“I have my music teacher to thank for my musical tastes. He played Pentangle's Basket Of Light during one lesson and it was a revelation. I'd been listening to the usual musical fare, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, but the Pentangle were different.”
So says John Blaney, head of Britain’s Mega Dodo label, and if the child is truly the father to the man, then that long ago music class has a lot to answer for. Today, Mega Dodo ranks among the most challenging, fascinating and gratifying independents around - small enough to feel lack family, but making a big noise every time another record creeps out.
Ten albums and a clutch of 45s (including the vibrantly percolating singles club (of which more later) hallmark the label’s output to date, but lest cynical eyes should graze across their best-known artists… Crystal Jacqueline, Beautify Junkyards, Will Z, Mark and the Clouds, Mordecai Smyth and Octopus Syng… and ask themselves “who are they?”, live albums from heroes of more historic climes prove that the Dodo has a long memory.
Brinsley Schwarz captured at a mid-70s high, and Tir na Nog taped just last year on the back of their stellar comeback are both hallmarked by an intense love of past pop, and the boy who spent most of 1976 saving to buy the newly reissued Beatles singles is now an integral part of… well, vintage fans might berate the quality of “modern music” with the present’s penchant for rediscovering the rock of past ages, but there’s a bunch of subsequent generations out there who need to hear this stuff for real, and not just as a squeak from their mp3 player.
Plus, in the Dodo’s nest, the new stuff is damned good as well, critically lauded as the peak of the new breed of psych, but delving deeper and further that as well.
It was while he was working in a record store shortly after leaving school that Blaney first considered starting a record label.
John Blaney: “I formed a band while I worked in the shop, nothing serious, just because I could really. We recorded a couple of songs at a local studio and were going to put out a single. Nothing ever happened. Over the years I had several ideas for labels but it all seemed so mysterious. How exactly did you do it? Even having worked in a record shop for years, I didn't have a clue. So nothing ever came of it.
“Then many years later, my friend Mordecai Smyth gave me a CD of songs he'd recorded and I thought that the best of it would make a really good album. I offered to help him get it released and then insisted that it be released on vinyl. We were starting a record company after all, and record companies are supposed to release records.”
Spin Cycle: Was it easier/harder than you expected to get off the ground? I'm assuming you did tons of research, and then discovered the reality of putting things in motion was nothing like you expected
JB: Getting records made is easy. The difficult part is selling them. When we released the first album and single on Mega Dodo, my thinking was twenty years out of date. It proved to be a lot more difficult to sell 300 copies of an LP than I thought possible. And to be honest, it still is. We were lucky that the first distributor I approached signed us up. As did the distributor we have in Europe. To be honest, much of what's happened has been through contacts, chance and good fortune. There never was a plan and there still isn't. It's almost impossible to plan, because you don't know what's going to fall into your hands. If something great comes along, you run with it and hope for the best.
SC: Who were the first acts you worked with?
JB: Mordecai Smyth was the first act on the label. He struck up a friendship with Icarus Peel and I made contact with Marrs Bonfire. Mordecai and I appeared on his radio show and ended up meeting Icarus and Jacqueline. Icarus played us Crystal Jacqueline's Sun Arise album and it sounded great.
I offered to release it and organize a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the vinyl edition and that's what really got the ball rolling. After that pretty much everybody has approached me. I've approached a few of the more established acts and I've been very fortunate in that they've all agreed to be on the label.
SC: Tell us a little about the earliest releases - how you went about building a name for the label
JB: Having said that I don't have any plans. I have always had long term goals. ‘Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey’ is my motto. Right from the start, it was about maintaining high standards, both musical and visual.
If an act spends a lot of time and energy recording an album then any record label worth its salt should spend as much time getting the packaging right. I think the label does have a visual consistency but I'm not sure there's a Mega Dodo style.
I like to think that the artwork is as good as we can get it on the budgets we have to work with. I have a background in art history and like to think I have a good eye. We've always tried to do something a little different with the packaging, even on a tiny or non-existent budget and I'm very aware of the whole record collecting fetish. While the label hasn't deliberately pandered to collectors, a lot of what it releases will become collectable simply because it's produced in relatively small quantities. But the most important factor is that the quality of the music has been consistently high. I don't think the label has released anything to be embarrassed by.
