Slumberland Records:
The Week at TVD

Slumberland Records isn’t so much an indie label as a labor of love. Known for doggedly defying hipness and focusing on a love for pop music in its purest form, Oakland, CA via Washington, DC-based Slumberland Records has been known for its roster of dreampop artists and genre-bending indie bands since 1989.

Mike Schulman has been there from the beginning and has remained at the helm of Slumberland since 1992, devoting his time to bands who share his love of melodic pop and deference for the 7″ single.

To kick off our focus on the label this week, we chatted with Mike about all things indie: what “pop” means, why vinyl continues to be an important format for the label, how the infamous C86 compilation influenced the destiny of the label, and why having integrity and selling records don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

You’ve been at the helm of Slumberland for twenty years. What’s that been like?

Uhh… It’s been a living hell. [Laughs] The label started out as a collective effort and we kind of did it that way for a couple of years, and then other people who were pitching in got really busy with their bands, and so it kind of wound up all up to me. So, I’ve been doing it myself for about 21 years or something like that.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s something that I… kind of operated as a sideline for a time. I always had a regular job; it’s not the most lucrative hobby to have. You get out of it what you put into it. It’s been pretty crazy!

In 2001, you went on hiatus for five years. What happened?

I don’t really think of it as a hiatus. I mean, we went a few years without putting out any new releases, but I was still working the catalog, filling orders, talking to bands, kind of looking for stuff to put out. It kind of did coincide with me changing day jobs, getting something that was a little more intensive and I needed to buckle down. A bunch of stuff happened at the same time doing that, and then a lot of the bands that I was working with broke up – there just wasn’t a lot of stuff for me to put out. I didn’t want to put records out for the sake of putting them out – that’s not what we’re about. I was just kind of casting around for inspiration, I guess.

What we’ve come to know as “pop” music has changed drastically over the last 50 years or so. It used to be something to aspire to, something tapped into a forward-thinking, artistic aesthetic. What does pop mean to you?

You know, in a weird way, it kind of means everything to me. It’s equally nebulous, but also it’s incredibly powerful. It’s like, really, the motivating engine behind what we do with the label. I also think about The Who Sell Out and I think about pop in the same way that a band like St. Etienne thinks of pop – it’s not so much a genre or even a sales level, per se, but it’s an idea of music as being this miniature art form that’s meant to encapsulate your teenage experience or your life experience and kind of wrap it up in melody hooks and all that kind of stuff. It’s everything you think about when you think of great pop music, from The Who and The Byrds straight up through The Clash. I think of that stuff as being pop, and as diverse as our catalog is, I think that pop in its broadest sense kind of describes it.

I think it’s something that kind of eludes a lot of people who look at the label and don’t get it because they don’t think of pop in that way, or it’s not important to them in that same way. It’s one of the reasons we still do a lot of 7-inch singles; I still think of that as a really great vehicle for pop tunes. It really resonates with me.

So, you’re viewing “pop” as an artistic aesthetic?

It’s an aesthetic, but it’s also almost a philosophy. Take a band like Weekend – most people wouldn’t think of them as a pop band. I don’t necessarily think of them as a pop band, but some of their songs could be pop singles. They have that similar kind of effect. I think that as much as I try to keep the catalog diverse – and my tastes are incredibly broad – I’d like to think that somewhere it all comes back to pop records. When you talk about finding a place for pop in the indie landscape or the post-punk landscape, that was kind of what helped shape the direction we took with the label.

When we started [Slumberland], the bands that we were in – myself and the other six or eight people who started the label – they were basically noise bands. We used to play with the Lower East Side noise bands like The Unseen and Drunk Tank and Dust Devils – the stuff that grew out of no wave – that was the milieu that we were into.

But we also loved pop records, post-hardcore, and Flying Nun and all that stuff. Once it came down to the idea of doing a label beyond just putting out our own records, we got a couple of releases in and it seemed possible to keep doing it and developing a niche. It wasn’t so much that we sat down and had a big powwow and asked, “What should we do with this record label?” It seemed like there weren’t a lot of American labels that were on that same wavelength. Some were; K Records was doing great stuff; Parasol and Busstop. There was definitely a small theme.

It seems like you get more of that sort of theme from labels in the UK.

Yeah, definitely. A lot of people look at it like an anglophilic sort of thing, but I never think about it that way. I think that they have a really different appreciation for pop music over there. It doesn’t go in and out of fashion so much. It’s kind of always there.

