Our Label Talk series has been a great success for PropertyOfZack after interviews with Jesse Cannon (Producer/Manager), Chris Hansen (No Sleep Records), Jeff Casazza (Run For Cover Records), Craig Ericson (Rise Records), and Fred Feldman (Triple Crown Records). Now we are beyond thrilled to be releasing our new Label Talk chat with Tommy Lacombe , the founder of Tragic Hero Records. Tommy and I discussed how the shift in the music industry has yet to hit the label, thoughts on the industry in general, The Morning Of, and the future for Tragic Hero. Read up and enjoy, it’s one of our best! .
2010 featured releases from The Morning Of and Called To Arms among others. Would you call it a successful year for the label?
2010 was actually our most successful year in terms of money made and tour sizes as well as video games. 2010 was probably our best year so far.
POZ: Is that kind of shocking considering the climate in the industry?
Tommy: I believe it is, but I also believe that the climate that is perceived doesn’t affect indies in the same way that it affect the majors. When you don’t have the overhead that the major labels have, you don’t have a lot of the do or die situations and you don’t have a lot of the financial burdens that come with the record industry. There’s also a degree of job security that you don’t have being an indie, but at the same time, I think the benefits offsets the negative aspects of being involved in the music business. The music business is still very much alive and it is even more so for the indies. The majors just have some recalibrating and reconfiguring to do, but the indies have a wide-open game. There are lots of labels like Craig at Rise that are not experiencing any drawbacks or dips in sales or anything. I think they’re still both growing exceptionally well and it’s just a sign of the times.
Last year marked the fifth anniversary for Tragic Hero Records. Is it hard to believe that so much as changed in such a short time?
Definitely. When we started, we were very fortunate to start with a very successful band. That took us from having no distribution to having independent distribution. Our experience with that distributor was not very positive and they are now defunct and we lost a lot of money. All the money we made from CD sales for the first few years of being a business we never saw until the very educated and forward thinking people at Warner Music Group picked up the label and it really allowed us to start doing stuff in the physical market. Now that market is dissolved and gone. I think we’ve seen a couple life spans die out these last few years being in independent distribution and in the birth of social networking. It’s changed drastically, but this is a very competitive, evolving business. I don’t think any business that doesn’t change for twenty to thirty years is going to continue to be profitable for that long. I think you’re always going to have to change and adapt.
You of course entered into the label business as things were very quickly starting to change in terms of digital media. Do you think that gives Tragic an edge in terms of not being stuck with the ways of the old system?
Yeah, I definitely think so. And also, personally, I came into the business with no history or background in the business. I think that also lends itself to positive growth. I’ll be very blunt in saying that a lot of the music I distributed is a business decision. Not having any sense of the music industry was actually a benefit to me now, looking back at it. It allowed me to not discriminate early on and to see that any option was a good option at that point as opposed to the money-making options, which is always adopted by labels.
I spoke to Fred Feldman at Triple Crown Records just recently about East/West and what it has done for his label regardless of the fact that he left the company in December. Can you talk about what East/West enables Tragic Hero to do in an easier way and if it’s truly beneficial?
East/West has done a lot and it’s cool that you bring up Fred because Fred was the guy that actually found me. I wouldn’t even be in East/West if it weren’t for Fred. Seeing Fred go was a tough pill to swallow because he’s been my point of contact ever since I’ve been introduced into that world. I remember the first time I went to New York in the East/West offices and it was crazy. I was on tour with a band at that point in time and it was just impressive. But East/West as a whole have totally allowed us to grow. It’s a very unique situation and Warner is a forward thinking company. They are very catering to the independent music model. When you sign lots of labels and empower them then you don’t have to pay a bunch of other employees to do that stuff even though they give me a great bank of resources in regards to publicity and marketing and everything and stuff that we can do. This would never have been possible. I definitely encourage young labels starting out to seek big business opportunities and to seek working with major labels. As with all things business, be careful and make sure you work out a deal that makes sense and allows you to grow as a company and something that’s beneficial for your bands and ultimately something that if you play your cards right will offer you some kind of job security down the road. I don’ work for East/West and probably never will, but it definitely makes the work load easier, for sure..
