Ridhwan Ghani of Straits Records and Hirmie Abdul Rahman of Sonic Wave go head-to-head in a label bosses pow-wow. Both entities are labels and distros, which means that besides signing on and releasing bands under their own stable, they also import CDs, vinyls and other musical paraphernalia from overseas. Neither of them has any store, operating instead from the home and relying on the post office and the precious few shops that stock their wares. Aside from running their respective labels, the two underground entrepreneurs also hold full-time jobs to make ends meet. EDDINO ABDUL HADI asks: Why do they keep on doing it then? Pictures by Irwan.
Why did you decide to start up the label/distro?
Wan Straits: Basically it started out as a hobby, an interest and, at the same time, help out the scene... its basically all my friends so its like I'm helping out. Originally I was just bringing in foreign stuff to sell in the scene here... in 97 I decided to start a label to promote local bands to the outside world.
Hirmie Sonic Wave: I like music and I want music to be part of my life and by doing a label, in a way I am always in the music line. I first started in 98 with the name Candlelight Productions. At the time I did it part-time. I changed the name to Sonic Wave in 1999.
It can't be easy juggling the label and having a full-time job to worry about as well. What do you find most difficult in running the label?
Wan: Time, money and support. I do this on my free time and I have my full-time job. Money because I don't have the budget to spend on the label... for more bands to be under my record label. And there's not much support from the scene lately. Initially when I started there was more support where a lot of people really buy from you but the support has decreased lately.
Hirmie: The major obstacle would definitely be time. I used to do this label full time but not anymore. Another thing is that because I do all types of genre, when I import things I import in bulk so one problem is that they are always stuck at customs. Its a great hassle for me to bring the CDs to customs for checking and then bring it back because I don't have a vehicle of my own. So it really takes a lot of time, money for taxi fare... all these just for a hobby.
Do you have to send all of your stuff to customs?
Hirmie: Most of the stuff will have to go through customs before they are passed for distribution. The thing is I have to pay upfront for all the CDs and if they don't pass I have to return them.
Wan: Several times but most of the time I can get my stuff through the post office but sometimes.... This customs thing is random, if they want to check you they'll check. When you're around then they'll ask for your permission to open and they'll check your stuff. The problem is when your stuff doesn't pass through customs then you have to send them back. Then it's a waste of postage because thats a big cost and I won't get my money back.
How much of your stuff gets sent back?
Wan: It actually depends on the individual who check your stuff. If its vinyl I don't think they care to check because they don't have the equipment...
They actually play the songs?
Wan: No, no, they look at the track listing, the cover, the inlay and all that. They will check the shipment in front of you. If there's nothing wrong they pass it to you. If they're not happy with it they just say, OK, this is not suitable for distribution. About 15 or 10 per cent of my stuff has been deemed unsuitable.
I always go to customs now because I buy a lot of things in bulk with
my imports... almost once every two weeks. So for me the ones which cannot
be distributed is about 10 per cent of the stuff. Its already enough
of a hassle because first I have to go there, and then check them one
by one... and there are a lot of titles. After checking I have to send
the CDs that cannot be distributed back within the same day.
How many bands do you stock?
Hirmie: A lot. My hardcore catalogue alone has around 300 bands. I also deal with metal, indie, punk, Oi... so many. And that's only CDs. I bring in shirts, vinyls and magazines.
Where do you stock all this stuff?
Hirmie: Home lah. My home now has become a warehouse.
Your parents don't mind?
Hirmie: Of course, they mind but I'm planning to rent a small room.
Wan, how many bands do you stock?
Wan: I slowed down on my distro and I'm concentrating on my label so I don't really have a large catalogue of CDs... maybe 100. Because now I want to do more stuff with the local scene rather than bring in stuff from overseas because I think there's already people like Sonic Wave so I want to concentrate more on the distribution for the local scene.
How many releases do you bring in at any one time?
Hirmie: Usually there are about 100 titles and there will be about five to 10 pieces of each. I'm not just distributing to $ingapore stores only... I'm also doing the mail-order and I'm also a wholesaler... I have buyers from overseas. That's why I have to bring in a lot of stuff.
