July 26, 2016
While the majority of the major labels are pursuing the next big mainstream hit and superstar breakthrough, Cheryl Pawelski and her team at Omnivore Recordings are searching for the lost tapes or recordings of classic artists, the current work of selected niche artists, as well as revive the musical spirit of bands and artists from years gone by. Omnivore's goal: to bring the long-lost music of Hank Williams, Jr., 10,000 Maniacs, Peter Case, The Bangles, Dr. John and Jellyfish to an interested audience in a rapidly transforming digital retail environment. Pawelski describes her challenge here:
After many years at a variety of labels, what made you decide your own company?
The business is changing ridiculously fast. My partners and I saw the bigger labels having to respond to the changing marketplace by getting away from working in the area of catalog recordings, at least as an important component to their overall business. We love working in this area and have spent our professional careers doing it, so we didn't feel like we needed to or wanted to stop. With a lowered overheard and a dedicated, underserved audience for these recordings, we felt it was time to do something on our own. We decided to start with a mix of overlooked opportunities in reissues and other previously unissued music that fills out missing chapters in established artists' careers.
What are the differences between actually running a label vs. being part of the label machine?
The work isn't different, but the resources are vastly different. We had a machine behind us when we were at the majors. At Omnivore, we all have to do more, including some things outside of our comfort zone. We've all learned a great deal and that's actually an exhilarating part of running our own shop. We've also seen how much waste there is in larger companies. It's also been great to be able to make decisions and execute just among a smaller group of experienced people. The agency gained by having our own company makes us far more agile than the larger ships, and that's fun.
What are the biggest challenges in launching an indie label such as Omnivore?
The biggest challenge is the aforementioned resources, you know, cash. (Laughs) We're kind of in this in-between world right now as configurations continue to change rapidly. We're already seeing the decline of downloads, a shift to streaming, some vinyl, but CDs still sell for catalog artists. So, the greatest challenge is on the business side in the changing environment. There are plenty of artists who want to get their records out there and we have plenty of records to make; it's just a matter of staying above water and keeping our heads up as the changes come blowing in.
How do you monitor the label's success? Do you evaluate things every year, then alter your strategy?
We look at trends in our information weekly. So we are constantly reevaluating, tinkering, tightening screws here and there, trying on new hats, etc. If we looked at things yearly or quarterly only, we'd be gone already.
Has the label's focus changed at all over the years?
Slightly, but only due to opportunities we've found in our lines of business. We're super-big believers in "core business" and not straying too far from our area(s) of expertise. We've seen that mistake made over and over in the music business, where a company has some success and starts straying into other businesses where they don't belong because the knowledge base isn't there. We're opening up our business to new business, but in the same vein in which we've always worked.
As far as kinds of music and artists we have, we always try to focus on "where's the story?" New music or old music. No matter which, the music has to be great, period. That's the start, but our focus has always been finding great stories and great music.
While our main focus will always be catalog recordings by established artists, we do release some new records by established artists because we know how to talk to that audience. We have good partners out there who work hard -- Peter Case, 10,000 Maniacs - they're very proactive in their careers and are true partners with us.
So we like to start with as good a story as possible. From the outset, we want to kick over every rock to find the interesting project. The Hank Williams "The Garden Spot Programs, 1950" is a perfect example of a release with a great story. So we look for opportunities to fill in missing pieces in an artists' career. That's primarily our focus.
Do you feel Omnivore is running at full capacity in terms of creating and properly marketing your product, or do you feel you can handle even more projects?
We're always looking for new projects, and we're running at about a release a week - that's pretty great for a small-in-number company. We've all been in the business individually for at least 25 years, so we've got our disciplines down, and while we're always looking for ways to expand, I'm not sure we would want to handle much more until we have a few more hands on deck. That having been said, we'll never turn down a cool project where we see opportunity and the aforementioned great story.
How has the digital revolution impacted how you run Omnivore?
Negatively (laughs). Here's the thing: For the catalog world, unless something has a higher profile out in the culture, be it in an ad or a movie placement, you're not drawing a younger audience unless they randomly find you out there on the web. Streaming and downloading can be helpful in attracting them or turning them on to music that they don't know about, but it's negligible financially for the most part. Obviously there's a lot more to gain in CDs and LPs, but if the majors and all the big digital service providers -- be they Apple, Spotify or Google -- continue to push streaming, that's where the audience will go. It's very convenient for consumers to stream. We, just by virtue of the material we work with, attract an older audience who are into more physical configurations than streaming or downloading, but it does depend on the artist. The success of their product can often vary according to format. Some do better on CDs than vinyl, others do better in a vinyl/digital combination. Every record is different. As this digital revolution continues, I expect it to keep shaking up configurations, and if we've learned anything from the history of recorded music, the new configurations will just keep on coming.
Does radio promotion have a place at Omnivore ... even at the college and/or Triple A level?
We make all of our recordings available to radio. But these days it's hard to measure the effect of radio on sales for us. Some of our artists do pick up indie radio promoters, especially if they're very active and out there touring. We'd love to be able to do more with radio. We succeed with the stations that really curate for their listeners so, obviously the supercool indie, college and satellite stations are great for us.
Does Omnivore do video marketing a la YouTube channels?
Sure, we have an Omnivore YouTube channel, with all of our trailers up there. We make a video trailer for every record that folks can share, to get a taste of the music and tell a bit of the story of the record. We try to keep them short, but long enough to get a sense of the release. There have also been some videos generated that we have on the channel. There's some cool stuff to discover if folks head over and poke around.
Are you encouraged by what some call a "vinyl resurgence?" Does the growing popularity of vinyl help your artists?
It's hard to generalize with vinyl or any configuration because every record really is different and potentially has a different audience. We've seen really good sales on some albums, while others were really flat. The problem is that we have minimums that we need to manufacture and vinyl is very expensive and laborious; it's a very physical thing to create. The pressing plants are overloaded, so re-orders can take some time and an audience might lose interest. So it is a dangerous configuration if we guess wrong, but great if it's the right piece of vinyl for the right audience. So we really just look at it as another possible configuration. Nothing more or less special than CD, digital or any tape configuration; it just depends on the record and the audience for that record. So while I enjoy vinyl myself, I wouldn't say I'm encouraged or discouraged, it's just another medium.
There's also the issue of quality control. Back in the late '70s, I knew someone whose job was to sit in a room at the Capitol Tower and listen to test pressings for skips and other imperfections.
Yes, again, it is a physical process and a very physical playback. At every stage, something can go wrong. Even if you approve the test pressing, the discs could be warped if they're not allowed to cool long enough before the shrink-wrap is applied, as that can warp them. In a situation like that, you don't find out until they're in the stores already. It's definitely a challenge and a bit maddening; this just isn't the past era of mass production of vinyl.
The flip side of the challenges of producing vinyl is I'm glad that a younger audience have found it and made it their own. It slipped a few generations, but it's satisfying to see the way it has come back. I hope it continues. I just wish there were better solutions for the cost, time and frustrations it takes to produce quality vinyl.
Omnivore is known for curating music greats in reissues and such. What's the best way to do that in current digital environment?
Well, the same way we've always curated -- find the great story and present it in the highest quality, best-researched manner with great design and great liner note writers telling the story. The digital environment doesn't change the underlying music; the music is always the same. What has changed as a result of the digital environment is how people get their information. We're all able to customize what we want to see in our various feeds these days, so it's much harder to reach everyone who might be interested. You'd think it would be the opposite, but actually the forest just got bigger.
Does Omnivore do any kind of millennial outreach to those too young to remember a lot of your artists?
We're probably not where a lot of younger folks are looking, but great music is timeless, so if there are some younger people who are big, insatiable music fans, they'll find us. Right now, we're talking to hardcore music fans who know who both Hank Williams and the Bangles are, and those folks might take a chance on Jaco Pastorius or Jellyfish. Because we cross genres and generations, everybody and anybody can find Omnivore, but reaching out to a younger audience isn't something we explicitly do. If you think back to your own younger years, if you were a music fan, then you were searching for music all the time. Not everyone was like that then, and they're not like that now. We cater to the super-fans, the fans who are passionate about music. Their age doesn't really matter.
How expansive is your catalog?
We're closing in on about 200 titles released to date and there are probably very few categories or genres of music we've not touched. I guess we've not really ventured into anything rubbing elbows with the classical world yet, but that's not necessarily by design. We aim to please and challenge the music explorer. We are super-fans who want to keep learning about music, different artists, different eras and genres, and we hope that the folks who are on the ride with us are explorers in a similar way. We aim to surprise those people, and turn them onto things that they may have missed or not known about.
And what of the future?
If we had this conversation with you in 1995, I would probably have told you that we had a strategic plan in place for five to seven years, but these days, it's difficult to see into that sort of crystal ball. We're simply focused on finding great music and stories, and making the highest quality and coolest records we can, regardless of the configuration.
We recently bought the catalog of Ru-Jac Records, a mid-'60s soul label out of Baltimore and released the first record from it by Winfield Parker a couple weeks back. We have another coming from those recordings in September by a duo named Gene & Eddie. We'd love to continue to acquire more labels like Ru-Jac, continue to grow our publishing, licensing and distribution businesses.
It's a cliché, but very true of our business, the only thing that stays the same is change. It's what makes it challenging, but it's also what makes it fun.