Ok, this is the second part of our interview with Relapse’s El Presidente, Matt Jacobson. Go here for part one from last week and a bit more of a thorough explanation about this being done in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the label, even if the last part of this half of the interview does veer off a bit into what Matt does over the course of a business day outside of Relapse.
What sorts of challenges have been most important in shaping Relapse?
I assume, when you ask about challenges the obvious one is about downloading and all that [laughs]. Well, especially looking back and thinking about how things were when we first started, it’s pretty insane how much the music industry has changed over 25 years. It’s pretty staggering. One of the obvious things is the transition from people buying CDs and cassettes and a little bit of vinyl to the modern way, which continues to change. Initially, I remember reading about the impact of Napster and all those things and I was expecting it to affect us, but at the time it hadn’t. At all. Things were actually remaining the same; it was so much so that we were starting to think that maybe this wasn’t going to impact the metal world because metal heads are so die-hard and it’s a lifestyle and they want the physical thing and all that, y’know? But for whatever reason, it was just a delayed change. About two years after it hit the mainstream industry, then it hit us. That was definitely a challenge; to navigate the new economics. It’s a much different picture.
I don’t know if you have figures, but do you have any idea what percentage hit indie/underground culture took in terms of sales? And was it at the same rate or proportion as the hit the mainstream took?
I don’t know for a fact, but I would guess not quite as much. But also, things have changed quite a lot, but we’ve been fortunate because we’ve always had a direct consumer element to our business and that has really been a big advantage through those turbulent times. When I look at things overall, our volume of business has remained fairly steady, but the issue is what revenue streams make that up. Largely, we’ve seen things shift from one place to another, but there was a time when there definitely was a decline. Also, there were a number of challenges we had to get used to and make changes to in order to make fiscal sense. The way that we were back when Mastodon and Dillinger Escape Plan first came out, we had like 30 people in our warehouse and all of these things, and as we experienced the difficult times and the impact of those shifts, it made us take a really close look at every aspect of what is a very complex business, especially in retrospect. Now that I have other businesses to compare it to, man Relapse is fucking complicated as fuck! From all the different sides of consignment, international distribution and all these different sales channels and the accounting necessary to do all the royalty statements. We had to lower our overhead to become more efficient. When we looked at every aspect of the business, it was like, “Wow, we are really not very efficient with this and we haven’t re-evaluated the way we do this in a really long time. We just have too many people.” Unfortunately, it’s the reality of the way the world has changed. So, at a certain point we had to downsize pretty substantially. The sad thing about it is that our output has remained the same with half the number people. I, as a business owner felt kinda dumb, thinking about how we could have been more efficient all along.
What sorts of challenges have come up for Relapse that the average person on the street wouldn’t think about or even realise you have to deal with on a regular basis?
I think the single biggest thing people don’t realise is how capital intensive this business is. We’re fronting the money for the recording, which in the scheme of things is a small percentage of the expenses associated with putting out records. The biggest expenses are all the manufacturing and shipping. We have to manufacture these records and ship them all over the world and it’s all on consignment. It’s all on us. So, if we over-ship or over-manufacture, it’s an enormous risk. If you miscalculate what you’re going to need for any given record by 10 or 20%, it may not seem like a big deal, but if you multiply that by all the records you put out every year, all of a sudden you have all this capital that’s locked up and you still need to pay the electric bill and send out royalty statements and, especially in the business of music, we’re dealing with art and trying to guess how popular this art is going to be. We’ve become pretty good at it, but it’s really fucking difficult and it ends up being based on variables of variables. I used to joke to one of our old accountants that I just wanted a hot dog stand because it’d be so simple. We’d know how many buns and hot dogs we’d need to have and sell to be able to pay our bills. On the inventory side of things, we realised at one point we had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars tied up in inventory and a lot of is probably never going to sell. And that’s brutal.
In the beginning you were going from release to release and probably not worrying so much about the finances. At what point did considering sales, money and return on investments start playing into the bands you’d sign and the records you’d put out?
