How does an Australian wind up running the American arm of influential UK metal label Earache? It’s kind of a long story, but Al Dawson was more than happy to oblige. Starting out as a tape trader in the ’80s (he was thanked on a 1984 compilation by Pushead), he eventually visited the UK, where he wound up crashing with Earache label founder Digby Pearson, then running a punk mail-order business in his bedroom while on unemployment. Returning to Australia, Dawson kept in touch with Pearson while saving up money to come back. In the interim, conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher launched what was called the Enterprise Allowance Scheme to combat unemployment. In a nutshell, this gave funding to anyone that launched their own business, and by the time Dawson made it back, Pearson had founded Earache. Dawson joined the fledgling company in 1990, and has been at the label ever since, calling America home for the last 12 years. He spoke to Metal Insider about what they look for in signing bands, their deviation from extreme music, and the future of retail.
Also, because March is Metal Month, we’re giving away two prize packs of Earache CD’s. To enter, just let us know what your favorite Earache release is in the comments section below before April 1. We’ll pick two entries at random. Sorry, US residents only.
What was the UK metal scene like in the pre-Earache days?
I saw Napalm Death in Birmingham in ‘86 before Dig had even recorded the band or signed them, and you just knew you were seeing something special in those days. It was just so ridonkulous that you were like, “Someone has got to get these guys in the studio!” I think the first [Earache] release was an Accused license, the second was a Concrete Socks and Heresy split, and the third release was Napalm. And boom, that kicked Kylie Minogue off the top of the indie charts and front cover of New Music Express.
Was there any culture shock in coming to America to run the label?
To me as an Aussie, our culture, at least growing up, was a mixture of British culture and a big American influence. It’s probably now more American influence then English. I always had a great affinity for Americans and especially of course New York. There’s no other city like New York. So when the opportunity came, as an Australian, to have a company pay for me to come over here, it was a once in a lifetime thing to do. We had to show that I’ve been with the company for a long time and it’s a very specialized knowledge. It’s not like there’s a hundred guys walking around with experience running an underground metal label that could get the job that aren’t getting the job and they’re giving it to Johnny foreigner. They had to show that by me coming in I’m actually creating jobs for people as opposed to taking them away. And we proved it and I’ve been here ever since.
What does the label look for when signing a band?
There’s a lot of criteria. It’s not good enough just to make great music. To a degree, everyone makes great music. Personally, in my mental checklist, you’ve had to at least done some national touring, it’s important to do that before you get signed. And also I would say, maybe you’ve done some recordings. I mean these days, it isn’t necessary to have a self-financed pressed up CD or LP. But you’ve got to at least been in the studio a couple times because there’s nothing worse than somebody finally getting funded to go into the studio and they freak out or they can’t handle it or whatever. Like I said, good music does help [laughs], and ideally you want to do some national touring as well. Then, you’ve got to be what we are looking for at that time. I mean, there’s definitely bands that come in now and you’re like “two years ago, I would’ve been all over this,” but now it’s not either what we think is good anymore or the times have changed or whatever. I mean timing is essential. Things come at the right time. Like, the Sex Pistols came in ‘76, it wouldn’t have happened in ‘72 and it wouldn’t have happened in like ‘87 or whatever. The nation at that point was ready for a band like that.
A lot of labels snap up bands after they leave other labels or their contracts expire. It doesn’t seem like you guys have really done that too much. Is that a conscious effort?
We do like to pride ourselves in discovering. There’s jokes about certain labels where people are like “hahaha, it’s a musicians graveyard, that’s where you sign when your career is over” kind of thing. There are also other labels where perhaps they’ve built themselves up doing mail order of other peoples’ stuff, and they have a bunch of small baby bands and want to pay over the odds to buy a name to make themselves a new player on the field. Obviously, if it’s a band we all like and we agree we all like, we’ll go after it. That said, we were the label that Deicide chose to sign with after they were finished with Roadrunner. They were the very first band EVER to ever fulfill their entire contract with Roadrunner, which is eight records. By the time they got to the last record, the objectives of Roadrunner as a company were no longer death metal. It changed over time as it went from like Deicide and Obituary to Sepultura then to Type O then Slipknot or whatever. They became more of a commercial entity as they moved. Therefore with each record or towards the end with Deicide, the people who were there with them at the start other then Monte weren’t there anymore. I think the Soundscan on the last record was around a couple thousand. So when I signed them, I went to our distributors and said ‘We got Deicide, wow, wow, wow!!’ And they were like “Well, this is a band that’s only gonna sell X amount of records,” and we were like ‘no you don’t understand, this is Deicide.’ And I think at that particular time, I’d seen them like five times on one national tour and every venue they played, they sold out. You knew that the fans were still there, but that Roadrunner’s priority wasn’t death metal anymore. So we signed them and they went on and basically resurrected their careers. They did a lot of business for us. Like I said, we are not a label that wants to be a graveyard.
