Justin’s primary vessel for musical output is under the moniker Saw Black, which I recommend you check out wherever you consume music.
Our conversation is based around the premise of independent labels — and answering common questions like…should you start your own label? Should you cut a deal with a small indie? What might that deal look like versus a traditional deal or a “bigger” label deal? We’ll also demystify a lot of the day-to-day of being an independent musician and the music industry at-large.
Frank Keith: [00:00:00] So you You run crystal pistol too. You’ve done your own thing on the label side. And you’ve worked with another label over the past few years start wherever you want, basically tell me what. Why did you do that? And what happened along the way? You’re like, Oh, I’m glad I did this.
Or I wish I had done this differently.
Justin Black: [00:00:21] Yeah. So I’ve got to just say crystal pistol is in hybernation right now. Basically right now, all it functions as is a way for me and some other people . Have some digital distribution, that’s through a different, it’s like a private distribution service.
So it’s a little different than I guess people use disk makers or like CD baby or something. I don’t even know.
Frank Keith: [00:00:45] CD baby, you got your big hitters, like the orchard, AWAL, places like that. So it’s a distro play mainly.
Justin Black: [00:00:54] Yeah. It’s well, that, that’s what it is now. Basically me and my friend Pete started it.
He is now FM skyline, which is like a big vapor waves project he’s now on 100% Electronica, which is a big vapor wave label out of LA. And I’m releasing things on WarHen but both of us started crystal pistol together. And the reason we started it was because we wanted to press our records onto vinyl.
And we felt like if we combined our, knowledge and our money it’s like I would help him. On his first record with some money. And I played bass for him at the time. And then he would do the same for me on my record. And that’s what we did. And he is the bass player in my band as well.
So we were just doing it as a way to combine forces and to back each other up. And that was the original purpose of crystal pistol. And we ended up putting out a bunch of our friends, like first records. We definitely started with the mindset of, Hey, if we can just get vinyl and we can get it in these indie record shops in the area people will buy it.
That’s what we thought. And we quickly realized that just because you have vinyl doesn’t mean that people necessarily buy it. So flash forward to more and more releases and just realizing that running the label, it is a lot more complicated than, it gets really complicated when you start to release a bunch of other people’s things. And you start to have to like, be responsible for keeping track of where those things are going and who wants those things both digitally and, in the physical. So flash forward to my second record, which was put out on WarHen or in collaboration with WarHen and that’s where I am right now. And that’s working with basically a boutique vinyl, exclusively vinyl label in the region.
Frank Keith: [00:03:09] They don’t do digital at all.
Justin Black: [00:03:11] No. So that’s the cool thing with WarHen and, I think that there’s a good amount of really small labels out there that do this kind of thing, but it’s basically, we just split the costs of vinyl upfront, and then we split the actual copies down the middle.
So everything is 50 50. And again, it’s just a way to alleviate some of the upfront costs, also Warren Parker who runs WarHen Records has become really good friend of mine. And he’s got his own group of fans and followers, he’s a curator of certain sounds and people follow that.
What I’m doing now is working with him and back to the point of Realizing how hard it is to sell. Not like it’s hard just to make physical stuff, but it’s even harder to sell it. And so splitting some of that responsibility with someone like WarHen has been a big relief but also paring down like being a lot more realistic about how many units we should get of certain things and like literally having the goal of selling out, like having the goal of selling out of only doing a hundred or only doing 300 and being like, let’s just make sure that we can sell all of it.
Frank Keith: [00:04:29] I think that’s a good goal to set. Like the more exclusive you can make something feel, yeah. We only printed a hundred of them and that’s it. Get them while you can. Obviously marketing budget is a totally different conversation.
Justin Black: [00:04:46] Yeah, exactly. And so just to go back, cause I feel like we’ve jumped ahead in the very beginning, but it’s I’m a completely independent artist and I’ve basically been independent from the beginning.
