Generation Z

The first in a series of interviews with New Zealand record label owners – we kick off the discussion with MUZAI Records’ founder Benjii Jackson, who runs the label from the front room of his Auckland flat .

(EMJ) From the beginning, where did the first idea come from to start a record label?
(Benjii) I guess it came through a want to do something in music that didn’t involve me playing in a band. I did that, and from time to time still do that (re: Catholic Guilt), so I wanted to try my hand at something different. What’s cooler than running your own record label? Well that was the thought at the time, before I learned about the administrative aspects and the boring day-to-day things you don’t really think about in the short term. Perhaps I should have tried my hand doing A & R for a label instead… actually scratch that, I’m enjoying where I am at now, finally.

Did you have any background in running events, PR or distribution?
I think every man and his dog that is part of the music scene over here has had some background in all of those aspects you’ve mentioned. For me, I still work a PR job during the day and even before that I wrote for a couple of music magazines/presented radio which lead to helping run events. In a weird way, there were certain skills I learned that might not be so familiar to the music sector that have come in handy also. Things I learned working in a bar, working with young people, even working in my first job stacking shelves in a supermarket (it was a Netto, for the Brits reading this interview).

Who was the first band that really captured your attention?
Oh wow. First band that ever really captured my attention before the label was either The Tarantinos, The Bengal Lights or Sherpa. All three helped forge a love for the local music scene. First band that captured my attention on the cusp of the label would of been god bows to math. Fact that Martin at one stage ran the label with me is indicative of how much stock I had in that band. They were just three very amicable guys that worked really hard and played some really angular (to sound like a wanker there), catchy songs. I mean if it wasn’t for god bows to math, then MUZAI wouldn’t of really started at all. Them and Sherpa; the original two that started it.

Need I explain Bandicoot’s attention grabbing once the label was underway?

Bandicoot was the first band that really exploded under MUZAI Records’ watch and they ended up capturing quite a bit of media attention. What were some of the challenges of managing a band that everyone wanted a piece of?
That they were young and still in school? Perhaps also impressionable? Dealing with teenagers who on top of any growing pains had to deal with what slowly became a rigorous chore of interviews and playing? I mean, off the bat, there was always going to be some challenges with the restraints of where 15/16 year olds can play and it potentially interfering with the lives they were leading to that point. Not many parents would want their kid playing an R18 show on a Thursday night, of course.

That everyone wanted to be around them also threw up some nasty situations involving other musicians in the Auckland music scene. Their peers at one point over time became their most ardent of critics, for some reason resentful of the fact the band were doing really well. I found it at times amusing –  it wasn’t like they were pretentious and nor were they embraced by the “underground” music scene of Auckland. It felt like some of the younger kids heard what some of the older kids were saying and to fit in played along and soon enough, they were believing what they had been aping. Dealing with that was probably the most arduous task managing Bandicoot. They are awesome kids, I still talk to them to this day and they were always a real pleasure to work with. To see them get dumped on for becoming popular and keeping morale up was a challenge.

Did the demise of Bandicoot affect the label in any way?
It was sad to see them break up. I’d be lying if I said I was happy the most popular act on the label wanted to call it a day. But I don’t think it ultimately had any detrimental effects to the label. It was a sore point for one or two people at the time, but why force a band to prolong something they weren’t enjoying anymore? You can’t fake that enjoyment at all and from the fun we had, I made two good friends in the form of Pearl and Daniel, and one of the most clued in, evil child prodigy’s I’ve had the pleasure to work with since the Bandi-craze; Reuben. Evidently, he’s my boy, so to speak.

It was a fun summer with Bandicoot. I hope for the most part everyone enjoyed the ride as much as we did. But nothing lasts forever when you’re 15.

The all-ages scene is also a huge part of the MUZAI model. Apart from having a number of under-age bands on the label, what encourages you to run mostly all-ages shows?
Just to be different, I guess. Just to do something that wasn’t the usual run-of-the-mill thing if I am completely honest. It felt a lot more exciting doing these all-ages shows and using different venues as opposed to booking the usual suspects for R18 shows. The kids that would turn up also were very much into it – there was a distinct lack of the ‘Auckland Semi-Circle’. They would just dance, not a care in the world what other people would think, and be totally into it.

Eventually we got pigeonholed into being ‘that’ group of people who do ‘those all ages shows’. I even heard there were some people who would refer to me as the “Jesus of the All Ages Scene”, or something completely fucking asinine as that. Hence not doing quite as many AA shows this year compared to other years. Everyone seems to be growing up also and veering into other things. Other passions. Other addictions, so to speak. That element I’d rather not have near an all ages scene.

