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I first came across Alexis through a borderline obsession I have with one of his acts, We Cut Corners, and have happy memories of fireside fun down at Other Voices in Dingle a couple of years back. I didn’t realise at the time just how far-reaching Delphi Label really is, but as my knowledge grew, I recognised the Alexis’ outlet as something a little bit unique on the Irish music scene.

I was particularly taken with their special edition releases, such as the handcrafted five-copy only four-EP release for Record Store Day 2011 (see below right), which remains one of the most treasured items in my record collection. They put out a similar release a year later. This is a small label that takes its image and integrity seriously, and does the best it can to produce something unique and interesting at every corner. In connections with Le Galaxie – who’ve now made their way to a major in Universal – and We Cut Corners, the label is also home to two of Ireland’s hottest acts. I was delighted, then, when Alexis agreed to give me his take on Delphi, and Irish music in 2015. Kindly legend that he is, he’s offered up the most in-depth ‘State of the Nation’ to date.

delphi boxsetWhat are the greatest challenges facing a small label in 2015?

Well, the obvious answer is the perennial challenge to release hit records!  Whatever else you could say, every small label is hoping to have that success.  It’s the one thing that can provide the revenue and reputation that allows you to stick at it and grow.

Beyond that, the greatest challenge is bridging the gap between a relatively unchanged cost-base, and dwindling revenue streams. This may sound like old-hat to the casual observer, ‘label complains that no one is paying for music‘, but at the coal-face it is still very much the big issue.  This is illustrated by how few small labels are still releasing music in Ireland.  It’s impossible to exaggerate the degree of structural change that’s occurred in the recorded music industry.  The flow of wealth in intellectual property away from creators/rights holders, and to the dominant intermediaries (as in the big services that deliver the music to listeners) is on a massive scale.

We still by and large live in an economy where it’s necessary to pay the going rate for any number of services and overhead items, and that’s the same for the things labels require, be it office costs, staff, advertising and promotion, design, manufacturing of physical product, but people consume music in a way which is economically completely unlike that.  The reality is that unless you have an out-and-out breakthrough hit it is very hard to make the numbers add up, certainly if you’re releasing physical product.  There is the argument that the digital age has provided the opportunity for artists and labels to enjoy a commensurate fall in their cost base, in terms of harnessing digital know-how and technology for recording, production, artwork and design etc.  The reality is that professional product still requires professional services, studios, engineers, designers, videomakers and everyone needs to be paid.  The sums are often not so pretty!  A recent article reported that 1% of artists are earning 77% of all revenue from recorded music, I’m not sure how that compares to 20 years ago, but it is something which generally does not bode well for new, independent labels… so back to finding that hit!!

How do Delphi pick your artists?

‘Pick’ sounds a bit like going into the artist shop and browsing the rails, and not many artists, managers and labels are pret-a-porter.   In our case it is a pretty organic process, firstly we want to be confident we are dealing with something really exceptional creatively.  Then it’s about nurturing a relationship and ensuring there is a fit in temperament and vision for the shared goals of artist and label/manager.  So the process is generally gradual and requires patience, and releasing records takes time.  Sometimes I get emails from bands saying they want me to release their record and they’ve already set the release date for 6 weeks time, that’s obviously totally unrealistic!  For a small label like us, we can only ever work with a small number of artists anyway, so committing to a brand new artist is pretty rare.  You quickly learn that you can only ever do things in which you have complete conviction, for the simple fact that you have to champion it day-in day-out, so without that you soon come unstuck.

We Cut Corners and Le Galaxie are both obviously a huge deal for the label. What are your hopes for the bands?

