Alter The Press!


Interview: Tom Beck of Walnut Tree Records

Alter The Press! recently talked to Tom Beck of small British independent label, Walnut Tree Records. In just over 2 years WTR has released records from Alter The Press!" favourites Portman, Waiting For Sirens (now known as Towers) and up and coming UK bands Bayonets and Tiger Please. The label also recently welcomed Viva Sleep to its roster.

In this in-depth interview Beck talks about the labels beginnings, the recent 'Un-Scene 5' compilation with Punktastic Records, his thoughts on the music industry, how the label nearly came to an earlier this year and much more.

ATP: So Tom could you tell us how Walnut Tree Records started? I understand it started out as a zine?
Walnut Tree Records: That’s right; it originally started off the back of my per-zine The Walnut Tree. I’d been reviewing releases and interviewing bands for a number of websites for a while but I wanted somewhere to house the pieces I was writing outside of music, especially about places I’ve been and the funny things I’ve seen, so started a small zine and sold them to friends and family and whoever would give me a chance on Punktastic. As such it wasn’t related to music at all, although the first draft I did had some quick reviews of bands like The Maple State, Armor For Sleep and strangely even He Is Legend, but I decided that others were covering music already and I wanted mine to be a bit more interesting. I then used the name, The Walnut Tree, to start a distro where I’d sell smaller American pop-punk releases to people in the UK at cost price. I had some pretty cool releases such as the Four Year Strong album, the Valencia album, Daggermouth’s first two albums and sold every single copy that I imported. Unfortunately a band called Rushmore Academy decided to take my money and never send me their CDs to sell – so I came out of the whole thing £70 down, it was pretty upsetting. The band would go missing for months between replies and then eventually broke up and I never did get that money back. I then lost interest in the distro and thought I’d try my hand at putting out my own releases by UK bands.

ATP: Why did you decide to form a label and stop the zine?
WTR: I wanted to be more involved in the whole process of finding new bands, working out their releases, promoting the finished products etc. I was working on a different genre of music in my full time job and was falling out of love with music a little and wanted that to change. This coincided with losing the money on the Rushmore Academy deal and I just sat there and thought that I’d be a better job at it and started looking for UK bands to help. The zine still continues in spirit though and I’m always pretending to write the next issue of it, but whether that’ll see the light of day yet I’m not sure. As it’s not music related I don’t think it’ll have any impact on the label.

ATP: Was running your own label a long time aim or did it just happened?
WTR: I can’t really pretend that I’ve always wanted to be running a label. I’d been involved in music for a number of years but never really thought about starting a label. I guess before finishing University I never had the money to do anything like this and just looked to write as much as I could, sell merch for bands, anything that didn’t involve spending my student loan quickly basically. Once I’d left university and started working I suddenly had more money than I’d ever had and starting a distro and then a label seemed like a good idea. Thinking back it was a good decision, as I’d have only spent that money on computer games and imported CDs.

ATP: How would you define Walnut Tree Records as a label?
WTR: Without trying to talk it down, it’s essentially a hobby for me and it will probably continue to be while it makes financial sense. I need to be working full time to support myself and I couldn’t rely on the label to do that right now. I’ve never wanted to borrow money to make this label possible and that’s really important to me. I’d love to follow in the footsteps of Mark at LAB Records and work full time at this, but I can’t see that happening. That doesn’t stop me being ambitious though and really giving this label a go. Take my first release out of the equation and I’d like to think that people see this label as being a credible way of finding some new and exciting UK bands out. I’ve taken on bands that don’t fit perfectly into one bracket and weren’t well known at the time and I’d like to think that I’ve given them all the chance to reach new audiences. Hopefully people realise that I’m not pretending to run this all conquering professionally run label, it’s just me in my bedroom / office trying to make it work.

