Label Special: Esoteric Recordings
Interview Vicky Powell

“We always try to work from the original albums”

(July 2010, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures courtesy of Vicky and Mark Powell)

Many albums recorded in the past get a CD-reissue. A lot of them are cheap releases which mean they don’t have the extra album information and pictures where most music lovers are looking for. Those releases are a quick way of earning a lot of money. However, record companies as Esoteric Recordings take the time and the effort to come up with the best CD reissue possible. Label manager Vicky Powell was willing to tell us about the record company that she runs together with her husband Mark.

Can you tell me something about your personal background and your present-day function at the company?

Vicky Powell: “I worked in human resources for quite a long time and became involved in music when Mark went self-employed. He was doing catalogue work for the major labels and the band management. Mark had previously been the manager in a mastering studio and had worked in the business for around eight years. We initially set up Eclectic Discs in 2003 with the idea of doing great quality reissues that the major labels were not interested in or which didn’t make commercial sense for them. I started working full time within the business. We also managed Caravan and Nektar at that time and it gave us a label for releasing their new albums: The Unauthorized Breakfast Item and Evolution. In 2007, we started Esoteric Recordings and became part of the Cherry Red group of labels. Nowadays, I run the business on a day to day basis dealing with clearances, artwork, sleeve note writers, fans and marketing. Mark deals with the audio side of the business, liaising with our mastering engineers, making sure that correct tapes are recalled. Mark also decides on repertoire and about reissues and he liaises with many artists for new deals.”

Who started the label and who invented the name?

“Mark and I started the label and I came up with the name which means ‘something understood with an enlightened circle’.”

You were also behind Eclectic Discs who released reissues as well. What went wrong with this company?

“Yes, we had Eclectic Discs from 2003. Basically we hit cash flow issues when our main distributor for Europe suddenly hit problems themselves. They also held the majority of our unsold stock. So it was impossible just to continue working as we had without that cash flow and the stock not being returned.”

What’s the connection with Cherry Red Records?

“Esoteric Recordings is a label of Cherry Red Records. They deal with all the back office functions, payments, manufacturing and so on. We get to do the front-end initiation of the projects, liaise with artists, audio, artwork, concentrate on marketing and get paid to run that side of things. It has worked well for both of us, I think.”

You do a lot of research before you reissue an album. Is it difficult to get the old pictures and the information from the original albums to be used for the beautiful booklets?

“The albums can be quite expensive and we always try to work from original albums. Picture wise some releases are much easier than others depending on how much material there was on a band at the time. The same applies for photos. We are very lucky that we use Phil Smee for many of our releases and Phil himself has a terrific archive of pictures and magazines. Sometimes artists also contribute material for the booklets.”

How much time does it take before you actually release an album after the research has been finished?

“We usually put in for clearance many months before we are able to release, sometimes 18 months! Once we schedule an album in for release we start work on it. We do that eight weeks before release, because of the notice required by the distributor and then we have five weeks on average to get the audio prepared, the notes written and artwork finished before it goes to manufacture which is usually one month before the release date.”

You released the albums PFM recorded for Manticore. Do you intend to release the Banco-albums as well?

“Yes, that will be in August 2010.”
Release 30-Aug-2010
Banco - Banco
Release 30-Aug-2010
Banco - As In A Last Supper

Can you name your first release on Esoteric and some albums of other artists you also released or distributed?

“Our first title on Esoteric was the eponymous album of Rare Bird. Ironically it has also been one of our best selling titles.  We have around 250 titles now, so it would be a long list, but examples include Hatfield And The North, Soft Machine, Barclay James Harvest, Camel, National Health, Jack Bruce, Tony Banks, Supersister, Earth And Fire, Man, Keef Hartley and Hawkwind of which Cherry Red bought the catalogue between 1976 and 1997. We specialize in prog rock up to around 1984 mainly late sixties and seventies, but we have quite a bit of jazz rock and folk related titles as well.”

Is it difficult to get the copyrights?

“Cherry Red has very good long-term relationships with the major labels and therefore these labels are very happy to license to them as they know they get paid and accounted to. Some titles are easier than others, because of the paper work trail. In some cases it can be difficult, when rights have reverted to an artist, but no-one knows where that artist is! In some cases, we license direct from artists when they own their own catalogue. These kind of deals are always good to do, but there aren’t too many of them because - in all honesty - most artists from that period were tied into ‘in perpetuity’ deals.” 

How do artists react to new releases of their old material? Can you give an example of such a response?

“Some artists are really excellent to work with, especially guys who have never received a penny before, because they never recouped their arrangements with the majors. In many cases their work was repeatedly bootlegged. One example was the band Web. They now own some of their titles managed to get both royalties and publishing on a regular basis. I do remember a band member saying they didn’t know whether to frame their cheque or cash it!”

