decided to use some of this space we have at
sub:marine to share some thoughts and experiences about running this label.  my hope is that through this, other people will understand what sub:marine is all about, and understand what running a small label is like.
 
let it inspire or discourage you-- maybe equally.

Chapter One

sub:marine started simply enough as two ideas who's destiny it was
to become one.  jeremy had this name "sub:marine" that was spawned
by his fascination with punctuation and a tie-in with the underwater
song "sub:space".  quite conveniently, sub:marine and underwater
were synonymous so it just had to be given birth at some point.

some time after sub:marine (the name) had been willed upon us, the
underwater record contract with RISK records gave us confidence that
we'd "make it" in this music business.  we had grandiose plans for
side-projects and other things we wanted to do musically that didn't
fit the idea RISK had for us, and thus, the notion of a small side-label
was born.

enter henry's ghost, a simple but moving song written by dan rosen and
recorded with jeremy.  i heard the song and thought it would somehow
make good remix fodder for LARVAE.  before we knew it, underwater
was covering the song, LARVAE and jeremy's studio persona, u-RAD had remixed it, and we were more than half-way to an EP worth of versions of the song we all somehow loved.

it was settled then, that henry's ghost would be our first release for
sub:marine.  it was just the kind of indulgent, self-satisfying but (we thought) important release that the label would be based around.  we knew it would have a limited audience, and we didn't care.  we'd make 300 copies and hand-print the artwork and it would be great.

it was great.  it was all those things in fact, limited, self-indulgent,
hand-made (if i only had a picture of all the artwork drying in our dining
room!)  but with the separation of underwater from RISK, suddenly,
the label was less of a pet-project and more of a way for us to
continue sharing the music we made with others.

the sub:sampler was our first release, an introduction to our catalog and
it actually came out BEFORE henry's ghost (hence the sub:000 cat #).
even though it contained new tracks from stillife;gaijin, underwater, and
LARVAE, it wasn't so much of an announcement of intent as it was a way to bridge the past with the present.  we didn't just fill it with any old thing, but we wanted to demonstrate the transition from old projects to new.  it even featured the first sub:marine appearance of miles tilmann in the form of a remix. 


Chapter Two

we did not, (and i can't stress this enough) want to be just another band
with a "label" in name only, tagging a logo on the back of self-released
cds that no one cared about.  we aspired to much bigger heights, and
wanted sub:marine to be a place where like-minded people could find
the kind of music we liked, and they liked.  4AD had to start somewhere,
right? 

 

from the beginning, i think we've modeled the label's ethic after the labels we knew and trusted as we first discovered the music we would call our own.  4AD, Wax Trax, MUTE, and Warp come to mind.  You couldn't always tell what a Warp record was going to sound like, but you kinda always knew it would be A) challenging and B) good.  we wanted that.

with that in mind, we began looking for people who's music we felt
compelled to release.  underwater was recording a new album and that
would be our first big sub:marine release, but we wanted to follow it
quickly with some others.  i'd been getting demo cdrs from miles tilmann
around the same time, and i was liking his music more and more.  i
also liked miles!  that was (and still is) a big concept in the sub:marine
ethos-- we only release music by people we like.  (if you're an aspiring
musician somewhere, it doesn't mean you have no chance with us--
after all, we may GROW to like you, but it does mean we're going to
get to know you beyond the sound of a demo tape before we even
consider helping you.)

so miles tilmann was the next up to bat, and he was followed quickly by
audomobil? who's twisted symphony of noise pop we'd grown to love from
some joint shows with underwater.  but before we get into all of that, let
me break down for you how underwater's this is not a film worked.


Chapter Three

this is not a film was a difficult record to make in a number of ways.
it wasn't difficult in the VH1 Behind the Scenes kind of way, but it
took a toll on me in the sense that i was never sure what the point
of releasing it as an album really was.  from the perspective of a
member in the band, it was great to see ideas come together in a
way i was proud of.  from the perspective of the label, i thought this
would be our signature release-- the thing that would really kickstart
the label and get us in the door with radio/distributors etc.

instead, what i found was that the business of running a record label
isn't just the idealism of putting out music you believe in.  sure, we had
that.  we were missing some of the other stuff.

one of the first things we did was get a map of the US and a couple
boxes of flag push-pins.  this was to be our visual stimulus for working
hard to promote this is not a film.  and it worked insofar as it was
designed to inspire us to see the fruits of our labor.  we had flags
planted wherever radio stations had told us that they'd put the underwater
record on the air or into their catalog.  it was fun to see where other
people were listening to it, and to see where our efforts at radio
promotion were paying off.  still, the map stalled at a certain point and
subsequent investigations of airplay told us that not that many people
were really listening to the record.