Now that many of the bands on MUZAI Records have grown up and you’ve signed a lot of older (18+) artists, has the model changed? How do the older bands fit into the all-ages scene?
I’m not sure if the model has completely changed. True we are working with older bands at the most part, but we still do work with the all-ages groups, Cool Cult is an example. I think it’s not so much the older bands fitting into the all-ages scene but the crossover of certain bands to certain audiences. I mean it would be great to have Diana Rozz play an all-ages show in Auckland, I would imagine a fair few people would turn up to that. It would be even more cool though to watch a band like Kitsunegari or Cool Cult play to an older crowd and win them over.

Those older bands are doing what the older bands in the past did when gigs were held at Ellen Melville Hall – just a new audience who have never had a chance to see them play, finally seeing them play and giving younger bands some exposure. Much like Street Chant did with Ellen Melville Hall, much like The Bengal Lights, The DHDFD’s, Kittyhawk and all of those other bands. Much like Blink does with Campus. It’s nothing new; it’s bringing something new to everyone – bands and audiences alike.

“I don’t care if you sound like Fugazi, if you’ve a shit attitude it’s totally not worth it”

One of the few criticisms of MUZAI has been that you perhaps sign a lot of bands very early on in their careers. How do you respond to that criticism, and do you think it helps young bands to be attached to a label so early on in their careers?
I heard the criticisms were either I sign every Auckland band or that I monopolize the Auckland music scene…

I know it may look like that, but in many cases these are bands that have done stuff previous to any sort of “signing” to the label (note the parenthesis). For example, Reuben was in People People, a band that opened for The Black Keys and The Mint Chicks, before he did anything Bandicoot related. Tim from Nice Birds was in Fox In French, so it wasn’t like I was signing these bands straight off the bat. It was FATANGRYMAN who were the exception to the rule, but god it was worth it.

As for bands being ‘attached’ to a label, we’re hardly EMI or Sub Pop. I’m not handcuffing bands and demanding huge returns on advances and stuff like that. That’s simply ridiculous. It’s helping the bands achieve realistic goals and helping them do what they want to do. Sometimes those goals evolve into something more, which has been the case with MUZAI. But it’s not like we’re overbearing parents forcing our ‘children’ into doing things they don’t want to do, nor have we asked them to sign their lives away. I just want to see the music I’m really into do well.

Has it ever been a challenge managing any particular band?
Yeah. There has been a few actually. Being called ‘disingenuous’ by a band member is one moment that sticks out like a sore thumb for me. To have such little fucking respect for trying to help out a band really took a hit for my confidence. I didn’t feel like a “label boss” after that, and a couple of decisions occurred that I have some regrets about now. I learned I can’t be everybody’s best mate. I don’t want to be everybody’s best mate if it means squandering money.

The challenges I find is that bands think that the moment they sign to MUZAI, that’s it. They’re made. That’s not the case at all. We are this slowly growing label that you could still define as ’boutique’. We’re not going to suddenly help you become massively popular, or open for every international band under the sun. I think that’s a challenge in itself when being approached by new bands. That automatically being a MUZAI band lends to instant credibility. It doesn’t. WORKING with MUZAI can perhaps help achieve that goal.

At the moment MUZAI’s model seems to be mostly focused on the New Zealand market. Do you have any interest in getting some of your artists’ international exposure?
That’s still a bridge we are attempting to traverse, in all honesty. We are ultimately a small, some might say ’boutique’ record label in New Zealand going for two years. Getting big hits in New Zealand media, and given modern technology and the accessibility to these articles around the world is important.

Then there is the trusty, faithful blogosphere. We’ve had some nice coverage in the past and there has been a curious nature from people all over the world. I think when we’re good and ready we’ll start getting some exposure overseas shortly enough. We vehemently plug to Pitchfork. I heard that was the monolith in terms of indie coverage – or am I completely dated regarding that now?

Frankly, what’s the rush to get stuff overseas? Australia’s basically a stones throw away and we’re now starting to set foot into that area. I’d rather focus on building a reputable name here in New Zealand and getting the attention from overseas rather than immediately foisting it upon the masses. Sure it works sometimes, but in other times you just come off over-eager. Think global, act local. As a very wise MTV executive once told me.

There must be some bands that have been more successful than others (through record sales, live crowds and media attention). What bands have been the most successful for MUZAI?
Most of the bands on the label have achieved some success for us at some point in time. Bandicoot obviously helped where we are today with the amount of attention they received, while Full Moon Fiasco was one of the proudest releases I put out. To work with Will, who already has a rep with Thought Creature, was a pretty cool moment and to see them become cover stars for The Groove Guide was amazing.