You’ve cited Fred to be a mentor in many ways to you. What have you taken away from him in terms of running the label?
Well, you don’t to ship returns [Laughs]. If he ever reads this, he’ll probably chuckle. You don’t want to ship returns, be wary of slippery slopes, meaning don’t paint yourself into a corner. It’s hard when you’re young and enthusiastic and you see a band you love and you don’t fully understand how the business works and you’re thinking about something that would be very difficult to make profitable for yourself or for your company. Basically, I think the best thing that you can do and one of the best things that Fred told me is not to worry about what other people are doing and don’t try to learn what people are doing, just learn what not to do and stay away from that. It’s a very fundamental and sound statement and it really sounds simple, but it’s one of those things that are so simple it’s actually hard. If you own and operate a business and stay away from things that cause businesses in the same industry to fail then you know, if things don’t go your way you were either the product or result in some new phenomenon we hadn’t seen yet, or it wasn’t in the cards for you. Either way, you can’t hold yourself responsible.
Regardless of being under East/West, giants like Universal can, essentially, manage lower sales for their bands and artists because those names are more likely to sell out larger arenas like MSG or Staples Center in LA. How do you, as a smaller label, handle the same issue of decreased music sales?
Basically, you’ve got to look at your deals with your bands. Now you have indies like Rise going out and getting these larger bands. There was a lot of surprise in that. “How are they getting these large bands?” “That’s a great pick up for that label.” From the business side I think people are actually shaking their heads and saying, “How are they going to do that with sales going down? There’s no way bands can keep up.” That’s kind of going in the opposite direction of what Fred taught me though. For me personally, I look for younger bands that we can get at a ground level with. I don’t do the 360 deals.
POZ: Would you ever consider a 360 deal?
Tommy: I would if my company was bigger and I could offer more. Financially, of course a 360 deal sounds great to everybody, but hopefully if you interview any of my bands, I don’t really do this to make money. I don’t have any deals now or in the past that have ever been unfair deals to my bands. I’ve had some of the highest royalties, to one band in particular, that no one else is doing and I’ve done lots of joint-ventures and 50/50’s. I think that’s the way. I think you find younger bands that need your help. There’s no point of signing a band and taking all of their publishing and merchandising rights and promising them that you’ll make them superstars; that’s not fair. There are guys that do that kind of stuff. That’s just not fair to the bands. You’re playing with people’s lives at that point. You do find young bands that you know you can fulfill their needs and at the end of the day you can rest assured that you put in a good days work. My bands are all bigger today than they were yesterday in some shape or form and we’re doing the right thing. We’re fighting the good fight. I think that’s very much what has worked for me. I’ve had lots of young bands with first time records coming out this year. That’s typically a very high-risk year for a label because bands break up and records don’t perform well and all other sorts of things, but I feel very well about it. I’ve tried hard to grow my relationships with all my bands and their managements and booking and I think everybody knows we’re on board to play and we’re going to work real hard this year and make the most out of it.
What’s your regular day like at the label? It is it more managing how your roster is doing as a whole and prepping releases, or is there a lot more to it that most people wouldn’t think of?
For me, there’s more. I don’t have a staff. I have some very great guys that I’m privileged to work with in terms of either retainers or monthly fees that do specific jobs to help me and basically they’ll do whatever. There’s a certain degree of work delegation that I do. My days are pretty unorthodox probably. I’ve had an office for the past year and a half and I haven’t made it there too much. My wife and I had a son a couple years ago and he’s been the light of our life and he’s been sick lately and we’ve moved, so it’s an unorthodox situation. I’m a younger guy and these are all things that happen and they’re not necessarily conducive to waking up and doing the normal run of the mill routine. My hours aren’t really defined. I’m up before most of my bands, but my bands don’t stop at business hours. It’s come and go. Right now I’m in a heated routine of soliciting new releases, getting lots of set up information and track listings and talking to publicists. Right now is a tough time, but once things are out and the people are deciding what’s popular and what’s not, then the job shifts to micro-managing like going through the band roster and giving everybody a call and checking in and trying to stay on top. It’s always something new every day.