Wan: At the moment I don't distribute as much as I previously did. Now, I mostly trade with overseas labels. If they want to take stuff from me in big quantities then they will give me their stuff in big quantities. I don't bring in much stuff from overseas anymore also because of budget constraints the amount depends on how many new titles are in the market at the time. Minimum 50 CDs. If there're more I'll ship in maybe 100 to 200. On an average, about 50 a month.
Do you spend a lot of money in order to bring all these titles in?
Wan: Depends, those that I can pay in consignment I will bring in more. If I need to pay upfront I will take less of their stuff.
Hirmie: Actually now I don't really spend any money because I use all profits from previous sales to pay for new stuff that I get. So the money is recycled.
Do you have a marketing strategy to sell all your wares?
Hirmie: It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and I have to do a lot of promotion and gigs. And $ingapore is very small. Definitely just in $ingapore alone I cannot do it, I have to get sales from overseas. That's why my label is also a wholesaler. Especially in South-east Asia, there aren't many labels that do wholeselling unlike in Europe or the US. So you can make it big because if you see in terms of Asia, you can stand out if you do it properly. There are many people like me in Europe and US so they've got more stuff.
Wan: I don't really do promotion... most of the time I sell my stuff at gigs and maybe some stores in town but other than that it's the website, word-of-mouth and flyers. I do feel that its easier to sell stuff at shows and by mail-order a few years back as compared to now. Maybe the kids then like to get stuff from the independent labels and distributors than from the shops but now its like mega-stores everywhere in $ingapore. Its easier now to get overseas stuff and the kids have more buying power so they prefer to go down to town and go to Tower or HMV rather than from independent distributors and labels. That's why sales have dropped for me.
Do you see HMV and Tower Records as competitors?
Wan: Its not actually about competition but it affects our sales too because they have buying power and the attraction to get people to go there. They have a wider range of titles for buyers to choose from, they have a showcase of things that can attract customers anytime and everyday. And we are like a small fry so like its difficult for us to get customers like they do and we don't even have a shop or anything. Its just through our catalogues and our website that people get to know what we have in stock.
Hirmie: Its not a threat because in a way I can always collaborate with people. I am the one who distribute to the shops. Before they can bring in titles themselves, I will bring it in first, then I bring it to them. It benefits both parties because I can distribute my stuff and they can sell it.
OK, lets talk about the local bands that you release... are they profitable?
Hirmie: No, I just sign them on their music alone.
How about recording costs?
Hirmie: I pay for their recording, duplication.
What do you expect from them in return?
Hirmie: The recordings. The songwriting copyrights belong to them but the recording belongs to Sonic Wave. I don't care who I sign, whether they're local or from overseas... if they're good enough I will sign them.
How many overseas bands have you signed, Hirmie?
Hirmie: I've signed Finnish bands, German bands and a Brazilian band. One reason I sign them is that in places like Finland and Sweden, they can still get a great sound with a small recording budget.
How do you pay for their overseas recordings then?
Hirmie: I pay them half first, and when they finish they give me this list, show me how much money they've used. Of course I have to give them a budget first. And when they're finished I pay them the rest.
Isn't there a possibility that people might just take your money and run?
Hirmie: I trust them because I don't just sign them straight away. I do things with them like distribute their demos and they help distribute mine... I try to start as friends before committing anything. As time goes by, from experience I learn that the musical quality of the band is not the only thing that matters. Whats important is whether they can work with you or not. I've experienced a lot of things which is bad. There are a lot of musically good bands whom I can't work with so its no use.
Wan: I have no overseas bands on my label, just local bands at the moment. Some overseas bands pass me their demos and want me to sign them but I don't have the budget to sign any of them yet.
Wan, how about the local bands that you sign, do you pay for everything?
Wan: Normally I pay for the recording, duplication, pressing of covers and all that. If there's a budget constraint... like for Plain Sunset, they paid for their recording first. After that I proceed with the duplication, with my own money.