This is one thing that’s interesting; I never started Relapse to make money. I started Relapse to put out cool records and to share the music that I loved. Relapse was really an extension of me as a tape trader and the buzz I used to get off of sending my buddy in New York or Germany a demo that, based on his tastes, I knew he was going to love. And when he did, I got such a buzz off of that. So, we have always just signed bands and put out records we think are awesome. There are a lot of companies that have the profit motive as their number one motive, and most companies are like that. For better or for worse, that was never our number one priority. My goal has always been to balance art and business with the emphasis on art. So, when we look at a band, we’ve gotten fairly good at determining what category they’re going to fall into in terms of what their potential is and what scale of investment is appropriate. We’ve also refined things so we will put ‘x’ amount into the campaign across the board and if it starts to gain traction, we’re able to respond pretty quickly and fuel that more. The hardest thing is to gain traction, but once you do you can build momentum. We just have to make sure we have a balanced approach. If we’re going to put out a harsh noise record, you can’t put the same amount of resources into it as you would a Dillinger Escape Plan record. That’s the most extreme and obvious example, but in a nuanced way, that’s what we have to do; balance the potential of extreme grind albums versus, say, a Red Fang album. That being said, I also want to emphasize that I don’t impose a glass ceiling on any of those things. We always want bands to surprise us and do better than we expected. Our systems are set up so that if it does gain that traction and we feel things growing, we can jump on it and fuel it further.
Let’s talk about Release for a bit. What led you towards doing the imprint in the first place?
In the beginning, we were really into the idea of different imprints and the different series, like the Underground Series. And with release it just felt like we wanted to do things that we firmly outside of the metal realm and the heavy music realm and we thought it would be fun to create another identity to do that. I think we put out some amazing records, but unfortunately most of them didn’t gain any traction and they weren’t financially successful and therefore it became evident it wasn’t responsible to approach the Release stuff in the same way and with the same enthusiasm as the Relapse stuff.
Do you think that had to do more with the content of what you were releasing; that a lot of it was harsh noise and not as musical?
It was pretty diverse. If you look at Amber Asylum and Subarachnoid Space, those were way different than the Uneasy Listening Campaign with Merzbow and a lot of the harsher stuff. Interestingly, Merzbow sold really well. In a lot of ways, our system, if you will, were really kind of geared towards the heavy music and when we were trying to promote things that weren’t that, we ran into challenges. One of my most frustrating moments was when I ended up confronting Alternative Press magazine because they would never review the frickin’ Release records! When I questioned them about it, they were like, “Well, we really don’t do a lot of metal” and it was like, “Oh my fucking God! This isn’t metal! Are you even listening to any of these records?” It was really agitating and we just weren’t getting the separation that we wanted and on top of it our marketing machine was kind of calibrated for the metal stuff and didn’t get much traction for the stuff outside of that.
A lot of the Release stuff seemed to be on the cutting, outrageous edge of layout and design. Did the stuff that you did with Release act as like experiments for both music and packaging?
Umm…yeah, I think there was a little something like that there. In that world, it was more common to have crazy packaging and we certainly did play around with it; like the Merzbow Pulse Demon on the weird reflective paper and the Tribes of Neurot CD with the crazy flaps that held it in and the Release Your Mind compilation. But musically, with things like Trial of the Bow, Terminal Sound System and Malformed Earthborn, we had some really fantastic fucking records.
With you being in Oregon these days and having your hands in other businesses, how has you’re your role at Relapse changed?
Well, my role has evolved over the years. At one point, I filled the mail orders and answered the phones and dealt with almost every aspect. I used to say that I did everything in the company and did it long enough until we could hire someone who could do it better than me. So, I would say that my role is…it’s interesting because sometimes when you’re dealing with underground culture, sometimes some of these words are looked at negatively, but my role is that of an executive of a company; overseeing the operations and dealing with things on the executive level. It’s funny, years ago I remember being at a show or at a fest and some guy came up to me and was like, “Hey, do you have such-and-such title in stock?” and I’m like, “Dude, we have thousands of titles, I have no fucking idea!” But it was so interesting that that person thought that I would know every item we had in inventory, forget what position I’m in. I still either veto or green light every band we work with and my role isn’t that much different than it has been in the past except that we are a more mature business.
