Interview by Stacy Coronis
SKOPE: When did you start the label? When did you add your first artist? Who was it? How many employees does the label have now?
SAGE: “I suppose it started when I put out my first self-released tape in 1996. I didn’t start using the name SFR until 1999 when I released the Sick of Waiting tape. I was my first artist, by default. haha. Then I put out more of my own stuff and then an instrumental album called Reverse Discourse, then within the past few years we began doing more official projects. SFR has about 5 employees, but 3 main people working in the office. Our art and web designer lives in Croatia. We have some interns doing work as well. We’re looking to expand, but we always try to streamline as much as possible to keep the work focused and organized.”
SKOPE: You started Strange Famous records as a way to release your own music independently. Was it always your goal to release your music on your own, or did this come about because of bad or less than pleasant experiences with established labels?
SAGE: “My goal was simply to have my music out there. I had no connections to anyone who knew anything about how to get my songs out to the public. I poked around for years, waited for some magical entity to ‘discover’ me, and eventually became sick of feeling helpless. This was in the pre-internet, pre-myspace, pre-CD/CDR world. Something clicked when I discovered the way that punk rock and hardcore kids put out their own material. I was going to local hardcore shows and seeing that all these kids were selling home-made tapes and home-made zines. I wondered why the hell I wasn’t doing the same thing for myself.”
SKOPE: How did you start expanding the label? Did you exclusively add people you already knew and had worked with or are any of the artists found by you or contacted by you to join the label?
SAGE: “I never intended on expanding the label. My goal wasn’t to run a label, however…as it turned out…I began learning more and more about the industry. I had people in my inner-circle who needed my services. It all came together naturally. So I began putting out material from friends, selling music through the website, building a rapport with fans and artists. Eventually more artists came to me about putting out their product. We’re picky about the artists whose product we’re willing to work with, and there are standards we need to uphold, so we keep our company small and tight rather than taking as much product as possible. This can be troublesome at times, because even if I am friends with someone…and they’ve been known to make great music…if they present us something that doesn’t fit in well with our sound and style I have to pass on it. It can be taken personally, but it really shouldn’t. We can’t get behind an album unless we’re sure that are comfortable with it representing us.”
SKOPE: Do you have any plans to expand your roster of artists further anytime soon, or is it strictly an artist-by-artist basis that you consider bringing on new people/groups?
SAGE: “It is done on an artist-by-artist basis, but I’ve been talking to about 5 artists in hopes of coming up with a plan that everyone will be comfortable with.”
SKOPE: How did signing a deal with Epitaph affect Strange Famous records? Have you found the experience of working with a larger label fits well with your own label?
“It affected SFR in a number of ways. Epitaph was able to raise my recognition level in the press and get my albums in chain stores. Everything began to snowball from that point. A couple employees of Epitaph were very generous with their industry knowledge and connections, which all got funneled into the business of SFR. It’s not like they made me an exception, but I am the kind of person who utilizes information whether it entails a bunch of work or not.”
SKOPE: Once you complete your third album for Epitaph, will you go back to releasing exclusively through Strange Famous Records?
SAGE: “Most likely. If I continue to work with Epitaph it would have to be under different conditions, and it’s possible they will see the value in that. It’s a tough call and one I won’t be able to make until 2010 or so. And from what the Mayan calendar tells us, the end of the world will only be 2 years away. With that in mind, I guess it doesn’t really matter. I just take some time for myself in those final two years of Earth life.”
SKOPE: What about having your own label is the most rewarding?
SAGE: “Wow. Great question and one that I don’t have a stock answer for. I think the most rewarding aspect is the help I’m able to offer to artists while exposing more music I believe in to the people who normally wouldn’t hear it.”
SKOPE: In an age of rampant conglomerations, what is it about SFR that makes it a small label success? Have any big labels offered to buy you out? Have any labels brought up combining forces? If so, how have you handled it?
SAGE: “For one, we stay hyper aware of everything that’s going on around us, in all facets of art and business. Hip-hop and beyond. We consolidate efforts and streamline whenever possible so as not to let items fall through the cracks. Death to bureaucracy. No one has offered to buy us out, because most companies wouldn’t see much value in the projects we choose to put out. We’re too against the grain to seem lucrative, yet…here we are.”
