We spoke with Mike Dixon, head of People in a Position to Know Records, about his unique label.
How long have you been a label? How did you start and what were the first releases?
Last Halloween marked my tenth anniversary as a label, and I’m creeping up on about 250 releases in that time. I started the same way that a lot of small labels started - to release my and my friends’ music (and hopefully some of the artists that I loved). I released a few of my own things, and then contacted a lot of my favorite bands and songwriters about doing a series of weird shaped lathe cuts. I guess it was weird and unique enough that I was able to get some of them to bite. The first series had Jad Fair, Wooden Wand, Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Viking Moses, Tender Forever, Angelo Spencer, and The Poster Children.
How do you separate yourself from other labels? It seems this occurs in more than just the music you release - i.e. media format, limited release, etc.
I try more to separate each release from the one before it, rather than trying to be different than other labels. One of the things that separates me is that I have the ability to make my own records, which most labels don’t. I have a bunch of vintage record cutters that I use to cut my own records. I love being able to make each release as unique as possible. I love to experiment with shapes, formats, weird packaging and to use recycled and found objects for them. I usually let the materials determine the direction of the releases. I’ve found and used fancy discarded cardstock folders from an insurance company, rolls of leftover psychedelic drumwrap from a drum company, X-rays from a horse clinic, fake wood laminate flooring, Readers’ Digest books, end-cut pieces of acrylic mirrors from somebodies art project, etc. I love to find things that are headed to the landfill and let them dictate the format of a release. Most of the time, I start with the packaging and record material and then approach an artist with the idea and we move forward together and make it happen. Sometimes, the band comes to me with an idea and then I figure out how to make it work.
Very few, if any, of your releases make it to the digital realm. What are your thoughts on maintaining a physical component to independent music? Why do you find this important?
I really only care about producing physical releases. I definitely utilize and appreciate digital services like Apple Music and Spotify, but I don’t really feel like I personally need to add more content to the digital realm of music. There is plenty out there already.
It seems that owning the digital and streaming rights are really the only way that record labels can be successful. But I don’t care about running PIAPTK like a business. It’s an art passion project. Releasing music digitally usually requires things like contracts, quarterly royalty payments, hiring PR campaigns, etc. I don’t want to mess with all of that. It completely sucks all the joy out of the process. The only thing that I like about running the label is making the physical product and working with artists that I love. I hate doing bookkeeping and promoting and trying to be legit. I’ve tried on and off to “take it to the next level” by doing those things, but it’s never worked and it’s never been any fun. So, I gave up. I have several friends who run “successful” monetarily self-sustaining (I wrote “money making” then I reread it and couldn’t stop laughing) record labels, and it seems miserable. I give the artists a generous share of the 100 or so records that I make as payment, and that’s it. Everything is easy and straight forward. I’m able to sell the small quantities and break even (hopefully), and that is good enough for me.
Many of the artists you release content from are also signed to other bigger labels. How do you convince these artists to do limited run pressings?
I think the “business model” I have, as outlined above, is the reason these bands (and their labels) are willing to work with me. I make weird stuff and I don’t ask for any sort of long term obligations. It is very obviously nothing more than a one-off art project that nobody is trying to make money on. Combine that with the fact that the release is usually some sort of really weird artifact, and it’s not too hard of a sell. A few demos/outtakes/rarities that may not have fit into a cohesive album get the chance to see the light of day for superfans and nobody else, a new weird product exists, and everybody moves onto the next project without any hassle.
For a substantial amount of the releases you have pressed, they sell out quickly and end up on other vinyl or auction websites for ridiculously high markups. Do you find this trend frustrating or does it provide a level of confidence that your releases are quite valuable and glorified? Is this always viewed negatively or is a measure of success for your releases?
It’s a double edged sword for sure. I catch a lot of guff from people who want a release and miss out on it. But, honestly, there are three main reasons that everything is so limited: 1) Larger artists will only work with me BECAUSE things are so limited, the deal is so simple, and there is no long term commitment. Many of the tracks they give me are outside their usual output, demos, or rarities that they don’t necessarily want to be part of their online, easily available digital catalog. And 2) The lesser known artists just don’t “move enough units” to use schmaltzy industry jargon, to justify making 500+ copies. Hopefully they eventually get recognized for the incredible artists they are, but I won’t be around for very long if I keep gambling $5000+ for every release I do. I’ve got too many artists that I want to work with. And I don’t ever want to have to pass on a fun project because I don’t think it will make money. With limited runs that I make myself, the investment is relatively small, so the risk is very low. If I don’t sell any, I’m only out some time and a couple hundred dollars. And 3) Most of the ideas that really excite me about making a record are only possible on very small scales. They CAN’T be mass produced, even if there was a definite demand for 1000+.
