Posted by Nick Skog on Saturday, July 4, 2015 Under: Hypnotic Dirge Records
Hypnotic Dirge Records Embraces Non-Profit Model…For Better or Worse
Published: July 2, 2015
Interview by: David E. Gehlke.
The words “non-profit” almost always raise eyebrows, for somehow, the money always has to go back into at least someone’s pockets. It’s a rare happening in the music industry; labels are largely profit-driven, and rightfully so – they need to make money to fund their bands and, operation. But what about a record company that is non-profit? How does that work? Enter Saskatoon, Canada’s Hypnotic Dirge Records.
The 2008 creation of Nicolas Skog, Hypnotic Dirge specializes in atmospheric death and doom metal releases, with the label to this date, approaching 50 releases. Hypnotic Dirge’s model works as such: Most of their releases are available for $0.00, utilizing the “pay as much as you want” feature on Bandcamp, which complements the label’s webstore, where no album is priced higher than $10. The label operates on a 50/50 profit-sharing split with its bands after all upfront costs are recouped. However, HDR will absorb any costs that do not recoup.
Skog, who says he has “no prior experience” in the industry, devotes about 25 hours a week to HDR, but often finds himself devoting more time without even realizing it. Such is the life for a unique, up-and-coming label that has had its share of struggles, but triumphs as well. Most of, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a similar label in the metal underground…
The non-profit idea…where did it stem from?
I was never making any money from Hypnotic Dirge from the start anyway, and in fact, I never really expected to, beyond the initial six-month period when I was overly naive and figured I might make a few hundred dollars to fund some equipment and related stuff for my music.
Since for the majority of the time I was running HDR with the expectation of losing money, or at the most ideal – perhaps breaking even, I decided a couple of years ago to restructure it to become a completely non-profit endeavor. In practice, this doesn’t really mean too much beyond saying that if HDR were ever to make any profit (not something I’m expecting in the slightest given the trends) it would all go back into label expenses, future releases, and directly to the bands. There is no profit here, nor the expectation of profit.
Another reason why I wanted to officially label HDR as a non-profit is to combat the possible misconception that some people may have of HDR being a profitable label. I do believe that some people might think we sell more than we actually do because of the consistency of our updates and promotion, or just not being that familiar with the realities of most underground metal labels, and I wanted it to be clear that we don’t profit from this. I want people to know that we’re doing this 100% for our passion and interest in the music, and also for people to know that we are indeed a small operation, and we are completely dependent on our listeners’ direct financial support through sales and donations to keep HDR running and to make new releases a reality.
Because you don’t have to worry about a bottom-line as much as other labels would, how much flexibility does that give you when you signing bands?
Actually, we still have to worry very much about the financial aspect unfortunately. As mentioned, we’re completely beholden to the support of our listeners and the amount of sales / donations we receive through our webshop and Bandcamp. In fact, the label is perpetually in “debt” and always playing catch up and that has a huge effect on our release schedule and ability to take on new projects / accept new demos.
In the past, I was a lot more willing to spend lots of my own money funding releases, but my enthusiasm for doing that has admittedly waned. Spending thousands of dollars to see a majority of CDs remain in boxes for years on end can be pretty demoralizing, so we now take a more cautious approach. In 2014, HDR stopped releasing albums for almost a full 12 months in order to try to make up some of the thousands of dollars I had lost. After the hiatus, and paying back about half of that debt, I decided that I would begin funding new releases again but only at the pace that sales and donations could cover the production / promotion costs. Well here we are, less than six months into the new “plan” and already there is a substantial debt to pay off, so likely things will slow down quite a lot in the second half of 2015, so that we stick to our plan.
The ultimate aim is to make HDR a self-sustaining machine that releases new albums only at the pace that sales can 100% fund them. At this point, there are a lot of active projects and bands on HDR and I assume there will be many new album ready for release by some of these bands in 2016 so given our current inability to fund everything even at our current pace, we’re really not looking for any new bands right now. But you never know, sometimes the music chooses for you and you can hardly say no.
That said, you’ve had enough success to warrant physical production of many of your releases. Can you pinpoint a certain point in time when the label started, on some level, to be successful?
Yeah, HDR has done physical production from the start. In fact, physical CD’s were our main focus at the beginning and it was only later that we began making the albums available digitally as well – at first through making 2-3 tracks available from each album on YouTube, and then finally in 2012 creating our Bandcamp page, where we uploaded the full albums, and which became the primary host for our catalog online!
Like I mentioned before, it’s a lot easier in my mind to divide HDR up into “eras” because there were truly different approaches and thought-processes taken at various points in the life of HDR. I can’t really name any specific turning points though, because the increased attention or “success” has been pretty incremental throughout.
However, I’ll try: Maybe a few turning points that did bring some more attention to what we were doing were:
-Releasing the Exiled From Light double-album in 2010 (which got us taken more seriously as a pro label).
-The summer 2012 releases (Silent Path, Epitimia, netra, Subterranean Disposition) which we planned for a while, and at the time was a really good representation for all the sounds we liked (depressive black, atmospheric black, experimental/trip-hop, death-doom).
-Releasing our annual compilation albums (These have always been well-received).
-Updating our digital albums on Bandcamp from $5.00 downloads to Free/name-your-price (After thinking about it, this is probably the single best thing we ever did for ourselves and the bands we’ve released albums from. It’s really been the most effective way to distribute the music widely and easily).
On average, how many donations do you get per album? Is there an album (to know your knowledge) that has received the most donations?