SKOPE: SFR is successful small label. Do you see the small label scene/industry, whatever you want to call it, as sustainable? Have you noticed a lot more cropping up in the last few years? Do they seem to be doing it “right” in the sense that they’ll stick around? Do you feel like a small label can have long-term success, however you define that word in this context, against larger corporations with unlimitedfunds?
SAGE: “Anything can be sustainable when it’s handled with enough care, wits and finesse. However, the amount of work and industry knowledge it takes for an indie label to sustain itself is more than most entities are capable of handling. This is why labels are cropping down rather than up. I think a majority of people involved in this side of the
game are confused, desperate and lazy. There’s a lack of vision, solidarity and elbow grease. Not to say that SFR is the only exception to the rule, and perhaps I won’t care to run a business that occupies 80 hours of my week forever, but as long as we stay on cusp of change and development there won’t be any reason for us to not remain successful.”
SKOPE: Speaking of giant corporations, how did knowmore.org come about? How
connected to SFR is it? Do you see it as an extension of the grassroots/social responsibility you practice with the label? Is it more its own entity than that, something you and B Dolan felt a need to do apart from the label?
SAGE: “B Dolan approached me with the concept behind Knowmore.org after Bush won re-election. Beyond helping finance it, I offered the resources of SFR, which is grassroots in every conceivable way. This includes the people who involve themselves with SFR, the fans of our music and message, and the people who we interact with online. As Knowmore.org is an activist website, one that aims to keep the public educated on
how their money gets used when they support various corporations, it is essential that a certain amount of that public actually contributes to the site. As it started off, it was mainly SFR people being involved, but the scope of Knowmore.org is much larger than SFR’s outreach so we’re looking for that type of expansion.”
SKOPE: It seems like you tour almost non-stop and I know you used to plan your tours on your own. Do you still? Has your touring slowed down at all now that you have a label to deal with or are you still constantly on the move? Do the other artists on your label perform live/tour as much as you? Do you usually go out with other artists on your label or do you ever mix it up with other artists?
SAGE: “I book some of my own shows, but the tours get booked through Kork Agency. That is one side of business I COULD handle on my own, but it makes more sense to have a competent company work that end of things. However, as I do book some of my own shows still, I also book show for our artists (if they aren’t on the Kork roster.) Touring continues to pick up, even though I always tell myself that I’m going to take a year off. That never happens. Haha. This year was supposed to be dedicated strictly to SFR business and Knowmore business, however it just so happens that touring plays a big role in the growth and promotion of both. I typically won’t tour without bringing SFR artists
with me. The only time I did that is last year when I did the Against Me tour and the Paid Dues tour. I don’t foresee myself doing any tours in the future without at least one other SFR artist with me.”
SKOPE: Is touring your main marketing tool? Besides touring and the website, do you use other tools to promote or is it mostly word of mouth?
SAGE: “Touring is essential in bringing the music to people all over the world. Live and in the flesh. Bringing the music to life. When it’s done right, you create fans for life. When it’s done wrong, the people lose interest in your music. I’ve seen it go both ways for some people through the years. Touring can’t be the only marketing tool though, because all that ends up marketing is live shows. In fact, I’ve noticed that performing for tens of thousands of people at a time doesn’t translate into much online activity, and online marketing comes with its own benefits. Good music is my main marketing tool. Keeping it entertaining and meaningful. The most conventional marketing route is hiring publicists and promotion companies, but none of that is worth a thing without word-of-mouth.”
SKOPE: You appear on other Strange Famous artists’ records, but rarely have guests appear on your own, except on the Sick Of… albums. How do you handle collaborations within the label? Is it up to the artists whether or not they collaborate with other artists, either on the label or not, or do you get a say in that?
SAGE: “When I make my albums I’m a total control freak. Total. I obsess. I usually have a firm idea of how every single song should sound and what the words should convey. I’ve been open to having rappers feature on my albums, but it never ended up working out. As for artists on SFR, I make suggestions about collaborations and see if they’re interested. I definitely like featuring on every SFR album, but it’s totally up to them whether that happens or not.”
B Dolan, Prolyphic, Sage Francis and KRS-ONE will be playing at Harper’s Ferry on Monday, April 21st. Make sure to check it out, its going to be a great show. I’llbe reviewing it as well, so if you can’t make it, you can read about it.