I never mean for it to happen, it just occurs, naturally, in phases. One record label will come to dominate my purchases, becoming both arbiter and barometer of my current taste. Between 1997-2001 it was Roadrunner, 02-06 Nuclear Blast, 07-12 Unique Leader & Listenable Records called my shots. But for the last 18 months or so the Echo to my Chronicle has been Subliminal Groove Records. From Ovids Withering to The Room Coloured Charlatan, to Nexilva and Foreboding Ether there hasn't been a day when the corporate cocoon of my IPOD has not reverberated to the music made by at least one of the Bands on their frighteningly good roster.
So when it came to planning my behind the scenes of the Metal Underground series of interviews, it was a decision of seconds to try and make Subliminal Groove the focus of this piece. Luckily for me SG is run by Justin Lee, who happily answered my questions and opened a window unto his world, for us to see just what it takes to run a successful independent label.
What is your background; are you musical yourself?
In terms of an academic background, I did a B.Sc. in physics and a minor in math at McGill University in Montreal.
I played in a few local bands growing up, got involved in the local metal/hardcore scene in high school, booked a couple shows, did a lot of the DIY band stuff. I played bass throughout most of my younger years until university when I finally decided to pick up a guitar.
These days I really play music for my own enjoyment more than anything, I see jamming as a form of therapy and composition as a form of exploration.
What drove you to start the label?
At the time I had just finished university and was slowly coming to the realization that institutional science was just as much a religion as Christianity. A religion being a tool used to limit peoples' potential. Here you have science, a study of the logically rigorous and experimentally reproducible which assumes that it is these types of things -and only these types of things- that are worth looking into.
On top of that, you have massive corporate interests which have taken over mainstream science introducing pseudo-scientific theories to oppress and to profit from the population. These corporate interests provide the vast majority of funding available for research in the scientific community greatly limiting cultural advancement since we are geared towards creating profit for corporations instead of bettering humanity.
I had also come to the personal realization that I valued a number of the materialistic aspects associated with obtaining my degree even though in my mind, I thought of it more as an intellectual adventure. I was forcing myself to continue my degree not out of interest for what I was studying but to see approval from my peers, girlfriend, and family.
All this being said, it was time to take what I had learned up to that point and step out into the world to start doing something that I actually wanted to do for myself.
How did you go about starting the label?
While I was studying for my degree I spent a lot of my time digging into underground music since I had never had access to high speed internet back home.
Near the end of my studies it dawned on me that the vast majority of bands I listened to at the time were unsigned. I'm talking bands like Substructure, Auras, Ceruleus, Elitist, Reflections, Beheading of a King, The Afterimage, Entities… I thought to myself that if any label were to pick up all these bands I would love and support that label forever.
I saw the potential in bringing these bands together- potential for a label, for the bands themselves, and for fans of modern progressive metal. The idea was to bring all of these DIY prog-metal bands together onto one promotional platform so that they could share a collective fan base and so that fans could support all the artists in one place.
I became, more or less obsessed with the idea. I felt like I had nothing to do in life, nothing to work towards, and that starting this label would be the perfect thing to reanimate my existence.
With no background in company management, I just started envisioning what I wanted this company to be and got my ideas down on paper into a business plan.
Having a good grasp on logical and technical thinking was a huge help in piecing together my vision for the label. My original business plan was somewhere around 15-20 pages which I had sent out to a dozen or so bands who were all still unsigned at the time. I had ended up speaking to a few of the bands in the following days and weeks. I remember Skyping with Kyle from The Afterimage to talk about the idea for the label only a few weeks before they had signed with Famined Records. I also had to chance to meet with the guys in Beheading of a King in person to discuss the idea for the label since I was living in Montreal at the time.
After talking with a handful of bands on my original dream roster, I was realizing that getting these bands together might be harder than I thought since they all had pretty well established fan bases and were not willing to take a risk with me since I had nothing established.
