As the changing face of the music industry presents an ever-evolving set of challenges, Getintothis’ Paul Higham finds the old-fashioned values of Skeleton Key Records are helping emerging bands thrive.
The music industry is in many ways in a state of flux, as bands and labels have had to adapt and find new ways of operating. The industry norms that persisted for so long have been challenged and once accepted structures have broken down. This is apparent from both the way music is made and distributed to the way it is consumed.
Much has been made of the so-called ‘vinyl revival’ but this should not disguise the fact that music in a physical format remains under grave threat. Streaming services remain controversially prevalent and their economic rationale is highly questionable. The effect on physical music sales has been startling, evidenced by the pressures experienced in recent years by the traditional mainstream music sellers.
HMV seems to have weathered the storm but a glance at its current city centre store makes one worry that the problems that led to its original struggle remain present. It seems hampered by a lack of direction in store layout and stock selection. It seems not to have learnt from the more innovative independent music sellers who have carved out a niche and generated a loyal following as a result.
Stores like Rise in Bristol, Resident in Brighton and Piccadilly Records in Manchester have shown that it is possible to adapt. Innovative displays, curatorial independence and friendly and personal service provide a blueprint for future record stores. In Liverpool, Dig Vinyl seems to have carved out its own niche understanding its customers needs and its expansion last year was a significant development while Probe continues to thrive in its own idiosyncratic way.
Similarly music making has changed, responding to the ways that music is consumed. The transition to digital music formats has made it possible for bands to record and distribute music easier. The rise of the internet and a generation of willing bloggers has made it easier to distribute music to a broader range of consumers. The reliance on traditional radio plays to bring music to the listener has lessened. In this age of YouTube and Soundcloud we have access to more music at our fingertips than we ever thought possible.
In this context, what is the role of record labels?
We have recently celebrated the likes of Lapsley and Hooton Tennis Club signing new deals with big independent record labels. Likewise Skeleton Key Records in Liverpool is providing a lifeline to emerging artists. The label recognises the need to provide bands with the artistic freedom necessary to fulfil their goals, as well as the opportunity to make mistakes and to move on.
Skeleton Key label founder James Skelly has tried to remain true to the principles that first guided him all those years ago when he played with a then little-known Wirral outfit, The Coral, “Good bands get together for the right reasons, because they live and breathe music and wake up every morning thinking about the next chance to play together. For new bands that fit that bill, how likely are they to be introduced to a record label that feels the same way”.
Skelly has stressed the continued importance of a record label to the success of a band, drawing on his own experiences, “the original formula worked for us and the record label that we were introduced to, Liverpool’s own Deltasonic, shared our ambitions. We had belief and the label’s boss, the late and much missed Alan Wills shared that belief.”
In many ways it was the alertness to the changes in the music industry that inspired Skelly to set up his own label. Responding to the decline of independent labels as the likes of Deltasonic and Badly Drawn Boy‘s Twisted Nerve became increasingly marginalised, Skelly also sought a desire to foster a sense of community and to inspire a creative environment in which bands can make music.
One of the challenges facing emerging bands that Skelly identified was the lack of support from labels. Bands were often discarded too early when immediate success was not apparent. Skeleton Key provides a home that allows creativity and risk-taking to flourish and, if success is not immediate, affords artists the space and time to go again.
Taking inspiration from the likes of Factory and Zoo, Skelly noted that “labels like these didn’t back out when a band needed space to develop. The first album don’t do so well? Dust yourself off and go again. That’s what we want to do with Skeleton Key.”
Addressing directly the continued importance of record labels, even in today’s rapidly evolving music industry, Skelly acknowledges that “in this age of cheap recording options and the internet, everyone can sound great, or at least sound commercial, and get their stuff out there, but sometimes you have to go back to the old formulas to find something that works“.
Citing the example of Circles, Skelly has highlighted the role that Skeleton Key have had on the band’s career. The label has helped the band find its feet and has provided greater opportunity for the band to put its music out there. The band has supported both Skelly himself and Sundowners on recent tours and has benefited from being able to learning valuable stagecraft tips as well as being afforded the freedom to make mistakes on their learning curve.
With its own club night at Magnet, Skeleton Key has also provided a platform for emerging bands to ply their trade, find new audiences and grow their fanbases. Skelly commented, “we wanted a showcase for the bands on the label and other like minded artists,let them develop without any pressure in a none hipster environment.”
Of the bands currently on the label’s roster, She Drew The Gun is perhaps the most exciting prospect. Featuring in our round-up of 2015’s Ones To Watch, Skelly has described her as having “so much talent, it’s ridiculous“.
While many of the acts on the label are just starting out, Skelly has pointed us in the direction of Marvin Powell, “a great young songwriter whose album is nearly finished“. Recent single Salt offers a glimpse at the singer’s potential. Intricately delicate guitar lines are interwoven around an enigmatic and mournful vocal to create an arrestingly beautiful and distinctive folk lament.
More well known to us are Sundowners who are about to head off on tour to promote their imminent debut album. We chatted with the band last year and the album, a long time in the making, looks set to build on the success of early single Hummingbird, which, interestingly has been remixed for the album.
The label’s next release looks likely to be by Serpent Power the collaborative project of The Coral‘s Ian Skelly and The Zuton’s Paul Molloy. Already lined up to play this year’s Sound City, James Skelly is clearly excited when discussing his brother’s latest project, “its like 60’s inspired pop music made in a mental asylum“.
Recorded in a frenzy of creativity, the album is set to hit like a psychedelic maelstrom. It will offer an insight into the warped, twisted and darkly sinister worlds that so characterised the duo’s other bands.
It is all too easy to dismiss the small independent record label as an anachronism in this internet and digital age. Yet in many ways Skeleton Key offers an effective rebuttal of that view. In building a community of like-minded artists all able to develop and learn from each other in a relaxed and pressure-free environment it allows creativity to thrive.
It provides an opportunity for emerging artists to learn from those who have been there and done it and, as Skelly himself points out, “independent record labels…run by musicians and music lovers are part of that traditional way of doing things and it’s a shame that so many potentially great artists have more chance of getting lost than getting big without more of them in the picture“.
If labels like Skeleton Key give opportunities and provide a platform to the best emerging talent then that is something we can wholeheartedly get behind.
The next Skeleton Key club night will be on February 13 and is to be headlined by The Lucid Dream. Circles and Wild Eyes will provide support while James Skelly and Johnny Thieves will be on record-spinning duty.