I could tell you the story of Skybucket Records is one of guerilla DIY spirit and good ol’ American know-how – and it is – but it’s also the story of a punk kid and his friend who use to tag walls with graffiti and slip homemade cassettes into Walmart display stereos. That punk kid is named Travis Morgan and eight years later he’s managed to build one of the precious few indie record labels in the not-always-music-friendly world of Birmingham, AL.
In those eight years Morgan has amassed a wealth of secrets on how to successfully build a record label. The biggest secret being that there are no secrets, just a lot of hard work. Total cop-out right? But he was still kind enough to tell us how a little creativity and a lot of devotion made for a successful career in the music business.
TA Mag: How did you get started? What was the first step in making Skybucket a reality?
Morgan: I started Skybucket back in the summer of 2002 along with my friend Justin Lee. We were both in college, myself at Samford University in Birmingham and Justin at University of Montevallo, just 30 minutes away…
Believe it or not, we both were into street art, tagging, and guerrilla marketing. We created this fake gang/band called “Spectre” and started tagging the words “Spectre” on stickers onto bathroom walls and areas around Birmingham. We even made drone/ambient music and left those dubbed cassette tapes labeled “Spectre” in Walmart stereos.
Both Justin and I were attending a lot of shows featuring local bands. We saw tons of show at places like HotL Bham (DIY venue RIP), Upside Down Plaza, Sakura (was a great sushi restaurant RIP) Cave 9 (was a great all ages venue RIP), The Nick, and even Barnstormers in Montevallo (RIP).
Around the same time, Justin met a couple of guys who were in the process of creating a literary/arts magazine, which was going to be called LAID MAGAZINE, I believe. Justin and I talked about how cool it would be if with each issue of LAID came with a local Birmingham music sampler. Justin arranged this and we started making our compilation. This was the summer of 2002. By the end of that year, LAID still wasn’t coming together and appeared that it never would. We had a sampler ready to go. We just needed to package it up. So, rather than to wait for LAID, we decided to issue the sampler ourselves. But, we had to have an outlet to do so. So, we created a record label and named it “Skybucket.” Our first release was called “Here’s to last summer” which had a cover with themes of old relationships between young couples, but also with a nod to the summer we started working on the sampler. We handmade nearly 800 of them and sold nearly all of them for $2 and $3.
TA Mag: What obstacles did you face getting a business like that started?
Morgan: In the beginning, we were working on just one compilation project, which was a pretty big undertaking for us. We had to walk up and introduce ourselves to bands we didn’t know and ask for music to be used on the sampler. Most bands were eager to provide the music and to be a part of it, which made it easy for us.
Once we had all the music, we needed to put it together somehow. Justin was the true artist of the label. I was the business guy. One thing that was helpful for us was that Justin’s dad had a nice color copier at his office, so we used that for the artwork. Justin had mastered the art of the Xerox machine, so we used his knowledge and made pretty nice looking DIY packaging. We bought CD-Rs and I would use the computer labs at my college when no one was around and just dub hundreds of CDs at a time. We printed the CD labels on the color copier and put together packages on these CD sleeves. The back of the sleeve came with the track listing which was pasted on each one by hand. Everything about this package was handmade. Justin came up with the art. I just helped put the packages together.
From then on, we needed a place to the sell the sampler. So I went around town and established places including record stores, coffee shops and art galleries and made relationships with these places that sold our stuff on consignment. We even made little display boxes to put the samplers in. On top of that we would walk around shows and ask if people wanted to buy it for a few bucks. They did often. The compilation was a hit.
TA Mag: Collaboration played a big role in putting Skybucket together; did you ever run into any major creative issues working with artists, or coworkers? How do you keep everyone happy in a business like this?
Morgan: Justin Lee, my partner with Skybucket in the beginning, left the label in 2004 mainly due to creative differences. I don’t think he liked it going in the direction I wanted to take it. I let him know that I really wanted to pursue the label as a full-fledged venture. There’s more to it which involved me getting maybe a bit too serious about the label and I think Justin wanted to be able to have the freedom to do other creative projects. He wasn’t interested so we went our separate ways. Justin is still a very talented visual artist and musician living in Montevallo. We are still friends, but for a little while the label or maybe my seriousness about it got in between our friendship.
There is one album cover that slipped through the cracks a few years ago. I absolutely hated it and didn’t say anything to the artist. I will never do that again. I feel like it’s very important that I voice my opinions on music/artwork, etc… because it has my stamp on it as soon as it goes out the door. It’s important to play devil’s advocate sometimes, too. There is some healthy discussion that I tend to have with most of the bands. I think they know I’m not trying to threaten their art, but sometimes artists get so bogged down in a project that they need an additional objective opinion about things…It’s also good that the artist can defend their grounds with good reasoning and not just that’s the way it is and I’m not going to change it for you or anyone.
