Playback Records-The Story So Far.

Many record buyers dream of leaving the 9 to 5 grind behind, and founding their own record company. In their dream, their new record company would reissue some of their favourite hard to find albums. These hidden gems are the albums that slipped under the radar first time around, and failed to find an audience. However, as the years has passed by, interest in these albums is growing. Despite this, no record company has decided to reissue the album. This is where the newly founded record company comes in. 

In other cases, the new record company would concentrate on releasing compilations. This would allow them to put to good use the knowledge they’ve accumulated about soul, psychedelia or space rock. After all, they’ve spent a lifetime immersed themselves in this music, which has been their passion. This is the speech they’ve rehearsed to themselves prior to discussing the matter with their better half. Sadly, this speech never takes place.

Usually, reality strikes and the future musical impresario starts to think of what’s at stake. Usually this is the security of a job that in reality, they hate. However, it comes with a pension at 67 and six weeks annual paid leave. That is enough for them to give up on their dream, and continue with the soul-destroying 9 to 5 grind. 

Thankfully, not everyone gives up on their dream of founding their own record company, and is willing to take the plunge. This includes Nathan, who a couple of years ago, founded Playback Records in  Geelong, Victoria in Australia.  Since 2016, Playback Records have been busy, and has already released seven reissues. This seemed the perfect time to discuss with Nathan his experience of founding a new record company.  For anyone currently thinking of forming their own record company, Nathan shares his experiences about founding and running a record label.

The most obvious question was what inspired Nathan to found Playback Records? Was it purely to release music that wasn’t being released by other labels? For the most part, yes. There are lots of great artists and recordings out there that deserve to be reissued, to be discovered by a new audience, to just be available to buy (for people who are already aware of them). And for whatever reason, they aren’t being released by other labels. I thought we could fill the gap, so to speak.”

Originally, though, Nathan had planned to set up more than one label. He explains: “Originally, I had hoped to have two or three imprints, with each imprint’s releases geared more to a genre or area….it didn’t end up panning out that way. It would be the ideal way to operate, but it’s difficult enough to establish some kind of profile for one label, let alone two or three, and we’re not releasing a prolific enough quantity of titles to warrant multiple imprints.”

Having realised that he would only be founding and running the one label, Nathan started thinking of a name for his nascent label.  “I can’t really recall the origins of the name to be honest….There were a couple of other names that were considered, but Playback Records just fitted the best.”

Now that Nathan had come up with the name Playback Records for his nascent record company,  soon, there was a problem. Another company was using the same name. Nathan explains what happened. “There are two other similarly named labels that I know of; one being a Nashville label, which appears to have been inactive for a few years before our label started.The other is the name an American outfit (purporting to be from Poland). It’s releasing bootleg soul compilations and reissues. They started using the name well after we were already active, so I can only assume they knew about us (a quick Google search on the name would have told them). They clearly don’t care about the artists and songwriters whose work they are illegally making money from, so it doesn’t surprise me that they would have no qualms about stealing a name.” For Nathan, this was just one of the problems he encountered as he got his label up and running.

With the label up and running, it hasn’t been plain sailing. Nathan confirms this: “being a new label, you also inevitably end up on the bottom of everyone’s priority list, even if paying the same amount of money for things as larger/established labels do. Being a new label also makes it much harder to get reviews or coverage in the media; even though many of these indifferent outlets would be salivating to review the exact same titles if they’d been released by Ace or a Cherry Red label. It’s like anything else, really, you just need to persevere, and keep taking steps to move closer toward where  you need to be.”

In a way, founding and running a new label is learning process. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a case of learning from one’s mistakes. Most people who have founded a record company would do certain things differently. Nathan is no different, and would do: “quite a few things differently, including cementing a distribution deal in writing prior to our first release, so it didn’t fall through after a change in personnel at the distributor. Smarter negotiating with a nonagenarian label owner who wanted a goldmine in return for reissuing recordings that had been sitting in his shed for over fifty years. Deciding not to deal with a Melbourne Record store who was provided with thousands of dollars worth of stock to sell on consignment, and is refusing to provide sales figures or to pay anything, and who I’ll be pursuing legal action against.” All this  has all been part of the learning process for Nathan.

