Song, By Toad Records is the brainchild of Matthew Young and his wife Kate. To finish off this week long love in for everything Song, By Toad Records I managed to ask Matthew a few questions about life, the universe and everything Song, By Toad …
Why did you start writing the Song, By Toad blog?
I actually started writing about music on a static site back in 2004, quite a while before I turned it into an actual blog. Ostensibly it was supposed to be so that I could conveniently tell my brother, who lives in the US, about music I was into, but I don’t think he ever actually read it. It didn’t matter though, as it turned out I just enjoyed the process of writing, and then after a couple of years a friend of mine introduced me to The Hype Machine and it became pretty obvious that, even though I didn’t know it, I was actually writing a music blog. I moved over to Blogger at that point, and Song, by Toad was born in late 2006.
What was your original idea for it?
Originally I just intended to tell my brother about music I was into at the time, but by the time I started an actual blog it was clear I was just doing it for my own enjoyment. I don’t think I was aiming to do anything specific at the time, really, but there was really obviously a thriving online conversation about music going on and I just wanted to join in I suppose.
When did you realise it had taken off?
Oh I don’t know, probably an ongoing series of little milestones. Getting the first comments was nice, then spending a long time in the Hype Machine’s top five blog list, then some of the interviews I was granted became more and more high profile, and my traffic got to the point of being a thousand unique viewers per day. No single one of these made me think ‘oh, I’ve cracked it here’, but there was a fairly steady stream of increasing marks of impact on the outside world.
Where did the idea to start the label come from?
Just the frustration of being sent what I thought were really weak promos from existing labels whilst simultaneously being aware of all these local bands in Edinburgh which were unsigned, but who I thought were really, really good.
Was it something you’d wanted to do for a while?
Nope, not really. In fact I didn’t really intend to do it at the time, it just sort of happened.
What labels did you like/admire/model SBTR on?
None really, as I didn’t actually know anything about record labels at that point. I was aware of certain bands I liked all releasing on the same label, but I had no real idea of how they went about their business. I suppose Johnny Lynch was probably my biggest inspiration, as he ran Fence at the time and now Lost Map, and seemed to be fighting the same fight and doing so in a way I really admire.
Why pick that first SBTR release and why did you feel the need to release it?
Well initially I wasn’t supposed to be running a label per se, but I did get together with a bunch of pals who were all DIY Edinburgh musicians with things to promote and we decided to divvy up the research process about who to contact with music, and as part of that process Neil from Meursault specifically asked if the re-release of his band’s debut album could actually officially be on Song, by Toad Records. I love the album, so that was an easy decision.
Was there a defining moment when you realise that SBTR was a living entity, rather than a bedroom project?
Haha, it probably still is a bedroom project really! I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m constantly amazed by how ‘bedroom’ so many operations in the music industry actually are, despite the outward appearance of professionalism and success. It’s still just me running the whole thing, and for all I have an actual bona fide office, it’s still just a spare room in our house full of boxes of records and tons of unopened post.
Does being Scottish and isolated from ‘London’ mean you are freer to release what you want?
Oh we’re not just isolated from London, we’re even isolated within Scotland, where the whole music industry is pretty much concentrated in Glasgow. That can be intensely frustrating as someone from Franz Ferdinand or Belle and Sebastian or from Island Records or whatever is highly unlikely to just happen across a great gig from a tiny Edinburgh band, and that’s equally true of the press, although there are some folk who make a really determined effort to get out to see as much as possible and keep up with what we’re up to.
Basically being in something of a backwater has benefits and drawbacks. The music press is London-centric, not out of conspiracy, just because that’s where most of the companies and institutions are and hence where most of the enthusiastic people end up at one point or another, so it can be an absolute bastard trying to get their attention when there is already more than enough excellent stuff on their own doorstep.
The flip-side of that, though, is that Scotland has a very good support network of its own, from blogs to publications, and promoters, as well as loads of good festivals and stuff like that, so if you’re in Scotland and doing something interesting you can often generate quite a lot of interest and support really rather quickly, as loads of people are actively looking at the Scottish scene itself, just because they want to.
I’ve seen a few A&R scrums and hype bubbles though, and the closest I have been to making really silly decisions is when that carries you away and you become determined to beat everyone else to signing some band or other, without stopping to think if it’s really a good idea. I try and steer as far clear of that as I can these days, and being isolated does definitely help. I’d rather develop our own identity than get pulled into the storm, if you know what I mean.
What separates SBTR from other indie labels?
Ach, who knows. We don’t really have a very defined sound, although I would argue that we do tend to work with the same kind of person quite a lot: Jonnie Common, Adam Stafford, David Thomas Broughton, Rob St. John, Jon Rooney from Virgin of the Birds… these are all quite idiosyncratic people who are determined to do things their own way, and who sound very distinctively like themselves and themselves only. I like that stubborn approach, and I admire their integrity.
We do work with bands too, of course, and the same basic things tend to apply, but it’s often far more overtly obvious with individuals.
Also, with the blog, I think our thought process and the inner workings of the label – both successful and less so – are very much transparent. I don’t know if people like that or not, but what we are trying to achieve and why, as well as the everyday process of doing it tend to all be out there on the internet for people who are interested, and I would like to think that helps people develop a more personal relationship with what we’re doing.
Of course they might just think I’m a dickhead, and it could just put people off I suppose, but erm, well I’ll just have to accept that I suppose.
Do you think this new golden age for vinyl will last, or has the bubble already burst thanks to major labels co-opting Record Store Day?
Hmm, I think those two things are slightly independent of one another. I don’t really care about Record Store Day one way or another, frankly. One of our best local shops – VoxBox – doesn’t even bother stocking official RSD releases on the day, but we always get together, put on some great live music and have a piss up. I really like their approach, and we tend not to bother with RSD either.
As for major labels clogging up the pressing plants, I don’t think that matters either. They are just looking to mine their back catalogues for every last cent, and as a fan you can choose to either participate or not.
It is a little annoying that they are causing such traffic jams at pressing plants, but our manufacturers have been pretty good with us so we haven’t really noticed a massive difference.
In terms of vinyl being a fad, well yes, that’s more than possible. I would say even likely, but there’s no reason to be too cynical. Books are obsolete as well, as is proper cooking, but people still fill their houses with excessive shoe collections, hundreds of books they will never re-read, kitchen implements they rarely use and all sorts of stuff. People like to surround themselves with stuff which tells themselves and other people who they think they are – or indeed who they want to be. And in this sense, digital music was always going to be inadequate, so I can see how the vinyl revival happened.
The question of whether or not kids in the future will wrap so much of their identities up in the music that they listen to that they actually feel the need to collect music at all is a different question altogether.
If time and space were no problem, what release would you like to put out on SBTR?
Oh nothing specific, just more of what we are currently doing. I can probably think of about five to ten bands I would really like to work with more in future, and loads of weird collaborative projects, and all sorts of experimental releases and eventually you just have to admit that not only do you not have the time or resources, but that you will also totally overwhelm your audience if you keep on and on throwing new material at them constantly.
Maybe I could start three new labels, all with different plans, and see how far I could get with that one.
What does the future hold for the label?
Well we’ve recently acquired a warehouse down in Leith which we have converted into a recording space. It’s more or less part of our house and not a proper studio or anything, and that’s deliberate as we don’t want to compete with commercial studios. The idea is to have a space where the bands on the label (and other bands we just like) can come and experiment, play around, and make records. It may not be a full studio exactly, but we can make really good, clean records in there if we want to, and it’s a great-sounding room and a really nice place to make music.
In future rather than trying to be just a less-successful version of Domino or Bella Union, I really think we should try and make that space the engine room of the blog and the label, and encourage people to push themselves, try things, and just create as much as they can, rather than focussing on three or four full, formal releases per year and getting throttled by futile press campaigns and the constant grind of admin it takes to do big releases properly.