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Interview: Mark Thompson (Hydra Head Records)

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When did you start working at Hydra Head?

If memory serves, mid-late 1998. I met Aaron [Turner, Hydra Head co-owner, Isis frontman] a few years before that, when he was running Hydra Head as a small distro/label and playing in Unionsuit (whom I was obssssessed with. I must’ve listened to that cassette 400 times back in the day). Botch’s American Nervoso and Drowningman’s Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline were just coming out. That was a pretty incredible time for us. Sooooo much was going on within the community that we operated within.

Has the change prevalent in the business of selling music been less profound on Hydra Head than say, major labels, given HH’s independent, niche-oriented situation?

I have to assume that anyone running a label over the last few years has been faced with similar struggles: reduced sales, stores closing, downsizing of staff, a generally poor economic climate, etc. So no, I don’t think it has been less profound on us than any other label big or small. The last few years have been quite gnarly, indeed, with the one bright spot being the growth of the vinyl market again. This has had a particularly positive impact on us. I’d say our niche has responded positively, for sure.

Hydra Head’s legacy involves close ties to post-hardcore from the ’90s/early ’00s, but over time it has diversified its roster. When considering bands to be signed to the label, is there an overall aesthetic or theme that is kept in mind, i.e., what makes a band a “Hydra Head band”?

Aesthetic is a tough idea to pin down. There isn’t a cookie-cutter checklist that we go through every time we consider taking on a new project. We have a very broad spectrum of artists that we represent, with an even broader spectrum of individuals who represent them. I’d like to think there is a clear pervading sense of quality throughout that defines our aesthetic. I want to be moved/challenged/motivated by what I hear. If an artist is engaging and communicative in sharing deeper on why they create what they create, then the experience tends to be exponentially more fulfilling.

As I reflect on the last 13 years, there is an ongoing sense of investment in what we do, both on an emotional and professional level. I hope that connection to what we foster comes through aesthetically as well: Grade A For Aesthetic Since 1995.

Is the label more hesitant to work with new acts these days?

Although we’re not hesitant to work with new artists, it’s pretty rare for us to do so, at least over the last couple of years. The new acts that we do work with are usually members of other bands we’ve worked with or have known for years. These days we’re on a bit of a hiatus with regards to looking for new projects. We’ve got such a healthy and active roster and catalogue at this point, with a slew of committed releases in queue, that new acts to the label are unlikely for a while.

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Mark makes a cameo in this video

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Has Hydra Head always been oriented toward vinyl releases? Have you noticed a resurgence of vinyl sales for the label’s releases over recent years? Do people respond better to limited editions and other things like varieties of colored vinyl, etc.?

We’ve been a vinyl-producing label since day one. There was a lull for a few years in the mid-’00s where it became difficult to keep up with vinyl versions of all the new releases we were putting out. But we did what we could and licensed many vinyl titles to other labels. I look back at 2006-2009 and I think we might have been doing one to three new releases a month for much of it: total insanity release schedule for a crew our size. The drawback to all the new releases was not having a cash flow to support multiple formats, so unfortunately vinyl, being the more expensive format, was often neglected.

Vinyl has had an awesome resurgence the last few years, to the point where it kind of dominates the schedule at times. We release CDs and are doing some cassettes, but vinyl is the hot format, for sure. The vinyl nerd contingent never really left, so those folks definitely continue to respond to vinyl in general, including limited editions, colored vinyl, etc.

How about digital? Given the relatively low prices attached to your digital releases, how well are people responding to that vs. collector’s edition vinyl?

Digital is such a tough format to figure out. We’ve been a digitally distributed label for several years now, and it remains the most nebulous of the formats. One month could be great, and the next just awful, and there really isn’t a gauge for why. At least with physical product, you can track hard quantities, so maybe a store was out of stock or a record was out of print. With digital, it’s just a distributor saying you sold a certain amount, and that’s that – kind of weird when you really think about it.