With Playback Records up and running, Nathan’s thoughts turned to the nascent label’s first release. This is one of the most important releases in  a label’s history. If the wrong release is chosen, it can affect the longterm future of the label. However, Nathan knew exactly what he wanted to release.

Playback Records’ first release, which featured the catalogue number PBCD-001,  was the compilation I Want, I Need Love You! Garage-Beat Nuggets From The Festival Vaults. “It was an album that I personally really wanted to do, combined with (I thought), a healthy resurgence in interest our local music history. Warner’s Downunder Nuggets compilation had done quite well locally. I could see that no one was ever going to release a CD compiling all the recordings from these fantastic artists, that unfortunately, only got to release a couple of singles each, and saw a gap that I thought we could fill.” This gap was filled by I Want, Need, Love You:Garage Beat Nuggets from the Festival Vaults, which was released to critical acclaim in. The Playback Records story was well underway.

It was fitting that Nathan had dipped into the Festival vaults for Playback Records’ first release. After all, Festival Records is one of Australia’s greatest record labels. It’s a musical treasure trove, and I Want, Need, Love You:Garage Beat Nuggets from the Festival Vaults was a tantalising taste of its delights. Would there be further releases from the Festival vaults? Nathan was hopeful: “I certainly hope so! It’s in Warner’s hands” who are the current owners of the Festival back-catalogue. It’s a case of watch this space. However, Nathan acknowledges that: “there was so much great material released on Festival, you could spend years just working on deserving Festival-related titles.” That is certainly the case, and hopefully, in the future Nathan will be digging deep into Festival’s vaults.

Nathan has certainly been  busy digging in various record company vaults over the past couple of years and has released seven albums. When asked which release he was most proud of,  he said: “I’m genuinely proud of every title we’ve released so far, I can’t really pick a favourite.” That comes as no surprise, as the Playback Records releases are lovingly curated, quality products.

The Playback Records releases are also helping to introduce music to a new, and wider audience. This is something that Nathan agrees with. “I think, in some ways, all our titles could be seen as an attempt to introduce the music to a wider audience-though getting to the level of high-profile labels (such as Ace or Bear Family) that do have loyal fan-bases eager to be introduced to new music is a long way off!” 

One artist that Playback Records have been trying to introduce to a wider audience is Jeanette Jones. This is an artist that this blog has championed for some time. Nathan is also a fan of her music. “I was a fan of Jeanette after coming across some of her tracks on compilations, and thought there must have been enough recordings for her own CD. I’d actually enquired with Ace (who own the masters) about this prior to them releasing their vinyl LP compilation, but a second enquiry – after Ace had already issued the vinyl, and it was clear there would be no CD counterpart-we applied for licensing and had it approved.” The resulting CD Dreams All  Come True is the definitive Jeanette Jones compilation, and is the perfect introduction to one of the greatest soul singers you’ve never heard.

Jeanette Jones’ Dreams All  Come True is without doubt, one of Playback Records’ best releases.  While they don’t release as many releases as other record companies, the emphasis is on quality. Nathan explains that Playback Records release: “as many as possible, without compromising on quality. (both in terms of presentation and the quality of the musical content-I don’t want to be releasing something that’s not worthwhile just for the sake of releasing a title). It’s just a very long process. Repertoire owners generally don’t like to have too many requests pending or approved-but-not-yet-released titles sitting with you at the one time. Producing a CD after getting the licensing cleared can take a long time if you want to do it properly; and these two factors work together to make it difficult to release titles with the frequency we’d like.” For anyone looking to found a new record label, they should follow Playback Records’ lead and go for quality rather than quantity.

Another good tip from Nathan is about the type of music a new label should release. While he admits that: “the initial selection of titles is more reflective of my own taste, which is quite eclectic.” However; “ being a fledgling label, I thought it was probably wise to try releases in a few different genres, and see which areas worked the best commercially, so we’d know what direction to steer the label in for the future.”