On a related note, I feel like the label has diversified a little bit. Obviously, I know you’ve had Godflesh in the past, but recently you’ve been signing bands like Oceano and Rival Sons, which could pretty much almost be on any label. Is there some kind of vision for the label?
More so in Europe then here, but when a lot of people say Earache, you think grind-core, death metal label. But even from the very early days we had stuff like Fudge Tunnel, which was a three piece grunge band. We had John Zorn, who’s an avant-garde jazz saxophonist. It was a conscious effort to not just be a death metal label where every release had a logo you can’t read and some gore and guts on the cover. From the start, we just wanted to be everything that was extreme. We did a rock/reggae band called Dub War in the late nineties. And Benji [Webbe, singer] went onto Skindred after that. We also did some hard techno stuff, which a lot of people at least in the U.S. didn’t like. Whereas I saw with my own eyes in the UK, you get a kid walking in and buying an Ultraviolence Dance 12” at the same time as buying the new Morbid Angel.
And in fact, we did a compilation by a Brooklyn based DJ called Lenny Dee and it was called Industrial Strength. It was really like the gabba, super extreme hardcore techno stuff. And we did really, really well with that in Europe. Digby and I flew over and we sat the whole U.S. office at the time. We gave this whole presentation and ‘Here’s how we do this compilation, and here’s how we market it and in England its different then Germany, and here’s what were going to sell.’ And the guy running the company at the time was like “That’s great, but this is America and this will never ever sell here. So we don’t want to put it out.” And Digby was like “This is my company, you don’t tell me what to put out. I’m telling you to put it out, you put it out.” And I mean, I kind of get it. Just because something works in Germany doesn’t mean it’s going to work here. But at that point there were a lot of kids getting sick of death metal and looking to branch into other things, and there was that whole underground rave scene, especially in Philly, Chicago, Frisco and New York or whatnot. So we end up forcing them to put it out. They follow what we wanted them to do as far as marketing or whatever. The end of the year, the guy that initially said to Dig “I’m not putting it out” said “My god, this is the biggest selling record we’ve had all year. Can we have a follow up?” So even back then, if something got one of us excited, it was definitely something we wanted to be part of. At the same time as working a rock band like Rival Sons, we’re releasing stuff like Wormrot, a grindcore band from Singapore, which in a sense you could say “Well, shouldn’t you guys have been over that in 1989?”
So basically you’re just going to keep doing what you’re doing. With the ‘Heavy Metal Killers’ come, and bands like White Wizzard and Cauldron that you signed, it seemed liked you were trying to bring back the new wave of British thrash metal. Was that an intentional attempt to own that genre?
Not to own the genre, but at the same time we were actually accused that with thrash bands as well. We had Municipal Waste, and then we had Bonded By Blood, Gamma Bomb and Evile. So we were also accused of that. But with the new wave of British heavy metal stuff, one of the bands, Cauldron, I actually saw them showcase as Goat Horn at The Continental a couple of years beforehand and presented it to the head office. And they didn’t get it. I thought [Jason Decay, bassist/singer] was a star and a unique individual we had to work with, but they didn’t get it at the time. So I guess it was like two years later and Digby had discovered White Wizzard. And I guess it was actually Dan that signed Cauldron. It was only after I heard him singing and I was like “Wait a minute, that was the guy I presented two years ago.”
So again like I said earlier on, like a lot of things in music, it has to be the right time, and the time was right for that. It’s stuff that excites us and stuff that we’re fans of, and that’s what we want to work. There’s no ‘let’s try and buy up market share.’ And in many ways we wish there were more people doing it because there’s a strength in having competition. If you look at wrestling federations, wrestling was at its best when there was ECW, WCW and WWF. But when WWF, or WWE now, bought them all up, there wasn’t that competition amongst everybody that made for the best story lines and everything else. If you look at what we put out in 2011 and you look at what Decibel rated as the top fifty best artists, I don’t think we had anything in there. We don’t really pursue what we think is the cool thing. We go after what we like. We think this band is special and we want to share this with the world. It’s much more about that than ‘lets buy up all the beard metal bands’ or ‘this year is going to be power metal so let’s buy all those up.’ Whatever floats our boat, we go after.
So we touched on this a little bit earlier. What’s it like having an American outpost of a label that has its home base in the UK? How much of a say do you have in shaping exactly what going on?
I mean, I definitely have a say in how the U.S. market goes. I’m sent here and I’m running the U.S. stuff and I speak my mind and I do tell them ‘This is America and this is what’s happening here.’ At the same time, when I first moved over, I believe pretty much every artist we had was either Swedish or European, and actually we had The Berzerker from Australia. So think of this as basically a business operating in America. To bring At The Gates or The Haunted over, you’re looking at $3,000 on work visas, $5,000 in flights, you need to hire a van or a driver, backline because power supply is different as well. You’re probably looking at spending $15-$17k to play your first note of music. To be so Eurocentric doesn’t make good business sense. So right now, fast forward twelve years later, I think we now have more North American bands on the roster then in the history of Earache.
We have The Browning, Diamond Plate, Bonded By Blood, White Wizzard, Oceano, Nature, Cauldron, Woods Of Ypres. We’ve got so many more bands now then we ever have before. I guess if you want to count Woods Of Ypres, we have currently ten North American bands. We knew the only way to move forward was to invest in more local talent, especially anybody East of the Mississippi. You have a band say in Richmond or something like that, and somebody owns a van, you can drive two hours in any direction and you can play a gig. At least outside of New York, motels are very cheap. It’s very, very easy for a band to tour up and down the East Coast. Whereas once you’re West of the Mississippi, Salt Lake City to Colorado, you’re looking at ten, twelve, fourteen hour drives just to get places and without being in a tour bus. That can be pretty taxing on musicians, but we knew moving forward we had to get a lot more North American bands then we had at the time.
Let’s talk about Woods Of Ypres a little bit. David Gold’s death, other than being unfortunate and tragic, must have drastically changed how you decided to promote the record. How did it change things?
For me on a personal level, it was awful. I was friends with David, we used to talk on the phone every day. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that. Two days after it happened, our tour person in England, Elaine, got an offer for a European tour. The people hadn’t heard. They were like, ‘we want Woods Of Ypres to go out and support band X.’ And personally I think he made the best record of his life, and then that happens. It’s just insane to be part of it. As far as changing marketing plans or whatever, personally, all we want to do is make sure as many people as possible hear his work, and to honor his efforts and keep it going. This is a guy who spent ten years doing the band before he had any label support at all. He made four albums, he signed with us, made the best album of his life and then he got killed. It’s up to us now to keep his memory alive and his work and his talent up there. His family, who we speak to everyday, [think] the same. You would think some families would be like “No, that’s our son. Bury that record or cease and desist,” [but] they want on carry on his legacy, and that’s all we want to do as well. As far as marketing has changed, obviously we aren’t making any plans for touring or anything else, but we just want to keep his memory, his art and his legacy alive.
Let’s talk a little bit about Spotify. Earache has been more in support of it as oppose to some other metal labels. Have you noticed any revenue boost since the company launched?
