Modern Radio's co-owners talk about the ever-changing record industry
In 1999, Tom Loftus quietly released the Misfires' Dead End Expressway on CD and vinyl. Over 11 years and 52 releases later, Modern Radio Records is still rolling, with 45 of those 52 releases still in print.
The industry has changed since the label first started. Major labels have lost status, CDs are becoming relics, and music sales as a whole have tumbled, but Loftus and label partner Peter Mielech have only made Modern Radio stronger.
For Loftus and Mielech, Modern Radio is a labor of love. Their releases may turn a profit, but the label continues to shun the idea of music as a business. The role of the label is to facilitate and document an artists' development, being hands-off in the studio and letting the band create their own product. Modern Radio will help manufacture, promote, and distribute, but Loftus and Mielech understand that they create the artifact, not the music.
Gimme Noise: What inspired you to release the Misfires album back in 1998? What did you think would happen from there?
Tom Loftus: I was inspired by many DIY labels like Dischord, Touch & Go, Kill Rock Stars, and Merge to start a label in general. I was the music director at my college station and had set up shows on my campus and elsewhere. I got a glimpse into the music business and saw there were other independent entities out there putting out music because they love it and want to share it. It happened to make a profit for them at some point but their primary reasons for starting their labels were to get the music out there for their own bands or bands they liked. These labels didn't start up to make money or become careers for those who started them. It just happened to be the case for a few labels that put out exceptional quality and gained a reputation amongst music fans. I followed the same model and wanted to document bands that I liked that I wanted to share with people.
Modern Radio's Peter Mielech (center) and Tom Loftus (right)
Photo by Sharyn Morrow
I was friends with the Misfires, Killsadie, and the Hidden Chord. I had talked about starting a label and the first three releases are grouped together because I had worked out the details with the bands long before those releases actually came out. The Misfires happened to come out first but the prevailing attitude of releasing those records was to help share the music of those bands because at the time there were not many other labels looking to work with these artists whose music I loved. I was hoping to continue to work with those artists and figured I would release records as opportunities presented themselves. There was no long term plan other than I want to release records. It was set up to be an outlet to get music out there. I knew other people who took a careerist approach to being in the music business and almost all of those people do nothing related to music anymore. It's a tough business and there is very little money to go around.
Where did the name come from?
Tom Loftus: The name came from Brian Severns of the Misfires/Signal to Trust/Teenage Strangler. He had been using the phrase "a display of Modern Radio" or something of that nature on posters and flyers. He ended up writing a song called "Modern Radio International" that the Misfires recorded and never released. I struggled to come up with a name in the beginning and always liked the name Modern Radio as a concept. Outside of non-commercial radio, I dislike radio in general and when I started the label I almost never listened to the radio. The idea was that Modern Radio was what we wanted radio to be and that we had a say in what we could hear. The lyrics of the song by the Misfires also summed up the label. The repeating line of the song is "there's a sound, it surrounds, it can never be too loud." The ethos and spirit of what I wanted to do with the record label was summed up in the song simply and in 1 minute and 21 seconds.
The majority of your releases have been local bands. Is that due to proximity, or do you also feel a responsibility to the local scene?
Peter Mielech: It's easier to work with bands in close proximity. The Twin Cities has always had a thriving, supportive, insular arts community. The label has, from day one, had the intention of documenting a community. But that doesn't necessarily have to be restricted to location, as our history documents.
Tom Loftus: All of the releases we have put out come down to the relationships we have with the artists directly. We want to enter our relationship with bands so that both sides are on the same page. This is easier to do when the artists are in your own town, but it has expanded outside of town to other artists we have gotten to know over the years.
We do feel a strong need to document what is going on in the Twin Cities because it is a city that is overlooked and, even within town, there are a lot of artists who are overlooked. I don't know if I would call it an obligation to the scene as much as an interest in helping out others in the community. We have always strived to help create an environment that focuses on the artistic side of things versus the business side of things.
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What is the role of the label now that digital files are replacing the compact disc?
Tom Loftus: The record label is there to help support the artists in what they do whether it in releasing records, playing shows or recording. The label helps document the activity of artists that are both active and inactive. Most bands don't exist for a very long period of time so a label can help continue to keep the history of the band alive. I think there will always be some physical format that a label will have to create but the quantities will just get smaller.
Peter Mielech: It doesn't really change much. The label is still responsible for promotion, logistics, planning and implementing goals. I no longer spend time thinking about how to make a jewel case look cool.
As vinyl is becoming more popular, is it also becoming more cost effective to produce?
Tom Loftus: No. Quite the opposite. Vinyl prices dropped years ago when it moved from being the main physical form of documenting music and sound. With this, vinyl pressing plants that existed disappeared making it a much smaller business. The machines used to make vinyl today were made back in the 50s and 60s. You can't find the equipment to make vinyl in great quantities and many of the machines that were used back in the day are now in rough shape. This means that the price of the equipment is high both to come by and maintain. There aren't a ton of new companies jumping in to the vinyl production business so even though the demand is high, the amount of options hasn't grown much. Vinyl is made with petroleum so if the price of that goes up, so do the costs of manufacturing. Vinyl is incredibly expensive to make overall. The cost of one 12" vinyl record just to be pressed is about $1. A CD can be as cheap as $.25. Take into consideration that the set up to press vinyl is dramatically more expensive than with CDs, and the artwork is more expensive to print.
The demand of vinyl has increased in the last few years but it isn't anywhere on par with the demand of CDs from the '90s. Vinyl sales have gone up a ton but CD sales have fallen off quite a bit. Digital sales are helpful but the "music" business on a large scale is doing far worse than it did in the '90s.
Who is the most overlooked band you've released?
Peter Mielech: That's a tough one since I think all of them have been overlooked to a certain extent. We think very highly of all the bands that we work with and musically these bands are making music no worse than any other band in the world. What I've learned in "the biz" is that whether or not a band is overlooked or successful has very little to do with how good the music is.
Tom Loftus: This is a difficult question to answer. We love what we have released. There are bands that garnered some attention that we thought should have reached greater audiences but as far as bands who didn't get any attention, I would say the Danforths. They have made three fantastic full lengths that we love. I think a lot of artists have been overlooked locally and nationally after their initial "buzz" but continue to make incredible music.
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