Engine Records: Just Say No to Dumbass Music


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AAJ: A mention of your packaging style wouldn't be amiss here. The CD sleeves on Engine Records are so earthy, just a folded piece of recycled cardboard with a letter-pressed visual.

SW: Yeah, I hate jewel boxes, they suck. I don't like the way they feel, they break very easily and again I want to be different and I like to think of the record covers as little works of art, so I bought an old printing press. People may not see it that way, but I have a friend in Seattle Washington who is a great painter who designs most of my discs for free so she brings a great visual aspect to the design that I can't get from straight graphic designers.

AAJ: Could you comment on the low price of your CDs. Only $6.49 a CD. Seems like neither you nor the musicians make any money out of it!

SW: This is another business question. I don't know how much you know about the financial side of music, especially here in the USA. If you avoid the middlemen of the record business, stores, distributors, which in the US is a dying side of the business and you can somehow reach people and sell to them directly, you can make about the same amount of money that you would receive if you were using a distributor. If you sell on iTunes in the US for a dollar a tune, you give 30 cents to Apple, and a cut to the guy who connected your small label with iTunes. The rate these guys charge varies; I have a good deal with a reputable jazz distributor who doesn't take too much.

AAJ: Give me all the ingredients of setting up a label like yours selling music at $6.49. I'll call it the Walcott formula. Give me some facts, how much it costs you to make a CD.

SW: Okay, a disclaimer. My label is not profitable and it might not be profitable for years. There are over 30,000 musical releases a year in the U.S. So I've concluded that this is a 7-10 year project in which I am at 3.5 years. It costs me around 50-60 cents per disc including the sleeves. I'm into the sleeves for environmental reasons as well. Jewel cases are pollution and the chipboard I use is 100% recycled.

It doesn't cost me anything to record. My brother and I have a lot of money invested in musical gear, but a lot of the cost of that musical gear is an investment—when you get to a certain quality level in pre-amps and microphones and you're a smart buyer, you can get most of your gear money back. I master my records myself for two reasons: one, I spend a lot more time mastering my recordings than other labels. I don't like what most mastering engineers do, and I've invested to be able to master my own recordings. Cost is the secondary reason. It's about $700-1000/disc in New York to have some guy run music through his rig for about 20 minutes per track and compress the hell out of it. I probably spend 10-15 hours on detailed mixes and this guy undoes a lot of it in 20 minutes.

AAJ: So you don't make money with the label. What makes musicians want to record with you? Is it friendship or creative freedom or what?

SW: I think the musicians who work with me get to have a personal relationship with their label. They want to get their music out there, they get a lot of input into the final recording, and they hope that my label will grow larger and they'll have made a smart choice by choosing a small but slowly growing label. If I do better then I'll remember those musicians who believed in me as I started out; those who have made more than one recording see the incremental progress that I've made up to this point. I feel like I'm a couple of small breaks away from selling a decent amount of music, but this isn't much in my control. All I can do is to try to spread the music as widely as possible with my limited resources and hope that people will recognize the quality of what I'm doing.

AAJ: What's your policy with the musicians? Do you pay them?

SW: I don't pay the musicians. I don't think there's a set policy on labels paying the session fees for the musicians. I feel that making a recording is a joint venture between the label and the musician—on a major label, the label fronts all the money and recoups its investment forever. So the musician pays everything. With me, they pay the musicians, but I spend my own money to service radio stations, magazines, etc. People have no idea how exploitative the standard contract is, and how it affects the quality of music that comes from musicians. They have to watch the business side so much they can't focus on the music, and they spend money on lawyers and managers. It's ridiculous this is a big advantage for small labels that are honest. I think a lot of musicians want to deal directly without the middlemen or lawyers, managers, etc.

AAJ: How do the musicians get recompensed for making records?


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