I won’t go into numbers, but I was at a music conference and a lot of the metal labels you mentioned had pulled out of it, and I was talking to someone and I was like “Yeah, how much did you guys get?” And they were like “Yeah we got a check for blablabla”, like a paltry amount. So I was like ‘no wonder why you guys pulled out.’ Think about it, we’ve been set up with Spotify in Europe from the get go. What was it two years, three years ago it’s been running in Europe? The check we got was six figures basically. So from what I understand, most of the dudes in the labels that have pulled out is not because they disagree with Spotify. It’s just that their current existing digital deals, they’re getting pennies compared to what we’re getting beause we have a deal directly with Spotify, and we probably have a deal similar to what the majors have. But have we seen a big upshot in sales? The month that Spotify launched, we had our biggest ever month at iTunes. Whether or not the two are connected or not I probably need more facts before I jump to conclusions or whatever. They do say Spotify leads to more buying. My personal theory is that people are consuming more music now than ever before. However, we play Spotify in the office all the time, but whether I go out and actually buy some of the records we listen to, probably not. But we’re still listening to more music than ever before now. But to sum it up we are very, very pro Spotify.
Earache has done a bunch of reissues in the past. Are there any new ones coming up in the works?
I mean, we’re always looking at new ways. Like I said before with Spotify, the way people consume music is changing. I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not a business expert or anything, but I think that what will happen ultimately is you’ll get the casual listeners who won’t even spend 99 cents on a download or whatever. They’ll just listen to it. But then you’re going to have the guys who want the physical goods, and they’re going to want the grand slam with the packaging and cool artwork and everything. So we’re always looking at ways to make something really cool and special and collectable to keep the music alive. You look at a band like Carcass, after they split up and went on to do separate things, we kept the records out there the whole time. So when they reformed, there was a whole new generation of people who were very excited about Carcass. There’s new CD mastering and stuff that didn’t exist when the first records came out. So we’ll look at what we can do to keep everything going.
Anything you’re doing for March is Metal Month, other then maybe discounting CDs or anything like that?
I mean the thing with us, March is Metal Month is great. There’s a nice spike in sales, but for us every month is metal month. So we just keep doing what we do. I mean the EMI guys and you guys and everything else, the campaign you put together; I think it’s definitely going to help retail, or what’s left of retail. It’ll definitely help us, but for us its business as usual.
I might as well ask you, what do you think of the future of retail? Do think there will always be cool independent record store or do you think more will fall by the wayside?
I mean is there many more to fall by the wayside?
Like I said, I’m not a business expert. But for example, economists, or whatever you want to call them, in the 1900’s said the bicycle is going to go the way of the dodo bird. With these newfangled cars coming out, why would you want a bike? And it’s so unfunctional compared to a car, and you gotta spend all this effort into pedaling. Now you’ve got bike guys who spend three grand on a bike and go on bike vacations. So you could say in many ways, in 2012 cycling is much more popular than in 1900. So people don’t always get every prediction right. I actually had a meeting with an Asian guy who had a chain of record shops in Spain of all places in the mid nineties. I mean this is like what, seventeen years later? He said to me “Al, think about it, the days of the mega store are over. Now is the day of the micro store.” He said that to me and I thought he was kind of nutty. But sure enough, we don’t have HMV any more. There used to be the Virgin Megastores in Times Square and Union Square here in New York. Now you go to Best Buy and they have a bunch of CDs slammed in the corner. You go and ask them for At The Gates, and they’re like “What? At the gates of what? What’s At the Gates?” I mean, those people are more interested in selling you a TV or something. And that’s fine, that’s their business. If you were to open a black metal store, a death metal store or a punk rock store and really knew everything about the genre and had the shirts and maybe had bands playing in there, they’re the stores that are probably going to survive. So yeah, the day of the micro store, not the mega store.
Like I said, there are people consuming music more than ever. But not all of it is going to be from going to the store. A lot of kids don’t care about physical goods, but then again there’s a whole new generation of kids who are buying vinyl again. A couple years ago, we were at this event and there were free LP’s on every table at this conference. This kid comes up and there’s a bunch of us in our thirties and forties, and he picked up an LP and he was like “What’s this, a calendar?” And we were like ‘Kid. what are you joking?’ But I have guys now in bands who are saying all kids under eighteen want to pick up the vinyl because they’ll steal the record or download it off the internet or whatever. But in twenty years’ time, what is an MP3 worth? 99 cents or the equivalent of 99 cents? Whereas you have that limited edition, only a hundred copies in splatter green and red vinyl or whatever and that’s worth eight hundred bucks. I mean look at those early Misfits seven inches. There will always be the core audience that wants the physical, but how much of that audience is that going to be? And who’s to say what’s next, wiring the music right into our heads or something? Who knows?