ATP: In early days of the label you worked with No Order Records and Pep Rock Records. What did this deal involve?
WTR: I started off by working with Andrew at No Order Records – we were both interested in working with the band Paige and neither of us really wanted to stand in the way of the other and take the band. At the time it would have meant that one of us would have taken the “glory” and the other would still be looking for their first band and I don’t think we had the heart to do that to each other. I’m good friends with Andrew and I didn’t want to turn anything into a fight, so we thought we’d join forces and combine our ideas and our resources. The band were supportive of this idea as it meant twice the effort and a little more financial freedom. There wasn’t a deal as such, which was a little naive but I trusted Andrew and I can only assume he trusted me. I thought this would be a good way to get my foot in the door as a label and meant I wasn’t trying to work stuff out on my own. Despite the problems with the band itself the labels have always been on very good terms. Sadly No Order hasn’t released a record since, but I think that’s more down to Andrew’s career not really giving him the time to get involved in more projects.

The situation with Pep Rock Records for our Portman release is a very similar story. The band approached both labels and we all wanted to get involved and make the album a possibility. Pep Rock had already released the Down For The Count album in the UK and at the time I thought that working with them would only be a benefit for my label. Again the trust was there all round and this time it worked well because Portman were awesome guys to work with.

While both deals worked well at times, and struggled at others, I think they helped Walnut Tree Records take off and find its feet. I wouldn’t look to get involved in something similar now though, I feel I’ve come on considerably as a label and I’m more than confident in my own abilities to take full control over bands and releases and still get very good results. I also really enjoy the freedom of coming up with a new idea, and then 10 minutes later it’s implemented and we’re onto the next idea.

ATP: Since then you've signed bands such as Portman, Bayonets, Towers (formerly Waiting For Sirens) and more recently Tiger Please and Viva Sleep. Could you tell how you managed to work with each of these bands?
WTR: Portman are probably the most interesting of all of the signings. A few years ago now I was writing for a webzine called Static Domain and the editor sent me CDs to review. Just before leaving to go to Reading festival “Expired By Convention” by Dutch Oven turned up, I gave it a quick listen and absolutely loved it, wrote a great review of it and uploaded it to the site. I forgot all about it for a while and one night at University I went to see Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly at the Phoenix in Manchester and my friend pointed out that one of the tracks played by the DJ was by a band called Portman (who’d recently just changed their name from Dutch Oven). As they were unheard of at the time I thought I’d go and ask him how he knew the band…little did I know that he was living with Toby (Portman’s bassist) and they were stood next to each other. Introduced myself and was pretty shocked to hear that Toby knew exactly who I was and started talking about the review I’d written a while back. It was just one of those chance meetings and if I hadn’t talked to the DJ I would probably have never met Toby. I think he went and phoned all the band and I was lauded as a bit of a hero from day one for giving them such a great review. It was surreal. The band have treated me really well since then and they’re some of the nicest and most genuine guys you’ll meet. It took a few more years before the label started and they got back in contact again, and they were still as good as I’d remembered them.

Waiting For Sirens (now called Towers) were next up and it was a little more straight forward! They’d already recorded their EP and had been sending it around to a few labels (I think Pep Rock and No Order Records were amongst those!) and getting barely any response. I’ll be honest and say that the first time they contacted me I ignored it. I’m not a big fan of being asked to listen to new bands; I prefer to find them on my own time and make of them what I will. I then saw that they were due to support my first signing, Paige, in their home town and I thought I’d ask Paige what they thought and they gave glowing references. Thought I should then check out the EP and really enjoyed it when I did, and struck up a good relationship with lead singer Tom George. After going down to stay at his house (on the floor in the spare room!) and watching them headline Unit in Southampton I thought I’d go for it.

Toby from Portman had a big part to play in my signing of Bayonets. At the time I’d just had a low spell with releasing Paige and was desperate to move on and find a replacement for them immediately, but was struggling. He’d suggested checking out the Orange Act Unsigned website as you could search through bands by their influences. I was loving Manchester Orchestra at the time so thought I’d see which bands were influenced by them and the search result was pretty disappointing as only one band came back to me. I thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt….and was blown away within about 6 seconds. After a lot of msn chatting with bass player Matt I drove up to Hereford to see them, discussed football manager with Thom, and then drove back in thick fog and really wanted to be involved with the band. Luckily they seemed keen and I was able to put out their EP.

