The past 15 or so years have been a weird time for the music industry, to say the least. Napster sprung up in 1999, and along with other file-sharing outlets, completely changed the way we listen to music and—perhaps most significantly—the monetary value we attach to it. Since then, the economy’s tanked, and streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have given us another way to avoid buying music.
In other words, it has not been the ideal time to own and operate a record label.
That ill-fated timing is part of what makes the perseverance of Yep Roc Records—the independent, Chapel Hill, N.C. label celebrating its 15th anniversary this month—all the more impressive. For co-founder Glenn Dicker, the key has been learning to adapt and roll with the punches.
“Things have changed dramatically,” he says. “I think that there’s ultimately a shift towards consumers having more control over the way that they consume music, which is ultimately a good thing, so as a record label we have to continue to adapt and be able to meet the consumers’ demands for how they consume music. So there’s all these different revenue streams that we have to focus on—whether it be vinyl or CD or digital download or streaming or satellite radio services or Pandora—we have to be able to look at every one of those different areas and try to maximize that revenue that’s coming in, so we’ve had to dramatically change the set-up of our label over the years to really address those areas.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s also been exciting, and it’s been great for independents in some aspects because there’s been a sort of leveling of the playing field with this, but there’s challenges because you still need a big group of people to make something happen. You have to have a lot of people working hard to promote and market. That’s a great thing for us as a company because it continues to evolve and adapt and assess what the needs are of the artists. What they want a record label to be has changed a lot, so we want to make sure that we’re continuing to meet that commitment. It’s a good thing.”
On Oct. 11-13, the label will celebrate its 15 years in the biz by hosting a three-night extravaganza at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, N.C. featuring past and present Yep Roc artists, including John Wesley Harding, Chuck Prophet, Fountains of Wayne, Robyn Hitchcock, Liam Finn, Los Straitjackets and Nick Lowe.
“Our approach for this was to create a special environment for artists to get together and create something unique for the fans, so essentially what we’re looking for is collaboration between artists as opposed to them playing a regular set, so I’m really looking forward to seeing Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock play together with Los Straitjackets on Thursday night, and same with Dave Alvin and Chuck Prophet doing that as well,” Dicker says. “There’s a lot of special things planned.”
Of all the artists the label’s dealt with over the years, Lowe in particular has a special, long relationship with Dicker and his partner Tor Hansen—one that predates Yep Roc itself.
“In the early ’90s I can’t remember when exactly, I’d just made a record called The Impossible Bird which was the first record I think of as my kind of new style,” Lowe explains. “I sort of reinvented myself, you know. And this was my first real effort, and at that time my stock was really quite low; I hadn’t really put anything much out. I’d been laying low a bit, and as a result, I couldn’t drum up really any interest in this. None of the major labels were interested in signing me. I’d sort of been with them all actually. So I thought it was a really good record, but as I say, no one was going to take a shot with me. And things were looking pretty bad until I heard about these young kids”—he pauses to chuckle at the image of Dicker and Hansen as kids—“who had a label called Upstart which was a subsidiary of Rounder Records, and so I approached them and to my great pleasure, they were very interested in signing me.”
“Anyway, Upstart, it didn’t work,” he continues. “But one of the people involved with Upstart, Jake Guralnick became my American manager and still is to this day, and Glenn Dicker decided to have another go and moved to North Carolina to Chapel Hill and started Yep Roc. And he contacted me and said, ‘Well I know things didn’t work out with Upstart, but you don’t fancy having another go with my new label do you?’ and I said, ‘I’d be absolutely delighted. Yeah, of course I do.’ It’s a mere detail to me that they hadn’t figured things out quite right with Upstart, and they did it right the second time with Yep Roc.”
Dicker credits Lowe’s signing with putting the young label on the map: “We have to give him credit where credit is due; he gave us a huge benefit by taking a risk and having us put out his records, because after that everyone was sort of like, ‘Hey, this is a legitimate label. Nick Lowe’s on this label, so there must be something going on there,’ so it was really a big boost for us.”
According to Dicker, Yep Roc’s modus operandi—and perhaps another key to its 15 years of success—has been to sign artists it respects and allow them as much creative freedom as possible.
“I think our main goal is to work with artists that, regardless of position in their career, are making the best music of their career and want to be in a place where they have full creative ability without any sort of influences from the record company,” he says. “If we like Nick Lowe, we want to work with Nick on whatever kind of record Nick Lowe wants to make. And that’s the approach we take for developing artists as well as someone who’s more established. We’re along for the ride.”
It’s an approach Lowe’s certainly noticed and appreciated, and although it was penned decades before Yep Roc existed, it certainly sounds like the lyrics to his track “I Love My Label” are fitting here as well.
“How you sell a record to people, especially nowadays, is a complete mystery to me,” he says. “But the people at Yep Roc have got integrity; that’s why I like being with them. I mean, I hardly ever bother them. I hardly ever call them up, and they hardly ever call me up. But whenever they say to me, ‘Look, I think this would be a good idea if you did this,’ I never actually question it, because I trust them and they trust me as well. I hate to make it sound like a real awful love-in, but that’s the way it is.
“It’s a very simple relationship that we’ve got, and I suppose the fact that I’m a personal friend of the managing directors is quite helpful,” he laughs. “But we’re not in each other’s pockets at all.”
I love my label, and my label loves me. Simple.