Q & A with Tom Loftus and Peter Mielech of Modern Radio
Tom Loftus and Peter Mielech are co-owners of Modern Radio, an independent record label based in the Twin Cities that is celebrating its ten-year anniversary. In this extended interview, Tom and Peter talk about the label’s inception, future projects the label will be working on, and the two anniversary shows that will be taking place this weekend at the Turf Club (Friday) and the Cedar Cultural Center (Saturday).
HWTS: Tom, you started the Modern Radio label in 1999 while you were still in college. What was your involvement/interest in the music business up to that point?
Tom Loftus: I started the label right after finishing college. I had booked shows at my University and was involved with my college radio station, KJNB, at St. John’s University. I was a music director, DJ and program director at the station over my four years at the school. I had started volunteering at Extreme Noise records, a collectively run record store in Minneapolis, in 1998 as well. I had always been of a fan of music before college but I didn’t have much of a clue how much interesting music existed outside of the mainstream. The first time seeing the library at my college station was a kid-in-a-candy-store type of moment. I spent so much time down in that station consuming tons of music. I started going to shows about this time and ended up going to a ton of shows consistently since then. I still go to about 100-200 shows a year.
My involvement between going to shows, working at a record store and working at a college radio station gave me a really good idea of how the music business worked. Before, it seemed like this fantasy world, but slowly I got to know a lot of bands and people who worked at record labels and venues. I had thought about picking up an instrument, but realized I could be involved on the end of helping share the music with people through a record label. I had friends in The Misfires who didn’t really have anyone interested in putting out their record so I stepped in and worked it out with them. It was about the same time I had also been talking with Killsadie about doing some sort of record with them too, and along with the Hidden Chord. Those first three releases were all coordinated in the winter/spring of 1999 and came out that year.
HWTS: What was the inspiration for starting the label?
TL: I was inspired by a lot of independent record labels from Kill Rock Stars, K, Touch and Go, Dischord and Merge. Those record labels had put out some of my favorite records and were known for treating their artists well. There was a community atmosphere to each of the labels and the way they operated, it was obvious that they were fans of music first and foremost. Through my interactions of booking shows, working at a record store, and working at a college radio station, I was aware of the way that major labels treat their artists and the way they operated.
I went to CMJ music festival in New York in the Fall of 1998. Through a friend, I was able to go to a late-night party put on by Interscope records. They rented out this cool old-school bowling alley somewhere in either the village or close to Manhattan. The alley was on two floors and they had different well-known DJs playing each hour on each floor. Additionally, they had free bowling and shoe rental for all who were at the party plus free beer, which was something more expensive like Heineken and Guinness. They had tons of promos of their releases sitting around and at the end of the night, the place was a train wreck. The vibe of the crowd was really business and what you would expect out of the industry. It felt gross. The label had to spend thousands of dollars on this party. Less than a month later, Interscope records and a ton of major labels cut about 2/3rds of their roster. I believe the number was that Interscope had 45 artists and they cut 30 of them. The stark contrast to this would be festivals I attended like Lady Fest or Yoyo a Gogo in Olympia, Washington. There was a community atmosphere at these events and you would see tons of artists collaborating with each other because they really appreciated what the other people were doing. The atmosphere was electric and inspiring.
In addition to this, I ran in to people who worked at smaller labels who really tried to aspire to be the majors by spending money foolishly to make themselves look important. It ended up hurting the artists and the music, which to me seemed wrong. I always felt like if you had the opportunity to share music you love with people that it is a task you don’t take on to lightly. I always wanted to be smart about spending money and set up the label to be something that would exist for years down the road. The biggest mistake you could make running a record label is being short-sighted.
The main inspiration for starting the record label, though, was to be more involved in helping support music and artists that I respected. There was a time when music found me. It’s like all of those come-to-Jesus moments or born-again moments you hear about. It’s sounds corny, but it’s true. I wasn’t sure who I was and felt out of place for a good part of my life. When I got more involved with music and the music community, it felt really natural and right. There were so many records that gave you this amazing feeling of hope and enjoyment. I wanted to be part of the process of sharing this music with others. I wanted to share the gospel of the music I loved.