Tiger Please and Viva Sleep were signed practically on the same day and through the same path too. Tiger Please’ manager, Ryan, contacted me to ask if the band could be included on Punktastic Un-Scene 5 and I was really impressed with the band, their songs and their manager (this is important to me, especially after dealing with some horrendous managers with previous bands) from the off. Viva Sleep on the other hand, Neil from the band also asked me if they could be on Un-Scene 5 and I knew of him through his work recording Waiting For Sirens EP and was pleasantly surprised when I first listened to them and found they were exactly to my tastes. Neil especially loves bands like Hey Mercedes and I really hear that in their tracks. We let Un-Scene 5 run it’s course but during that time I was still talking a lot to both guys and was thrilled when they almost simultaneously (but unknown to each other) said they’d like their bands to work more with the label. Not only did I love the tracks that they’d both sent me, but they’d both been in bands in the past that I grew up listening to and really respect, so to have that respect back was a massive boost for myself and the label.

ATP: What do you look for in a band that you could possibly sign?
WTR: It’s pretty simple really – I just have to love the band and trust in them as people and what they want to do with their band. I never really consider whether I think that legions of other people will like them or not, I’m the one that will be putting the work in with them and it’ll be my finances…so if I’m happy to do it then it’s a good decision for the label. I’m sure that would change if this label was run strictly as a business and I had to worry about profits and breaking even to survive, but that’s not the case with Walnut Tree Records. It has to be enjoyable and if I don’t think that will always be the case then I’m happy to let the band find other labels.

ATP: Earlier this year you were thinking of closing the label. First of all what were the reason for this?
WTR: Mainly because I felt I was failing as a label. Despite putting out some really good releases, no one seemed to care in my mind. I was reaching the same dedicated group of people but those people weren’t enough to keep the label afloat and allow it to be enjoyable. I was struggling to get any coverage outside of Punktastic and Alter The Press (both have been saviours to this label at one time or another) and I’d hit a brick wall. It bummed me out to be honest and I’d sit there trying to work out new ways to climb that wall, and when they didn’t work I’d then think maybe I should be tunnelling under the wall, or trying to walk through it. I was trying everything and nothing was working. I had decided that I’d finish on a high with the Un-Scene release and would then tell everyone on September 1st this year that I was calling it a day. I was going away during that month so it seemed like a good time to call it all off and just enjoy myself.

ATP: Were there any events or motives that made you decide to continue the label?
WTR: I’d told all of my bands and they understood why I was making that decision. I’d also let slip to a few others and more than likely questioned the decision on twitter too, I do that a lot. Then out of nowhere Bayonet’s had coverage in Kerrang and Rock Sound and that’s when the labels fortunes turned. It meant a lot to me that people I really respected were getting in contact with me and were willing to help the label out too. It was a massive relief to finally have something to show for my efforts. I know that getting coverage in printed magazines isn’t the be all and end all of running a record label, but once that had happened everything else seemed to be falling back into place. You also find that a lot more people take notice of you once you’ve made that first impact. The whole period around that gave me a massive shot of confidence, which I really needed, and I’ve not looked back since.

ATP: You also joined up with Punktastic Recordings to release the 'Un-Scene 5' compilation. Paul (Savage of Punktastic Recordings) told me you came up with the idea. How did the compilation come together?
WTR: I’ve wanted to do a download release for a while and never really had the material to make that happen. With such a small group of bands there are only so many tracks we can give away for free before we’re all out. I’ve been a big fan of the Un-scene series since day one and remember how excited I was when some of my friends bands were being included, like Echo Freddy, and was always a little envious that I was never in a band to be included on such releases. I knew that Paul was looking to get back into releasing music and I’ve got a very good email relationship with him and just thought I’d see what he made of the idea. I was happy to do the bulk of the organising too as I felt it would be a great release for the label to be involved with. I can’t take credit for the charity idea though, that was firmly Paul’s take on the release and one I was only too happy to use.

