Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is John Louis. I am a writer, band leader and music pundit. By day I pump the smoke and shine the mirrors for Debt Records, by night I perform as Louis Barabbas.
What prompted the formation of your Lovely Non-Profit Label, Debt Records?
In many ways the beginnings of Debt as an organization was simply the decision to stick a name on what was already going on. We’re part of a very active and invigorating live scene where no line-up is set in stone and all projects are ongoing, everyone involved has been composing/performing in a professional or semi-professional capacity for long enough to be doing it for the right reasons and have learned that the best things come from working together. It goes beyond the basic “together we are stronger” sentiment though, it’s not a closed off collective bound by a utopian charter, it’s an old fashioned record label in which it is not uncommon to see all the acts sitting in the same bar at the same time. From early on we agreed it was important to work within the framework of the established industry rather than just moaning about the unfairness of it. Now we know enough about the business to be able to work with the bits that suit us and replace those that don’t with something better. These days there is no excuse for an independently minded musician to be ignorant of how the music industry works. The whole sticky business is in a state of chrysalis and it’s up to everyone to reshape it.
Has starting the label been a rocky road or steady sailing and can just anyone do it?
It’s the most enjoyable head ache I’ve ever had. I’ve definitely got a few more grey hairs in my beard since the label began but it is all immensely rewarding. The question “can anybody do it” is an interesting one because a lot of the time it seems like everyone is doing it. It makes sense though, sooner or later all career-minded bands are going to turn themselves into a brand of some description, it’s more of a question of how you do it without sacrificing what makes art so important in the first place. Our decision to make the label non-profit relieved us of the pressure to make money from our acts. That may sound stupid but I really believe that attempting to second guess the whims of the market place is where so many labels encounter problems. We make our living from other areas of the music world, it leaves us free to put out records that work on their own terms rather than those of fashion and fad.
You are also a celebrated Manchester performer as head of Louis Barabbas and the Bedlam Six, what’s best, behind the scenes or on the stage?
That’s a really tricky one. I’ve been a stage performer since I was a child, it’s a big part of who I am and I can’t imagine not doing it. What is so wonderful about working at a label though is that you get to be a part of someone else’s music too – working on their press releases and marketing strategies means you get very close to another person’s art in a way that doesn’t happen when you just hear it on the radio or at a gig. I feel immensely privileged to have this role in other people’s creativity. Also, the industry itself is just so fascinating, the way everyone (from the majors to the indies) is having to relearn the rules of the game. These are uncertain and unsettling times, personally I’m enjoying playing the role of double agent.
What have been the highlights of your time in the music industry so far?
It doesn’t sound very rock and roll but I’ve really enjoyed the conference circuit. The internet has redrawn the musical map and plenty of people are quick to moan about it but one great thing that has come about is the sudden litter of music conferences, lectures and networking events where industry practitioners are falling over each other to talk about what’s going on and – fairly often – how different groups can get together and sort out whatever needs sorting out. There’s so much dialogue now where there used to be stubborn silence and I’ve really enjoyed being in those rooms that mingle the old dogs with the young upstarts – it’s pretty funny how quickly one can be bandied between the two camps depending on what issue is under discussion. I feel very honoured to have been asked to speak at these events that are so vital to the survival of the music industry (although a lot of what goes on is admittedly just hot air and bullshit – it’s the same in any industry I guess).
I’ve also loved just getting on with projects that were previously deemed to be too ambitious. In 2010, for example, we made the decision to opt out of In The City – not because we are against it (far from it – this year’s was a real triumph and I was very pleased to see them place a spotlight on contentious issues such as Pay2Play), it’s just that none of our acts really fit into the “hotly tipped for 2011″ treatment, it seemed pointless to play the buzz game. So, instead we organized our own showcase at The Dancehouse Theatre that put the emphasis on entertainment, collaboration and variety. And it was brilliant! It received such a fantastic response from journalists and punters alike. That was a really encouraging day.
What music is getting you excited in Manchester at the moment?
I always feel that the quality of music here is a given. What I think is particularly exciting at the moment is just how many new creative initiatives are sprouting up all over the city and how much collaboration is going on between artists (particularly between disciplines). This is what will keep Manchester at the forefront of British independent music, it’s much more than just spitting out bands. I feel like Manchester is finally abandoning the safety net of maintaining one single identity, it has grown into a city that fosters, sustains and attracts art rather than one that filters it through a rigid mythology or cultural shorthand. I’d also like to make a special mention of Un-Convention which is doing amazing things internationally after its humble beginnings in Salford.
What does the year ahead hold for Debt Records?
Well there’s obviously the releases. The first quarter will see new singles from Red Tides, Honeyfeet and Becca & The Broken Biscuits. Also EPs and albums from T. E. Yates, Richard Barry and my own Bedlam Six (plus a live album with my hero John Otway – that’s on 5th Feb folks!). And there’s a bit of inter-label flirting going on as I’ll soon be recording a duet with Liz Green from the wonderful Humble Soul records. We’re also continuing our work with establishing a trade network between different independent scenes, some great gig swapping and tours happening, also a strong new link forged with Liverpool in the guise of the Threshold Festival (which Debt is curating a stage for next month). We’ve also been chatting to the Arts Council about some Northwest promotional touring and ways to get international acts to work/play with local Manchester artists – trying to address Manchester’s stigma of being a place where musicians don’t get paid. That brings us up to Spring. We’ll let the rest of the year remain a mystery.
For more info on Debt Records and to check out some of their bands, visit www.debtrecords.net