I’m 32 years old and I’ve been putting out records since I was like 15, but my band, my current project Saw Black is mostly what I’m talking about in this context. That’s, again, that’s just the vinyl that’s just working with literally like only a record label and a label that is only doing one thing, which is vinyl.
I’ve got my own situation when it comes to the digital distribution. Even if I want to make CDs or any other physical, that’s not vinyl, I do that myself.
Frank Keith: [00:05:33] That’s something I think not a lot of people realize is , I want a record deal.
I want to get signed to a label. There’s other ways to approach it. And I think personally more and more nowadays, like labels are just banks with better interest rates.
Justin Black: [00:05:47] I think that people romanticize a lot of things in music. People romanticize labels, they romanticize touring, and people think that being on a label is going to solve your problems. Like I think a lot of times it can actually make a lot more problems. I think that a big reality that I’ve started to understand is it’s it’s like a huge waste of time to run around trying to chase people to help you make your art. First of all, you need to like make good art first and foremost. Second of all, if it’s really good art and if there’s people that are responding to it, like there’s going to be people that want to help you . Quite frankly, the labels, I’ve heard more stories about, labels, prohibiting people from doing things than I have heard of labels, swooping in and being like the hero to somebody’s career. And I’m not saying that there aren’t awesome labels out there. But I think for the most part, it’s like at the end of the day, their businesses and any business is going to do what’s best, to try to keep money flowing in.
And that’s a realization that I had by trying to start and run my own label is it’s you have to make decisions based on the longevity of the label. Not things for one artist or another.
There’s so much that you can do without a label that also gives you as an artist, a lot more bargaining power when it comes to getting a good deal or getting paid more money, or just having a little bit of a say at the end of the day, about what the final product is going to be like, all of that is bargaining power that honestly like you get by creating your own fan base that you have, or not even fan base but like community and group of friends that you have a connection with and that will respond to you and your art. Any labels going to sign you, if you can bring that to the table. But a lot of people want to get signed before they even release a record or like before they’ve toured, because they think it’ll be the easiest way.
I think you can also get screwed over by just being plugged into somebody else’s community and being like, cause the label could so easily be like, Hey yeah, we would love to release your record, but you don’t know anybody. And so we’re going to spend $25,000 on publicity and vinyl and marketing and distribution and paying some people up front to book some good like support slots for your band.
Next thing it’s like you’re 25 grand in the hole. You have no real connection to your fan base because there’s a big wall between you and them. And the label basically owns that record, if not you for a certain amount of time. And then yeah. And then your dreams don’t come true because that’s rarely the case. And especially that’s rare. It’s rarely the case on your first record too.
Frank Keith: [00:09:08] I get a question a lot from people I talk to newer slash developing artists, they’ll be like, Hey, I see XYZ on your roster has their own label.
Should I start a label? I’m thinking about doing that. And one sentence answer, right? You touched on this. It’s you tell me it, isn’t it more of a, okay. That depends. What do you want to really do? Why would you start a label?
Justin Black: [00:09:36] Yeah, so I don’t think I would have started a label if I hadn’t have had a really good buddy to do it with. We could support each other’s projects. That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s a smart idea to start your own business around your band or whatever, that can be different. But one thing that a lot of I’m seeing, it seems like a lot of people are doing, this kind of label services thing which. Seems really cool. That seems to make a lot more sense to me, because then you can have more of a business relationship with people rather than this being like an artist that doesn’t, that can’t be bothered with the business side of things.
Which seems to be the classic entertainment move.
Like, I’m an artist, I can’t be bothered with, talks of money or I’m in the studio. I can’t talk. It’s I think that’s because again, it’s romanticized. I don’t think that’s a realistic place to be.
And at least I wouldn’t want to be in that position because if you are in that position, there’s probably somebody that’s taking advantage of you. And you can even look at some of the biggest artists out right now. And they’re rerecording their old songs because they don’t have masters because probably they were like, Oh, this is great. I’m making money. And I don’t have to deal with anything. And then 10 years later, they’re like, Oh crap. That person who I trusted was totally taking advantage of me.
So again, back to your question, I think that it can be a really smart move to partner with people and try to do label services. On my first record, when I was releasing it under my label, I worked with another label. I hired another label to help me basically learn how to do it. What a lot of that was they were actually just connecting me with their, the people that they used. So they were connecting me with the publicists. They were connecting me with this distribution that I still use today. They were holding my hand through the process of releasing a record on like a more professional level and not just releasing a record on, dropping it on band camp or doing distribution through an online site, which are all totally valid ways to drop a record nowadays.
But at the time I had just wanted to just learn a little bit more about the business. And so I spent some money, which like I’ve gone back and forth. Cause I think it was like, I learned a ton and I was able to implement what I learned for a bunch of my friends records after the fact. And I still have relationships from that situation, but it was a lot of money and I could’ve done other things with that, I think that’s what being an independent artist kind of boils down to is. It’s you’ve got to make really smart decisions with your own money.
There’s a million questions and that’s, I think at the end of the day, that’s the real reason why people want to be on a label is they want other people to make those decisions for them. And they want other people to say, look, don’t worry. We know how to do this. We know the best way to spend your money on getting this out.
And they probably do know. But it’s nobody has it figured out, like the industry is constantly changing and it’s constantly trying to catch up with technology. It’s constantly trying to catch up with like platforms and services and the way that things work. And it’s one second everybody’s saying Oh man, spending your money on trying to get playlisted. And then the next everybody’s saying, try to, focus on video, do videos, and like every month. You can’t do it all. There’s not enough money unless you’re already just like rich , or you go into a ton of debt. There’s not enough time in the day to do it all. And it’s like, what’s your identity as an artist,
cause it’s just so tough and you’re not, you’re going to have to figure out other ways to make money and for a long, I think for a long time, if you want to try to be sustainable. And I also think that it’s That’s the key, for me, it’s like, how can I release records throughout my life?
It’s not like, how can I put out this next record? And like this next record is going to make it, I’m going to make, I want to make a hundred grand off this next record maybe, or I might win a Grammy or something off of this next record. All I need to do is spend $10,000 in the studio to make it.
That’s a hell of a gamble to make.
And it’s we need more people that want to go discover independent artists that want to give independent artists and opportunity the, Now it’s like Spotify. It’s people want to be on a label because they have Spotify connections. So, you
Frank Keith: [00:14:45] the label services. Yeah. Yeah.
Justin Black: [00:14:48] And so it’s it all gets really confusing and it’s wait. So at the end of the day, like just to be an independent artist means basically how many people are you willing to put between you and your fan base?
Guess there’s a difference between building walls between you and your fan base and then like having a direct contact. And sometimes those social media services can be like the best way to be like, to be right with people.
But at the same time, something like Spotify and playlisting and all that, it’s like, There’s these gates, there’s gatekeepers. So people want to start a label so that they have a name. That’s not their band name. So they look more legit,
what about the way that I felt when I was in high school, like playing songs with my friends and I’m like, how like juice I would get just from writing, like something that was really fun to play. That’s the satisfaction that I’m back to chasing.
For a long time. And that’s something that I was like having a conversation with a buddy of mine is in a band last night. And we were just talking about just like being in a place where you’re really proud of your music as it stands.
I think that’s at least a good place to start because some days like nobody’s buying records some days nobody’s writing about you sometimes like I’m between records right now. And like some days I’m like, what am I even doing?
Am I even in this industry? But then when you have a friend hit you up, it’s dude, I love that. I love that lyric. I love the thing. That’s the payoff. I wish it was that I was getting a $50,000 check once a month from royalties, but that’s not the case.
So you gotta take the wins where you can get them. I don’t know, it’s just like getting to a point where, again, you’re trying to be sustainable. Try to maybe break even on records. And just trying to have fun and. And make things that my friends think are cool, which is like kind of full circle because it’s I feel like I went way out early on and I was like chasing kind of validation through getting a write up from this magazine or like playing this festival.