HWTS: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in the first few years? Was there ever a time things became so overwhelming you thought about throwing in the towel?
TL: The biggest challenges we faced in the first few years are still some of the biggest challenges we still face. It is incredibly hard for a label based out of the Twin Cities to get much national media attention or distribution. We felt like we were putting out great records, but we couldn’t get magazines to write about them or many college stations to play them. The Twin Cities stations and media were supportive, but when we tried to get reviews in zines around the country, it was hard. It has become almost more difficult today, though, because there are so many blogs, online zines and print zines, but many of them tend to focus on a small number of bands. All of our bands have toured at least the Midwest region, and in many cases outside of it, but it always seems like an uphill battle to get people just to review albums. College radio seems to work the same way. I think it comes from the process of putting out a record becoming so easy. Millions of bands put out albums and send them to college stations, zines and blogs so it’s hard to even get people to listen to music.
HWTS: For the first six years or so, you averaged 2-4 releases in a year, and then in 2006, you had something like twelve – what caused such a big change?
TL: There were a lot of factors going on for the big year in releases, but the biggest was Pete starting to help out with the label. I could not have handled all of the activity around releasing that many records in one year. Some of the releases were supposed to come out the previous year, but they got pushed back. It became the perfect storm and we wanted to be involved with all of the releases. Some of the releases were smaller runs like the photo book and the Styrofoam Duck release but most of the releases were full on albums by individual bands. We just went with it and took it in stride. It was a hectic and fun year. We learned a lot about working together that year and learned the lesson that it is probably better to space things out more given that we have to handle everything ourselves in releasing that many records.
Peter Mielech: Not to oversimplify things, but you’d be surprised what a shot in the arm a company can get by doubling its workforce and resources overnight. Certainly, having another person to share the work load helps. I had started helping with the label the previous year, taking care of things when Tom was in Europe for his graduate program. After he graduated, he also had a lot more time to devote to the label. So with Tom finished with school and myself, new and eager to dive in, we really made 2006 a busy and exciting year for Modern Radio.
HWTS: Peter, what was your music background before you became a partner in the label?
PM: In the 2nd grade I played a “Ode To Joy” solo on the recorder, dressed in a mouse costume in front of my entire grade school. It’s all been downhill from that moment. More recently, my musical eyes were widened during college. I taught myself how to play guitar, but never had any serious thoughts about ever being a musician or being in a band. I think like a lot of people, when you are exposed to something so new, and exciting you just want to experience it all and learn as much as you can. That’s always been the way I’ve approached music, from a fan’s perspective.
HWTS: In the past 3-4 years, you’ve had a pretty stable lineup of bands on your label, with multiple releases by STNNNG, The Danforths, The Chambermaids, Signal To Trust and His Mischief. Talk a little bit about how the last few years have been for Modern Radio.
TL: The last few years have been great as far as having a stable lineup of artists. It’s hard to keep bands together in general. Most people in the bands we work with are in their 20s and 30s and this is a formative part of people’s lives. People figure out what they are going to be doing for jobs, relationships and school and it affects whether or not it is possible to make music. We have tried to work with people who love music and love making music. When this is in place, it is more likely that the band won’t take minor setbacks so poorly. I think a lot of young bands get stars in their eyes and think this could be a great career. Our bands tend to have the same mindset as us that we want to do something creative and interesting but don’t expect too much. It takes a lot for a band to survive solely off their music. There are very few bands that live comfortably and the people in the band primarily make music. The people in our bands are aware of this but I think the goal is to create great music. If good things happen, then it’s icing on the cake. Do I believe that far more people should hear the bands we are putting out records by? Absolutely! But we do our best to help that out and take it in stride.
We have tried to work with people who we have gotten to know and trust. This has been the case with all of the artists you mentioned. Our expectation for our bands is to play shows in town and out of town, and if they do this, we will do what we can to support their efforts. It is on the band to make music and play shows. We do what we can to support those efforts. If a band is touring more, then we are able to do more with out of town media, but if they don’t, it doesn’t make much sense to send out albums to places where the band will never play. College radio, zines and blogs are getting piles of CDs every day and are less likely to listen if the band isn’t coming their way or if they haven’t heard of them already having been to their town. We express this to the bands and they do what makes best sense for them. We primarily are just interested in finding the best way to help support them in sharing their music as best as we can.