What kind of deal do you strike with your bands?
Wan: The deal is that they get royalties from CD sales. There's a certain percentage that I pay them and there's certain percentage that I take. And when I sell to shops they'll take some profit from the sales too.
Traditionally there's always some kind of tension within the label-band relationship because more often than not, both parties have different goals and objectives. So what's dealing with local bands like?
Hirmie: Most of the local bands are OK but some are not. My very first release, Rudra, did very well. I sold 5,000 CDs worldwide which, by international standards, is low but for me it's a lot. So after that all the bands have that expectation. Every week they'd ask me, 'Eh how many of my CDs have you sold?' So I got a lot of unnecessary stress. Another thing is I like to deal with people with whom you can make friends with while working together. The problem is that some of the bands are totally money-minded and totally cannot make friends. So they don't understand my problems. All they care about is their sales. So for me its quite difficult because unless I am a major label then maybe I can do that. But because we are just a small label, we need help from both parties but they are not willing to do that. All they know is that they are being signed and they want to get a lot promotion and they don't want to do anything.
Wan: For me those bands under my label there're not much problems. Basically its smooth sailing because its like I know all of them quite well as friends. So if there're problems we can work things out. But for the local scene as a whole, I'm afraid to sign the wrong band because for now I see a lot of bands that are out there but they don't last long.
How do you choose the bands then?
Wan: Basically the band must play music that not only we like but music that the consumer will buy because that's basically what we are trying to do. And we must make sure we can work well with the band. I sign bands who are not really established but have been together for some time so you know they will be together as a band for years to come.
What if you sign what you think is a good band but they break up before their stuff is released?
Wan: That's quite scary for a label to encounter. I haven't experienced that but it will be like a great disappointment because making a CD is not as easy as it looks. All the hard work that you spend in the studio, practising... and when the CD is completed you gotta to sell it to the shops and all that. And if after all the hard work that you've done and the next day you break up... you'll feel all the effort is lost, its gone down the drain. Because you can no longer promote the band, if they're not around. And I don't think a lot of people will be interested in buying it because the band itself is no longer there to promote themselves, their songs, what they're spreading.
So do any of you put a clause in a contract that the band has to be around for any period of time after the recording?
Hirmie: No. To be safe, I just sign the bands for only one recording. We do have an agreement in black and white, but basically that's for royalties.
OK, let's say mid-way through the recording they say they've found a better deal and they want out?
Hirmie: Then its OK, provided they pay back whatever money I've spent on them. Its OK with me because there will always be other better bands, ha ha.
Wan: I don't really have any contracts with my bands, they can do whatever they want. They can play anywhere they want as long as they're happy as a band. I don't restrict them in any way. I don't mind if they think there's a better label for them and, for the good of the band, I don't mind letting them go. I know my resources are limited so if they think there are better labels around, its OK with me because I am just running an independent label. I do my things independently and I release independently.
Lets talk about the business. In order to start up you need capital and all that so where do you get the money?
Wan: Initially Straits started as a three-person partnership so we shared equally among ourselves. We started out with about $3,000. From there, we bought stuff from overseas and later signed bands and all that, using that same amount.
Hirmie: When I first started with Candlelight Productions, it was with my brother. Some of the money was from my own savings and some was from him. In all, we came up with quite a big amount, about $15,000. We signed a lot of local bands, we were inexperienced. Out of all the many bands, luckily one made it, which is Rudra a big achievement for me.
What do you mean, "made it?"
Hirmie: "Made it" in the sense that they've got a name overseas... I sold the most for that one band. Because of that band I managed to cover my costs. But my brother thinks that it is not worthwhile. For him its totally business, its not like his hobby, the music. So I got new partners. With these partners, officially it is mine, under my name so I changed the name to Sonic Wave and I re-started again. Now we are doing OK.
Both of you mention running the label as a hobby. But when it involves money and trade then obviously it becomes a business. How much of it is a business and how much of it is a hobby?
