Another year, another Record Store Day has been and gone, with this year marking the eleventh edition of the annual event set up to boost flagging sales and “celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store.” Undoubtedly the event provides a huge boost to the stores that participate, with most stores making the most out of the day with live music and even BBQs and the like, but the event is not without criticism. Large labels doing unnecessary gimmicky repress (Africa-shaped Toto picture disc anyone?) that clog up valuable time on already stretched pressing plants being just one of the issues.
More of an annoyance for fans is the sheer quantity of purchases that have been bought for the sole purposes of flipping on Ebay or Discogs, with just a cursory glance showing items like a David Bowie picture disc on sale for £320. For the stores themselves, though, a 484% spike on vinyl sales during the week is probably the only figure that matters.
That figure shows just how much physical music formats are in demand, and perhaps that’s why labels like APF Records have been doing so well in the UK sludge/stoner/doom underground, releasing a ton of fantastic albums from burgeoning talents in a variety of formats. Run by huge devoted metal fan Andrew Field, APF have built an impressive roster in a short space of time to become one of the scene’s most prolific names. Here he speaks candidly about the reality of running a label in today’s climate.
Tell us a little bit about your label and how it all started.
APF Records was born in early 2017. Since then we’ve released 20 albums and EPs. We’re a bit of a musical mongrel: whilst much of our output is stoner, sludge and doom metal we embrace anything that’s heavy and excellent – hence why we also have thrash and post-metal bands on the label, as well as the unclassifiable Under.
I had been toying with starting a label for over 30 years. When I left university in 1995 I briefly worked for EMI Records in London working in the press team on campaigns for Adam Ant, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Cliff Richard (haha!). I got a taste for the record industry and an understanding of how the music business works from that experience. The desire to do my own thing never went away.
In 2012 I got into the stoner/doom/sludge scene though discovering Trippy Wicked And The Cosmic Children Of The Knight on Spotify. I went to their shows, got to the know the guys in the band, and they introduced me to other groups like BongCauldron, Pist and Nomad – all of whom I loved, and all of whom would end up on APF Records. Many of these scene bands didn’t have record deals, or a way to get their music out into the world other than through self-releasing. I thought a fan with money and a bit of music industry experience might be useful to them. So I bit the bullet in 2017 and I’m really glad I did.
What are you currently working on?
At the time of writing I’m just about to release a thirteen-minute stoner doom epic track by Gandalf The Green called ‘A Billion Faces’, which is a precursor to an album they’ll be dropping later in the year.
I get submissions from bands looking to sign with APF almost every day. Most of them are good, every now and then one is excellent. But when Jack from Gandalf messaged me out of the blue asking if I was interested in signing his band and sent ‘A Billion Faces’ through, I was totally blown away on first listen. After a second listen I basically begged them to let me release it, and fortunately they said yes. I’m really excited about their potential: three lads in their early 20s who have already crafted something great, but you just know as they get older and find their feet they’ve got an absolute muthafucker of a record in them.
What was the first CD/record/tape you ever owned?
Out Of The Blue by ELO. I remember the day my dad brought that home for me. I was six years old I think. I was fascinated by the triple gatefold sleeve with the spaceship on it. I listened to that album endlessly during the late 1970s. Whenever I hear it I’m transported back to my childhood. Jeff Lynne was a musical genius. He wrote, arranged, recorded and performed most of this double album himself. Whilst he would never achieve the lofty heights of Out Of The Blue again, that record is one hell of a legacy he’ll leave behind.
What is the biggest obstacle you regularly come across whilst running the label?
There isn’t just one obstacle, there’s many! But the two biggies are streaming and money.
Spotify and its like are a double-edged sword – on the one hand it’s ace for getting your music on a platform where almost anyone can discover it, on the other hand it has meant that your average music fan no longer needs to actually buy what you release. I often get frustrated about this, but in the very same breath acknowledge that there are a great many bands and albums which I love that I have never bought because I can listen to them on Spotify. I know for a fact that some of the bands on my label could have made a load of money if Spotify didn’t exist. But as it does, they haven’t.
To release a sludge album on vinyl, CD and cassette (as well as digital) and have it distributed by a reputable company and have a PR campaign behind it so people find out about it… well all that costs around £5000. Unless people are willing to buy it, I can’t afford to release it. So when I’m talking to bands about signing with APF I’m continually trying to assess not just whether the music is any good, but in what ways people might buy it so I can break even financially.
Anyone who thinks there is money to be made in releasing niche music is kidding themselves. For a record label like mine, it’s all about getting to break even. And that is almost always a slog. I don’t do this for the money, I do it because I’m an uber-fan of the music and the bands I sign.
And what would you say is the most rewarding aspect?
I’ve thought long and hard about this. Every now and then I discover a band, I love them, sign them, put their album out, and people love it, and it sells enough copies for me to break even, and the band end up with a bigger following than before they signed to APF. That for me is “job done”. Mastiff are a case-in-point. Since I signed them in 2017 they’ve given me their Bork EP and Plague album to release. They’ve gone from being local heroes in Hull to having an international following, both those releases were good investments for me financially, they’ve been loved by press and fans, and the band feel entrusting me with their music has had a positive effect on them. That gives me a great deal of satisfaction.
What are some of your proudest moments or achievements as a label?
There have been so many over the last few years. Here are a few of them:
- The first time I held a CD in my hands with the APF Records logo on the back of it – Under’s Stop Being Naïve in May 2017.
- Having APF releases reviewed by publications I’ve read for many years including Kerrang!, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazine.
- Seeing APF bands playing major festivals: The Hyena Kill at Download, Blind Haze at Bloodstock, Mastiff and Pist and Trevor’s Head at Desertfest.