Does it occur that artists don’t like their albums to be released again? How often does it happen that other companies got the rights to release an album before you do?

“You do get an occasional artist who isn’t keen. The main reason is when they have their own label, but the major label will not license to them, because they have no track record of payments, statementing and so on. Also they aren’t entitled to the same royalty rate from the originating label if it’s licensed out as this was in many old contracts, but if it wasn’t going to be reissued anyway then I feel its better to make some publishing and royalties in some cases than none at all and it usually stops bootlegging. Yes, occasionally another label does pip us at the post to certain albums which is fine, I’m sure we do them!”

Do you have scouts who tell you about certain old albums worth to reissue or how does it work?

“No, we don’t as such. Mark is usually very quick on these things, but we do get lots of suggestions from label fans, some of which aren’t possible for both commercial and legal reasons.”

Do you handle certain standards for releasing old albums? I think you’re not going to release everything?

“Mark chooses the titles. It’s a mix of what he personally feels is a good album and a feeling that there will be enough sales potential for that album. Occasionally we will release an album that isn’t Mark’s taste, but we know it has a strong fan base. Many fans suggest albums that just would not have enough sales potential to make the project viable, as there are minimum pressings, artwork and mastering costs to consider.”

Do you remaster all releases yourself?

“No. The Audio Archiving Company does all our remastering and the two main mastering engineers there are Paschal Byrne and Ben Wiseman. Mark also uses them on his project work for Universal Music.”

Which albums and artists are the best selling on the label apart from Rare Bird?

“We have many albums with similar sales, but some best sellers would be PFM, Hatfield And The North, Hawkwind, Tony Banks, Camel, Jack Bruce box set, Soft Machine and Legacy, the John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest CD and DVD.”

Which artist is your personal favourite on Esoteric and which album are you most proud of having released?

“My personal favourite album is The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. It’s such a seminal album and a great one to have on the label. I’m most proud of the 6-CD full career retrospective of Jack Bruce the box set Can You Follow, which I thought was a beautiful work of art.”

Do you also release brand new albums and can we expect DVD releases in the future?

“We do new releases occasionally with artists who have a following such as the recent Harvey Bainbridge (Hawkwind) album Dreams, Omens And Strange Encounters, but Cherry Red’s main focus is to be a reissue label so we follow that.”

What do you think about burning CD’s and downloading music from the internet?

“The internet is a strange phenomenon. Clearly we will lose sales through some illegal downloading. However, we also gain sales through much easier and more affordable ability to reach fans through forums and social networking. I’m obviously anti illegal downloading; it rewards neither artists nor labels who put the work in. Many of these artists have very little income from music anyway. However I’m not anti downloading as such if it has a legal business model behind it. However, in all honesty within the business of reissues downloading tends to only account for about 9 percent of sales maximum. We belief that we work with a collectors market, many of whom tell me they still like ‘a physical product in their hands’. I have more of an issue over pirate copies of discs than I do downloading as customers don’t always realize they are pirates. Ebay, Amazon Market Place and Music Stack are the biggies for these. They’re usually a bit cheaper, but not so cheap as to seem suspicious. They are quite well done, but the main way to tell is that the inner ring on the back of the discs doesn’t have the factory name stamped in. I urge people to buy either direct from the label or via Amazon or from specialist mail order ones with an address that they know and trust CD services, Magpie, but not E-bay.”

Do you also make use of downloads on your website or do you sell only hard copies?

“No, we don’t have that many titles where we have full download rights, but the ones where we do are put through Cherry Red’s integrator IODA who service Amazon, i-Tunes, etcetera. On our Universal Music licenses they have the download rights and use their site ‘Lost Tunes’, using our remasters of their titles.”

How important are websites like Facebook and Twitter for selling music?

“I think the importance of a good mailing list matters more, but obviously having a decent website is helpful for fans and Facebook is useful is well. We do have Twitter, but I rarely use it.”

If you look back at the start of Esoteric Recordings: did your dreams come true?

“There are always good things and bad things. Having had the unpleasant experience of a business go wrong it was a pleasure to work with Cherry Red and feel there was support and it wasn’t all down to us. It’s hard work though and anyone who thinks we sit around listening to music and having a laugh would have a shock!”

Which new releases can we expect late in 2010?

“Not sure after September although we have a lot cleared but certainly there will be PFM Cook, a 3-CD edition, Soft Machine Alive and Well: Recorded in Paris (3CD), a gorgeous Ray Thomas (Moody Blues) clam shell box release of his solo albums with some promo footage, a 5.1 version of his album From Mighty Oaks and a new song. We will also be releasing a deluxe edition of Hawkwind’s Choose Your Masques, some Graham Bond and much more.”

Thanks for answering my questions and having an inside look at Esoteric Recordings!

“You’re welcome.”

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