14 years ago, 18-year-old Matt Jacobson dialed Germany from a Kinko's fax line. On a hunch, he asked to speak to the CEO of Nuclear Blast Records, a German heavy metal record label, and asked if he could open and run its American distribution satellite office. He had no experience, no college education, nothing at all to offer except one strange conversation with a man named Bob Rob. "I don't know why I thought I had any chance of doing this," Jacobson recalls. "I was an 18-year-old kid with no perspective. But I got them on the phone and we started talking and it began a dialogue where they ultimately agreed to let us open their US office." What resulted kick-started the development of a little record label called Relapse Records. Today, the Philadelphia-based company is one of the premiere extreme music record labels in the world.
Matt Jacobson's office at Relapse Records headquarters in Upper Darby has no windows. His desk is in a room he shares with two other employees. His work attire consists of shorts, a t-shirt and bare feet. What you'd never guess just looking at him is that he owns the entire operation. He is still the president of the company he started back when an office was unfathomable.
When Relapse first started in Aurora, Colorado in 1990, Jacobson was an 18-year-old kid fresh out of high school with no plans for college. "There was a guy named Bob Rob, who put out a lot of local hardcore shows and put out seven-inch records. He had a record label called "Don't Accrue Records.' It was all straight-edge hardcore and one day I thought, "Well, geez, if he can put out records, I guess I can too,'" he says. "I just called him up and said, "Hey, how do you press a record?' He told me look up this guy in the phone book, and I started saving money and put out my first seven- inch of my friend's hardcore band."
Jacobson was also heavily into tape-trading, the main way people heard of new bands before the internet, especially in heavy metal circles. Tape-trading, incidentally, was also a convenient way to network for a would-be businessman. From his tape-trading friends, Jacobson heard that Nuclear Blast Records was looking to open an office in the US. So Jacobson called them up at 3:30 in the morning his time and offered to do it. Although the relationship has since dissolved, "That really got us our distribution and really excelled the evolution of our company," says Jacobson. "When our first CD came out [in 1991]--Suffocation's Human Waste -- it was distributed by Important Record Distribution, which was the biggest record distributor in the country."
The distribution of his records to a wider audience enabled Jacobson to take Relapse beyond being simply a profit-driven company. As Jacobson explains, "To me, Relapse is more than a hobby and it's more than a business, to some degree it's a creative expression, like we're creating a general aesthetic and a perspective and a viewpoint for music fans. It's frustrating for me when it feels like its all nuts and bolts and there's less of the creativity there."
Jacobson's "creative expression" has resulted in what has become known as "the Relapse sound." "I can't put it into words and I can't put my finger on it," he explains, "but there is some sort of thread that runs between. You'll see press saying something sounds like a Relapse band or something like that, and it's one of those strange things where you can't put a specific definition on it but it somehow exists. It's kind of quirky or left of center or just somehow doesn't fit like everything else does."
There are about a hundred different ways you might have heard of Relapse without ever having purchased a record or seeing its logo. Besides distributing a handful of other labels through its mail order catalog and website (www.relapse.com), the company opened a store right off of Philadelphia's South Street in 2001, and places advertisements in national music publications like Revolver and Alternative Press. But while few outside of extreme music circles know of Relapse, it is starting to become more prominent. The company is home to a roster of influential artists that publications constantly cite as the future of music (Alternative Press's April 2004 list of the 25 most important bands in metal named six Relapse bands). While the label cemented a reputation over the years, record sales did not always follow. But now some of its bands are finding it much easier to reach new fans, and sales reflect the change.
When The Dillinger Escape Plan released its new album, Miss Machine, on July 20th of this year, it sold over 11,000 copies in its first week, the highest debut in Relapse Records history. Over a month later, Mastodon's Leviathan moved almost 9,000 copies and joined DEP in reaching the Billboard 200 (#139 and #106, respectively). To put these numbers into perspective, the still-reigning top seller in the label's catalog--Amorphis's Tales From A Thousand Lakes--has shifted an estimated 150,000 to 180,000 copies since its 1994 release. Both Miss Machine and Leviathan were the company's first releases to hit the Billboard charts, the go-to for music industry professionals when it comes to gauging mainstream success. But most of the label's other bands will never come close to selling that many records.
One of the company's most recent signings is Zombi, a two-piece outfit from Pittsburgh that plays solely instrumental music based on 1970s horror films -- by no means a marketer's wet dream. "It's a lot easier when we put out a straight-forward death metal album because you know which magazines and which radio stations and which places like death metal and you can kind of plug it into those places," Jacobson says. "But when you put out something that kind of crosses boundaries and is hard to label, it's tough to know where to put it, and it's either difficult or impossible to market or just incredibly expensive." Zombi's Steve Morse adds, "Relapse has been excellent in trying to work with us to achieve a market persona we feel represents us, though we aren't quite there yet. Once more people hear our material, I think our distinct sound will speak for itself, and the market will essentially decide how to label us."
"A lot of times," says Jacobson, "we have bands that we really love and really believe in, but it's hard to categorize them, and bands that are hard to categorize are usually hard to market, and hard to market means they don't sell as many records. But it doesn't mean that they're not an incredible band, and that's usually first and foremost what's important to us. We're trying to have the balance of art and commerce and we're trying to sign bands that we love and we think are doing incredible or amazing new fresh things. We hope that other people will see it the same way, and that [the albums] will actually sell also."