Lately Sherpa have been doing very well in terms of judging ‘success’ (radio airplay, reviews, coverage). I think for the most part though the idea of success is subjective, as complete of a cop out answer that comes off as. I think all the bands have been a relative success on the label. For the most part.

Record sales, the dying side of the music industry, how important is selling records and do artists and the label see much revenue?
The whole three year plan when I started MUZAI was to survive. We’re heading into our second year and we’re surviving, and part of that is the importance of selling records. Covering costs, what little profit we make does get shared. But it’s not huge amounts at the moment, if anything. For me, it’s still like an expensive hobby – I do it for love and see very little, if anything, monetary come out of it. Again though, implementing new measures and treating it like a business, maybe this time next year I’d have a different answer.

How much does the media help with record sales. Do you notice a spike in sales when an artist gets featured in a magazine, a blog or on radio?
The media does help – it brings people to gigs which in turn helps with sales. It’s a double edged sword at times though; I have found myself complaining about not having enough media presence at times for things, then sometimes you find the artist complaining there has been too much media presence and people are getting apathetic towards them.

I tend to notice a spike more so in attendance to gigs than actual CD sales. But I guess that’s the current climate many labels probably find themselves in. Let alone a rinky-dink little one based in a front room in Auckland!

How does MUZAI run as a business and how are the funds divided between the artist and label?
We’ve spent the past few months gearing ourselves more as a business than a hobby. We have agreements with artists like many businesses, along with guidelines and other administrative measures to make sure everyone knows what is going on and what has happened fiscally and marketing wise. What profit we make is split 60% in the artists favour once costs are covered. Pretty standard arrangements. Nothing Tony Wilson like – I’ve yet to pen anything in my own blood. Notice the use of the word ‘yet’ though.

You often mention or declare that an artist has signed to MUZAI Records. What does signing to MUZAI Records entail?
I often ask myself the same thing. I’ve had bands tell me “you can’t do anything that we can’t get ourselves.” But everyone needs a hand and with that, signing to MUZAI entails a helpful hand. Financially, through publicity, marketing and as Dave Ager from Idiot Prayer adamantly states, ‘hype’.

At the most part, there’s a real communal sense with the label – the bands on the label respect one another and help where they can with one another. And even help at times with the upkeep of the label itself.

Perhaps one of the defining aspects when you sign to MUZAI though is accessibility. I strive many a time to be on hand personally to deal with artists and their queries. I don’t have A & R reps on my behalf mediating between band and label owner. I always try and maintain a relationship personally with the artists on the label, for better or for worse. You’re not signing to a massive corporate entity.

How do you choose artists to sign to the label, because I imagine the label reflects your own individual taste?
A lot of the bands I’ve signed are bands I could imagine myself listening to. Either at present or when I was growing up. It would be pretty fruitless just to sign a band on the merit of how much of a crowd they bring or how much marketing potential they have. I’ll leave that to other places. Sometimes it’s the attitude of a band also. I don’t want to deal with people with an exaggerated sense of self worth or a jumped up attitude. Fuck that. I don’t care if you sound like Fugazi, if you’ve a shit attitude it’s totally not worth it…

It’s pretty fortunate though that with some of the bands, other people have been into it. I guess that’s the underlying truth about MUZAI though; we just got lucky a number of other people like the bands we like. That everyone gets on who is on the label is pivotal and, again, fortunate.

Has there ever been an artist who you’ve wanted to sign but have not?
Wilberforces. Straight up. That would have been awesome to work with Thom Burton.

I kind of perhaps have some regrets not doing more with TFF, who were one of the first bands we worked with on the label. I’ve had a number of chats with Lisandru now and he’s doing his own thing which is cool to see. I reckon Lilycove, Tim Berry’s project, was something I was very interested in doing, it was very interesting and working with him in Nice Birds was a really nice experience. Maybe someday down the line if he picks that stuff up again, there might be a chance you see us working together.

How do you see the label growing in the future?
It’s ultimately been about survival up to this point in time, and right now it’s still about surviving. We’re doing pretty well growing into what we are now within two years, but hopefully some people might take us seriously ‘higher up’. Perhaps a chance the bands can get those international support slots, or government grants or the like.

For me, we’re always going to be a ’boutique’ label, fluttering under the radar so to speak. That’s fine. There are labels like Moshi Moshi and Fierce Panda in the UK that on occasion jab above their weight with success and they’re still around. So as long as we’ve those kind of fundamentals in place, I’m sure the growing will be organic rather than forced. Which to that end is something I’m enjoying still to this day – watching it grow.

Muzai Records’ Website

Posted by Nick Fulton under Auckland, New Zealand
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