Ipecac Records: “The industry can change, but we will continue to do our thing”
Just two months prior to the launch of Napster, the music industry of April 1999 could hardly have conceived of what was in store for it in the coming decade. By 2009 music became so devalued as a commodity that even the previously impervious 'Big 5' (Warner Bros et al) had felt the considerable heat of a shrinking marketplace.
Somewhere amidst that turbulent era arose an inspiring, original and principled independent label that continues to prosper to this day, thanks in no small part to a strict adherence to its founding priority of always putting the artists and their music first. That label is Ipecac Records.
Co-founders Greg Werckman and Mike Patton (of Faith No More, Mr Bungle and copious others) have guided Ipecac through difficult times in an uncertain industry, releasing some of the contemporary underground's most innovative and critically respected albums by artists as diverse as power-punk champions Melvins, experimental metallers ISIS, industrial rock pioneers The Young Gods, maverick soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, shapeshifting electronic duo Mouse on Mars and even The Kids of Widney High (a group comprised of mentally disabled school children from Los Angeles).
Though many of the names on their roster are familiar to alternative music fans, there are no cash cows in the field. Ipecac was a gamble but one that seems to have paid off, not least for the audience. “As Mike's manager, I was looking for a home for two projects of his, Fantômas and Maldoror," Werckman says of the label's foundation. "We were not finding any situations that appealed to us so I suggested we do it ourselves. We wanted to create an environment that would be completely artist friendly, where artists are involved in every step and to obviously make sure that they get paid fairly.”
Though Patton is the more renowned of the two (due in no small part to Faith No More's chart flirtations in their prime), Werckman had amassed considerable experience in the music industry before the two came together. Originally a booking agent for controversial figures that ranged from authors such as Timothy Leary and Hunter S Thompson to Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, he was soon offered a place at Biafra's acclaimed Alternative Tentacles imprint.
“I learned a tonne at ATR," Werckman recalls. "Jello Biafra puts the music and artists first, way ahead of everything else. So I learned that the best way to look at the label/artist relationship is that the label works for the artist. I also learned to not get sucked into standard "music industry" traps. Not to look at it as competition with other labels and to respect music as a form of art.”
Werckman's next move was, perhaps surprisingly, to major label Mercury where he undertook two years as an A&R representative. He is gracious in his analysis of those experiences, describing them as “brief and not very satisfying creatively but, as with every experience in life, I learned from it. I don't regret trying it at all and I was paid well and treated fairly.”
Ipecac's enduring business model (signing bands to one-album deals and paying comparatively large royalty percentages to those artists) has, by Werckman's own admission, invited some derision from lawyers and others in the industry. Yet he maintains that it is a viable arrangement, despite the huge financial changes that the sector has undergone in the last decade.
“Well, it's sustainable," he says cautiously. "No one is getting rich off of music sales here. The trouble with the business end these days is not about the deals we offer our artists, it has more to do with the fact that people do not like to pay for music any more. The other thing about the way we structure our deals is that we don't pay big advances, we can't afford to take huge financial risks. Instead the goal is to pay a healthy royalty rate and make it so the artist can get a royalty cheque every six months. We are not a star-making factory, but we can get your music out there. It does not work for everyone. It requires a lot of work on the artist's end as well.”
As to where he sees the future of Ipecac given the industry's ongoing state of flux, Werckman offers a refreshingly candid view. “Look, to be honest, we are not innovators of the music industry. We are not the smartest people in the business. We just love music and would love to continue to release unique music that we enjoy. In a perfect world millions of other people would like everything we put out, but the world is not perfect and that is okay with us. We have never been considered hip or trendy, and that is okay too. We are very proud to look at our catalogue of releases and see all the cool stuff we have released and all the great artists we have worked with.
"We are very fortunate and grateful that we have a die-hard fan-base that seems to enjoy a lot of what we do and they keep us afloat. We might not own any of the music we have released, we are just renting it, but it is very satisfying to know that the artists we work with have enjoyed working with us and we have been able to turn some people on to some cool stuff.
"I'm still excited about every new release we put out and love seeing the bands that come through town. I mean every time the Melvins come to town I get to hang out with them and see some of the coolest music ever made by some of the nicest people to walk the earth. So the industry can evolve and change and formats can shift, but we will continue to do our thing and see where the artists want to take us.”
Given how that attitude has benefited the bands and fans around Ipecac, we can only hope that good fortune continues to shine on Werckman and Patton's brainchild. For budding new DIY entrepreneurs, Ipecac are one of the regrettably few remaining guiding lights in the dark expanse of the music industry. Long may their weird, unpredictable but unarguably brilliant star burn.