I'm proud of everything the label has released and with one or two exceptions, I don't think there have been many labels you can say that about.
SC: You've clearly started to expand the label's horizons with the Brinsley Schwarz album. How did that come about, and do you have any other archive-type releases planned?
JB:I wrote a book about Pub Rock a few years again and got on well with Ian Gomm. Ian was in Brinsley Schwarz and is to the Brinsleys what Bill Wyman is to the Rolling Stones. He has a large collection of memorabilia and the masters to several recordings made by the group.
I knew he had a good quality live recording of the band and asked if I could release it. Ian agreed, I had it edited and mastered and put it out. At around the same time I made contact with the BBC to ask about licensing some recordings that Viv Stanshall’s biG GRunt made for the John Peel show. That will be coming out in August.
There's also an album by Fire in the pipeline and hopefully another Brinsley Schwarz album. It would be nice to license some more recordings from the BBC, but it's pretty expensive and, if major record companies are involved, it can be somewhat protracted.
SC: I'm guessing that labels like Mega Dodo exist in a world where things like chart positions and radio playlists aren;t even a consideration. How does this differ from how earlier indy labels viewed things?
JB: I think most independent record labels don't even consider things like hit records, and probably never have. If they come along, that's all well and good. But hit records come with their own unique set of problems. Most Indies just don't have the wherewithal to cope with a surprise hit.
I suppose these days it's a little easier, because it's mainly downloads and if it did happen you could always licence it to a bigger label. But I'm pretty sure Chess Records didn't spend hours fretting about whether or not the new Chuck Berry single was going to be a hit. That was probably the same for any number of independent labels, Motown being the exception. And when an independent does start chasing hits, as in the case of Stiff Records or even Rough Trade, it usually comes to a stick end.
That's not to say that I don't want the labels acts to sell more records, but I can live without the hits.
SC: The majors complain constantly about illegal downloading, online streaming and sundry other piratical antics. Indies rarely do. Discuss....
JB: Tom Robinson made a very good point. If a million people take the trouble to illegally download your songs, you're doing something right. That's a million potential fans you have. A million potential fans who just might pay to see you perform or pay for your next release. You can't buy that kind of exposure.
Sure you've lost some income in the short term, but any record executive with any sense would see it as all part and parcel of developing the act. In the long term, those lost downloads have the potential to create a fan base that will stay with the act for years to come.
All of the majors have short term goals, they always have. Just look at the way Capitol viewed The Beatles. ‘The bubble is always about to burst, so let’s grab as much cash as we can before that happens.’ They ignore the long term at their peril.
To be honest, major record companies are screwed because in fifteen years time, nobody is going to want a multi-boxed set of Kayne West outtakes; not that there will be any, because most 'pop' music is made on a computer rather than by a group of people performing around some microphones in a studio.
The record business always has been very conservative with a few exceptional mavericks – most of whom were forced to work outside the mainstream. It was slow to adopt CDs and even slower to embrace downloads. I have no sympathy for the majors. If they'd got their act together and embraced the technology, rather than try and sue every fourteen year old who dared to download a Metallica song, the music business would be in a much better state than it is.
SC: At the same time, one can hardly imagine a major label launching something like the Mega Dodo Singles Club - four exclusive 45s by four different bands, released over the course of the next 12 months, or thereabouts. So far we’ve had the Honey Pot (Crystal Jacqueline, Icarus Peel and pals)’s “Lisa Dreams” and Octopus Syng’s “Reverberating Garden No.7”; what’s next, and how does it work?
JB: Club membership is limited to 150 lucky people, with the price of membership including all four singles and postage for each single throughout the year. Apart from the two singles so far, they’ll also receive a Singles Club box, a membership card, a cigarette card, a download code, and a pet bee. The next two releases are limited edition singles by The Luck Of Eden Hall and Us and Them.
SC: Mega Dodo also has what looks like becoming a thriving publishing wing. Tell us about that, please.
JB: Mega Dodo has recently moved into publishing books and songs. I like a good book as much as I like a good record. You can get lost in a book as much as you can lose yourself in a piece of music. So far Mega Dodo has published the first volume of my George Harrison discography, and later this year it'll be publishing the debut novel by Nico Lee A Good Lie Ain't Easy.
I'm also dipping my toes into the world of music publishing and have signed up several writers. Who knows where it will lead? Somewhere interesting, I'm sure.