Hirmie: For me its 50-50. Because music for me is a hobby. I won't say I particularly like hardcore or metal but I like music. I want music to be my career. At the same time to protect my interest, I have to get some cash in in order for me to keep on doing it.
Wan: For me it's a hobby. So as a hobby I'm happy with what I do and I want to continue with what I'm doing. And business wise, it feels good to get paid for what I do. So it's a hobby that pays.
Obviously its not something that pays well enough to do it full time.
Wan: At the moment I don't think I can do it as a living, so I have another full-time job.
Does your full time job support the label?
Wan: The full-time job is to support myself not really for the label but for me to have money to carry on in materialistic $ingapore.
Hirmie: I used to do it full time somewhere from late 98 to mid-99. In 99 I had a lot of problems like being ripped off by another local label. Also my own personal problems... there was one time where I was admitted to a mental hospital. All that plus family problems, so eventually my label suffered because I was the core person. I used a lot of money and after I recovered, I had to work. I was on the verge of closing the label but then I thought about all the hard work that I put in... so I stayed on. I started working to earn the money to re-start the label. I'm still working as a storeman.
I heard you used to sell fish too.
Hirmie: That was before, after I was OK. I had a lot of bands who were waiting to be recorded because I've signed deals with them and they're waiting for the money. The thing was I used some of the money to pay for my medical expenses so I had to get that back. I did a lot of odd jobs like fishmongering, in a factory, lots of things. After I got back some of my costs I stuck to this job as a storeman.
So generally are you making a profit or a loss from the label/distro?
Wan: I won't say I am making a profit from what I do because the initial capital that I came up with... I haven't seen the $3,000 come back yet. I use what I get from the previous projects to start another project. That's basically what I can do right now.
Hirmie: For me, in terms of finance, I do get it back and I think there are some profits. But I never really counted.
By the way, Wan, what happened to the other two who started Straits?
Wan: Alvin he's not interested in the label anymore so he's out but Khalid is still helping out but not as a core member because he is studying and I understand his problems. The main person now is me but there's another guy, Ashaari, helping me. So actually there're still three people in the label. They do help out in certain ways.
Do you guys do collaborations with other DIY labels?
Wan: I don't really have a particular distributor in any country, I just deal with people that I've dealt with previously so every time I have a release I contact the same people.
Hirmie: I'm distributed in Germany and in most of Europe and the US by bigger distributors for my own releases. For example in Germany I am distributed by SPV, which is a very big distributor.
Do they take a substantial cut in the sales?
Hirmie: They are on consignment actually. I don't know how much they sell it over there.
Where do you find all these contacts from?
Wan: From magazines, CD covers.
Hirmie: One way is through the ads that I put in foreign mags so they will contact me. Or I will contact them through magazines that I receive as promos.
Wan, you had some bad dealings with Malaysia's Strange Culture Records over the Kindread CD. What really happened?
Wan: For that project, Straits was just a representative of Kindread to have a split CD. I don't know how the deal went because they didn't really have a contract with us or anything so after the thing was done they just disappeared.
Did you lose any money?
Wan: We got nothing out of it. And the band got nothing out of it. They paid for the recording but royalties and payment-wise Kindread never got anything. Now lot of people are afraid of doing projects with Strange Culture... I don't think they're around anymore because I tried to contact Tang (SCR boss) and it's a difficult task. I can't get hold of him anymore.
So what lessons did you learn from the whole experience?
Wan: Just be more careful and weary of people you deal with. Because I actually did hear a lot of bad things about him before the project but somehow Kindread and I still decided to work with him. Maybe the deal sounded good for the band and they really wanted to do it. So I just said OK, and that I'd help out with the deal but in the end it was a bad decision. One mistake was that before the start of the project the band and I were supposed to sign a contract with Tang but he delayed it until the recording was over and the thing was complete. In the end there was no contract to prove that we had anything with him. So we really can't do anything to get him to pay the band. At the same time we did not lose any money because we didn't pay for the recording or anything but...
Did Straits suffer, reputation wise?
