Mario Vallenari is the founder and President of Italian-based record label, Cabezon. Over the past several years, Cabezon Records has managed to expand at a time when far more established labels are downsizing or closing down altogether. If you listen to Cabezon’s artists, it’s apparent that Mario Vallenari has a gift for finding artists who have a quiet brilliance about them. Having a background in virtually every aspect of the music industry, it would seem that Mr. Vallenari is able to listen to an artist, not as a label boss, per se, but as a promoter, a performer, a manager, and, perhaps most importantly, as a fan.
Recently I was able to ask Mario about the role his background has played in establishing and running a label, as well as get some information on what he looks for in potential signees, and on how the multimedia relationship between Cabezon Records and David Herrera came to be.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in music and the music industry? What made you want to start a label? How have your past experiences in the industry prepared you for your current role?
I fell in love with music when I was just a child. I started to play in a band when I was 13 and I’ve never given it up. Growing up I gradually approached the music industry and everything connected with it like promotion, distribution, booking, etc. With my solo project John Mario I had the fortune to work with the Italian producer Orazio Grillo, now the A&R for Universal Music Group. It was an exciting experience and a great opportunity to understand how things work in the music biz. I also signed for EMI Music Publishing and tried a career as an author for a while but I figured out that a major company was not the right place for me. However this trial has been very useful to focus what I wanted to do and to develop my personal approach as a label. In a major company, most of the time, music is just money and product. I want to put the artist first because I believe that the best way you deal with people is to find a way to make everyone satisfied. By doing this I try to use an economic criteria (similar to the ones that I’ve learned in my music industry experience); that’s the only way to avoid a great waste of money.
For a fairly young label, Cabezon is growing quickly. How have you approached establishing a label when so many others are going out of business?
The idea of Cabezon Records came out in 2001. I was in a band and the indie music was starting to became popular also in our country (10 years later than the rest of the world…). Little labels were growing day after day and it seemed like we were in the right place at the right time. This period of good fortune didn’t last and the following years the indie hype was gone but my will to create my own label lasted. The problem was that I was just a student without money and experience. After University I started to save money and even though to invest in the indie-music business in Italy is almost an economic suicide, I decided to try. I do this for passion, not to earn money. My goal is to improve as much as I can, and to create opportunities for my artists.
How much of a role have the social media outlets played for the label in general and for your artists?
I think there are only two ways now to sell records: the first one is to go on tour; the second one is to have a presence on the net. I try to use the social media without excess because I think that a “spam approach” isn’t useful.
Who are some of the artists you’re working with? What do you look for when signing artists? Do you have particular criteria you follow when looking for artists?
Cabezon has 8 artists in its roster. Some of them (Veronica Marchi, Nicola Battisti, Dottorconti, Alessandro Longo) sing in Italian and they are all songwriters with a strong personalities. The others (The Softone, El Matador Alegre, Dead Man Watching) are bands that use English lyrics and play music with [alternative] folk and slowcore influences. Now, I’m planning the release of an instrumental band called The Plutonians, an alt. indie jazz ensemble that really freaks me out.
I sign artists that make me love their music. Sometimes it is love at first sight, sometimes it is something that grows over time. It’s always subjective, but I think this is the only way to give them the best of me because, you know, working with artists is a really hard job!
For sure, artists that join my label have to know very well what Cabezon is: a small label that tries to help them grow. I don’t have a magic trick [for that] yet.
Many of your artists– El Matador Alegre and Dead Man Watching come to mind in particular– have a great understanding and appreciation for the relationship between music and visual media (i.e; music videos). Their videos are pieces of work in their own right and I wondered how important that is to your label as a whole. Looking at the work of the artists on your roster, it seems as though Cabezon has an almost multimedia ethos. Is that intentional or do you think you subconsciously gravitate towards those types of artists?
Nowadays, music and images are absolutely connected. A lot of people fall in love with a song or an artist after they’ve heard them on a movie, a TV series, or a commercial. I want videos that give more power to the music and the lyrics, that help to bring attention to the artist’s world. I look for the perfect mix between images and music and, I believe some songs from my catalogue hit this goal.
David Herrera has directed videos for many of your artists. Is that an intentional partnership or a serendipitous coincidence?
In the beginning it was a happy accident; I saw his video for Radiohead‘s ”How to Disappear Completely” on Youtube and decided to contact him for a clip. I gave him a Dead Man Watching song called “Hereafter” and I told him ‘do whatever you want’: he did a marvelous video. Despite having a small budget, he worked with such a passion and professionalism that I decided to make every video (except for the songwriters who sing in Italian) with him. So I commissioned him for “Les Moods” by Dead Man Watching, “On Your Trail” by The Softone, “Lemongrass” by El Matador Alegre. Now he’s working on the new Dead Man Watching single, “Red Balloon.”
I admire his work because he gives his best every time and he has the ability to give new strength to the music. His videos have a sort of trademark; you can recognize they were directed by Herrera. That’s great! I’m sure he’ll do great things in the future, he really deserves it.