It is kind of sad that eBay speculators buy the releases (that I barely break even on for all of my work), just to put them on eBay the day they receive them. I released the Flaming Lips “Good Vibrations” Eulerian Circle disc at Psychfest in Austin, and literally an hour later, one popped up on eBay for $500 - somebody posted it from the festival on their phone minutes after they bought it. The muddy field that the festival was thrown in was the background of the photo! It just artificially inflates the price for people who ACTUALLY want to own it. I try to figure out who they are and remove them from my email list and prevent them from ordering if they are obviously flippers, but there is only so much you can do.
Your label has put out something called a CD-record. Can you explain this for the people (myself included) who may be new to this concept. How did this come about? Was it used in the past?
CD-Records are standard CDs with grooves lathe cut into the back of them. You can get about 40 minutes of digital audio and three minutes of groove (turntable) audio on them.
They are an old record lathe trick, which I believe was started by the Godfather of lathe cuts, Peter King, in New Zealand, who has been doing this stuff since the 80s. He’s the inventor, master, inspiration, and gold standard of alternative material dub plates. I bow at the altar of Peter, and had the immense pleasure of meeting him last month while I was in New Zealand (a trip that was mostly planned just to meet him). I’ve known him via the phone for a decade, but never gotten down there, so it was amazing to see his operation.
(Peter has fallen on seriously hard times and I've started a gofundme to help him out https://gofundme.com/peterking)
Anyway, back to the actual question… I had a few CD-Records made by Peter when I started PIAPTK, and then, once I bought my first machines and starting experimenting, they were the first materials I used (along with plastic picnic plates, which also cut a pretty nice sounding record).
I have an ongoing series of CD-Record Singles that I’ve done for Jeremiah Green (Modest Mouse), Jad Fair, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Scott McMicken (Dr Dog), Mike Watt, etc. So far, I think there are 37 of them, and plenty on the way. They are really fun to make and are usually a good in-road with larger bands because they are so kooky.
The label seems to have developed a collection of releases conforming to a certain taste that may bypass genre specifics but still maintains a consistent aesthetic and vibe. How do you make this happen? Are there just certain artists the label trusts to produce content of this nature?
I try to keep a pretty cohesive “sound” with the stuff that I release. I’m huge fan of substantial songwriting that is surrounded by unique and weird music. I like pop melodies, great lyricism and slightly off-kilter musicianship.
I think the non-business-first aspect allows me the freedom to just release what I like. I’m pretty consistent. It’s unlikely that you would like 2 or 3 of my artists and absolutely HATE any of the others. They may not all be your bag, but you can probably find something enjoyable about them.
There is a pretty strong family tree running through my releases. I generally find new bands through old bands that I’ve worked with; whether it is through their side projects or bands that they have played with and love and turn me onto. The main trunk of the weirdo oak that is PIAPTK is Golden Boots. They are one of my favorite, oldest and most prolific artists, and their circle of friends has been extremely fruitful (to carry the analogy one step further than necessary) for PIAPTK. They have great taste and they help me come across some really great bands doing amazing things in a vacuum.
I always trust the bands I work with to do what they want. Occasionally I’ve gotten some music that I wasn’t initially super stoked on, but it’s been rare, and a lot of time it has grown on me in a big way. I only work with bands that I really respect, and they have full creative control to submit whatever they want, and if they are completely behind the music, then I will be too. I don’t want to reshape people’s music into anything that’s not exactly what they intended it to be. I just want to collaborate with them to dress it up in weird clothing that complements it’s freakiness.
What keeps you motivated to keep the label alive?
I keep the label alive because I can't kill it. It's a total money drain. PIAPTK as a business owes me, as the sole investor, over $100,000 from the last ten years losses. I constantly tell myself "I'm done" and I mean it. But then, I see a new band I love, or make contact with an artist that I've always been influenced by and hear myself say "I have this label that does weird stuff, want to do something together?" I will probably always do it. It's a compulsion, an addiction. One of those things that you know is bad for you, but you can't stop yourself from doing. It's my main creative outlet and I haven't found anything that gives me the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I get when I unleash some weird new artifact from a band I love onto the world, whether anyone cares or not. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
It's an expensive "hobby", but it beats golf.