We are increasingly cautious about choices we make as a business, so we’ve been kind of slow to get into digital on a worldwide scale. But as time goes on, we’re understanding the process more and feeling more confident about its role with us. I’m grateful that we’ve got digital as a growing format. I think there are CD fans, vinyl fans, cassette fans, and digital fans… and not very often do they overlap. Well, unless you are a super nerd, like we’ve been at times, who has to buy every format.

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What do you think is going to have a greater longevity and overall profitability to labels like yours, digital or vinyl?

That’s a tough question. I’d like to think they both truly represent a different type of music consumer. If that’s the case, then each format could hold its own place moving forward as a longstanding and profitable aspect of this industry. If I absolutely had to make a call, my gut says that vinyl is tried-and-true and isn’t going anywhere, especially for an entity like ourselves. It’s the full package, artwork, liner notes, something you can get high and read while listening to on your turntable – the whole experience.

Digital, on the other hand, is still such an unstable game. Totally intangible, still fun to get high and listen to, but not fun to squint at on a desktop when you want to lounge on the couch.

I’ve been toying with the streaming service Spotify for the last few days. It is at once just totally incredible and absolutely horrifying. As a music fan I was flipping out at just how easy it is to pull up just about any album and listen to it in full, for free. But as a person that sells music, I know that for every stream, there is something like a fraction of a cent going back to the artist. I didn’t pay a dime, didn’t subscribe, nothing. And yet I listened to albums I wanted to listen to all week. Scary. I’m having a call with our digital distributor to learn more about [Spotify] this week, so I should have a clearer, and perhaps still horrifying, picture soon enough.

As broadband and wireless availability becomes more speedy and seamless, services like this will be able to stream anywhere at anytime from any device. It makes me wonder just how long the digital download sales aspect of this industry could survive if that happens. A friend of mine who has been in the record business for many years told me long ago that digital sales will eventually all go subscription. It made sense then, and I gotta say it’s making even more sense now.

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Do you foresee the label stopping production of CDs anytime in the future?

Anything is possible at this point. The last few years have been so strange that I’d be remiss to say either way. I can say that I personally don’t want to stop making CDs. A friend and I joke regularly that people who buy CDs are true music fans. Perhaps that’s just us old diehard CD fans not wanting to let go. The fact is that CDs continue to sell – not like they used to, but we sell them. I would imagine, even with the recent growth of vinyl, that CDs must continue to have a majority market share. We’d be fools to stop producing a format that people still want.

The one aspect of the CD market that will have to change sooner than later, at least for independent labels like ourselves, is the way distribution of the format works. The distribution strategy is still often about front-loading a title to retail, and then hoping it sticks. This means spending lots of retail money, getting returns, etc. Sometimes it works. Most of the time it doesn’t.

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I noticed Pelican’s song in The Messenger. Does the label get a lot of licensing placements?

We do regularly receive licensing opportunities, and are always grateful when we do. It is an aspect of the industry that we’ll be pursuing a bit more intently in 2012. As we’ve seen sales decrease over the years, the potential for some broader licensing becomes increasingly appealing.

Were the various expansions of Hydra Head-related product and ventures (the Vacation Vinyl store, Eugene S. Robinson’s book, the odd exotic item like the Khanate knife or a Jodis pillowcase) the result of an attempt to expand the overall reach that Hydra Head has?

The store was certainly part of a more strategically-minded new venture. We’d talked about doing a retail store for years, a place to do shows and to sell stuff. The idea was always in the back of our minds. The vinyl-specific shop came together after Aaron and I had gotten to know the guys that run a great comic shop in Sunset Junction called Secret Headquarters. After a few years and many, many brainstorming sessions, the store came together. We’re really proud of it, and in the last year, it’s really started to blossom. We’ve got a great crew holding it together.

The other things you’ve mentioned are all much smaller endeavors for us. Mostly we just thought they were all cool ideas that we wanted to see happen. Eugene’s book and Tom Neely’s comic were us dabbling into the book publishing world a bit, something we’d like to dabble a bit more with down the road, for sure. The Melvins belt buckle, Jodis pillowcase, Khanate hunting knife, Pelican underwear, Keelhaul binoculars (they even made theirs themselves!), Harvey Milk tumbler sets, Torche letter openers, Helms Alee Swiss army knife, etc. were random brainstorms come to life. Usually ourselves or one of the band members will come up with some wacky idea and we’ll try to get it done. We still need to get the Torche Trapper Keeper done before someone else does.