With the industry struggling the way that it is, how do you make decisions about who to bring into your family and how to market them?
My mantra on that has changed over the years. When I first started, we were a niche label. My first band was very successful, so I just followed it. We kept going down that hole. Then it changed when I signed The Morning Of and I really got into them. Then I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to sign bands that I really like that have really good music.” I had a string of bands and lots of them were fan favorites, but those records didn’t sell like the other stuff. I guess our mark had already been made and we couldn’t change that. I decided at the beginning of last year that it was time for us to go back to the niche market. Within the niche we’ll start shifting and moving and try to slowly turn the corner on some releases. We’re not in a spot where we can afford to have a blow off release. I envy some guys that are doing very well that have a couple big artists on their label that really allow them the freedom to go out there and sign bands that are just awesome, like Craig with Sharks. I think those are great signings. I’d love to sign bands like that, but for me right now, with a family and everything, I got to put money on the table. We’re going to stick to the things that are safe and make sense. I’m sure lots of people are like, “What ever happened to The Morning Of? They’re like the best band ever.” The truth is, people can like you all day, but when the record sales aren’t there and you don’t have the hype to turn the corner, that’s what’s going to dictate your career.
POZ: There have been many rumors regarding whether or not The Morning Of have called it a day, or if they’re in the middle of recording a new album. Can you clear that up?
Tommy: They’re not calling it a day. I think the manner in which they operate is going to change drastically. I was actually talking to Justin yesterday. I’m not going to spoil anything, but he has some stuff that he wants to talk about and let people know and all that. I think it’s going to be well received. Will the next record be with me? I don’t think so. I’ll be the first to say it, it’s not the best fit. I really beat myself up over that band and I was like, “This is my fault. This record is phenomenal. Their last record was phenomenal.” And I really don’t know what it is. I’m not just playing dumb. It’s just one of those things. This was not the perfect storm. This was not one of those things where we happened to be in the right place with them and everything else. Sometimes it happens. They are writing some new stuff, I’m not going to spoil that either. I think that they need to stick with their more mature sound. They’re better than what a lot of people consider to be indie-pop right now, but a lot of kids aren’t into that anymore because it’s become oversaturated and whatnot. They’re going to do The Morning Of style, and they’re going to do it their way. At the end of the day, they do it their way. I’m going to help them however I can and wish them the best for sure. Hopefully they come out on the other side of it.
That being said, does Tragic have any announcements regarding signings in the near future?
We will be having some. My publicist probably wouldn’t like it.
POZ: Mike’s a good guy.
Tommy: Mike is a good guy. I just started working with Mike last month, but he’s awesome. He has the capability to let people know what’s going on. We need to make a home for our band and I’m really excited that Mike decided to step into this world and maybe Craig’s to blame or thank for that depending on how you look at it. But yeah, we do have some new signings. This is really a rebranding year. It may not make sense to do that after your fiscally most successful year, but we suffered some hits. We lost our flagship band in Confide. They were poised to take it. Their presence is still felt a lot. They gave us a wish list of management and between all of us, we got it all. Sadly, guys like me, our lives are dictated by the moves by young 20 year old rock stars. They can just walk away. Guys like us, we just can’t walk away. We have more new signings and tons of new releases. I hope that we can live up to it and that kids continue to support our bands. All jokes aside, not buying records is really just hurting the bands. It’s true. I don’t drive a Mercedes or have a mansion. I’m not getting rich from bands and I’ve had many people consider my roster to be a great one. I’m a great starting point for lots of bands. We’re a great home for guys like that, but we’re not making millions of dollars. My bands make money, and then I make money.
To close things up, what releases should we be on the lookout for in 2011?
Everyone Dies In Utah, We Are Defiance, Armor For The Broken, Lions!Tigers!Bears!, and that’s all I’ll do right now. We have a steady flow and a lot of stuff. I don’t want to do Mike’s job for him. That’s enough to perk some ears.