I started my own record label in Detroit called Ersatz Audio in early 1995 with the release of a 12-inch for my solo project, Artificial Material. A year later, Nicola Kuperus joined me to assist in the operations, and in 1997, we started the band Adult. Earlier this year, Samuel Consiglio (of the band Tamion 12 Inch) joined the band, making us a trio. Since 1995, Ersatz Audio has released 37 releases and Adult has released three albums and 10 singles, either on our own label or on other independents. We are constantly asked how and why we have managed to stay independent this long, what choices we have made along the way and what we have done right and wrong. Here are some answers to those questions.
How long did it take you to stop working on the side and run Ersatz Audio and Adult full time? How was the transition?
The transition was hard, and I didn't plan on making it — I never planned on being self-employed. One day, the distribution company I was dealing with just closed, and I had to figure out if I was either going to let Ersatz Audio go down with it or work extra hard to get an entirely new distribution system in place. Adult was in its infancy, so that was not an option for income at the time. I was an art preparator at a museum in Detroit, and even though I liked my job, I decided to quit, which wasn't an easy decision, and get Ersatz Audio restructured and reorganized so that I could hopefully go back to work in about four to six months. That was 1999, and I haven't been back to “work” since.
What are the pros and cons of running your own label while also being an artist? Are there times when the two conflict?
It's very challenging on a number of levels. First off, all your time goes to these two things. You don't get to sit around much watching TV or reading. Instead, you are packing up records and going to UPS, invoicing people, working on artwork, sending out promos, practicing for live shows, touring, et cetera. Some of it is great fun, and some of it is no different than working at a shipping company. Also, I find it challenging to change hats. In a typical day, I can go from being a grunt — picking up a thousand records at the plant in my pickup truck — to being a graphic designer; next, I'm a writer trying to come up with an interesting one-sheet for an upcoming release; and, finally, I'm in a band. It can be a whirlwind some days.
Another difficult issue that I have never been able to resolve is releasing music that I'm a part of on my own label. I'm great at promoting other acts on Ersatz Audio because I love everything we have ever released, so I can honestly promote it, but it is very hard to tell someone — like a distributor — that I have the new Adult release and it's wicked-awesome. That is one of the many reasons we decided to release our new album on Thrill Jockey.
Why have you stayed adamantly independent, away from the major-label system? Have you ever had any major label interest?
We believe that there is an independent system in place that can run parallel yet separate to the major-label system. Some major labels have contacted us and expressed interest, but I'm just not interested. I don't believe our music is meant for the masses, and, frankly, we try hard to keep it that way. I was the outsider in school and liked it. I have a very specific belief in this. I'm not trying to circumvent or bring the majors down; as a matter of fact, I want nothing to do with them. I'm happy to live in my world and pretend they aren't even there. I believe everything has a place and purpose. Hell, I'd never want to be label mates with Mariah Carey. I always get a kick out of these major-label bands that write “political” songs. I think there is nothing more political than creating and maintaining a system that is outside the mainstream.
What mistakes did you make either with running your own label or with the band?
My biggest fault is control. We waited way too long to delegate any of our workload. Part of the problem with Ersatz Audio was that Nicola and I decided early on that we never wanted any employees, and that is partly because we run the label from our home — a huge way to save on expenses. Also, the label would take on a seriousness that we didn't want. Although this does give us extreme freedom with running the label, it also becomes a major burden.
In March, Nicola and I decided that it was too much for us to do both jobs, so we have decided to take a hiatus from the label for an indeterminate amount of time. We thought a lot about whom we wanted to entrust our career with. We wanted an outfit that we felt was honest and that had the same independent standards and DIY ethics. We found that in Thrill Jockey. Plus, it is really amazing that you can call up the owner anytime and talk to her. I really like the personal attention there from the entire staff.
The main thing I'm happy about with staying independent is that I have had a long professional artistic life, especially considering how many bands and labels come and go. And by staying independent, I have been able to really work on artistic development, something I think the majors have given up on. These days, it seems like 99 percent of the bands on a major get one chance at a hit, and that's it. And if that were my path, I'm sure I would have been done with my music career about a decade ago.