They’ve both been great, in fact they are also quite different. I’ve managed We Cut Corners since 2011, and Delphi has released their two albums, whereas in the case of Le Galaxie it was not a management relationship, and the release of the Le Galaxie 10″ Fade 2 Forever was a stand-alone project.  Not to take anything away from it of course.  I loved the tunes on that EP from the first time the guys played them to me, I had already been a fan of the debut album so it was something I really wanted to do.  Also we got to do a white vinyl 10″, which remains one of my favourite Delphi products! It’s been great to be involved with them and watch them go from strength to strength.  As a somewhat outside observer now (they are managed by the amazing Joe Clarke, a one-man advertisement for all that’s good in the Irish music industry), I hope they can take their live show and tour it all over the world. That’s their killer asset, they can bring the Le Galaxie party anywhere they go, regardless of whether anyone has yet heard their tunes or even heard of them.  Then they obviously have the tunes and recordings to back it up, so that can take them very far.

For We Cut Corners, I hope they will find the spark outside of Ireland to get the kind of recognition and associated success they are already building at home.  They’re creating an amazing body of work which will serve them well when they get the breaks.  That has already begun, with shows internationally, most recently in the UK, Spain and hopefully this year several other places in Europe.  I would love to see We Cut Corners get the breakthrough success at Irish radio that will open them up to a broader audience.  Despite all their success and plaudits, and decent radio play for previous singles, it’s still true that only wider radiobrings your music to the casual listener and grows the audience beyond a core of dedicated music fans.

 

Give us a bit of Delphi folklore – what’s your must-tell label story?
I’m afraid to admit I’ve no ‘must-tell’ celeb tales, not yet anyway, nothing that starts, ‘I was on the jet with Dre and Jimmy Iovine’.  Hmm,well I like solving problems, It’s great getting round the vexing and occasionally deliberately placed obstacles of larger corporations.  I was working with an act who had recorded a cover of a very famous old song for a compilation in the US, I think it was going out through a coffee shop chain, that kind of thing.  Some time later, out of the blue, a lucrative advertising opportunity arose for the track, and for some reason try as I might I couldn’t get the record company to license the recording, possibly it got a bit lost in their layers of red tape, as it was just this one track license.  In fact, had they done it, the majority of the master fee would have gone to the label in question.  After banging my head against a brick wall for a while and running really short on time, I hd a brainwave and found this little studio in the town where the act was on the road at the time, they had about 4 hours and recorded a new version of the same cover, nailed it.  We licensed the new version for the ad independently and so the end result was a really decent windfall for the artist which had almost passed by completely.  It may sound a little nerdy (which I am!), not really folklore, but it was a very pleasing outcome and we were against the clock so it was pretty exciting at the time.

What are the best and worst things about the Irish music scene today?

I hate to not answer the question, but it does presuppose that the music scene is this single coherent thing, which is obviously not the case. ‘Music’ takes in all manner of sins, both in terms of content and outlets, so it’s hard to broad-brush.

As far as the scene Delphi is part of, I suppose the best thing is the fact that there is healthy diversity in the creativity of music makers on this island.  Unfortunately although the old cliche that “Irish music is U2, trad and singer-songwriters” could only possibly now be uttered by the laziest observer, it still is sometimes said beyond these shores.
The hardest thing might be that despite the best efforts of many Irish managers and labels, and the work of others such as IMRO, the Choice Prize and notably Angela Dorgan and FMC, it’s challenging to get over the hurdles to build an audience internationally.  Primarily I think these are cost-related, as when the best Irish music does reach international ears with a bit of budget behind it, we have seen what can happen in recent times and there are some success stories that a very heartening.  Radio is also a tricky area for artists and labels in Ireland.  This is not really a complaint, as commercial radio settles at the place that best suits it’s audience and commercial needs.  Having said that I think at times radio stations could be somewhat more open-minded and take risks, that’s not a plea to play Irish as such, but to be more innovative generally and not squeeze out that part of their content.  I think RTE in particular have a duty to do that and have failed a bit of late.

Of course as a label you’re ultimately looking to sell records. How difficult is that today, in terms of distribution, costs, the public’s interest and funding the releases?