Take a band like Teenage Fanclub, who I think are just an amazing pop band, they can have a continued healthy career over there. Sure, they come over here and they play, and they’re on Merge, which certainly helps them fill an 800-seat room over here. They are a UK band, though, there’s no way around it. There’s just a different angle on things over there.

An English friend of mine sent me a C86 mix tape years ago, which was my introduction to dreampop, and I know that it was a huge influence on the formation of Slumberland. Do you feel that something as defining as C86 could be done in today’s digital music climate?

Well… sure! [Laughs] What I found interesting about that compilation – and you’re right, it was a huge influence on us – I got the tape when it came out, and I knew all the bands already. It wasn’t a crazy bolt from the blue. These were the bands whose records me and my friends were buying. But what I think is really cool about it was that it covered this huge breadth of stuff. There were bands like Big Flame and Bogshed and Stump sitting side-by-side with The Wedding Present and Primal Scream and McCarthy.

As much as people like to talk about the C86 sound, I guess when they talk about that they’re actually talking about The Shop Assistants and The Pastels. The actual thing that it referred to is actually really, really broad and I think that’s what made it really interesting. All those bands would play together – the Stretcheads would play with the Nightingales – there was kind of an interesting breadth to it.

I think…it’s more label-based now. If somebody was going to do a compilation that encapsulates a theme, I could see it being more commercially-oriented – like a label presenting the breadth of its own offerings. I don’t know. It almost seems like with the internet and with how quickly things get disseminated, then consumed, then discarded, there’s almost not time for things to develop like that. By the time somebody would put together a compilation, compiling the previous year’s cool bands and cool singles, it would be such old news to most people that it wouldn’t even be of great interest.

What’s the importance of vinyl to you and to the artists on the label?

I’d like to think that all the artists on the label share the same passion that I have for it. I’m sure they do, to varying degrees. When I first got into music and listening to music, it was records that I listened to. That was the format. To me, it’s just like – that’s how I consume music. I love the idea of the LP and a nice big chunk of art and cool liner notes. I love the idea of having to think about where your side break is and how you’re gonna take that 46 minutes of music and sequence it so that the listener can have the experiences you want them to have listening to that music. I like the linear nature of it, that you can’t skip around as easily. It really encourages you to listen to the whole record, and I think that’s something that people miss out on a lot. Digitally it’s just skip-skip-skip-skip-skip, ten seconds, twelve seconds, go, go, go! How can I get through this 20GB of crap that I downloaded today? [Laughs]

I think it sounds better, personally. I just enjoy the experience of listening to records more. I’ve never converted to CDs; I buy them, but when I’m going to listen to music, I go to records. And that’s how I want to carry forward with the label. We never stopped putting out vinyl, even in the darkest days when just about every other indie label gave up on records. We didn’t, and I still have many, many boxes of records from the early 2000s when people stopped buying it, really. Vinyl was really dropping off.

I remember going to stores around that time and picking up really great albums on vinyl for a buck each.

Yeah, it was really on the downswing. For the people who were buying records through the late ‘90s and into the 2000s, especially in America, you had to buy everything as imports, because records were still coming out in the UK because CD hadn’t picked up quite as quickly. I think of all those super-expensive import albums I used to pick up at Tower Records and chase down – they were tough times, but they were really interesting. When I started putting out albums again, it was actually viable again to put out vinyl. It was kind of amazing – it was really a big surprise! [Laughs]

And it seems to continue to be on the upswing, even among people who didn’t grow up listening to vinyl as the primary way that they heard music.

Yeah, it seems to be. It’s kind of weird, too, that over the last couple of years CDs kind of picked back up again [for us], for some reason. And a couple other people I know who do labels have said the same thing – kind of proportionally to vinyl, catching back up. For a while, it was running 50/50 records to CDs, and now it seems that CDs have sort of picked back up again. It’s interesting to see! LPs are still hanging in there; for a small label, it’s always gonna be a little touch-and-go. Breaking even can be a little bit difficult [to attain] unless you charge a lot for your records, which I try not to. I try to keep the price fair. Singles, they’re a little bit more difficult. It seems like singles have cooled off a little bit. I think a couple of years ago, people were buying more singles, and it seemed like labels were putting out more singles, and now things have chilled about a little bit.

But the LP is still very viable, and we’re looking to do [releases] that are vinyl and download only, not doing CDs at all, looking at different ways of mixing it up to balance the costs and try to keep everything flowing.