From there, I focused establishing the label a bit, getting a logo and graphic made, setting up a website, Facebook page, etc… Within a day or two of getting our Facebook page up, a few bands from Southern Ontario called Ascariasis and Stormwalker hit me up to ask for help with booking their Ontario/Quebec tour with The Afterimage.
Although the tour was packaged by Famined Records, I ended up booking and promoting 5/8 dates myself, and paying all the guarantees out the bands for those 5 dates. I printed out 5000 flyers and mailed them off to local bands that were opening for all 5 dates. I personally walked around the streets of Montreal with flyers and headphones for a few weeks, getting people to check out Ascariasis and The Afterimage and hoping that they would get into it and tell some friends.
While I was promoting this tour, I had finalized our first signing with a band from Indiana called The Room Colored Charlatan who had also found us through Facebook. I then met up with Ascariasis on tour and had them sign as the second band on our roster. Shortly after the tour, Foreboding Ether (who were fans of Ascariasis) had posted their new single Revelations on our wall and I pretty much offered to sign them immediately. In the following weeks I ended up signing The Engineered and striking up a partnership with the guys in Ovid's Withering. Aaron from Ovid's Withering got involved with scouting for the label and things only took off from there.
At what stage did it become more than a labour of love and turn into a business? Or is it still a labour of love?
I would say this started off more as a business and then became a labour of love. When I was starting out, I was looking at getting a number of already well-established bands on the roster like Reflections, Elitist, Beheading of a King, etc.
My plan starting out was to take a small cut of digital sales from each band and to help them invest in merch and CDs in exchange for a cut of the profit. Unfortunately none of the bands that I had set out to work with in my original business plan were interested in taking the risk but that's alright because it just helped me give up on money that much more easily.
After just under a year of working on the label, building up our roster, putting out a few album releases, I decided that getting a full time job (as opposed to working on the label full time) would be more beneficial for the label and less stressful for me. I wouldn't have to worry about making money from the label and I could just focus on the music.
Having graduated from university and reading into all the bullshit about our current monetary system, I wasn't very keen on getting a job for the longest time. To have the incentive of being able to bring SubGroove to the next level with some extra funding is really what got me motivated to go out and find employment.
Around May of 2013, I got hired full time at a call centre here in North Bay, Ontario. From there I decided that Subliminal Groove would no longer ask for any profit from bands. We would fund merch and CDs and let the band keep all the profits provided our investment was returned as sales came in. In addition to this, we would help fund promotional videos, PR campaigns, artwork, and pretty much anything a band needed- without asking them to pay any of it back. I had said from the very beginning that I was looking to give back to our bands as much as possible without taking from them and I finally felt like that vision was taking shape.
How did you choose the name?
I wanted something that would describe the type of music we were looking to promote as a label. I wanted to work with a variety of progressive metal bands but particularly those who were incorporating these djenty rhythms and tones into their own distinct sound- without overdoing it of course.
I get tired of straight up "djent" as much as anyone else but when used in moderation I find djenty picking really opens up an entirely new realm of rhythm and tone that only makes the progressions more interesting.
That pretty much sums up the idea of how I chose the name for the label, very progressive/technical bands that incorporate the groove, subliminally.
How do you go about choosing artists? What boxes do bands have to tick to become part of SG records?
We're looking to work with only the best artists in progressive music so sound is almost everything to us. The artists we choose to work with have a fresh and well-defined sound that listeners cannot hear anywhere else. They do not strive to emulate the titans of modern metal but instead set out to explore the untapped soundscapes provided by the infinitude of sonic patterns that arise from the vacuum of silence…. so basically we're looking for some really good shit.
It's also important that the artists we work with have a professional and co-operative mind-set because it's never easy to work with people who don't.
What is your personal ethos when it comes to the business? & What do you expect from yourself and the bands?
I think the current state of business in western culture is shit. We ensure that for every bit of success one of us achieves, that there will be failure for another one of us. It might sound a bit like Newton's 3rd law but I don't think things have to be this way at all.