PM: The last few years have been exciting. People always talk in this sort of doomsday vernacular about “the music industry” We’re not exactly operating in the same kind of environment that you think of as “the music industry”. We’ve always been very strategic and cautious with the decisions and risks we make, which has provided us with some flexibility during these tough economic times. In a lot of ways, the last few years have been our most successful, simply because I think we have gotten better over the years at what we do. That’s not to say that we don’t make mistakes, deal with stresses and sometimes just having horrible luck, but I think the way we operate, it’s more difficult to put ourselves in a situation that would harm the label in any crippling way. So to summarize, I believe the last few years to be the best the label has ever seen, and there is no indication that things won’t continue to get better in the years to come.
HWTS: Looking back at all of the things that Modern Radio has been involved in, what are some of the things you feel proudest about?
TL: This would be a massive list. I have seen so many amazing shows by our artists. I have seen STNNNG and Signal To Trust at least 100 times. I keep a list of every show I have seen as sort of a running journal and those numbers are not an exaggeration. The rest of our artists, I have seen them as much as I can because I love the music they make and seeing them live. The things I feel proudest about are those moments in the live shows where everything sounds so good and is transcendent. A short list of examples could be the last few Daughters of the Sun shows, where I feel like they have hit a stride as a three piece. I traveled with STNNNG out of town and have seen them play some really incredible shows. Watching STNNNG play in front of hundreds of kids in Wichita, Kansas this past June was amazing. There were kids singing the lyrics to the song and an amazing atmosphere that I would have a hard time capturing in words.
All of the shows for our 9 year anniversary were incredible. I felt like every band stepped up their set. Yellow Swans played their second-to-last show in the US as the final set during it and it was incredible. Earlier in the night, His Mischief covered an unreleased Misfires song. Watching Shellac open up for Signal To Trust and STNNNG for their dual release show was incredible. The Misfires played a show in front of 25 people in Watertown, MN and they got lost on the way. They were really tense when they got to the show and they just put the energy in to one of the best sets I have ever seen. I’ll stop short of listing shows because I could go on forever.
I think another thing I feel really proud about are the relationships and people involved with the label. It is great seeing people in bands we worked with who have become friends and now are having kids and in really healthy relationships. The music has always been an inspiration but as time passes, I have found the way that people live is equally inspiring.
PM: I think the events/shows that we’ve planned and been a part of really stick out. The annual Lunch Shows, our 9 year anniversary shows, the SXSW Minnesota Migration showcase we put together. Some of the out-of-town festivals we’ve been a part of, like ICT Fest in Wichita, Farm Party in Alexandria, MO, We had a really fun experience this past year tabling at Pitchfork Fest, all of the record release shows that we’ve had over the years stick out in my mind. Just to speak broadly about these events, when you’re at a show watching a band that you’ve seen dozens and dozens of times and you still get the chills from their performance, I feel proud knowing that I had some small part in helping them continue to make and share their music. I also love watching the crowd during a show, especially if it is a new audience. Being able to watch a band win over a crowd or seeing the exact moment when an individual connects and sees exactly what I see in that band is really fun. It makes me feel like a proud parent, which I realize may all sound over dramatic and trite.
Also, as a label that prides itself on embracing and supporting community, some of the fundraisers we’ve been able to contribute to, causes we support and just being able to help out friends has been really gratifying.
HWTS: This weekend, Modern Radio will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with two very special shows. Tell me about both of them.
PM: The shows are the weekend of January 22nd and 23rd. Friday, January 22nd will be at the Turf Club with ft (The Shadow Government), Daughters of the Sun, The Chambermaids, Double Bird and Sheridan Fox of His Mischief playing in between bands in the Clown Lounge. It’s a ID event for $7. Tom and I have made hundreds of homemade cookies for those in attendance.