About 300-500 downloads, and $100-250 is the average. Frigoris’ Wind, Obsidian Tongue’s A Nest of Ravens in the Throat of Time, Windbruch’s No Stars, Only Full Dark, Epitimia’s (Un)reality, and Atten Ash’s The Hourglass are the albums that have received the most downloads and donations.
Without naming names, has there been any album(s) you’ve taken a significant loss on?
It’s demoralizing to say, but I’ve taken significant losses (more than 50%) on over half of the albums we’ve released. I’m okay with losing some money on some albums – after all, we are dealing with underground black and doom metal, in an era of very low CD sales – but some of the losses I’ve taken on some releases is a bit ridiculous. It’s led to become extremely picky about what to release and to be really methodical about how to handle and arrange release plans.
As you note on your homepage, Bandcamp is of utmost importance to maintaining the label. Do you think you can continue to leverage the platform in such a manner, or, will something else come along?
I think that Bandcamp is basically the best website around for underground bands or labels right now. There are a lot of pluses to the format, that I would probably start sounding like a fucking PR rep for the company if I started listing them all off right now, but some of them definitely is the ability to control your pricing and take donations of any amount, the fact that albums are available to download in lossless quality as well, the ability to add bonus files, organize a discography well, etc. It can really serve as the primary place for a discography of music. Something better might come along later, who am I to say? But right now, Bandcamp is my favorite by far.
Do you pay close attention to what other, bigger labels are doing? If so, what have you learned of late?
For the most part, I haven’t. I’m sort of in my own world, and when I’m not directly working on HDR, I like to focus on other interests for the sake of life balance. I do think that there isn’t much difference in the general direction that all labels and independent musicians are taking. Everyone is placing more importance on digital distribution and promoting more online. Actually, in some ways it has evened the playing field between large and small labels, and has even made it way more feasible for musicians to self-release as well! The internet (while it remains free and open) is a huge shift in the democratization of information, knowledge, and media and this obviously is the case specifically for music as well. Anyone can release an album, both physically and digitally, and promote it extensively online. Of course, that is not to say that the big labels still have the advantage – because they totally do in terms of financial and time resources, but at least the barriers are not as deep as they used to be, and theoretically if a band’s music is interesting and deserves attention, there is a lot more chance that it will gain traction online.
However, from another perspective, there is also much more music that is accessible to everyone and you do have to sift through a lot more unimaginable, trite, and generic shit. Ultimately the listeners will sort it out. Musicians write and record music both for themselves and sometimes to share their emotions or thoughts with others, and I think it’s fantastic that more people than ever before are able to turn their thoughts into creation rather than being limited by lack of recording equipment and so on. The shear amount of music that is being created and recorded now (which will only increase as more and more people get access to recording software and the internet) will really speed up the evolution of music, and I think there’s going to be more and more experimental and genre-bending stuff, and also probably more useless carbon copies. The 21st century is going to be a revolutionary time in so many ways and I have no doubt that many different aspects of the music world will be totally unrecognizable in even 20 years!
Canada has a rich, but often underrated history in metal. Furthermore, most Canadian metal bands are unique, same with the individuals that populate the scene. Why do you think that is?
I actually don’t think that Canadian bands are necessarily any more unique than bands from other countries, though I will agree with you that there are a lot of really worthwhile bands in this country, across a variety of metal subgenres! When I think of Canadian metal, I think of the “war metal” bands (which I’m not very familiar with) and the Quebec black metal scene (which I am quite a lot more familiar with) Within Quebecois black metal, I can highly recommend bands such as Gris, Monarque, Sombres Forêts, Neige et Noirceur, and Sorcier des Glaces, and of course one of my favorite bands of all-time is Canadian – that of course being the mighty Woods of Ypres!
Even though Canada is really varied by region, there are some things that we share in common. I am far from an anthropologist, but one things we share in common all across the country that could contribute to creativity is the amount of time that we have to spend indoors in the winter season due to the extreme weather – and as fellow Canadians can attest to, sometimes the winter “season” here is 6-8 months a year! That leaves a lot of time for introspection, solitude, and indoor activities such as reading, writing music, and so on. That definitely is not a complete explanation, but it could certainly be a factor, and indeed it is a trait we share with countries in Scandinavia where metal is quite popular and sometimes even on Top 40 charts. Sadly though, we have the same shitty Top 40 “music” as the US.
Does the label think long-term at all? If so -and excuse the cliché – where do you see yourselves in five years?
Not so much. Mostly we think medium-term, such as six months or so into the future. Just enough to plot out the next few releases.
It would be a useless exercise to think too far ahead because there are so many unpredictable factors. You can’t really predict when bands will have new material ready to be released, if bands will want to release their next material on HDR or a different label, how sales will be and what sort of funding we’ll have available. Basically, rather than worry about all these variables, we just take it as it comes. I honestly have no clue what will be happening five years from now.
Finally, what’s on tap for the rest of 2015?
Our next release will be the avant-garde, progressive black metal band Verlies from Lille, France. That will be released in a digipack on May 28 as a co-release with Throats Production! Following that, we will be releasing a split 10″ vinyl between two local bands – Altars of Grief and Nachtterror on July 10! I’m particularly excited to be involved in this release because it’s the first time working with local bands and they are both extremely dedicated and hard-working bands with some really meaningful music. Both bands will be touring and playing festivals across Western Canada for much of the summer!
Beyond that, there will be a bit of a lull in releases over the rest of the summer, but we have some amazing plans already made for late 2015! I can’t share what those are yet, but naturally I’m pretty excited about what’s in store for the rest of the year and it’ll be great to unveil what is planned in due time!
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