If instead our monetary system incentivized altruism, we would all still be doing things that are of benefit to ourselves but we would also be improving each other's lives every step of the way.
All this being said, everything I do for Subliminal Groove Records I do because I am stoked to be working with such awesome bands and it's definitely an additional motivator to see support grow for the bands and the label.
That is pretty much all I get out of it, the chance to be part of the process of getting this music out to the masses and seeing them react. I expect a lot from myself in terms of contributions to the label mostly because I feel like those contributions need to live up to the quality of the music our bands put out. Given that SubGroove does not make any profit from our bands, I expect a friendly, honest, co-operative, and respectful band-label relationship.
What is a typical day for you consist of?
I work full time at a call centre to fund the label so most days I'm working on SubGroove before and after work, answering/sending emails, promoting, placing merch orders, planning releases, negotiating with bands, etc.
I also need to fit in a bit of exercise every day, lately it's been longboarding, skateboarding, and just good ol' fashion workouts. I usually listen to quite a bit of music throughout the day, the bands I'm currently listening to the most are Aegaeon, Wrath of Vesuvius, ERRA, Misery Signals, Barrier, Aristeia, Deafheaven, Circle of Contempt, Save us From The Archon, Humanity's Last Breath, Paragon, and Fallujah.
People always ask me if I listen to shit other than metal, my answer is usually "yeah I also listen to prog".
What has been your best/worst moment running SGR?
There have been a ton of amazing moments running SGR where I am just ecstatically 2-stepping all over my living room cause I can't contain my excitement for signings and album releases. It's tough to say which moment has been the best but locking in the deal for Ovid's Withering to release Scryers of the Ibis with us was definitely up there.
There have been a lot of bad moments as well where I have went out of my way to help people and they simply took advantage of the opportunity for their own benefit without holding their end of the deal. I don't like talking about the negatives but I will mention the last bad experience I had with a clothing company called Overthrown that is based out of California because people in the metal community need to know about this. The owner of the company approached me right before Nexilva's "Eschatologies" album release to ask if any of our bands needed merch printed, expressing that he was interested in helping SubGroove by hooking us up with good rates.
I asked if he was interested in printing the Nexilva shirts and if he could have them done on time for the album release and he said no problem. Although I asked if it was ok to pay for the shirts after they were manufactured, he insisted I pay up front so that he could buy supplies. Two days after the shirts were supposed to be done, I find out that he has gotten nothing done so I rushed to place the order my usual manufacturer. I am then guaranteed a full refund for these Nexilva shirts by the owner of Overthrown but after pestering the guy for 2 weeks, he finally says no refund, only credit- and only 1-colour prints. I was unbelievably pissed at that point but I had a 1-colour print to get made so I said fuck it. I placed the order for The Room Colored Charlatan's "Primitives" shirts with this dude, hoping I would get my credit and not have to feel like I had been scammed.
Again, days after the shirts were supposed to be done, I hadn't heard anything back from Overthrown and I decided to save myself the stress and frustration and drop it there. Anyway, just wanted to get this out there that there is some schemey profiteering scumbag named Famt Wang living in California running a dishonest and disgraceful business called Overthrown that I sincerely hope no one will ever support again after reading this.
Where do you see yourself and SGR in 5 years’ time?
I always have a hard time answering questions like these cause in all honesty I do my best not to expect anything from life. All I can say is that I'll continue working on Subliminal Groove as long as I'm enjoying the work I'm doing and the music we're repping. I don't see things slowing down any time soon! Our next step forward as a label is to start setting up SubGroove tours and festivals- and to expand our in-store physical album distribution.
If you could travel back in time to before this all began, what advice would you give yourself?
Don't try to make a living from this, make this your living. Also, listen to Alan Watts.
Subliminal Groove is home to Lorelei, Nexilva, Slice the Cake, The Nemertines, Ovids Withering, Foreboding Ether, The Room Coloured Charlatan and many other Great Bands. Check them out today via the Official Website, Facebook and Youtube.
– John Whitmore