Katie Von Schleicher talks about the rewards and challenges of small independent labels, her experiences as a touring and recording artist, and how to guarantee your demo will never get listened to
Multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, producer, and indie label insider Katie Von Schleicher is road-tested, and a repository of sagacious insights. She’s a seasoned veteran, with well over a decade’s experience touring under her belt, a growing discography—her latest release as a leader, Consummation, is due on May 22—production credits, regular collaborations, plus seven years recording and traveling as a member of the off-kilter, quirky, and somewhat Americana outfit, Wilder Maker.
Von Schleicher is based in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, and when she isn’t recording or touring, she’s doing everything—from finding new artists, to graphic design, to bookkeeping, to you-name-it—at Ba Da Bing Records, alongside label founder, Ben Goldberg.
“When I’m on tour, Ben takes over maintaining the deadlines on everything when I am out of the office,” Von Schleicher says about juggling her touring schedule with her responsibilities to the label. “The weeks leading up to me leaving, we set it up to prepare for me to be out of the office. But I have a hot spot, and I work in the car on my laptop. I can still do design and all of that stuff. It works. Sometimes Ben will be out of the office to go to conference and I take over, too. It’s teamwork.”
I spoke with Von Schleicher about the challenges of touring, her many responsibilities at Ba Da Bing, the advantages of signing with a label versus doing everything yourself, managing the needs of physical and digital releases, red flags to look for when negotiating a record deal, and how not to be clueless when submitting unsolicited demos.
When did you start making music?
I started singing when I was little, and started writing my own songs with piano and voice when I was about 14 or so. It was probably singing that got me into it from a young age, because I am not from a musical family.
Did you experiment with home recording, too?
No. I was a late bloomer with that. I didn’t really start home recording in a serious way until I was about 25 or 26. I would do demos, but then I started releasing things that I home-recorded, and now that’s my modus operandi.
In addition to your solo work, do you also play in bands, like Wilder Maker?
I haven’t been in Wilder Maker for a couple of years. I played in Lady Lamb’s band [multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter, Aly Spaltro]—I played in her band in the fall—and that will happen again if we’re all able to tour again. I play in a band called youbet—I produced and co-recorded that album. I am open to touring as a hired gun with people, too.
On what instrument?
Usually backup vocals, keys, guitar, and switching back and forth as an auxiliary member type. Wilder Maker was this project I was in for about seven years. But I am getting older and I can’t tour and sleep on floors unless it’s for my own project at this point. I am open to touring, but I have to make money doing it, too, which is unfortunate.
How does your relationship to the music differ when you’re in a band or working as a hired gun?
It’s funny, especially from a business perspective, but making money makes a difference. I have toured for so long making no money—I am 33 and I have been touring through my twenties—and I’ve been in bands that have never earned money. It can be psychologically difficult to sleep on floors. I found with Wilder Maker, at a certain point, that my mind wasn’t even in the music anymore. Also, how much you’re in it can be reflected by the fact that you aren’t playing for a crowd of people every night. I wish that psychology didn’t distract me from the music, but it does. I was supposed to be in the Purple Mountains touring band this year, and that didn’t work out [band leader, David Berman, died last August]. Touring in Lady Lamb, I was surprised how connected I felt to the music and to doing it. Maybe because I am a front person already, maybe I bring a level of empathy to what that person is going through, because it is really stressful for them.
How did you hook up with Ba Da Bing Records?
I started interning at Ba Da Bing about seven years ago. I was sending a record around that I had finished by myself. I was sending it to labels that were definitely never going to respond to me, and my last email was to Ba Da Bing. I said, “Fuck it, no labels are going to put my album out.” So I wrote to them and asked if they needed any interns instead.
Instead of sending your record you asked to intern?
Yeah [laughs]. I got an internship there and I stuck around. It’s Ben Goldberg’s company, and he’s done it for 20 years. We’re really good friends. It’s been serendipitous that that’s how it happened. I slowly started becoming the only employee there, and now it’s just us.
What’s your role at the label?
If I had to make a resume, I’d probably say “label manager,” but I call myself a project manager on a daily basis. We use Square Space, but I maintain our web presence and lay it out, and I do our social media stuff. I do any graphic design that we need—graphic design for manufacturing or just print preparation and specs with manufacturing—and I deal with manufacturing. A&R is not really a hot shot process in the small indie business at this time, but Ben and I have pretty equal input on what music is getting considered. It’s weird. It’s ad hoc. I do bookkeeping, and anything that needs to be done. We sometimes deal with more experimental artists and Ben is better at that world, he used to be a publicist, and he’ll do publicity sometimes for artists—artists like Sarah Davachi or Roy Montgomery—who do well and have a good profile, but are in this experimental realm in music. We split it up, but we also both do some of everything.
Do you have a background in graphic design or did you fall into that?
I fell into it. When I was interning, we were doing this release for Jackson C. Frank. We were doing a box set of his complete recordings over time, and I got to design all of the layout for that. There was also a book that was written by a friend of his, and I did the layout and design for that, too. It was a huge learning curve, and after that project I started to take it over. I got advice along the way. Mark Ohe, who used to be the in-house person at Matador, gave me a bit of a tutorial on layout design and print preparation design. Other things are intuitive.