The whole “no bullshit” ethos of your label seems to extend to the bands you sign. Why is that so important to what you’re doing?

I try to be fair to people. The bottom line is, no one’s gonna get rich off doing this. The difference between setting a list price of $14.98 for an LP or $13.98, which I think in today’s market is really fair, or doing a $20 record – the difference to me and what I’m going to make off it and what the band’s going to make is so small, but each one of those 600, 700, 1,000 copies is gonna be $5 more out of somebody’s pocket at the backend when they’re buying it. And… that just doesn’t feel right to me. It feels really crappy. I think about what it was like when I was a teenager going to buy records and I had to pay attention to the bottom line. I wanted things to be fair.

You know, I buy a lot of records still, of course. Sometimes I think people are having a laugh with the pricing. I know what it costs to make records and when some label charges me $20 for a single LP to get it mail-order, I just feel like – I’ll get it because I want that record, but fuck you… in a way! [Laughs] That’s harsh. That’s really harsh. It’s not helping anybody.

It does require some buying in from the bands, because we operate on a 50/50 basis with our bands, so when we have a policy of having affordable records, it cuts into everyone’s bottom line a little bit – mine and the bands’. But I feel like we’re on the same page in that way; they want to be fair with their fans and, ultimately, get their music into as many people’s hands as possible.

You’re the head of a label… how do you deal with that? Beyond a certain point of getting the music into everybody’s hands, what’s the next step for you?

Well, it’s hard. Downloading or “almost free” access to music through Spotify and other streaming services – whose payouts are really small – it’s just… there. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t stop that or reverse it. I have to look at it as another way to advertise or another way for people to check stuff out. Ultimately the people who want to buy music will buy music. The people who understand what it means to the band and to the band’s supporters – what it means to actually purchase the music – they’re gonna do it. If you’ve got something pleasurable to buy – a nicely pressed record, maybe colored vinyl with a nice jacket, a cool inner sleeve with lyrics – give them something that is of more value, then they’re gonna feel better about it. I understand the value of those services.

There are obviously people who will more or less freeload and will do the free Spotify account and sit through the ads and… no one’s going to get paid, really. You know… whatever. Those are the people who aren’t going to buy music anyway. And there’s nothing you can do about it. I think we all have to look at it and say, the pie is smaller than it used to be. That’s just how it is. I don’t want to lose money putting out records – that’s kind of my big goal. Like I said, no one’s going to get rich doing this, but nobody wants to lose a ton of money doing it either. Maybe you have to run a little leaner than you used to, think about those re-presses a little bit longer, do smaller numbers, be smarter about what you do, try to leverage those other channels of distribution and exposure in a useful way so you feel like you’re getting something out of it, too. You know… I don’t know what the next step is, really.

That was going to be my next question — what’s next for the label?

[Laughs] It’s just really looking at the Fall into the Spring. We’re just trying to keep doing what we’re doing. I’ve been doing it for a long time and you go through these waves where maybe people are paying more attention to what you’re doing or you’re getting more reviews or whatever. And then you go through lull periods where fashion moves on or whatever.

I think that we’ve been very consistent about what we do and not necessarily going with the flow and not following the trends and not just putting out the same shit over and over. [Laughs] We’re just trying to be classic about it, not compromise the aesthetic in hopes of getting that great review on Pitchfork. Whatever it is that people’s goals are, we’re looking forwards and I want to build this catalog of records that I know I’m gonna want to listen to in ten years, and that the people who like the label will feel comfortable listening to. I don’t expect everybody to like every release, that would be crazy – even my wife doesn’t love everything! [Laughs] We’re going to find a way to keep doing it, find new bands, just keep it real I guess! [Laughs]

It’s a difficult environment right now. I think it’s probably because of the internet and the speed at which things move, things are more homogenous than they ever were. There’s less local scenes or regional scenes – you almost get punished for being a label that doesn’t follow the trends or being in a band that doesn’t follow the trends. It takes a certain amount of moxie to keep doing what you’re doing in spite of that. I have a lot of respect for the bands that we work with who aren’t trying to be the latest thing. They’re just trying to be true to themselves and their music and their ideas and, hopefully, the fact that we share that with them is still of value to them! [Laughs] I’m doing this for the bands, and not for anyone else, really.

Slumberland Records: The Week at TVD continues tomorrow with a different artist from the label’s roster all week—and we’ll endeavor to put some free records in your hands throughout the week, courtesy of the label.

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