The model has thus far proved successful, the label has been more and more successful every year since its inception, allowing it to develop and nurture bands like Zombi while other artists carry the economic load. Head publicist Carl Schultz explains, "We strive to get the absolute most out of the resources that we have in every scenario. We're always looking to further things for the artist(s) and roster while simultaneously adapting to, and handling, the challenges that present themselves based on our independent status."
With the constant expansion of the company, however, these challenges are exponentially more complicated than when Jacobson was simply an innocent kid 14 years ago. In fact, with two bands nearing mainstream success, the days of Relapse as simply an alternative viewpoint for music fans are over.
In 1994, Relapse was still building its foundations. At the same time, death metal rose in popularity, thanks in large part to media attention. The economic wheels at the major labels started churning, and slowly but surely they came beckoning, trying to capitalize on the burgeoning scene. Giant Records -- at the time one of the biggest record companies in America -- signed Morbid Angel. Earache Records, a small independent label that built a cult following around such acts as Napalm Death in the late 1980s, signed a distribution agreement with Columbia Records. While Morbid Angel's Covenant became the best-selling death metal record of all time, shifting almost 200,000 copies, the Earache deal was a complete disaster for the label and its artists. Soon after, the genre of extreme music took a nosedive. MTV and radio abandoned it, sending the music back to the underground.
During these lean years, however, Relapse continued to sign bands like Neurosis (who went on to play the original version of the Ozzfest in 1997), Today Is The Day and Nile, all three of whom put out records that sold steadily and generated critical buzz. But now the genre is at its strongest in years. Lamb of God recently released its debut album for Epic Records, part of Sony/BMG, the second biggest record company in the world, and major labels are once again interested in signing extreme bands, particularly the ones on Relapse's roster.
So it would not be a leap to suggest that major labels would seriously look at signing bands like Dillinger and Mastodon, and vice versa -- in fact, that has already happened. As Jacobson elucidates, "Dillinger Escape Plan felt before this record that they needed to be in a place that could do bigger and better for them. They really wanted to go to a major label. But the reality was, at the time that was especially the worst period in the record industry, where all the major record labels were suffering financial losses, where all the major labels were downsizing, cutting staff, consolidating, dropping bands, freezing budgets, so the climate wasn't very good for it."
More important, he says, "It had been five years since they'd put out a record, so while their profile was strong, it wasn't like it was big enough to get the attention of a lot of A&R guys [artist and repertoire: employees of record companies who serve as liaisons between the company and its bands] at major labels, so there were some that were interested but none that were interested that had the budget to back up their interest. So as a result, we really just ultimately worked out things with the band to make them feel more comfortable about our abilities."
"One thing that I have realized over the years," says Dillinger guitarist Ben Weinman, "is that major labels and independent labels aren't really any different. The only difference is that major labels usually have more money, which in turn equals more resources. Both independent and major labels take about the same percentage from the artist, and both sell the CDs in the stores for about the same price. The bottom line is that majors have the ability to put much more money into things like marketing and promotion, which in turn gives a band much greater exposure. But because there is so much money invested into the artist, the records need to be more single-driven. Because of this, independent labels usually give the artist more creative control. Of course, that is all relative to the situation."
Relapse, however, has been able to do a lot for its bands recently. The Dillinger Escape Plan will embark on a headlining tour sponsored by Hot Topic, while Mastodon earned a slot on the Jagermeister Tour, opening for Slayer and Killswitch Engage. Both bands saw their videos premiere on Headbanger's Ball, which Mastodon co-hosted as well. Major publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and even the New York Times reviewed the new Dillinger record.
Keeping these bands once their contracts run out will be a difficult, if not impossible, task. In one of the most famous examples of an indie band signing with a major, R.E.M. left IRS Records in 1988, purportedly signing with Warner Brothers Records for six million dollars. While neither Dillinger nor Mastodon will court that kind of response, the likelihood of them leaving to try and make more money is as simple a business decision as those Jacobson makes every day. After all, as Weinman says about his band, "We're at the point right now where hopefully soon, with this record, if things go well, maybe we can, with a lot of touring, support ourselves a little bit, but it's certainly not a situation where we're making money at this point."
Jacobson is more than aware of the possibility, but is not necessarily as worried about the possible effects as he should be -- in fact, the question brings a smile to his face. "I think that it's really going to depend on timing and how far the band goes in a certain period of time. But if that happens, that may not be the worst thing in the world, because if the timing is right, and if the major label is truly behind them, which is always a question, it could really work out best for everyone. If, to some degree, a band becomes really successful and moves up to a bigger label, we put out what will probably be their classic records and great records and we're proud of that."
Perhaps he knows that despite the ever changing musical landscape -- which, at this point, has catapulted two of his bands to new levels of success -- the label has positioned itself to withstand such losses. That position has nothing to do with breeding more successful acts to sell off to major labels, but rather sticking to his plan. "A lot of labels, the owners or A&Rs of the smaller independent labels sometimes kind of get stuck in what it was they grew up on or what it is they're used to, and in the meantime, everything around them changes completely, and it depends on how you're looking at it. From a business perspective, that can be dangerous for your business, but from a fan's perspective that's just fine," he says. "I want Relapse to be relevant but I don't want [it] to be relevant at the expense of putting out crappy bands that we don't like"