Talking of the future, the recent vinyl boom is something that has divided the opinion of many record companies. Some have embraced the resurgence in interest in vinyl, and have started releasing their releases on vinyl. Other labels seem to regard vinyl as a passing fad and a bubble that will soon burst. Nathan disagrees:  “I don’t think it’s a bubble that will burst anytime soon. I think when it drops off it will happen gradually rather than suddenly – but I don’t believe it will be anytime soon. Lots of younger fans of older music are buying vinyl, which I think will keep the demand steady for a while.”

Despite that, Playback Records have“no fixed plans as yet to release vinyl versions of albums, but never say never. Of the titles we’ve released already, the best bets for vinyl release would be the Festival Nuggets LP (which would need to be a double LP, and therefore extremely expensive to produce) or Sue Barker (which the guys from Hot Casa in France have already reissued on vinyl earlier this year).”

Nathan also thinks that: “there’s always going to be a market for music in a physical form, it’s just happened to shrink significantly over the past few years (and isn’t as good a source of income for record labels as it once was). Although vinyl’s not my preferred format, I’m happy that people who do purchase it are opting for physical product rather than download.”

Another thing that has been a subject of debate within record companies worldwide, is streaming. Just now, it seems the cards are stacked in favour of the streaming companies. It’s a similar case with You Tube. As a result, the way that artists and labels are remunerated by streaming companies and You Tube has to be rethought. Artists and record companies realise this. Nathan has certainly spent time thinking about this.  “I can see why labels are concerned, though-using streaming services has become the “normal” way for people to consume music (instead of purchasing on CD, or even buying an MP3 file). This isn’t great news for the record companies, due to the very low financial return. I’m not really sure what the answer is for them. I don’t have a problem with certain tracks being up on You Tube etc, as I think it’s a great way to discover new music. However, I have to say I’m not as pleased with sites offering downloads featuring the complete contents of still-in-print CDs.” It seems that those illegally downloading the music think that it’s a victimless crime. It’s not, and there’s no such thing. What the illegal down-loaders fail to realise is that many artists are struggling to make ends meet. No longer is profitable as it once was for artists. Music has been changing over the last twenty years, and continues to change.

Another controversial change in music is how albums are mastered.  Sadly, the Loudness Wars  continue, and still, many albums are the victim of brick wall mastering. However, there are still many labels, especially reissue labels, that take care with mastering. Nathan confirms that: “good mastering is essential-it doesn’t make sense to take time and spending money producing a reissue, and having it sound lousy. So far, we’ve selected mastering engineers whose “styles” matched the titles we’ve had them work on – including Gil Matthews (Aztec Records), Nick Robbins (Ace Records) and Warren Barnett (Raven Records)- and I think they’ve turned out pretty well.”  

It’s people who buy new releases that experience  brick wall mastering. Nathan agrees: “I think the “brick wall” mastering mentality is much more prevalent with new releases, because the record companies want the songs loud to immediately hit you when you hear them… and to keep up with the other loud, overly compressed music filling the airwaves… without realising it doesn’t make for a good listen over the course of an full-length album.” Sadly, many an album has been ruined by brick wall mastering. It’s very different in the world of reissues.

Nathan confirms this: ” I think reissue fans are much more discerning, and the labels are aware and generally order their mastering accordingly – though of course there is the occasional overly compressed reissue that comes out. We had to get new tape transfers from Sony for Skeeter Davis’s Let Me Get Close To You reissue, because the digital transfers they had on hand were taken from an earlier Japan-only reissue, which had,  in my opinion, sucked the life out of the songs with too much compression.” The new tape transfers from Sony were worth every cent, and resulted in a lovingly curated reissue that is the perfect way to discover or rediscover  Skeeter Davis’  Let Me Get Close To You.

