Michael Tarlowe started his independent label Virt Records in 2001 with a tight focus on the Triple-A and performing songwriter markets. Virt’s modest roster includes critically acclaimed artists Vienna Teng, Shane Nicholson and Brenda Weiler. New releases from husband-wife duo Ellery and San Francisco folk-popsters The Bittersweets are planned for 2006.
When I discovered that Virt was located in my hometown of Seattle, I contacted Michael and asked him to share a few thoughts about starting and managing an indie label:
When you started Virt, what did you want to do that was different from the way labels traditionally conduct business?
I wanted to enter into true partnerships with artists, in the fullest sense of the term, where the artist could focus on what he/she does best, make music, while the label could focus on its strengths (marketing, promotion and distribution), while crafting a business model that reflected the artist and the label as partners.
Your website states that Virt seeks artists “possessing a strong work ethic.” Can you go into some detail about what that means?
If an artist thinks that once the record is released, they can sit back and let the label make it all happen, that’s not the kind of artist we would look to partner with. The strong work ethic means the artist is willing to tour extensively as a means of getting their music exposed, and willing to take advantage of promotional opportunities created by the label.
It seems easier than ever to start a label these days; in your opinion, what’s the Number One Mistake aspiring label founders make?
Under-capitalizing [under-funding] the label. Even as an indie label, it takes financial resources to succeed.
Smaller labels typically lack the promotional budget available to a major label; what’s your approach to promotion and publicity, and how do you think indies can compete effectively?
One of the biggest mistakes an indie label can make is to simply try to mimic what the larger labels are doing, just on a smaller scale. That will not work. Instead, you need to think out-of-the-box and develop creative marketing strategies to get the music heard. Indies can compete effectively by releasing quality music that the majors aren’t, by knowing their audience and devising creative ways to expose the music to that audience.
What’s the one myth about running a record label you’d love to bust?
We’ve never told an artist to go back into the studio because we didn’t hear a single or a “hit.”
Bonus Question: what led you to start an AAA/singer-songwriter label in Seattle, the birthplace of grunge?
The label was actually started in Boston, which happens to be a very singer/songwriter-oriented town. The label later moved to Seattle.