How do you find new artists for the label?
We get a lot of demos. You wouldn’t believe how many demos we get that—honestly, if someone sends us a demo, and they know either of our names, or an artist on the label, and they’re actually able to contextualize their music and why it would make sense for us to listen to it, we will listen to it and it will make a difference. We’re on long lists for people where they send demos to us, and to Atlantic records, and don’t bcc anyone. We’re on a mainstream hip hop list, so we get a lot of hip hop demos even though that’s not what we specialize in. One time, we had a guy who was writing us lyrics from prison, and he was a rapper, and I really enjoyed receiving his letters. But I also felt bad, because it was not really the best use of his time.
A lot of our artists are through people we know. For example, we put out this youbet record this year. I produced that, and it is coming from the scene that I am a part of here. We also put out Aoife Nessa Frances’ album. She’s an Irish songwriter, and she was on the UK label that Julie Byrne—who’s one of our most successful artists—is also on. I am on a UK label called Full Time Hobby, and we’re doing a release from an artist called Dana Gavanski. We work with Full Time Hobby, and they sent it over to us. A lot of stuff like that happens. We’re working with another artist who we’re really excited about, and she was sent to us by her label that she was moving on from. There are a lot of in-the-family type connections that happen. But sometimes, like with Cross Record, she just sent an unsolicited email, although it’s rare that that really works out to that degree.
What are you looking for?
It’s really hard. Ben would maintain—and has maintained since the start—that he just needs to love the music and the person. You have to want to work together. That seems like a difficult criteria, but I think my criteria is even more difficult because it’s his label and it’s his investment at the end of the day, and I feel more responsible. I am looking for a sense that it has some viability, which is a hard thing to gauge, especially with a debut album, which happens a lot.
Meaning that the music has to speak to you creatively and musically, but also has to seem like something that is going to reach a market?
Probably in the smallest sense of that term, yes. I really like this music, but does it feel like they have a story or a perspective, or do they have a strong visual sense? Is there some kind of whole package here? Unfortunately, at this level of releasing music—where there isn’t a lot of money and there isn’t a huge promotional campaign—the artist is responsible for providing all of that content. What they look like, if they are good in an interview, and if they have a story. You have to have the whole package. It’s like, “Please get someone professional to take your press photos. Have an aesthetic sense about it.” Those things have to be there already.
Once you sign an artist, do you give them an advance? How does it work?
We make decisions differently on each release. We don’t use contracts with artists and we don’t own their rights. It’s an open negotiation based on their needs, what we think is possible, and what seems like a realistic amount to invest on different records. Sometimes we hire press, sometimes we do in-house press. It operates anywhere from publicists, radio hired, and paying for the recording, to you do a cassette with us and it’s a 50-50 split.
And stylistically, you’ll push the envelope and get weird, both with your own music and with the artists you sign.
Yeah. I don’t think I am exactly a business mogul. I am good at supporting artists and knowing what I am talking about to the extent that is necessary. Ben is trying to breakeven with his business model. He’ll release weird records because he likes weird shit. He’s not afraid of taking a chance at all, because he likes everything from drone to folk to Slayer. I feel more careful than he does. I like experimental music that’s on the drone side, and then I like a lot of indie stuff that seems kind of poppy to me. However, if you don’t take some chances, it’s no fun. How else would you differentiate yourself?
If everything is generic, it would be bland and boring.
Yeah. It’s not like it’s new—or the construct of Spotify made this new—but people do talk about the algorithm a lot. In the back of our minds, most artists are worried about fitting into what the algorithm likes. I feel that people chase their own tails, or make safe choices, and it’s almost never a good idea.
Do you stream your artists and is streaming helpful?
Another thing with a small label is that lately we’ve been observing how maybe the balance between physical and digital, in terms of products, could also be struck on a case-by-case basis. With indie rock, take Julie Byrne for example, she has 35 million streams on one of her songs on Spotify, but she definitely hasn’t sold 50,000 CDs. With some artists, especially in the more assessable realm, where it strikes younger people, it’s actually better to do a smaller run of vinyl, and worry less about placing LPs. Especially—not even talking coronavirus—it’s already hard to get placement for debut records and small records with independent record stores across the country.
Why is that, because you’re competing with so much other stuff?
Look at labels like Secretly or Matador, which is part of Beggars, and Secretly has Secretly groups—these independent labels now have independent conglomerates together that are pretty large. Both Secretly and Beggars have distribution of their own, and they have money. So even when it comes to independent music, placement occurs for many reasons, and it is a lot of marketing money that gets spent. There are a lot of things where we can’t afford to leverage against other independent labels who have a lot more power. For that reason, sometimes it’s better to focus on digital or Spotify or something where there can be a more even balance.
Who buys physical releases? Hardcore fans, older fans, or people who like physical stuff?
Our independent records, in complete inverse to the indie rock stuff—the more experimental stuff—we’ll sell out of a pressing of LPs, and vinyl is a really big deal. You can do limited edition bundles with each release. In those cases, we try to get more creative with the physical product, because that’s where the listeners are focused.
What’s considered a big vinyl run?
For an artist like Julie Byrne, she’s probably done about 4,000 LPs. An artist like Lady Lamb also sells a lot of records. And then there are the independent artists. I can’t remember how much we pressed of the Roy Montgomery record, but it is a four-LP box set, and the LPs were also sold separately, and I think we did 1,000 of each one. It’s not totally sold out—it’s an ongoing thing that we sell—but it’s probably more frequent that we would sell out a 1,000 LP pressing.
Steve Feigenbaum, from Cuneiform Records, told me that 250 is his max, and he’ll try to get the artist to sell 200 off the bandstand. But you’re saying that for your artists it’s a lot better.
Well, my album is coming out now in the era of this crap, and because of that we’re doing 250 copies in the US. It was going to be 500, and now even 250 seems like a lot. Unless I can tour, it doesn’t seem like an easy thing to move them all.
Do you sell then from the stage?
For sure. On tour, if nothing else, because touring is financially difficult already, so merch sales are crucial.
What’s the advantage for a band signing with a small label as opposed to doing it themselves, posting their stuff to Bandcamp, and using services like CD Baby?
That’s a question I try to ask myself, and that I don’t have a prefect answer to. A label has distribution, so if you want to have your album physically in stores, that’s a big part of it. Every label offers different parameters, whether or not they do marketing. You get support, and I like being part of a roster. I like being part of a community that is supportive. The amount of advice I’ve gotten from Ben throughout time is invaluable. When it goes well, if it goes well—that’s the difficulty—if your record isn’t going to sell, maybe you’d be better off doing it on your own, because you get to keep 100 percent of what you do sell. If you’re going to be booking yourself and all that stuff, maybe doing it on your own is a good move. It used to be that a label was a good look in-and-of itself to getting you a great shot at having a booking agent. But now it’s not so simple. I guess it depends the level of label you’re working for. Why work with a label that doesn’t necessarily invest in marketing and publicity every time? Maybe you need guidance. Unfortunately, I think it really comes down to the idea that there are some artists who are down to book their own shows, who are going to go the DIY route completely, and maybe don’t need a label. Maybe they need a label to be like a community of people, because they have to generate their own momentum all the time, and they do it in the DIY sense, from the ground up, and are completely self-sufficient. With us, we offer a lot of help and infrastructure, and a lot of our artists move on to larger labels afterwards. We can’t guarantee it, but that’s definitely been the trend. We’re super supportive, don’t own your rights, encourage artists to move on to bigger things, and have good relationships with all our artists. That’s probably the main reason to work with us as a label. I have friends who call me and ask what they should be looking for when they talk to a label—what they should be asking the label to offer them—and whether the deal looks good or looks bad.
What are red flags you tell people to look for?
Some people have bad reputations. You can say, “This happened to this person and this person that I know, and they were really unhappy, so be careful.” Obviously, looking at a contract and seeing that someone wants to own your rights and then pay you a 20 percent royalty rate, that would be a red flag. For me, I try to hook people up with the tools to ask the questions that should be clearly answered, like, what is the royalty rate, or what are recoupable costs on a record? If I make a music video, are you going to invest in that? Is that a recoupable cost that we pay back 50-50 or is that a cost that falls entirely on me to pay back in my royalty statements? Questions about money and how they structure it. It would be a red flag for me if a label fronted me money to make a music video and then it was a fully artist recoupable cost, so that I paid 100 percent of it back over time through royalties. I feel like that should be something we’re splitting because it is promotional. Any number of things can come up. But usually, the basic reputation of a label would be the first thing.
You mentioned that you’re represented by a different label in the UK. Is that generally how it works? Ba Da Bing is for the U.S. and for other markets you go somewhere else?
That’s another independent label size issue. We encourage artists—if it’s there and it’s possible—to work with different labels in different territories, because it only makes the release more powerful. A bigger indie label here in the U.S. also has an office in London or Paris. With those labels, it makes more sense that they would have the whole world. We do albums for the world, too, and we have hired our own publicity and radio in the UK, but I like having a different label. Full Time Hobby are really great to work with. They have a really strong handle on distribution over there, and touring, I get a lot a support from the different distribution from the different countries, and the press that they help me get over there. We couldn’t do that for an artist to the same degree. I can’t imagine having to tour over there without the infrastructure that makes it so comforting. Like, if I play Paris, someone from PIAS, who does distribution, will come to the show, and that makes me feel really nice.
How are you managing the current situation with COVID-19?
It remains to be seen what releasing an album during this time will be like, and if we will regret going forward with releases that were slatted for this time. Our distributer, Revolver, is in San Francisco, and their doors are shut. They can’t receive shipments right now. LPs that we have finished, CDs, etc, we have to send them to the office, or to someone who does mail order for us in Omaha. We’re no sure, if Revolver is closed, how would we distribute physical product anyway? That’ll be a big question. Tours, as a lot of people are saying, the smaller artists are going to have the hardest time trying to tour on their records. Next fall, and then the spring subsequently, will be so packed with the largest name acts. It’s an uncertain time.