What has your reaction been like when you’ve sat back and reflected on 25 years – shock, surprise, or have you been too busy to think about it?
I am pretty darn busy, but we had started talking about this in preparation of celebrating it, so I have thought about it some. Though, I’m sure as we do these interviews and get further into it I will be reflecting further. So, it’s a fucking trip, man! First and foremost, it makes me feel old – 25 years, holy shit! I’m really proud that we’re still in business because a lot of businesses of any kind can’t make it to 25 years. We’ve weathered a lot of change and transition and difficult times and learning curves; none of us had done this before. There’s no school for how to run an underground, independent music label. But I’m really proud and am still in a little bit of disbelief. I still can’t believe we put out Neurosis albums; they were one of my favourite bands before we signed them and I’m just totally stoked and proud with how many great bands we’ve been able to work with, incredible records we’ve put out, and how an impressive number of them have become bookmarks in one way or another. That’s pretty incredible.
Tell me about your pizza place.
It’s called Sizzle Pie. We opened the first one in 2011 and we have two in Portland, one in Eugene and now have two concession stands at the Moda Center where the Trailblazers play. This has been the second season we’ve done that and it’s been pretty awesome. What’s been crazy about that is that the ownership of the team approached us about it. In a lot of cities, you have to pay a fee to get in and you get stuck in some pretty shitty situations, but they invited us and it’s been pretty awesome. We’re working on some other things; we’re building a delivery kitchen right now and we also have a bar – well, it’s supposed to be a bar, but it’s got pretty good food, a 6000-square-foot patio and a space that can transition/transform into a performance space, so we do shows there occasionally but we’re not a venue. That’s called the White Owl Social Club. I also have a couple other projects that are in the works, but nothing else that’s up and out there.
As far as Relapse goes, I don’t know how far you look into the future, but what do you see for the future?
I’ve been thinking mostly about this forthcoming year and kind of properly celebrating our 25th anniversary and planning some things for that. Beyond that, I don’t know if there are going to be any headline grabbing, huge changes. We’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done: hopefully put out killer albums from killer bands, make awesome packages and just kind of continue to build the cult. It’s kind of just sticking to what we are and adapting as necessary.
What do you have going on in terms of celebrations?
The first is going to be at Maryland Deathfest where we’ll have a pretty impressive array of bands playing, including Amorphis doing the Tales From the Thousand Lakes set, Agoraphobic Nosebleed playing their first ever live show and Cephalic Carnage doing songs from their first three records. Nothing else is locked in yet, but there will probably be a series of special shows and maybe a couple things bordering on festivals. I think there are probably going to be two things in the US and one abroad and we’re going to try and make them something special. We’re also working on a beer collaboration and we’re going to have a bunch of limited edition items. As you already may or may not know, every record that comes out this year will have a limited edition amount on silver vinyl to commemorate the 25th, so there will special versions all year long and we’ll also be doing a bunch of vinyl reissues and those will include the silver edition. There are a couple things that aren’t locked in yet, so I can’t say 100% yet, but there’s going to be some pretty fucking awesome, limited edition, non-music merchandise, let’s say, that we’re going to make available.
Cool, more Devourment thongs and booty shorts?
[Laughter] How did you know?
Again, here’s the press release and link to a 180 song compilation spanning the entirety of the label’s history.
“As part of the continued year long celebration for Relapse Records 25th anniversary, today the label has released a free 180+ song sampler spanning the label’s entire history. The sampler features one track from almost every artist that has ever released an EP or full-length with the label since 1990 including Mastodon, Neurosis, Obituary, Red Fang, Death, Dying Fetus, Necrophagist, Suffocation, Baroness, Dillinger Escape Plan, High on Fire, Torche, Pig Destroyer and many more. The sampler can be streamed and downloaded via Bandcamp HERE.