ATP: You offered 'Un-Scene 5' as a 'pay what you want' download. What are your thoughts on this method?
WTR: With this release it was more of a “donate as much as you want” – as the download itself was free, but we encouraged people to help us support Everyman cancer campaign by donating something. I’m not a big fan of the ‘pay what you want’ method though, which will probably seem incredibly outdated to people. The way I see it is that you can preview a fair few records on Spotify or Myspace for free these days and that should give you a good indication of whether or not you want to have un-restricted access to it – if that then means buying the record for the price that the band or label sets then so be it. I’m sure it works well for a band like Radiohead, with their huge fanbase, but I can’t see it having the same impact on a band like Tiger Please.

ATP: Are methods like this are a strong sign of how the music industry is changing?
WTR: I guess so, but when has the music industry ever kept still? Despite what the critics says it’s still a progressive industry and the major label I work at in particular are at the forefront of many new approaches and adoptions of technology. I think people have this poorly founded opinion that major labels are reliant on just selling physical CDs and downloads, it’s so far from the truth though. I’m sure the music industry will change changed significantly by the next time I’m interviewed too.

ATP: Since starting label, how has your perspective of the music industry changed?
WTR: Very little really, but I’d say that’s because I was already involved in this industry before starting Walnut Tree Records. While I’m not the guru on the industry I still have a fairly good idea about how it works, the types of people you’ll encounter, the different paths to success etc. I was a bit naïve when I first started the label but I was always going to have to learn the hard way at times. It’s a massive benefit to the label that I’m working full time in music, it’s opened a lot of doors for me.

ATP: Do you think online services like Spotify and MySpace are becoming more influential or have potential of becoming more influential then traditional methods like CD, Magazines and Newspapers?
WTR: I think the services are playing a vital part in the development of the industry, but there is still a lot of emphasis placed on the availability of a physical CD by all involved in music. I can definitely say that Tiger Please have had considerably more interest as a result of having their mini album pressed than they’d have ever had if we’d only released their record on Spotify. I also wouldn’t talk down the importance of magazines and newspapers – while their readerships might be falling in some cases, you’ll be surprised at how many people see good coverage in magazines as an indication of whether they should be interested in the band. Tour bookers and promoters especially like to see that people can buy your CD in HMV, and that Kerrang say that you’re worth listening to, as then the chances are more people are going to want to pay money to see your band. I know that bands like You Me At Six have benefitted from a great myspace profile and fan base, but to take them up onto the big leagues they were also getting great coverage in magazines and had always talked about having an album for sale “soon”, which kept people interested. There is only so much you can achieve on Myspace and Spofity I think.

ATP: Your label has always made good use of using online press outlets (like ours). Do you think these are more important for a label like Walnut Tree Records?
WTR: As I said earlier, Alter The Press and Punktastic have been a huge help for this label and I’ve never really understood why labels haven’t made better use of the sites. The Alter The Press RSS and twitter feeds mean that the news will be read by hundreds of people in an instant and sometimes I’ve only just approached you about including it. Some of the larger webzines and magazines seem to have more barriers to entry and a time delay to factor into the equation, and there’s no guarantee that people will pay any more attention to that coverage. The thing I like about online press is the ability to integrate your news story with links to hear the band immediately and then be able to buy their release seconds later. It’s that instant access that you’d love everyone to have when you try pushing a band onto them. It worked a treat with me recently as I’d read the Pharaohs track by track on your site and then just instantly clicked through and bought their new EP, and 5 minutes before I hadn’t ever heard them.

ATP: As already mentioned you've recently signed Tiger Please and Viva Sleep. Is this a sign of a revival for the label and what can we expect from the label in 2010?
WTR: I hope so. I definitely have more of a plan about my label now and the confidence to make ideas happen. I’ve been talking to three bands recently about releases I’d like to be involved with and if they all come off then Walnut Tree Records is going from strength to strength. One release in particular might turn a few heads and I’m sure it’ll get the UK scene talking. If they don’t come off then I’ll get other opportunities. I just want to make sure that anything I do is right for the label and right for me as a person too, so if that means waiting a while then I’ll happily do that.