There will be many more reissue following in the footsteps of releases by Jeanette Jones, Skeeter Davis, Steve and The Board, Sue Barker, Judy Jacques plus I Want, Need, Love You:Garage Beat Nuggets from the Festival Vaults and On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. Understandably, Nathan is unable to discuss these releases as contractual negotiations are underway. However, it’s safe to say that he’s working hard on a variety of possible releases from Playback Records, who are very much part of the reissue market it Australia.

Unlike in Britain and Europe, where  there’s a huge appetite for compilations and reissues each month, the reissue market is very different. Nathan confirms this: in Australia, the market for reissues is definitely smaller, but still present despite being largely ignored by our limited music press.” That is a great shame given some of the reissues being released by Australian labels.

It seems that in Australia that the music press aren’t as supportive of the reissue labels as in Britain.  Nathan confirms this:  “sadly our press prefer to cover uninspiring overhyped American indie and alternative artists that no-one here actually likes or cares about….apparently regurgitating opinions from American hipster music blogs on the latest fad bands makes these outlets cutting-edge. Unfortunately this has a flow-on effect of making labels and distributors think that the entirety of the market here is interested in these kinds of artists.” This kind of flawed thinking means that the music consumer don’t get the music that they deserve.

Especially when it comes to reissues. Nathan says: “very few reissues are released by the majors. The local branch or Warner Music also releases a couple of reissues or archival compilations each year under the old Festival logo. Strangely enough, most  various artist sets that seem to be geared more to a European market than an Australian one. Sony has released a very successful series of decade-specific various artist two CD sets featuring rare Australian hits, and has done a couple of single-artist “The Essential…” sets by Australian acts, styled like the international Sony Essential releases.” However, that is about all the majors release each year in Australia.

Given the majors are only releasing a few releases annually, one would think that independent reissue labels would pick up the slack. However, there aren’t many Australian reissue labels left. Nathan says there’s: “just a few most of which are no longer around. Raven Records were active for many years, and put out some great CDs (featuring both Australian and International artists) but are apparently winding down now.” That is a great shame, given the quality of albums they consistently  released. Sadly, other Australian reissue labels seem to be struggling. Nathan reels off what happened to the various reissue labels: “Sandman Records came and went pretty quickly, unfortunately. Canteoad records, who reissued a lot of Australian Recordings, has been inactive for a couple of years now. The Ascension label, which released some no-frills reissues from Festival and New Zealand’s Zodiac label; have morphed into “Blank Records” who are concentrating on the Vinyl market now.” There is some good news. “There’s Votary Disk/The Roundtable/Dual Planet Records, who more focussed on vinyl The Omni Recording Corporation are pretty active, and mostly focus on US Country Music. Aztec Records is run by Gil Matthews, who is probably best known for his tenure in Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs.”  Gil has also mastered a couple of title for Playback Records, and has sterling done work. Hopefully, there will be plenty more of this in the future.

The future is something that looms large in the thoughts of many record companies. Nathan has certainly spent time thinking about what the future holds for  Playback Records.  “It’s really hard to predict; but we’re working toward growing and strengthening our distribution; and connecting with more media (including music review sites like Dereksmusicblog!)… which, long term, will hopefully allow us to survive and stay active. Ultimately, I’d like to be at a stage where we’re able to release whatever we want, as frequently as we want, and not have to worry about and scrutinise each title’s sales potential.” Hopefully, that day will arrive sooner, rather than later, and that Playback Records will enjoy the freedom to release music it’s passionate about and believes in. That must be the ultimate endgame.

Nathan is unsure whether Playback Records will follow in the footsteps of other reissue labels, and release new albums. “At this point in time, I couldn’t see it being on the cards, but never say never. We’d need to be a lot bigger and have some kind of profile in the press, as breaking a new artist or promoting a brand new release by an established artist is very different from releasing archival recordings.” That is certainly the case, and with Playback Records already well on their way to establishing a niche within the Australian reissue market, it makes sense to stick to what they know.