TL: This show is a rare opportunity to see FT(The Shadow Government) play in general and a first time opportunity to see Sheridan do a solo set. The other three bands are just outstanding to see on any given opportunity and this is a fantastic opportunity.
PM: Saturday, January 23rd is a all ages event at the Cedar Cultural Center, the big standout headline being the reunion of The Plastic Constellations for the show. We’re so happy to have them play and are so excited for the lineup that we were able to put together with arguably four of the best rock bands of the Twin Cities in recent history. STNNNG, Vampire Hands and Skoal Kodiak round out the lineup.
TL: The Saturday show has a few extra bonuses. The first 100 people who pay to get in to the show on Saturday can take their ticket stub over to the Wienery and get $3 off food. If you have ever been to the Wienery, then you know that is almost a meal, or a good start towards one. This will start after 4:30pm when the doors open for the show. You can bring the food over to the Cedar Cultural Center and we will provide plates to do so. The first 300 people who pay to get in get a free cupcake from the Cake Eater Bakery / Miel Y Leche crew. There will be both vegan and non-vegan cupcakes available. If you have not had the opportunity to try these, then it gives you yet another reason to arrive early.
Posters will be available for sale from Aesthetic Apparatus, Landland and Burlesque of North America. All of these folks have done posters for different events our bands have been a part of and this is a great opportunity to pick them up at the show. Modern Radio will be having blow-out prices on some records at both shows and even discounts on recent releases. We wanted to have some extra things going on to really thank all who have supported the label and the bands who make our label.
HWTS: After these shows, what’s next for Modern Radio?
TL: We have a lot scheduled for this spring. In March, we are doing a unique new format for a release by Teenage Strangler (Brian of Signal To Trust and Dylan of Goddamn Doo Wop Band). We had toyed with this idea for awhile, but we are doing a poster/single download release. You will buy a screen printed poster by Teenage Strangler that will include a download code on the back of the poster. It allows us to have a larger piece of artwork to represent the band and get the music to people. I have thought it was an interesting idea because I have always felt like downloading music on its own is an odd process. I have always enjoyed holding a record and looking at the artwork a band chooses to represent themselves and MP3s just feel cold and disconnected on their own. The poster will give people the convenience of having the music in the MP3 format but having something visual to accompany it.
We are doing the 2nd full length by Skoal Kodiak sometime in the Spring. It is their first record on Modern Radio and we couldn’t be more excited. We helped them distribute their last record and I have really enjoyed all of the bands the three of them have played in over the years. The new songs they have been playing live are incredible and I can’t wait to listen to them. It will be on vinyl only at this point and the vinyl will include digital download.
We are doing the 3rd full length album by STNNNG. We have worked with this band for half of the lifespan of the label and this record has been a long time in the making. They are still working on it but I know it will be fantastic. They have some great ideas for the artwork already. This will likely be on vinyl only with a digital download.
We are doing a split 12″ record with Vampire Hands and Daughters of the Sun as well. It will be ready for the tour in April. It will be new songs by both bands. They will be doing a six week tour together across the entire country. It will be the first recording as both bands have moved from 4 piece bands to 3 piece bands. Both bands have adjusted quite well to the lineup changes and are writing some amazing music. I can’t wait to hear these songs.
We are also going to debut a new website design, web store and updated version of the message board. The message board will have a massive makeover that will include a way to see the shows listed by date. This is something I have always wanted the board to do. The new web store is going to make it easier for people to order stuff from both us as well as a number of labels from the Twin Cities. We love a lot of bands from the Twin Cities and want to help share them along with our own releases. We have big hopes for this to expand to something really exciting.
For more information, check out Modern Radio at http://www.modern-radio.com
10 YEAR ANNIVERSARY WEEKEND JANUARY 22ND AND 23RD!
Fri. JAN. 22 AT THE TURF CLUB (St. Paul, MN)
FT (THE SHADOW GOVERNMENT)
DAUGHTERS OF THE SUN
SHERIDAN FOX (HIS MISCHIEF)
Sat. JAN. 23 AT THE CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER (Minneapolis, MN)
THE PLASTIC CONSTELLATIONS
ALL AGES, 4:30PM $10