But the thing I’m proudest of is that APF Records is still here two years on. It’s hard work, this label lark. I’ve made many mistakes along the way and had to learn from them, and fast. The financial side of things has often kept me awake at night. But here we are, 20 releases later – solvent and continuing to do our thing.
How much importance do you place on physical products over digital?
Oh for me it’s all about the physical product. First of all, I’m from a generation where we bought vinyl and CDs a lot – so that informs my love of the CD and LP. But secondly, I make almost no money from digital releasing. How I recoup my investment in bands is through releasing desirable vinyl, digipak CDs and merchandise. If I only released music digitally I couldn’t afford to do this APF thing at all.
What do you think of the current state of underground/independent music, and where do you see it going in the future?
From a music lover’s perspective I think it’s in rude health. There are so many great bands out there making wonderful music. When I hear people say stuff like “there’s no new good heavy stuff out there” I roll my eyes. I’m 48 years old now, and as excited about music as I was when I was a teenager. Obviously the music business is in trouble on so many levels, but I have neither the experience or the brain power to comment on how that might be sorted out. I spend my time and energy enjoying the considerable amount of killer riffs being generated by the plethora of bands I come across, and figuring out how many of them I can put on wax.
What do you look for in a potential signing?
That criteria has changed somewhat over the last few years. Back when I started APF, I just wanted to sign the bands I love and put their records out and have a right laugh doing it. But I soon learned that basic maths comes into releasing music: if I’m spending £5000 putting out an album on LP, CD and digital with a PR campaign behind it and “product” available in the shops….. well, I need to sell £5000 worth of LPs, CDs and downloads to break even. And in an era where a lot of people don’t buy music any more, that’s a challenge. I can’t do that all by myself. The artists need to help!
So I look for bands who are properly dedicated, committed and hard working. That means giving up their time to and making sacrifices for their art. It involves them being all over social media like a rash. And it includes a commitment and willingness to book and play lots and lots of gigs (where people will happily buy their albums). If they don’t do all this, their album won’t sell. Simple fact. Trust me, I know. The one time I’ve lost a shed-load of money on a release is because the band weren’t on top of the things I mention here.
I do occasionally sign bands who don’t play live much, aren’t on Facebook and Twitter, and can’t or give up huge amounts of time for their band: but they don’t get the PR campaign or the vinyl, their release is only a small run of CDs and digital only, and you won’t find it on Amazon or in HMV. Tronald are a good example of that: killer band, made up of people who are all in other bands and thus have limited amounts of time for their “side project”.
What other current labels do you admire?
Holy Roar are the ones I keep an eye on. They had an amazing 2018 with Boss Keloid and Conjurer and others. I’m a big fan of Riff Rock Records because of Chubby Thunderous Bad Kush Masters and Tuskar, two of my favourite bands. I also admire Sludgelord Records, Argonauta, Ripple, Riding Easy, Magnetic Eye, Gizeh. Anyone who’s crazy enough to run a small label gets my admiration and respect.
If you could have signed one band not currently on your roster, who would it be?
Without a shadow of a doubt, Elephant Tree. I wish I’d started APF Records four years earlier so I could have offered them a deal when the band first formed. That way I could have released their Thea (2014) and Elephant Tree (2016) albums, and I would now be gearing to put their third record out later this year. Elephant Tree ring every single one of my bells: they write molten riffs, capture them immaculately in the studio, and then go out and make them sound amazing live. That eponymous 2016 album is my album of the decade so far, but I’m aware that the next one is going to trump it. If the stars align for them, Elephant Tree should be huge.
What can we expect from you in the future?
We’ve got albums to release by Possessor and Pist this year. There are plans to put a couple of our early CD releases out on vinyl. With sixteen bands on the label there is inevitably a load more to come from us. And I keep signing bands when I say I’m not gonna take any more on, so that keeps me busy.
What advice would you give someone who’s just kickstarting their own label?
When I started APF Records my main mentors were Christopher West (Superhot Records) and Leigh Jones (Riff Rock Records). Chris sent me a long email in early 2017 where he told me loads of things about running a label which all turned out to be true. But the one thing he said that stuck in my head was “make sure you’ve got loads of storage space”. My god he was right. I live in a small bungalow in Manchester, and pretty much every nook and cranny has a vinyl or CD in it.
What are some of your favourite tracks released on the label and why?
Desert Storm – Convulsion
The hardest working band on APF Records, Desert Storm tour like dogs. I have so much love for these boys. This is my favourite track from Sentinels: the chunky riff five minutes into the song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.
Mastiff – Black Death
As I get older my music taste gets heavier with each passing year. Mastiff were heavy enough before Plague, but I urged them to keep pushing that envelope. And they did. The closing track on the album, ‘Black Death’ is an endurance test. One I put myself through as often as possible.
Under – Malcontents
I am obsessed with huge dirty great big riffs of doom, and they don’t come much more apocalyptic than this one which opens Under’s second APF album Stop Being Naïve. Watching guitarist Simon Mayo play this just to me in a rehearsal room in Stockport was one of my highlights of 2018.
BongCauldron – Binge
The title-track of their 2017 album. Powered by Jason Hope’s drumming, over which Corky and Biscuit build and build the song to that lovely long and drawn out conclusion. I am a bit obsessed with this band. Borderline stalker. I’ve seen them live 35 times. How they’ve tolerated me for so long I’m not quite sure.
The Hyena Kill – Dare To Swim
Not everything on APF Records is sludge sturm und drang. ‘Dare To Swim’ is an achingly beautiful slow-burning rock behemoth featuring Stefanie Mannaerts of Brutus as guest vocals, and the best thing on their Spun EP which APF released in the spring of 2018.
Check out some of APF’s releases here.
Words: David Brand