we had hoped that a good showing at college radio would be our foot
in the door with distributors.  as it turns out, charting an album on
college radio is as political and big-business of a venture as there is.
that's not to say little startups don't or can't have success... it might
just mean not many people really were into underwater.  but the whole
process of tracking down people at radio stations and asking them to
remember to play your disc etc. was somewhat disheartening.

a bit of advice: don't be an artist and a salesperson at once.  it's hard
enough to be a salesperson, but when you can't divorce your own
creative feelings about your work from your need to sell sell sell, it's
nearly impossible.  that's what labels are for!  if i had it to do over
again, i'm not sure i would release something like that on sub:marine
simply because the backlash is THAT MUCH HARDER when it
flops and it's your own work!

we tried to get underwater reviews and radio spins and into the hands
of record stores and distributors as much as possible.  we sent out
nearly 500 copies to people, hoping to get somewhere with it.  to
understand the economics of this, it's fruitful to do some math.
we went all out with a 12 page booklet for the cd, which meant that
our unit price per disc was a lot higher than something like, say the
miles tilmann disc that has a 2 panel black and white insert (his choice,
not ours mind you!)  add on top of that the fact that it's heavier and
costs more to mail, and you have promo packages going out to 300
radio stations and nearly 200 magazines, stores, and distributors at
$4-$5 a pop!  was it worth it?  well, the band didn't help matters, but
that's a whole other story.

after promoting the record for 6 months with no full-fledged tour, no
booking agent, and no manager, underwater broke up and the label
was left looking at quite a few unsold copies of this is not a film.
we took out ads, sent out promos, did the shmooze thing the best
we could, but to little avail.  what we can say is that we are still
very happy with the record, we still think it's worthwhile and think
that there are people in the world who'd like to hear it, but they just
don't know it's out there.  alas.


Chapter Four

so, unwilling to rest on our laurels and undeterred by the relative
lack of commercial success and subsequent breakup of our
"flagship act", sub:marine pressed forward with the plan we had
established prior to the release of this is not a film, namely-- to
release music by other people!

miles tilmann's underland ep was an interesting experiment for us.
the radio/promo blitz hadn't really worked for underwater, and we
needed to find a more cost-effective way to promote underland.  
not only that, but miles' music while similar in tone to underwater, 
was a completely new ballgame.  people who liked underwater,
in our estimation, SHOULD have liked miles tilmann, but there was
no real easy way to explain that or prove it.  

additionally, miles was unapologetic about making electronic music
that wasn't focused on bleeding-edge technology or the newest
reaktor plugin.  i love underland, and completely agree with miles and
his position: he just makes music that makes sense to him, and if it
draws comparison to old aphex twin or even vangelis, he's not too
worried about changing.  but from a business perspective, this all
made me a bit nervous as the music review sources i thought would
be most into covering underland, (places like grooves and the wire and pitchforkmedia) seemed almost obsessively focused on the newest
in-sound of the exact moment.  "autechre is so LAST SUMMER", if you
get my meaning.

so our strategy was to promote miles online as much as possible.  
reviews began to trickle in, always good and always sure to mention
that "this is not the next big sound in electronic music".  fair enough.
still, with some moderate success on college radio RPM shows and
a burgeoning interest in miles in his own hometown of chicago, the
real trouble was getting stores to carry underland.  even as i write this,
miles has just completed his first tour, a 2 week affair that saw him
playing 5-6 days a week, sometimes with 2 sets in a day.  he's
tirelessly promoting his work, and we're behind him and it's starting
to feel like this whole "label" idea makes sense.

watching people react to miles' live show has been the first real
payback that the label has generated for me.  we still have a ton
of underland cds to sell, and i know that in time, we'll do that and
get his music to the people who will love it... but i derived an
unexpected amount of satisfaction from watching people really
enjoy miles' work, and from knowing that what we were doing was
making that possible.

so the moral of the story of the first year for sub:marine?  was it
worth it?  will it go on?  it's all in finding the balance between
the music and the business, and it's something that as newcomers
to this, we are still learning.  it's been downright frustrating at times
and it's also been exhilarating in the same way that creating music
is at times.  like a new father of sorts, i'm always beaming with
pride whenever a new batch of cds or stickers etc come in the mail.
hearing people get excited that the audomobil? record is out now
is fulfilling in ways i couldn't have imagined it would be.  as for plans
in 2002, all i can really say is that people i like are still making music
i like, so i don't see a reason that we can't help them bring it to more
people.