Vital Vinyl: Back on Black Label Founder Discusses Digital Downloading, Record Collecting + More
In 2004, music industry professional Steve Beatty started a record label whose sole purpose was to release remastered and improved versions of heavy metal classics, exclusively on vinyl. This was a few years before the “resurgence” of vinyl (for example, Record Store Day started in 2007) and smack dab in the middle of the digital downloading craze. A decade later, Beatty’s label, Back on Black, is stronger than ever.
Whether you’re a record collector or just a rock and roll fan, Beatty serves as a beacon of hope with his passion for music and willingness to take risks. Loudwire recently grabbed a few minutes with the busy label founder – Beatty also serves as co-owner of Candlelight Records and Plastic Head Music as well as bassist for October File. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and shares his thoughts on everything from record collecting to color vinyl to label executives.
Want a shot at scoring some records from Back on Black? Read the interview and then check out the contest below!
This year marks Back on Black’s 10th anniversary. How did you decide to start this label?
It was easy, to be honest. When digital downloading came out, I hated it. I genuinely hated it, that’s why I started the label. I grew up buying records and had the pleasure of collecting records and going to my local record shop. When people started saying you could have your entire record collection on your phone, I just thought it was horrible. It is rubbishing everything I love. My favorite band is the Stranglers, and just about the time I rediscovered my youth and started buying Stranglers records again, I was thinking about how you can get all this great stuff on vinyl. I didn’t even have a record player at the time. I rediscovered how much I loved buying vinyl and I thought, “I can’t be alone in this great pleasure.” I just decided to go and do it.
So when you started Back on Black, you didn’t have a turntable?
Not at the time, no. I went out and bought one. I was sitting at a record shop one day and I was buying a copy of Motorhead’s ‘Overkill,’ and it was on green vinyl, battered as f—k, it was unplayable. I thought, “Why would anyone want to buy this?” It was like an artifact and made me think of boring people buying records for their antique value. I had this idea of what I would like to buy. You know what? I really wanted Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ with all the never-before released tracks. If you walked into a record store to buy an old ragged copy of ‘Overkill,’ why wouldn’t you want to buy a brand new copy of ‘Overkill,’ beautifully remastered, tons of extra tracks, sleeve notes, artwork beautifully redone? Instead of taking vinyl as a backwards sort of thing, let’s really take a forward step into good-sounding production that we never had before. The artwork just amazes me when it’s more vibrant. We’ve got the technology to do it now. To my mind, I don’t think vinyl is a nostalgic market. Far from it. With the technologies available and the brains behind it, I think it’s the format of the future.
What does your process look like when releasing albums?
If I have an idea, I literally just see what’s available. I approach the labels that have the rights. There’s loads of stuff that’s never been on vinyl. When I did the deal with Universal to release the Thin Lizzy stuff, I asked if I could get the original tapes and if they were available. I always try to use the stuff as close as I can to the original. One day, I got this massive box – not even that well-packaged – and it’s this f—king big box full of the tapes. So, we got them remade and remastered. I couldn’t believe it, I was sitting there looking through this history in the box, smelling it, going, “This was made in 1978 and f—king Phil Lynott touched this.” It was really cool. The pleasure was trying to reinvent it and make it even better than it was. And it was never about pricing it high, I never was the guy spending 60 or 70 bucks on a record. My niece is 17 and she likes buying vinyl, and I want it to be in her price range.
Beyond the artwork and remastering, a lot of the releases are pressed on colored vinyl. How do you choose the colors for the albums?
I decide randomly actually. Absolutely randomly. If we are pressing something, I’ll just say, “Well we’ve done it in orange, we’ve done it in black, f—k it, let’s do it in clear.” I’ve taken some heat on that in some online forums because people say it’s a lottery because you never know what color you’re going to get, there’s just a sticker on the jacket that says “Color Vinyl.” I hate those people, because you’re buying music. If you want to buy vinyl because it’s an artifact or for its resell value, that’s not why I do it. As far as I’m concerned, if you open up the sleeve and you get a nice surprise, great, that’s a cool bonus. But what you actually should be buying is a really good record that you can enjoy looking at while you listen to it. If you just want something that looks cool, you can buy a colored set of keys and jangle them in front of you. I never meant it to be a geeky thing.
What were the first days of Back on Black like compared to where you’re at today?
