The Swans/Angels Of Light frontman makes his record label thrive even in an unsteady business climate.  

Nov 26, 2008

As the Big Bad Major Label System falls down dead with an ax in its back, it seems like the last man standing will be the long-struggling indies. With more room to maneuver and more space to be creative with marketing and deal-structuring, it's the artist-run labels that seem to have the brightest futures, and none has as exciting and experimental roster as New York's Young God Records, launched in 1990 by Swans/Angels Of Light frontman Michael Gira.

Young God works with Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart, Windsor for the Derby, Larkin Grimm and Mi and L'au to name a few, and demonstrating a deep understanding of how to create solid careers for its artists rather than riding the dead horse of a hit single, YGR has held its ground while the industry retreats. Blurt spoke to Gira about maintaining a solid label in a shifting climate.


BLURT: Do you think that being a musician yourself puts you in a better position to want to make artist-friendly deals and decisions with Young God?

Well yes, of course. I wouldn't want anyone to have to go through the tribulations I went through for years dealing with labels. I try to enforce a realistic approach to the amount we spend, based on pessimistic expectations, but often I throw that out the window, since I get so intimately involved in the creative aspect of the making of the recordings and forget that I'm supposed to be the one who knows when to say "no". The music we release comes out sounding great I think, and in the end it's all voodoo, whether it eventually sells enough to make money or not.

BLURT: How did you decide to release other bands through Young God? How did that decision change the way you were operating the label?

Swans was on its last tour in 1997 and Windsor For The Derby was doing some shows with us. I enjoyed their music immensely, so since the label was starting to stabilize I offered to put out a record by them. I had to hire a publicist and radio promoter and things like that. Gradually the label has built an identity well beyond my own music, and I spend most of my time working on other people's music now.

BLURT: Does running the label take away from your time to record your own music?
Oh yes! I spend probably 75% of my time on the label, but that's ok. I've released so many of my own records over the years that at this point I don't mind taking a back seat.

BLURT: What are the challenges and benefits unique to having so many different bands on your label?

It's basically juggling one emergency after another around here. And dealing with people's expectations is sometimes not fun (though most of the time things run smoothly). I love the artists I release - personally and musically - and having the opportunity to be involved in their music is a privilege.

BLURT: Do you sometimes create non-traditional tour packages out of your acts?

Around the time of Devendra's first YGR releases, I realized the best way to initially expose him to an audience was to take him on tour with Angels of Light. He opened the show, but then he was also a guitarist in Angels for the next set. This worked very well - though crushingly exhausting for him.
He immediately won over what audience I had, and soon eclipsed that by a huge margin. I also did the same thing with Akron/Family. They opened the shows for a few tours as themselves, then for the next set became "Angels of Light." They pulled it off with excellence. They now have surpassed Angels of Light in terms of audience and are on their way.

I'll be doing some shows with Larkin Grimm sometime early next year, with the same idea in mind.

BLURT: What do you look for in a new band to sign?

Well they of course have to be unique musically in some way, and I have to sense a personal integrity and commitment in them too. The words to their songs have to be of high caliber. And they absolutely have to have a unique voice (if there's singing involved). They have to be ambitious and willing to work incredibly hard, and understand that building an audience and a career takes time and sustained effort.

BLURT: What do you have planned for 2009?

The other big priority this year is Larkin Grimm, of course. Her album Parplar just came out late October. Her voice is the key; a deep, full powerful woman's voice at times, and other times it's this kind of helium Minnie Mouse thing that sounds like the tape was sped up, then also vary-speeded. We worked a long time on her album, and the orchestrations are sort of like "films" that evoke the weird worlds she's describing.

Next year I'll have the personal honor of starting to release the music of James Blackshaw. He's an amazing finger-picker of the 12-string guitar. He adds a few orchestrations here and there, but I've seen him live and I can attest that his guitar sounds like an orchestra (no effects, mind you) by itself.

Lisa Germano is finishing up her next YGR release at the moment too. I've heard it and it's beautiful. As with James, I was a fan of Lisa's for years, and I feel lucky to be able to release her music. Her voice kills me. It's always right there, up close against your ear, and her songs and her musicianship are just stellar.

BLURT: Do you have a release of your own music coming soon?

Nothing of any great ambition planned - still writing songs, accumulating material for an album. I am doing a limited edition DVD through the YGR website soon - two complete live solo shows, plus some stuff that we recorded here around the house. There's a few new songs on it performed by me here in my office, songs that don't appear (yet) anywhere else. Packaging will be hand made by me. I'm also working on another stripped down - just me and guitar - release to be out through the website only soon.

BLURT: How do you feel about digital downloading and single track downloading?
I have no objections to it if people are honest enough to pay for it, which unfortunately is not always the case.