ATP: As a one-man label, do you have any advice for people who may want to follow in your footsteps and form their own label?
WTR: Stick within your means and make sure that you’re working with bands and managers that you can trust. For a one man label you’re realistically going to be running it as a hobby for the first few years (unless you’re loaded!) and you’ll want to make sure you’re enjoying it. I wouldn’t expect any immediate results or gratification either, it can take a while to find your feet and work out the different ways to get your label and the bands noticed. It’s not always going to work out for people, but if you’ve stuck to what you can afford then it’s not the end of the world. If you’re not happy to lose say £500, then don’t risk it by investing it into a release that you’re not overly convinced by, it’ll only cause you anguish if you don’t make that money back. Another good piece of advice is to use sites like Alter The Press, it works!

ATP: When you started the label, were there any labels that influenced you and your approach to running a label?
WTR: I think very few people will have heard of Calamity Records, but Dan put out a great compilation a few years back and that release definitely influenced me. The compilation included this great band called Cavil At Rest, as well as introducing me to Sherwood for the first time. Sadly he moved into other areas, but I still go back and listen to that compilation. I also took a lot of inspiration from No Order Record’s first compilation and the work of Paul’s Punktastic Recordings. They were more accessible than the likes of Drive Thru Records or Vagrant and showed me that the UK still had a lot to offer. Since the label has been up and running I’ve had great relationships with Rich at Scylla Records and Mark at LAB Records. I think those two guys realise that there isn’t this competition between the labels and that we’re all there to help and support each other. Both are doing a brilliant job too in their own ways and it would be great if they thought similar of me and my label. They were also really supportive when I had issues with my first signing and both have included my bands on compilation releases in the past two years. In terms of UK labels you’ve always got to look to BSM and the work that Kevin puts in too, and again he’s always up for helping you whenever you need it.

ATP: As a small label how difficult is it for your bands to be noticed without having large financial backing?
WTR: Having a larger pot of money would definitely help me out, but I’d like to think that my work with Bayonets and Tiger Please have shown you that you don’t always have to pump money into bands to get them noticed by magazines, managers, tour bookers etc. Okay so these bands haven’t broken into the mainstream just yet, but our work has definitely pushed them up a few levels. Hopefully they agree too. At the same time there are plenty of examples of where people have pushed money into bands and labels and they’ve flopped big time. The industry isn’t a meritocracy though and I’m sure having a shed load of money is always going to help you out, but you still need to be playing music that people want to hear at the end of the day.

ATP: Is there anything you would go back and change about Walnut Tree Records?
WTR: It would be very easy here to say “Yes, I wouldn’t have released the Paige EP”, but to be honest it made WTR a stronger label at the end of it. It also taught me to make sure that I surround myself with the right people in future and focus on the individuals involved with bands before committing myself. I didn’t enjoy any second of the experience though, and I came so close to just throwing it all away and that would have been a shame. It did show me thought that I had a lot of support from people, some of whom I would have never expected it from, and that’s why I carried it on. I’m proud of the rest of my releases though and think I did the best job I could at the time with them.

ATP: Who would be your dream signing for the label?
WTR: I think I should probably stick to the ethos of the label here and talk about UK bands, it’d be very easy to say Blink-182 and New Found Glory though in hindsight but I’d never have stood a chance with either. I’d have loved to have been involved with A’s album “A vs. Monkey Kong”, I still listen to that a lot years later. It’s one of those albums, like with my Portman releases, where you’ll find a lot to love on it but at the same time you can understand why people aren’t so keen. Jason Perry’s vocals are a bit grating it has to be said, but they sit well with me. I can’t forget “Learning to Play with…” by Captain Everything too, especially since I’ve seen John and Lew down at Watford games in the past!

If we were to include overseas bands then I could talk all day about bands like Hey Mercedes, Hot Rod Circuit, Piebald, The Junior Varsity etc. All underappreciated bands who would have benefitted from having a bit more support in the UK. Unfortunately they’ve all broken up now though!

ATP: Are there any final words you'd like to say to round things off?
WTR: Thanks to Alter The Press! for all of your support , it means a lot to myself and my bands. Keep up the good work!

Walnut Tree Records Online Store

Walnut Tree Records on Myspace

Walnut Tree Bands:
Tiger Please
Viva Sleep

Sean Reid

Alter The Press!