I was in Norway, hanging out with some friends of mine. I was talking to a band called Red Harvest that I really liked. We just got to talking and the first record I did was Red Harvest and Enslaved. When I started, nobody was doing vinyl, nobody was interested in doing vinyl. I think that’s why I was able to build this label so quickly. I went around and talked to everybody, I was so committed to this cause, the anti-digital cause. Everybody was trying to talk me out of it. My favorite friend asked me why I was doing it and I told him because I like it! Enslaved had a lot to do with it because they loved to have their music on vinyl. All of them sold terribly, but I just persevered. It’s like Kevin Costner in ‘Field of Dreams.’ I saw that movie at the same time, and you know what, if you build it, they will come! We just kept on pushing it until people recognized what we were doing, you know?
You do a lot of different types of music, not just heavy metal or classic rock.
I’m nearly 50 years old. I grew up on original heavy rock stuff, then I fell in love with punk, I’ve always been in the middle of the whole encompassing bit of music. I love all rock music. I’m enjoying reinventing records.
You even press Pete Seeger!
I don’t really like Pete Seeger, but a friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in doing it. I looked into what he did and who he was and thought it was a worthy thing to do. Look at the aspect of running a record label: You can sit around and indulge in what you like or you can sit around and do something else, and take on something that’s sort of an unknown. That’s a challenge to make it better, you know? I’m not 16 anymore, I like so many types of music now. A friend and I were just listening to Rush, then The Stranglers, then Bad Manners. Then my friend went home for some reason. [Laughs]
Is there a record out there that you’ve yet to get involved with?
I’m trying to think of think of something I haven’t done. [Laughs] My favorite one, and my favorite rock record of all time is Motorhead’s ‘Bomber.’ I remember sitting listening to the test pressings and the original vinyl and thought, “F—k you, I made it better!” It’s fun to have the opportunity to make a better thing. If I was a Motorhead fan and I got my copy of ‘Bomber,’ I’d think, yeah, I f—king love this.
It seems like vinyl is always a gamble for new bands, yet they’re still releasing music on the format today. Why do you think that is?
They’re diluted. What really ruined music was the access to music, oddly enough. The great thing about record companies was that when a label saw a band and thought it was great, they’d put them out. Now a band can put out 10 songs and have an album. The marketplace isn’t worthy. It used to be, if you got signed someone would have to put money into you and believe in you. Today, if you can’t get a record deal, you can still put out vinyl. It’s getting drowned, it’s getting ruined. Not everybody is worthy of success and worthy of everyone’s attention. Putting yourself on a certain format that would generally get you that attention and success is the wrong way to do it. Anybody can press a record. All you have to do is just get it made.
What do you attribute to the resurgence of vinyl?
Hype. Anybody can put an mp3 up, everybody has a Bandcamp, everybody has a website. And anyone can press a record. Why do you need record labels when you have a Bandcamp? No one is helping you get press, no one is helping you book shows, no one is giving you their expert opinion. You’re missing that without a label. You know, I have a skill that I’ve gotten working in the music industry for 30 years. Not everybody who runs a record label is a pony-tail wearing, cigar smoking, two 12-year-old Swedish girlfriends scum bug who is trying to rip everybody off. The people I know with labels just want to be really, really involved with music.
What’s your favorite record of all time?
The first Stranglers record ['Rattus Norvegicus'], without any hesitation.
What’s your personal record collection look like?
I’ve got everything from Buddy Holly to Motown to The Stranglers to Motorhead to Discharge to Venom. I’ve got about 1,500. I always clean out. I give records to my friends because I think they’ll like them. I tend to keep the stuff that is obscure. It’s like books, I’d rather someone enjoy it than let it sit on my shelf.
Is there a white whale out there for you?
No. I’m not a record collector. I’m not into the artifact collecting issue. I like going to record stores. I like buying the record that I hear playing when I walk into stores.
I love record stores, too. It seems like while some cities see more stores popping up, others see long-time shops closing down. I immediately think of Bleecker Bob’s in New York City.
It was a dump, though. You should clean up and buy a f—king Hoover. You can present your records in such a way that people might want to buy them, not just a load of junk in the corner. This shouldn’t be a junk shop, it’s a f—king record store. You should have nice turntables. You should have a knowledgeable staff.
A staff that helps you find new tunes, right?
If you like this, then you’ll love this, exactly. The great thing about music is word-of-mouth. When you talk to friends about how good a record is, that’s what is so great. That’s what’s exciting. I want the records to be available to middle-class people, not well-off people who collect artifacts. I won’t pay 50 pounds for a record. Music should be affordable. It should be good quality. It shouldn’t be out-of-reach of people. Why would I want to make something my niece can’t afford?
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