And those things are awesome. Those things, and those are like huge wins when you get them. But I’ve never heard of somebody kind of making it off of one big win. I think people make it or or just can have a career by like a string of small wins and mixed in with big wins along the way. And even the people that you think have it all figured out. And it’s they’re still, they’re thinking about their next record and how the hell they’re going to do it.
It’s like a really long way of saying I don’t know. I don’t have it figured out. I don’t know if you should start your own label. I don’t think it’s necessary. But at the same time, like if you’ve got, I think doing it as like a, I think starting your own label as like a singular person can be really tough. But if you’ve got like a bunch of band mates that all have different strengths, if it’s like, Hey, like one guy is a recording engineer, one guy does graphic design one, one person has a couple of friends that write for different ‘zines or you can start to think about it. And it’s what if we did start a little thing and just release like three bands, play records, or even just one bands record.
But just to start like an imprint or just to started like separate name. A fake basically like a fake label that doesn’t really do anything. It’s if we’re just being honest, that’s like just like a clout kind of move or something.
I think it’s really cool to be completely independent nowadays. And especially it’s way cool to be DIY when you do start to get some views, when you do start to get some listens in the fan base, because then you’re like, I worked for that. I built this.
Frank Keith: [00:18:52] Yeah. I think if you do all the blood, sweat and tears, the win is going to feel a lot bigger.
Justin Black: [00:18:57] And also. Like when you make connections, like I’ve made with you. Like when I am ready, I’m going to work with you on my publicity, for sure, because I know you right.
Again, it’s like building relationships is important and it takes a lot longer than just necessarily hiring people. And, but again, I like you can build those relationships by hiring people as well. And I think that’s important is to try to get people that know what they’re doing.
When you do things on a more DIY level, when you do things slower, you can start to build connections that can last you can start to identify people that understand your music, understand where you’re coming from. And that can be a lot that can be worth a lot more. To have somebody like on a smaller level, like with WarHen like it’s not a big label by any means. It’s very small, but he understands what I do. And I fit on his, within his roster at fit within the sound that he is a purveyor of. So it works.
It’s a really good relationship and I think it’ll grow. Whereas there could be a bigger label out there. That I just don’t fit as well on that I think would be a worse place to be, or similarly with a publicist. Like I think there could be a bigger name publicists that may not be able to do as good of a job as somebody who is smaller, but understands you and is like willing to meet you where you are.
It’s like when you start to work with like bigger people, there’s more people that got to eat. The hope is that means that they’re going to do better work for you because they got more mouths to feed.
But the unfortunate truth is you’re going to still pay the same at the end of the day, whether they do or not. To me, I think the right answer is take the time to identify people that you want to be friends with.
Work with people that you want to hang out with. There’s again, there’s not enough money in this industry to just throw it around or or to just be like this sounds right. Let’s write them a check and see if it works.
Because, in other industries it’s like I’m just going to put my head down and get through this day because I’m getting paid.
So it’s what’s going to ease that pain. Of spending money to have people hear your music, and that’s like building friendships along the way. And hopefully getting to a point where that can be more sustainable, where you are like, okay, it works. I’ve figured it out. If I can sell 300 records with WarHen and we’re splitting it 50 50, and I go to this studio for X amount of days and I get it mastered by this person. And I do the art myself, and I’m going to hire a publicist. What’s my budget? If I’m going to, if we sell out of 300, what’s our budget, and figuring all that out to a point where you can be like, Oh, this could actually.
I could break even here, but I need to sell 50 t-shirts too, and figuring all that out because then you can go to somebody again and start and be like, I’ve got this is where I’m at. Can you meet me halfway? Or can we do this? Oh, you can’t. All right. I’m going to see if I can find somebody who can, but typically, if you have a relationship and you’re friends with your friends, with somebody, that’s going to be an easier conversation than if you’re like cold emailing, somebody asking them to do you a favor.
Yeah. Long-winded way of saying who knows.