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Setting up a record label in a global pandemic is perhaps not the wisest thing to do. And yet, against all odds, Employed To Serve singer Justine Jones and her guitar playing husband Sammy Urwin have managed to do just that.
Their decision to do so followed the traumatic closure of Holy Roar – the influential UK label to which Employed To Serve had been signed, prior to inking their deal with major label Spinefarm – in September 2020.
Having worked at Holy Roar for eight years and with a small stake in the label, Justine was acutely aware of just what its collapse represented to its key artists, a number of whom had albums ready for imminent release. Both Justine and Sammy felt obliged to try and salvage the situation and, admirably enough, they managed to do so in the space of just a few days.
Sammy had already established Church Road Records as a respected mail-order business, the guitarist using it as an outlet to sell a carefully curated selection of records he liked personally, ranging from classic hardcore and death metal long-players through to fellow contemporary cutting-edge acts. Transforming that existing business into a fully-functioning label seemed to be both an obvious move and one that came with its own challenges.
“Basically, we did everything in reverse,” reflects Justine. “We rescued albums by Svalbard, Palm Reader, Respire and Wowod – so four releases that I took over. We basically thought it made sense to do that under the Church Road name because it already had a webstore and, more importantly, a logo! Sammy was more than happy for me to take the reins from him and get on with things, so I quickly registered the company and set things up.”
As well as the administrative considerations involved, Justine also had to deal with the more mundane practicalities of starting a label in double-quick time.
“Annoyingly all of the album artwork had been printed when usually it’s the last thing to get produced, so I got 3,000 stickers printed to re-purpose the artwork. We got Sammy’s sister, his mum and Liam from Svalbard re-stickering the stock with the Church Road logo,” she smiles. “I also had to transfer all the digital releases. I had to set up an account with [digital distributor] Tunecore so I could get everything up online. Within a week we were up and running. I don’t mind saying that it was very difficult emotionally.”
The speed at which Justine and Sammy worked was impressive, meaning that a number of artists with albums already pressed were able to release them in good time. Two of them – When I Die, Will I Get Better?, the third album by Bristol crossover crew Svalbard, and Sleepless, the fourth by Nottingham post-hardcore outfit Palm Reader – were released to universal acclaim, both appearing in Kerrang!'s Top 50 Albums Of 2020.
Six months on from its chaotic beginnings, Church Road Records now has a reputation as one of the most consistent and forward-looking labels in heavy music. The key to the label’s development is its sense of identity based on a roster that reflects its owners’ tastes.
“Sammy and I like different things. He’s maybe more into death metal and that kind of thing, and I like heavy stuff but I also like a lot more varied stuff like post-rock, shoegaze and grunge. But I think you can see that there’s common ground with what we sign, even if the bands all sound different,” says Justine, underlining the collaborative spirit that defines the label’s output.
Far more than a passion project, Church Road – actually named after the street where the couple live in Woking - has grown at an impressive rate, forcing Justine and Sammy to expand the way they work beyond the confines of their spare room.
“Everything was located in the back bedroom, but we’ve had to outsource our mail order to Awesome Merch because we had boxes everywhere and it was basically a fire hazard,” she laughs.
Buoyed by a subscription club that allows fans to receive the label’s new releases every month in either digital or physical form, Church Road already has a slew of releases planned for the rest of 2021 with albums by Epiphanic Truth, Cruelty and Celestial Sanctuary available for pre-order available via their site.
“We want to continue to build on what we’ve started,” says Justine. ”There’s no get-rich-quick scheme, it’s just about hard work and being persistent. And it’s all about loving music. At the end of the day, I’m a glorified music fan and I’ve turned that into a job.”
As the second subject of our We Run The Scene film series, designed to celebrate International Women’s Day, Justine has some wisdom to impart to fellow fans that may be thinking about how to embark on a career in music. And, as we continue our conversation, it’s clear that she also has a wealth of experience on which to draw…
Church Road Records was set up in unique circumstances. But, looking back, what were you aiming to achieve with the label?