Yes, it is very hard for physical product.  Physical product, in terms of manufacturing, distribution and retail does not lend itself to low volume.  Any hardened retail warrior, someone like Philip Green, would dismiss selling physical music in an instant.  Apart from the most pile-it-high sell-it-cheap releases, maybe Now! Compilations and Susan Boyle in Tesco, you need a bloody-minded dedication to creating physical product.  Partly that can be a love of bespoke product and vinyl, which has its place.  It’s often coupled with a lifelong habit of understanding music as a physical product, hard to break for anyone of about 30 years old and up.  I freely admit that streaming is my primary means of consuming music, but still seem unable to break that habit.  I look at my boxes and boxes of CDs and can’t quite bring myself to throw them out.  I am trying!

Public interest in music is undiminished, which is great, but like me I think the majority of serious music fans are consuming music in the streaming format, not even as downloads, be it via Youtube or Spotify or Soundcloud.  Making your music available to streaming audiences is of course very easy, but getting their attention is as difficult as ever.

You’ve done a lot of interesting ‘special edition’ releases over the years, especially for record store day. Do you feel you need to do something special to sell hard copy records now? What’s the inspiration behind them?

The ‘special edition’ releases were more or less the starting point for Delphiphysical releases.  That is thanks to Darragh (Nolan), who is Sacred Animals, as his design and artwork abilities were the driver for the first Sacred Animals EP that was a hand-folded package he designed that looked really amazing, and which we subsequently tweaked and rebooted for some further releases.  It also lends itself to very short runs.  With ‘proper’ manufacturing, larger quantities are cost-effective, but I would say to anyone starting out, that large quantities are only worth the saving if you are going to shift them!  There is a different kind of efficiency to something relatively low margin that you can produce in low quantities and then do re-runs if necessary.  It is important to make physical product special, as it’s not the primary means of listening to the music, so the physical product  becomes a merch item, it should have a tactile quality and say something about the artist.  I think that holds true for all our physical releases.
Which acts – both Delphi acts and others – do you have a close eye on and expect to do well in the next few months?
I’m very proud of We Cut Corners having two-for-two Choice Music Prize nominations for their two albums.  That offers an opportunity to be in the public eye and helps them reach new ears.  We released Jennifer Evans‘ debut album in November and have some London shows coming up in the next month or two so that’s exciting as everyone who sees her live is transfixed!  In Ireland I expect to hear a lot more about Spies, one of the best young bands around who have impressed me with the way they have developed and are working with great people. I expect to hear a lot about All Tvvins this year, as we know they come from an amazing musical pedigree and have a great manager, I’m sure there’s lots of irons in their collective fires!

What made you get in to running a label, and how is it different to your expectations before you started?

I’ve worked in artist management for about 11 years now.  In 2006 I found myself involved in creating a label to release the music of an artist I was assisting managing with my then boss in London, which gave me a taste of it.  As things progressed in the digital area, it seemed that more and more at grass roots, management and label were becoming so intertwined they seemed like natural complements.  So when I set up Delphi and began working in Dublin I decided to take that approach. It can work well, but I’ve also learnt that labels require a special commitment to the releases as distinct to the commitment a manager has to the artist. You need to be watching retail, keep on top of distribution, keep promoting the releases.  It needs manpower to focus on the label functions away from management to work best. That is one of our challenges in 2015!

What are your plans for the coming year?

With We Cut Corners we’re looking forward to the Choice Prize in March, of course with absolutely no expectations about the outcome.  We Cut Corners have some opportunities to play internationally coming up so we want to make sure they happen.  We’ve lots going on with Jennifer Evans, a show in Dublin hopefully in March and some gigs in London before that.  We also have one new project up our sleeves that is yet to be at a stage where anything more can be said, but it’s something I’m pretty excited about for 2015 and is a bit of a curveball for us!

State of the Nation is a blog project for 2015 focused on telling the story of the Irish music scene through interviews with some of its major players. Interviews are published weekly, and you can find a full index of all published to date here

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