Most people recognize Steve Kille for his brilliant work as the bassist of the stoner rock, psych band Dead Meadow. I recently learned that Steve wears many hats in the music industry and spends a large amount of his time running the New York and Los Angeles based independent record label, Xemu Records. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to have a tour around Dead Meadow’s studio where Steve and his founding band mate Jason Simon are engineering their upcoming Dead Meadow LP, Warble Womb.
After chatting with Steve and Jason about their experiences of being a band for over a decade, and how they’ve learned so much about producing their band independently while keeping a professional standard, I decided dig deeper into the secrets of their survival skills. Xemu Records supports bands like Spindrift, Matthew J. Tow and The Strangers Family Band. In this interview with Kille, he’ll get in depth about the nuances of running an independent label who continues to press and release physical copies of their roster’s music. He also speaks about his ideals on digital distribution, social media and the follies of the major label music industry:
How do you balance your music career and managing other bands at Xemu Records? Do you have to separate yourself business wise, or has it been an intuitive process?
I think it’s a little bit of both. Even before jumping into the world of doing a label, I’ve always been really busy. I feel like you have to learn how to compartmentalize, and I learned that pretty early on. You have to dedicate your day to putting this many hours into this and that.
Most of the stuff I do is music oriented, so there is sort of this zen thing where it’s all connected together. At the same time it’s not easy. You end up working a lot. I do have the benefit of this is that there are other people working with me. At the end of the day, you can spend hours sitting in front of the computer. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming, but I guess that the nature of the game these days.
I read in the New York Times about CEO’s looking to hire creative and tech savvy who fit into the criteria of the term, 22-22-22. They want to find a 22 year old to work 22 hours a day for $22,000 a year. The professional industry has caught on to the passionate work ethic of young creative people. Do you think we, as older artists and independent industry pros should have protected our talent and products a bit more from corporate exploitation?
It is weird, social media seems to be “the be all and the end all” of everything right now. Youtube is the new MTV for young people. Young people are going to be exploited to reach the rest of their ilk. I don’t know how CEOs are going to benefit from this. I wonder if big business really gets it. The only money that’s going to come in is through an advertising revenue stream. It’s not really going to generate album sales, but it will help the bands to maybe use it as it is, until they find out better ways to save the industry.
How do you make choices between the projects you take on at Xemu?
Gut instincts. I’ve been doing this for years. Even from the complete DIY standpoint early on. Our label is really small, and we can’t overextend ourselves. We can’t take on every project. I do want to change that. Kevin who started Xemu in the 90’s, wants to bring on more bands, and we want to have this kind of music community, and maybe become a non profit. We eventually want to help the greater good but right now, we work with artists who we have personal relationships with and who we know can do the work.
Do you think if you worked with newer or younger bands, you can cut costs because they don’t expect as much from labels?
Downloads has been killing digital album sales, but it is a way to get music out there and there is a little bit of revenue coming from that. It is a great promotional tool. And we have been doing small deals like that to build a crowd before we do our physical distribution pushes.
With younger bands, if you manufacture a few thousand records and CDs, and get them out there and distribution takes their chunk of the money, and shipping takes an insane chunk of the money these days, and the albums go in stores, and the band barely goes on tour, don’t really sell their own records…all of a sudden you get the records returned to you, and you just lost any opportunity to market this band further. With digital distribution, you eliminate all those risk factors.
But I’m not one to completely stand by digital alone. That’s not what inspired me to do anything with music. Music for me early on was like making your own little book, it’s like an artifact you can hold on to. Digital is a way more fleeting thing.
Because you support bands like Dead Meadow, Matthew J. Tow, and Spindrift who have been in the game for so long, does it make it easier for you to work on a more traditional level at Xemu?
Stranger Family band is fairly young. They’ve made a name for themselves because they’ve been able to jump on so many great tours which is pretty inspiring for me. Seeing them do it completely on their own without an official release, says a lot about the band. We’ve been leaking digital music to build up a following, and then we move into physical distribution.
Even for a seasoned artist like Matthew J Tow, If you pull that trigger on physical distribution too quickly, and it doesn’t happen right along with having press lined up, it could be the death of someone who’s a genius artist. We try to do things carefully, and hold our cards close to us.
It kind of seems like there is this unhealthy co-dependence between indie bands and indie labels, where bands feel entitled to the services of indie labels. There is little patience and less quality of work in regards to submissions. Do you agree?
That’s true, but I do think that people are kind of getting it more. It surprises me how much self-promotion even the smallest bands do. It’s inspiring. It’s great for the developers that provide those services because they help fix a void that the failing music industry created.
You have to be really available and really involved, but in the same way, you can kind of control your own destiny. If you work at it, maybe you won’t sell the albums, but maybe you’re able to create yourself a great tour. It’s easier now. You used to have to be in the town you’re playing and pass out fliers, but now you can really connect the dots and promote a great tour and make some shows happen.
I think that’s why touring is the biggest money maker now. You can reach people. It is making music kind of a traveling vaudeville act these days. But I think that’s because of the time we’re in.
Film has always been a way bigger industry, but the reason they continue to do well is because they really embrace new technology. The film guys are always trying to push new mediums. That’s one thing that the music industry never did. Back when they had opportunities to embrace new things, they didn’t take the chance.
Vinyl records were created at the turn of the century and CD’s were created in the early 80’s. So now they’ve ended up getting behind mediums that gives music away for free. That sucks for them. The Film industry embraced technology that invigorated the industry.
So the music industry missed the boat. They should invest in albums that would be like Dolby surround sound format…or sell albums like albums like Abbey Road in every different format. Film has always been about creating bigger better experiences.
Your band was on Matador for a few years. How was that experience?
They were always pretty helpful to us. To be honest with you, I would never have been able to do what I do now if it wasn’t for the connections I made with their employees. We kind of hit it off with a lot of people. These days, a lot of people work freelance as opposed to in house with Matador, so we get a lot of help from people who work with them.
As Dead Meadow, we’ve dealt with a lot of weird legal things, and not one of those issues has ever come from Beggar’s Banquet or Matador, so for a company that big, that’s pretty cool. You don’t have to be dicks and throw a bunch of things inside of a contract to put out records.
I think it’s about the individual people. Every company is made up of different people who run it. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth.