Labels Interviews: File 2: Dave Heckman / Metropolis Records: ‘The Bottom Line Is To Adapt Fast To A Changing Industry’
Metropolis Records was set up in 1994 by Dave Heckman. In no time the American label became a truly reference when it comes to Electronic and Industrial music. The label licensed –and still does, European productions, but also signed new artists. Among the Metropolis roster you’ll find bands as VNV Nation, Front 242, Front Line Assembly, Wumpsuct, Project Pitchfork, Juno Reactor, Assemblage 23, The Birthday Massacre, KMFDM, Numb, Haujobb, Leather Strip, Apoptygma Berzerk, Velvet Acid Christ, God Module, Covenant, Informatik and many, many more
(Stéphane Froidcoeur / Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: Was there a kind of ‘philosophy’ when you set up your label and did it evolve over the years? How would you define your label activities today?
Dave: No philosophy per se. It was just something I wanted to do for a living, so I needed to go about things in a very professional manner and always stay focused on that goal.
I am going to presume you mean label activities as compared to my activities at the label, although I will go into both.
The first step is to find the talent and that has always been my job. I am the owner and the A&R guy. Then, of course, a deal needs to be worked out and again that has always been my job too.
After a deal is done, we have to assemble the assets for the release such as artwork, photos, masters, videos, and publishing information. This is all needed to setup the releases with our worldwide distributors and to manufacture the albums themselves.
Then comes promotion. Retail, club, radio, video, press, touring, social media, etc. A lot of this is done internally, but sometimes we hire outside companies, particularly for video, radio, press, and booking tours.
Finally, the royalty statements need to be processed and payments made. A tedious and important part of the business.
So, believe it or not, as much as the industry has changed, the setup and promotion is really quite similar to what it was years ago. The revenue just comes from different sources.
Q: I can imagine you must have specific and explicit criteria to sign an artist/band. Can you give us more details about this aspect and how important is it for you to know the person(s) hiding behind the ‘artist(s)’?
Dave: Not really. In general, I sign bands I like and there is no particular sound I am looking for. I cannot really tell you why I liked Numb or Project Pitchfork, I just did. When it comes to art, whether music, film, or paintings I cannot tell you why I like what I do. In some way it has to move me.
That said, I do have a tendency to like or lean towards things dark, edgy, and innovative. Some of the bands that I was interested in were never signed, because we could not come to an agreement. Sometimes the bands had higher expectations than I did and the advance they wanted was too large or we had different ideas on promotional aspects of a campaign.
Metropolis has released over 1200 albums with over 200 different artists, so I did not get to meet and know everyone. In the beginning I just licensed from a few European labels like Zoth Ommog, KK Records and Hyperium. So, my relationships were with my licensing partners. However, as things progressed and we brought the bands over to tour and I went overseas to festivals and conferences and finally met these artists, my relationships with them developed. Always liked to travel and visit the artists where they lived and liked hanging out with them during and after shows. As we got to know each other better it just made everything smoother.
Q: You are already active for numerous years now so you must have seen a lot of things changing and evolving; think about social media, streaming platforms, Youtube channels… but also economic crisis etc. What are the pros and cons of these changes/evolutions and in, which way did you had to adapt/change your strategy and activities?
Dave: The biggest change was the death of retail record stores. That was how I started consuming music as a 10 year old kid. I mean I just did not go there to buy music, but to discover it. The cool stores played cool music and I also would just go through the record bins to find something new that caught my eye. Retail was still a force in music in the 90’s, but went really downhill after 2002 or so. As I mentioned above, retail promotion was important, but now it is almost gone.
So, of course digital comes along and I knew tons of artists and labels that were vehemently opposed to the format. Don’t get me wrong I thought 128 bit rate MP3 played on a computer sucked compared to a Compact Disc on a good stereo system. However, that is the way people wanted to consume, so we sold digital downloads.
At present, hardly anyone buys downloads and streaming revenue is going through the roof. Of course, I have artists complaining about this. More arguments / discussions with artists about streaming than any other industry issue, but it has saved the industry not destroyed it. Illegal downloads and CD burning where the real culprits.
Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime, Deezer, Pandora are great platforms. However, YouTube sucks. They pay a fraction of what everyone else does, but people are complaining about Spotify instead of them. That I do not understand.
The bottom line is to adapt fast to a changing industry.
The benefit of the digital world is the massive savings on manufacturing, storage, and shipping, which of course is also good for the environment.
As far as the economic downturn, we go through these all the time and readjust.
Q: The ongoing pandemic has affected all artistic life and activities so what’s the true impact on your label activities and do you think it will also affect your long term objectives?
Dave: The pandemic has hurt the industry considerably. We had a dozen tours lined up for last spring including Lords Of Acid, Clan Of Xymox, KMFDM, Front Line Assembly, The Birthday Massacre, and many more. All cancelled and the bands lost money to varying degrees. However, the recorded music industry saw their revenue grow since almost everything is digital or online even including physical sales. In the long run and this intermediate period, nothing will change much, people will go back to their old habits for the most part.
Q: Do you think media (magazines, online platforms etc…) still have an impact and a role to play today? What’s your relationship with ‘journalists’ and how important is their work?
Dave: Yes, that medium is still important. All promotional activity counts. You have to spread the word around wherever you can. However, I really cannot comment on my relationship with the journalists as I never really had one. I am talking about me, not the label. Publicity and press is one of the few things I have always delegated to someone else.
Q: What do you consider as your biggest accomplishment(s)? Do you have specific goals/dreams you want to achieve and how do you prepare and see the future of the label(s)? And what are your biggest regret(s)?
Dave: Even though I eventually worked with some big names in the industry what I liked most was taking bands that were once small and introduce them to the scene, promoting them and then selling reasonable amounts of records for them. Covenant, Haujobb, Velvet Acid Christ, Wumpscut, Combichrist, Apoptygma Berzerk, And One, Assemblage 23 were all selling just a couple thousand copies and eventually sold 20,000 to 50,000 albums in North America alone. These are good numbers for alternative music. VNV Nation sold even much more than that. Just to put it in perspective only one in a hundred artists sold over 10,000 copies back then no matter what the genre.
I have met my goals. As I mentioned I wanted to do this for a living and I did. Also, Metropolis has a good brand name and I got to meet a lot of great artists who are now my friends. I wish I could have pushed the boundaries more and could have done more outside the Goth / Industrial genre. However, that did not work out that well except with the a few bands like Mindless Self Indulgence and Electric Six.
I am content with the label’s accomplishments. The label is 27 years old and I was well into my thirties when I started in the music business. So, we will continue to do what we do and improve where we can, remembering that adopting to change is important.
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