Thursday, April 29, 2010

Q & A (and CD Giveaway) with Robert Gibson from Optical Sounds.

This is the fifth installment of my interview series with people in and about the Toronto music scene. Previous ones featured Mitch Fillion (Southern Souls), Mike Smith (Muskox, etc.), Randal Ball (WreckingBall Entertainment), and Ben Mueller-Heaslip (What's All This Then?! podcast).

Robert Gibson runs local record label Optical Sounds. The label's got four releases under it's belt, and some of those have garnered significant praise, raising the profile of OS and the company it keeps. It's no doubt been a big help, too, that Gibson and the musicians on his roster are fully behind each other's musical endeavours. "Part of what is making Optical Sounds such a powerful force on the local scene," according to music writer Joe Strutt, "is that they are a community of fans and friends as much as anything else. When they bring out a band, it's because it's a band that they want to hang out and listen to." To my mind, that kind of integrity is key to building a fanbase, ensuring the music the label puts out will get heard (and purchased) by the right people.

If you're into psychedelic, garagey rock and the like, keep reading for your chance to win copies of the label's last two releases on CD! (Giveaway details are after the interview.)

Jen: When did your start the label, and why? What were your intentions for it?

Robert: The label started mid July 2008. Long story short, I moved to Toronto and found myself in the middle of an unbelievable selection of bands. A bunch of bands that honestly seemed like the sweetest people ever. They all partied together and support each others artistic dreams. I just couldn't believe that bands like The Hoa Hoa's, The Disraelis and Action Makes did not have anyone in the business behind them.

I just thought - all these bands and this scene needs is a platform. A place where they can all unite and have someone do all the "business" stuff and shit bands shouldn't have to do themselves. They all seemed to fall loosely within the psych/garage genre, my favourite! So, it made sense.

We don't have any specific intentions for it. I mean, we wanted distro and we've managed that with the help of Outside Music. We want to continue to add artists have the same ideas as us an get the music heard by as many people as possible. That's about it.

If it gets bigger, we'll totally embrace it and if we just kind of maintain where we are now - well, that's fine we're quite proud of how far we've come in less than two years.

Jen: Yeah, for sure. The label and its bands seem to have a devoted and ever-growing group of supporters. How you do decide which bands you want to sign?

Robert: Again, there's no real formula here, I guess just a feeling. I've met with bands I've been keen on in the past but aren't stable or willing to put in the effort necessary for a working relationship. As if, "you're a label, doesn't this mean we made it?"

Without getting in to too much detail, I look for bands that a) have tremendous music that fits into the genre we've become known for and b) have some start up money of their own. As a label, I don't pay for a band's manufacturing. They do. And, together, we make it a priority to ensure that all money taken in is filtered to the band and paying off the debt from manufacturing costs first and foremost. After that, any profit made is split fairly. And by "fair" I mean, a large majority of it goes back to the bands.

In return, I offer them the advantages that the label has managed to amass: the name, studio space, distribution, media contacts, US and Canadian college radio contacts, industry contacts, booking, promotion, publicity, festival gigs and, of course, participation in any of our "unique venue" shows that we've become kinda synonymous with.

Jen: Your latest release is from an American band. Are there special challenges or rewards that comes from working with a group not located in your home city?

Robert: Magic Shoppe is Josiah Webb. We met him at a Hoa Hoa's and Disraelis gig in Buffalo, NY and he was just the biggest fan of what we had going on. We partied with him all night and when we woke up he was on the label. I swear that's how it went down . . . I think.

Regardless of where a band is from, like I said, if their music is what we're after - we're interested. He recorded, mixed, mastered and manufactured his debut Reverb EP a year or two prior to The Night In Buffalo and was just looking for the right place to release it. Optical Sounds was in and we couldn't be happier with it all. He even went as far as to suss out some USA colleges for us that we should be targetting. We're both in agreement that the label and the band are better off with the relationship in place.

Specifically, the distance is a bit of a challenge - he lives in Boston, MA now. So, getting together to chill and hash out ideas isn't convenient. BUT, we now have a place to crash in Boston and the label has made a small imprint in the States!

Jen: You guys were pretty busy recently, showcasing at CMW, in New York City, and then down in Austin. What's the value for your label and its bands of such trips?

Robert: Well, the value is in the experience. I said earlier (sorta) that there are no assholes in this scene. We won't tolerate it. So, it's like going on a great road trip with your besties. Epic parties and the best of laughs have accompanied us on all the trips we've taken. Obviously, the exposure we get from such gigs is a huge bonus and fan bases have expanded.

We hope our bands get the opportunity to do a lot more travelling in the future. You hear that, all you agencies and booking managers? ;)

Jen: Now that you've been at this for a bit, what are the major lessons you learned or misperceptions you had about running a record label?

Robert: Well, first and foremost I've learned too much to list here in detail. Basically, I knew absolutely nothing about the music business. I had a taste in music and people around me who were in great bands, that's it. Everything from managing band personalities, budgets, manufacturing, distro, publicity, booking, networking, etc., etc., etc. have all been learned on the fly. I'm learning every single day from everyone around me - the bands, industry friends and new people I seem to be meeting all the time. I must be getting old because I am consciously enjoying every bit of this new knowledge.

I think because I knew so little, I had very few expectations to begin with, so there are only so many glaring misperceptions. Because we're a DIY, startup label that is still relatively new, we all knew full well that we'd be learning everyday, sometimes taking a few steps back to take one giant leap forward.

The most glaring misperception I had at the beginning that we had to be a "professional" as possible. I assumed we needed this shiny, cutting edge website, publicity, someone to do pro photoshoots, a graphic designer, etc. Turns out, we don't need any of it. If the music is strong enough, fans will find it. And, if the personalities involved are engaged and helpful, these things find a way to get done.

Jen: That's good to hear. Still must be a ton of work, though! What's in the works for Optical Sounds for the rest of 2010?

Robert: So far this year, we've done CMW, SXSW, and released a Magic Shoppe EP amongst other shit . . .

We're excited for the rest of the year. I'm expecting new releases from Action Makes, Planet Creature, The Hoa Hoa's and (fingers crossed) Postcards. We're also close to confirming the addition of Revolvers to the label and we'll re-release their incredible debut (Apocolypse Surfin') that they released themselves last year. The Disraelis are in a bit of a crossroads right now and we'll know more about their plans soon. They're either going to re-group and record some of the best music this city has heard in a while or totally dis-band. Which would suck, but these things happen.

We'll be celebrating our 2 years of existence in mid-July and anyone who has taken in our "unique venue" parties in the church, legion, loft space, etc. will be happy to hear what we have planned. Stay tuned for that.

A website I've been trying to re-launch since forever will be ready this year too. Finally.

Lastly, while we're passing on NXNE this year, Halifax Pop Explosion is all set up, so, some of our bands should have their first gigs out East.

Jen: Thanks so much Robert, and good luck with all the upcoming happenings! And now . . . the giveaway details!

Thanks to Robert and Optical Sounds, you can win copies of the label's two more recent releases: CDs from Magic Shoppe and The Hoa Hoa's! For your chance at the discs, email me with "Optical Sounds" in the subject line, and do so by 11:59pm on 15 May. Make sure to include your physical mailing address in your message. I'll pick a winner at random.

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