Wan: Its not about reputation. It's the hard work that the band put out for the release and they didnt get paid... thats sad because they did a job for you and you ripped off people just like that... thats not good.
How about you Hirmie, had any bad experiences?
Hirmie: I was working with this new label from Singapore, there's no need to tell the name because it doesn't exist anymore. We're supposed to do a split album consisting of Voiceout and Global Chaos. This label has got its own studio so we're supposed to split the cost of the recording and the production of these two bands. This label kept on delaying the recording to a point where Global Chaos felt that it was too late so they pulled out of the deal.
So this label wanted to collaborate with me to release Voiceout but after recording one or two songs, it disappeared. And when we went there the studio was also gone! The guy closed the studio and I cannot get him, and he's nowhere to be located. Because I like Voiceout a lot I decided to carry on and finance their recording myself. Of course that meant I needed more money. So that is when I started to work extra jobs to get that money. After getting that money we went to Mastering Suite to record but then unfortunately the recording got spoilt and we cannot release the CD. So, in the end, Voiceout had to re-record again at TNT. And they are still recording now.
At this point, I would also like to apologise to those involved in the making of Stroll's For You The Hedonist album and the original members Amran, Faizal and the rest. At the point of the albums release, I was at the
lowest point of my life and I was not in the right frame of mind to do anything for the label. As a result, the release was affected. I hope you guys would take my apology and I hope you success in your individual lives. I am also available now if you still need my help.
Obviously the big issue of working independently is trust among all parties concerned. Even the DIY fans who send in their money by post to order a record from you are engaging in a little leap of faith because they might not receive anything at all. How do you deal with it?
Wan: One, its about trust and the other thing, its about your own initiative. If you think you can't work with somebody from the start then you better stop the deal. If anything goes wrong its your capital that you are using and if it is lost that then it won't come back. So its just your instinct and what you think is good or right for you. For mail order sometimes I think there's something wrong with the mailing system the world over. Because sometimes people say they order from you and they send the money but they never get anything. Then they say you ripped them off. And just because of one little thing they spread bad word about your label. For me I do work honestly and I don't want to rip people off for 10 or 20 bucks and get my reputation spoilt. Maybe its just their luck their mail never reached me or anything. Sometimes thats just how things work. Its whether the people wanna trust you or if you want to trust people... its how you see it.
Hirmie: So far I have no problems overseas and I think none of them has any problem with me. So far so good... The thing is there's nothing much we can do when a lot of it has got to do with trust. We usually trade first. We get their CDs and they get our CDs so by that we already know that this person or this label can be trusted.
What's the future like for both labels? How long do you plan to carry on?
Hirmie: Sonic Wave will still be around even after I die if I got a kid someday. It doesn't stop here and its just the beginning of a long road. I want to see Sonic Wave prosper from a small independent label to a major one day. I know many are laughing now but it was two years ago that someone laughed me off saying I won't even last a few months! I'm not only looking at music for my business. I love the entertainment scene as a whole. Now besides distro/promotions for artists I also organise some small-time gigs. I might hold a mega concert one day. There seemed to be growing talent too in the local film industry. Im looking at all these to see how I can improve my label.
Wan: For me I really don't know. As long as there're good bands and good people to work with, I will continue doing this. As long as there are friends who need help to release their stuff I will help. Even if there's too much constraint financially, I'll just relax first and take a break and delay stuff rather than stop. I don't see myself stop doing this for the next three years at least... after that I really don't know.
Wan, how about quitting your other job and doing the label full time?
I don't see myself doing that in Singapore... because I don't see any
support from the media and the radio stations. Especially for local alternative
bands. Maybe for artistes like Tanya or whatever, there's hope but for
alternative bands I don't know... in these few years I don't see any support
for them. There is some support but not as much like you see in America
or Europe where the radio really play songs from their own country and
their own people. Here everyday I tune in to the radio and its the
same old thing... Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez... and you won't hear
any local bands played on radio. So I don't think the public is aware
there are good bands from our own country with good songs. Its difficult
to do a full-time label here. Maybe if I go somewhere else I might do
it full time but not here.
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