That is releasing lovingly curated reissues. Playback Records has been doing that for the last couple of years. Like most record label owners, Nathan has his own wish list of albums he would like to reissue. The five albums that he would like to release if it was possible were:

1) “I’d love to release a compilation of recordings by Australian pop singer Lynne Randell. (“Ciao Baby” was her big hit here, but Brits probably know her – if at all – from the song’s flip, the Northern Soul “hit” Stranger In My Arms). Her very early records did have a bit of the “recorded in a tin can” sound, but her sessions with the noted Australian composer Sven Libaek and her later US Recordings are great.” That is the certainly case, and her later, American recordings features Lynne Randell at the peak of her powers.

2)”Maxine Brown’s We’ll Cry Together LP is definitely deserving of a reissue. If only anyone knew who the current owner of the label/masters was!” Sadly, this isn’t the only album where tracing the owner of the label and masters has proved problematic. It’s a  problem many record companies have struggled with, and as a result, many projects have had to be shelved.

3)”A collection of solo recordings by the various members of The Sweet Inspirations would be a licensing nightmare, but would make for a wonderful listen.” It certainly would, as there’s no better sound than The Sweet Inspirations in full flow.

4) “A Debbie Taylor collection would be fantastic, she’s one of those singers you hear and can’t work out why they didn’t become big (other than perhaps a big, obvious smash single to establish a profile – a la Linda Jones’ Hypnotized”. Maybe one day Nathan will be able to release a Debbie Taylor compilation, and introduced  music lovers to a singer who sadly, is still one of music’s best kept secrets.

5)”Although it’s from a much, much more recent vintage than our other titles, I would dearly love to be able to issue the unreleased first album by Australian Neo-Soul singer Daniel Merriweather (who I’m sure UK fans will know from his solo hit “Red” and his being the featured vocalist on Mark Ronson’s version of “Stop Me”). The two released singles and the buzz tracks were great, and word was that the album was going to change the Australian music scene – but it sadly never came out. To be able to give the album a belated release would be a fan dream come true!” It certainly would, as Daniel Merriweather is one of the leading lights of the Nu Soul scene. 

6) Nathan gave an “honourable mention to the Australian band Country Radio (Festival Records again!). The late Greg Quill had requested that Aztec Records reissue the bands recordings, and I know Gil has plans to do it at some point… otherwise, I’d be all over this one! (despite it not being my usual genre).” Regardless of who eventually reissues the recordings,  it’ll be a reissue to watch out for.

So will  the future reissues from Playback Records. Although Playback Records have only released seven releases so far, the future looks bright for Playback Records. They’re definitely one of the rising stars of the Australian reissue market. Nathan the founder of Playback Records has obviously done his homework, and has learnt from other reissue labels. One of the most important thing he’s learnt is to concentrate on  quality, rather than quantity. 

Quality is extremely important in the fiercely competitive reissue market. However, that is something that many reissue labels never realise. Instead, they churn out countless third-rate reissues each month. It’s no wonder many of these labels eventually fall by the wayside. They could do with taking a leaf out of Playback Records’ book, and instead release  just a few lovingly curated, quality releases. From these small acorns, Playback Records has the potential to grow and become one of the leading lights of the Australian reissue market. However, that is  just the start for Playback Records.

Like many  labels, Playback Records have started to release their albums in Britain and Europe. While the reissue market is fiercely competitive, it can also be extremely profitable. After all, there are still many music fans who want to buy CDs and vinyl,  and are willing to play a premium for quality releases. This means well mastered releases, with detailed and informative sleeve-notes. Playback Records’ releases tick all the boxes, and are sure to find a wider audience as the weeks and months pass by amongst discerning music lovers. This includes reissues by Jeanette Jones, Skeeter Davis,  Sue Barker, Judy Jacques and Steve and The Board, plus the compilations I Want, Need, Love You: Garage Beat Nuggets from the Festival Vaults and On Broadway: The Songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill. These are just the first seven releases from Playback Records, but many more will follow in their footsteps and are sure to be carefully curated, quality releases.

Playback Records-The Story So Far.

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