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Seen at Vacation Vinyl

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Do you get a lot of collectors traveling out to Vacation Vinyl?

We definitely get folks visiting the store when they come through town. Tourists that dig what we do, bands on tour, etc. I’ve never heard of anyone coming to down specifically for us, but you never know. Like I mentioned earlier, the store is something we always wanted, and it’s proven to be an incredibly fulfilling experience to see it all come together. We’ve received some wonderful accolades for our peers, the press, artists, etc., so we’re feeling like we are doing something right.

Has the store been benefiting from the increase in vinyl sales that has occurred recently?

I think so. We’ve only been around for two years, so it’s hard to tell. I think maybe we’ve benefited more from the strong artist- and music-loving community where we are based. We moved to Sunset Junction a year ago and it’s really sparked a super-healthy jump in traffic and community involvement for us. Cross our fingers that it continues!

Have you been encouraged by community responsiveness to things like Record Store Day?

Record Store Day is like a gift. That one single day can literally do the business of an entire month. It’s crazy. So, yes, it’s totally encouraging. But with all new burgeoning moments of positivity comes the inevitable possibility of backlash. I’m hoping we don’t see that for a few years. But even this year, you could see that the system gets a bit bulging from expectation and anticipation. Customers are bummed when they wait in line and can’t get stuff, we are bummed when we can’t get what we want to sell to our customers, that sort of thing.

On the flip side and from a label perspective, we’re really cautious to not over-produce just because a distributor says there is a demand. The last thing I want is for one of our Record Store Day titles, or any of our releases for that matter, to be over-shipped and sitting collecting dust on a store’s shelf. That’s not a good thing for anyone. The entire event is a blessing, but one that I think every one involved needs to be vigilant about not destroying.

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How do you approach situations when an upcoming album is leaked? Have you ever considered/would you ever consider doing as Earache recently did and release a leaked album for free on your own site?

We’re pretty good about keeping albums under wraps until really, really close to release date. We were hit back in 2008 really hard a few times by advance leaks, and so since then, we’ve become very cautious about who gets content, and when. I can remember the second Zozobra album being on blogs for download two months before it came out – total nightmare sort of deal. Our promo list went from 1-2k recipients on retail and press levels, and now it’s closer to 200. And usually we personally know the ones that are receiving it. In the event something leaks, we do what we can to reach out to the culprit and politely request that they do us a kindness and pull the leak. You’d be surprised at how quick blogs will respond if you just ask nicely.

I don’t think those folks are out to destroy us (although they just might be…), so if they like the music we release, they are generally receptive to a reasonable request. I don’t know what Earache record you are referring to, but something tells me they don’t give out anything for free, so I’d be curious to know the circumstances of that leak. I don’t think that we’d ever pay to record and promote an album and then give it away for free. It makes no sense based on our current business structure. Maybe labels that do those 360 deals I always hear about would be able to justify it, but not us.

Given the state of affairs today, do you think a start-up independent label with similar aims/musical styles represented as Hydra Head’s still has a chance at being a sustainable business?

A chance? Sure. Would I take that chance? No.

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Mike Simpson plays in Godstopper and blogs at Superheavy Sounds.

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Ed. note: I am giving away an eight-pack of Hydra Head promo CDs (minimal packaging, just discs in cardboard sleeves), including selections by Knut, Tusk, Eugene Robinson, 5ive, The Huguenots, and the new Cave In, Helms Alee, and Prurient records.

For a chance to win, simply enter in the comments below your favorite Hydra Head release (mine is Discordance Axis’ The Inalienable Dreamless). You may list only one (entries that list more than one will be disqualified). For reference, you can consult the Hydra Head discography. International entrants are welcome. Entries will close at midnight PST a week from today, Thursday, August 18. I will pick a winner randomly.

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