"We set up the label because we feel there’s a huge gap in the UK scene for labels like ours – labels that help grassroots bands rise so they can play academy-sized venues. A lot of the bigger labels aren’t really interested in small club bands because of the time and money that has to go into them. Our size of label is perfect for that.
"I loved the fact that Holy Roar was a reflection of a scene and helped build a community, and fortunately a lot of that has transferred itself to Church Road. The fact that I can make this my full-time job at the moment is testament to that, and fans have been so supportive, I can’t thank them enough for it. I definitely want us to be the UK’s answer to Relapse and have a roster that is diverse, but which makes sense to us.
"I love the fact that labels like Earache and Relapse have this legacy element now – I’m looking forward to doing 25th anniversary reissues! I want to do this when I’m in my 60s because this is what I want to do with my life."
Did you draw on your own experience of being a musician while setting up the label?
"Yeah, for sure. Being a musician and running my own label, I’m on the look out for things that I know I disliked as someone who is in a band and also working with a label. I can see both sides of the argument a lot more, and I generally know what bands need, so I think that’s really helpful."
So is there a mentoring quality you bring to working to artists you sign to the label?
"One hundred per cent. We’re a small label and the bands we sign need that care and attention. The fact that Sammy and I have been in a band for almost 10 years means that we can see what has worked and what hasn’t, and we can bring that insight to other artists, too.
"I worked for Holy Roar straight out of university, so this is all I’ve known. I’m 30 now and I have met quite a few people down the years, which allows me to be able to set certain things up for our bands. There’s that social connection, a personal connection. I don’t feel a lot of people at major labels have that, although it’s different at the label we’re signed to, Spinefarm. They’re unique because our day-to-day guy, Darren [Toms] ran independent labels before that and has as similar background to me. He was in a band himself too, but all those things are very rare at a major label."
What have been the challenges of setting up a label in the pandemic?
"Everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong! We had vinyl delays because people at production plants started getting COVID or they had to observe social distancing. That meant there was less staff on the floor to press the vinyl so things took longer. Then Brexit happened and that also delayed things.
"There were also lots of silly, annoying things like packaging not arriving in time. Then a lot of the staff at our local post office got COVID so they closed, which was difficult when it came to mail order! All sorts of things went wrong.
"On a real plus-side of setting up a label during a pandemic, we’ve literally had nothing else to do, so we’ve been working most of days of the week, and most hours in those days, because we’ve had no distractions because we literally couldn’t go outside. That’s been a huge thing because I think I’d really struggle setting this up if I’d been on tour. It would’ve been hard."
What changes do you think will arise from the pandemic itself?
"I think the pandemic has been a really good time for reflection for everyone; people have made decisions about what’s important to them. I’ve seen people really wanting to support bands, labels and small businesses. You vote with your money. You pay for things you want to exist and I hope that people want labels like us to exist.
"Realising how fragile the music industry is has been interesting because with touring gone, a lot of bands can’t afford things. That’s the way the industry has been built and it will change as a result of what we’ve been through. SoundCloud, for example, are changing the way they pay their royalties and I would like to think other streaming services will have to, too. The pandemic has shown the holes in the whole ecosystem."
You’ve established the label very quickly, and you’ve set up a subscription club that’s really working.
"The Church Road subscription club came about from realising – from working at Holy Roar – how much fans liked paying a set amount every month to receive something. They get something regularly without having to constantly check out our social media to see what’s going on. When you’re a label that’s trying to be consistent with the kind of releases you want to put out, then people trust you as almost – and I hate this phrase – a tastemaker.
"As a label, the subscription club is a lifeline. For once, it means that I can rely on some sort of income each month through music that allows me to invest and take punts on bands. I might really like a band but worry that they may sell, like, one record. The subscription club means that now I have a platform that I can launch them from. Our subscribers are really good when it comes to bragging about their releases, so that’s free marketing in a way, but it’s been really nice because there are a lot of unknown bands [getting] a leg up already because of the subscription service. It’s brilliant."
So what have the events of the last year – and setting up the label – taught you?