When you’re working with several people involved in a project…there is typically some form of compromise, even if it happens to be a minute detail. Everyone is generally really happy with how the final musical product and package turn out. There’s always a lot of fine tuning.
TA Mag: How do you see the digital format shaping the industry or Skybucket more specifically?
Morgan: Skybucket has offered several free album and EP downloads for our artists. Some of these had the option to “pay what you want”, some collected email addresses and others required nothing at all. They have all been pretty successful. Each was designed for slightly different purposes.
I don’t want to do the free download thing so often that we seem like a free label, but it is a great introductory model for consumers to connect with bands. Our goal as a label is to attract listeners to all of our bands. Offering free songs digitally, even albums or other content, is a great way for small artists or even promoting bigger artists’ new releases. One promotional mp3 on the web is akin to yesterday’s radio play, although rather than a song playing on one radio station or several, an mp3 is available for music press to post on their websites and for consumers to discover.
Also, rather than tons of consumers rushing out to buy the whole album to own that one track, they either get the track free legally in a promotional situation like on a blog, they buy it off iTunes or they download it illegally. Enthusiasts or fans do reach out for the whole CD, LP or other physical product. The goal is that when people hear the first mp3 from an album that they’ll take interest in the rest and hopefully become a fan of the band.
Indie labels as a whole aren’t going anywhere because they have a direct relationship with true fans of artists, even fans of the label’s aesthetic and overall taste. I think the digitalization has made it more challenging to make money from full album sales for many labels, so it’s become common to offer other options like clothing, multiple versions of CDs/LPs, and other merchandise.
TA Mag: Are there any tricks you’ve learned to running a label? What advice would you give someone that wanted to start their own label?
Morgan: I don’t like the word tricks, not because they’re for kids, but because it sort of implies that it’s easy somehow. And running a label is not easy. It’s very difficult. That’s why there aren’t very many labels in Birmingham.
As far as advice though, I would suggest several things, unless you have boatloads of money.
-Don’t quick your day job.
-Do it as a hobby, and have fun doing it.
-Only work with bands you love.
-Don’t have expectations of sales or money. Just be happy when someone wants to buy something.
-Be humble and appreciative of the bands you work with. Be honest.
-Although lawyers suggest contracts, I don’t suggest them up front because they typically scare bands away. But later on, you’re going to need a good entertainment attorney to draw up contracts for your bands.
-Keep your budgets really low. Do low runs. Hand-make the packages. Do CD-Rs or even make it a mostly digital label, at least at first.
-And although vinyl sounds like a great idea, don’t get caught trying to press up vinyl off the bat. You need to work up to that. It costs a pretty penny
-Make contacts in the press, especially locally. Make people in your area aware of your bands or depending on where the band is, in their area. But in many cases, typically labels work with bands from their hometown, at least in the beginning.
-Get your bands on the road and build, build, build.
-Work really hard consistently, but don’t overwork. Take breaks. Remember why you’re doing it.
-Look at your work process and see how you can improve all the time. Take cues from your favorite labels.
TA Mag: What do you look for in an artist? Do you have in specific criteria when you’re thinking about signing someone?
Morgan: I typically first and foremost look for really good songwriters – people who are writing really good songs. I look for good lyricists. I look for good solid bands that can truly perform and ignite a stage and audience. I look for people that will be making music regardless of being associated with a label, or regardless of having success…I look for people with a little experience, maybe even prior issued work. I don’t typically get interested in bands when they’re right out of high school or even college for that matter. I look for bands that want to tour as well, although this is a whole other topic.
TA Mag: Are things where you envisioned they would be when you got started? Are there any changes you want to make or would have made?
Morgan: I never imagined being where I am right now. Sure I dreamed of it, but never thought we would have had the successes we’ve had. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished, alongside our wonderful roster. I never imagined we’d reach 30 releases in our catalog which we will do this year. I never imagined the industry would get SO digital. As we started Skybucket, the industry was beginning a massive shift with technology. While many labels have had lowered in overall sales, some labels like Merge are more successful than ever.
One change I am making now is reverting back to the days in the beginning of the label in some ways. Setting up distribution points around Birmingham again and focusing on local publicity and street marketing. Due to the lack of major sales, we’ve had to cut budgets, so this is helping myself and the bands realize the importance of relationships directly with the fans. I want to keep building on this, our community and their community. Overall, our bands want national and worldwide successes and they are slowly achieving.
I envision Birmingham having a nationally recognized music scene one day (maybe even for a short time), but it’s going to take some work by a lot more music enthusiasts. We have so much working against us, but I think one day we’ll have enough national success shining a light on our amazing music scene that it helps build a structure which will support more labels and bands to get out on the road. I imagine I’ll be here working with bands in one form or another for a long time, regardless what happens. I found something I’m good at and really enjoy. Because of that I feel fortunate and I’m grateful to be a part of it all.
Check out Skybucket Records at www.skybucket.com.
You can also find some Skybucket albums downloadable for free at the following links:
Interview conducted and written by David Feltman