Mint Records: Surviving as an independent record label
January 23, 2011 by Sarah Casimong
The main goal is survival.
Mint Records is entering its 20th year and co-founder Bill Baker admits that changes in the music industry are a threat to independent music labels.
“As flippant as that sounds, [survival] is the number one goal and it always has been,” said Baker. “It’s a challenge and right now it’s just about this adaptation and seeing what we can do. A lot of people in the business have changed entirely. Record labels basically don’t put out records anymore, rather they do artist management and merchandising and publishing and things like that. [They're] focusing on other [ways] of working with bands and still have the potential to generate income.”
Changes in the music industry have forced Mint Records, like other labels, to revamp the traditional way of putting out music. One of the label’s suppliers, which has manufactured its CDs since 1994, is taking its last breath this year.
“We focus a lot more on putting out vinyl now,” said Baker. “We’ve been forced to cut back on the kind of investments we can make on projects. [In the past], we would’ve probably put out a record knowing that it was barely gonna break even, if that. But it was something that we felt passionate about doing. Now we may either not do that, or we may release it digitally only through iTunes, so we’re not actually incurring any manufacturing costs. It’s changed the way that we do things, for sure.”
In the beginning
Mint Records came to life in 1991 when Baker and his co-founder Randy Iwata came up with the idea of starting a record label after they left CiTR, UBC’s student-run radio station.
The early ’90s saw the growth of the grunge scene in Seattle, which had a huge influence on Vancouver’s music scene. Baker describes it as a vibrant time.
“There were a lot of new venues and up-and-coming new bands and people starting out. The whole punk thing had, at that time, gone by the wayside. We were getting new kinds of music and people were starting to explore. We certainly had no lack of material when it came time to find a band to work with,” said Baker.
At that time, Canada’s music industry was mostly based in Toronto, with branches of a few major labels in Vancouver. But despite being present, according to Baker, they failed to engage the local music scene.
“We recognized a bit of a niche, I suppose,” said Baker. “We weren’t the only people to do that at the time either.”
Baker and Iwata noticed the success of local independent label Nettwerk, but still saw a number of unsigned bands with potential.
“Here we got all these bands playing, people coming to see them and nobody’s really putting out their records. To be on Nettwerk, you had to be, at that point, reasonably well established. There’s a huge gap here with all these bands that we like, where are they gonna go? The majors won’t put them out and they’re not likely to be on Nettwerk,” Baker said.
“The goal was to just document what was going on in the music community in Vancouver at the time. There weren’t very many outlets for that. We were thinking there’s so much happening here, this sort of thriving community and unless you’re here, nobody will know about it. Our intention was to publicize it in the short term and document it for prosperity.”
Mint managed to achieve commerical success with artists such as The New Pornographers, Neko Case and The Organ. But Baker names the experience of working with Cub, one of its first bands back in 1992, as their greatest achievement.
“When Cub came out, that was us just learning and we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Baker. “If there were 10 things we needed to learn to run a record label, we probably learned nine of them.”
Cub went on to sell thousands of records across Canada, Japan, Australia and the U.S.
“In terms of a non-quantifiable success, I think that was our greatest success because no one really knew who we were. We were virtually unknown by the time we put out the Cub record,” he said.
“The first record was just a guy who recorded in his basement, didn’t know what he was doing. I think people initially considered their music to be juvenile and very poorly played. Their music provided a refreshing counterpoint to what was going on elsewhere and it really caught on with people.
“To be able to take something that basically came from virtual unknowns all across the board and make it into something where we were selling hundreds of records a week just in Vancouver and doing interviews on the CBC… That was when we really went from nothing to something. I look back on that with tremendous fondness.”
“Like any record label that has survived that long, through all the changes that have taken place in the music industry, [Mint Records] had moments of success and moments where they’ve encountered some resistance and they’ve come out of it intact. They still exist,” said Kaitlin Fontana, author of Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records.
While bands breaking up is always a setback for a label, Mint also had to deal with Cargo Records, one of its largest Canadian distributors, going bankrupt in the late ’90s.
“In an agonizingly long process. It took six months of us trying to get the money they owed us and eventually we didn’t get anything,” said Baker. “They took a substantial amount of money of ours down with them when they went bankrupt and we were unable to pay a lot of our artists the royalties that we owed them for some time. One of the artists on the label decided that they didn’t feel like that was fair and so they had to leave.”
Baker added that those things happen in most businesses.
“Those are very frustrating things to have to get over and in many respects they were difficult lessons to learn [but] they were valuable. I don’t think we lost hope, obviously we kept going but there were trials.”
The current trial the label is facing is digital downloads.
“Those are the kind of obstacles that, no matter how plucky and optimistic you can be, there aren’t really that many ways to overcome it unless you change what you do substantially,” said Baker. He remains appreciative of Mint’s customers, crediting them for Mint’s survival.
“We’ve been lucky so far because I think for the large part, the people who are interested in the music we put out are typically more in the mindset of a collector or someone who is part of a community,” said Baker.
“I think when people are primarily focused on things like Top 40 music, they don’t necessarily have some personal investment in what’s on the radio all the time. There’s perhaps less of a stigma about downloading that one song for free than there is if it’s your friend’s band and you know that they’re working three jobs to be able to play in a band and you like them and you want to help them out. I think that’s why, until recently, we suffered a lot less in terms of a decline in CD sales because of all of this.”
The label has also put more focus on a new approach to earning money: licensing songs for film and television.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that you could have one music use in a television or advertising situation that could probably pay more than the record could ever make in its history. For every one of those, there are hundreds that don’t get anything but it’s something that’s worth pursuing because there’s money there and there’s people that want to spend it.”
Another battle that independent music labels face is the number of people who see no use for a label, taking advantage of the internet to put out their music via MySpace or YouTube.
“Agruably anybody with an internet connection and Garage Band could put their music out for free,” said Baker. “But if everybody’s doing that, it sounds like a very democratic, wonderful type of situation but it also increases the general background noise. I don’t think people like being told what to like but I think people appreciate having guidance when there’s a million things to choose from. I think it’s meaningful to someone to be able to say ‘I like most of the records that I bought that are on Mint. Now they’re putting out another one, I’ll probably like it.’”
Fontana acknowledged the importance of Mint Records and the role it has played in Vancouver’s music scene.
“I wanted to write the book to point out that there has been this wonderful, underground scene and this wonderful pop scene in Vancouver that Mint Records has basically been chronicling for the last 20 years,” said Fontana. “If we ignore that, if we ignore the contribution that this label has made to the city, we’re ignoring a big part of our own culture and I don’t think that that’s a wise thing for any community to do.”
Baker hopes that Mint will continue putting out music that documents the scene in Vancouver, as it has done for the past 20 years.
“I think that there’s still a value to a record label,” said Baker. “I think as long as we could continue to find ways to put out music without just going bankrupt from doing it, that’s something that we’re always gonna do.”