"I’ve learnt that setting up a label back-to-front is quite stressful! By that I mean having releases ready to go before you have the infrastructure is tricky, but I’ve made it work. On a nice note, I’ve learnt that I’ve got really good friends and family around me who were so helpful – they were offering to help in anyway they could. There’s been a lot of great charity during this lockdown, I think. I’ve seen a lot of people fundraising for venues that need it. It solidifies that this music scene is strong, tight-knit and like a family, really."
So what advice would you give to a young woman looking to do what you’ve done and set up a label?
"In terms of advice I’d give women who want to start their own label, I’d just say just do it. There’s never a perfect time to do anything in life and there will always be financial uncertainty, and it will never be convenient. You will always say you will never have time but that’s always going to be the case. You have to make time and make yourself do things. I don’t feel you should be held back by your gender or your financial situation. There’s so many different funds you can apply for and some places lend you money on a really good rate. There’s so many things you can do. I think if you really try hard there’s not much you can’t achieve."
As a woman who co-runs a label, have there been obstacles that you’ve encountered because of your gender?
"I personally haven’t found any obstacles. All the bands and labels I’ve worked with have been very respectful. It’s really hard to say things in a definitive way because I don’t have the perspective of being a man in the industry. I’ve felt personally very welcome and I haven’t had a standout moment where I’ve gone, ‘Oh-oh, that’s a bit sexist.’ Fortunately, our genre of music – or certainly our small niche of it – is very aware and very inclusive."
It is, but that’s not universal. With that in mind, what do you think needs to change as far as women in the music industry are concerned?
"I think being inclusive as you can is important. I also think that putting spotlights on women in the industry is important because the more of us that are doing it, the more normal it is to see. So young girls growing up can say, ‘I want to do that!' rather than thinking that their options are limited.
"I actually used to work for a charity called Film Club. Basically, school kids would get sent to interview people from the film industry from all job backgrounds, so they would learn about different roles and realise that there were more options than being an actor or a director. I think being educated about all the individual roles that music offers is really important; teaching school girls about that would help quite a lot because I don’t think that many people know what they want to do when they grow up. A lot of women that I know in the industry do talks for student at universities, and I think that’s really great because it informs people of what’s possible and I think that’s important."
On the subject of women in the industry that people can look up to, when you were young, who were your role models and what did they represent to you?
"This sounds really, really cheesy but one of my role models was Sigourney Weaver! She was one of the first female superheroes. I wasn’t born at the time the movie came out, but by the time I was 18 I would watch Aliens – which I’d been too scared to watch before then – and I just thought it was so cool seeing a woman blow up aliens and stuff. I just think she’s really awesome. I was also into Sarah Connor from Terminator, all these really strong women. I didn’t really know of any women in the industry until I got more involved, so I guess that circles back to having a spotlight on people working in the industry to make them more visible."
Who do you find inspiring in the industry?
"I think Cathy [Pellow, owner of] Sargent House is really cool. I love what she’s done to the label’s roster and she’s involved in every way, and she manages a lot of the artists too. I also love a lot of the artists on the label. She’s awesome.
"There’s also Goc [O’Callahan] who works with James [Scarlett, festival founder] on Arctangent and 2000trees. She’s heavily involved in the organisation of that, and that’s really good to see.
"There’s also Carly Maile who produces Daniel P. Carter’s Radio Rock Show, and I’ve worked with her for a number of years. Serena Cherry from Svalbard – and now [her solo project] Noctule – is inspiring, too. She’s very vocal and knowledgeable about everything she talks about."
In your opinion, what needs to change for there to be a greater sense of equality in the music industry?
"To be honest, I think the thing that needs to change… it needs to happen a lot earlier in women’s lives. At secondary school, that time is such a stifling time for non-white males, basically. I feel like I can’t even describe it. It’s almost as if people assume that you’re going to go into childcare or something like that. There’s no question if a woman wants to go into mechanics or music or filming, which are traditionally masculine jobs.
"Getting to kids at school age and saying that there are lots of options for you, and you can get funding from here, [is important] because I think a lot of it is [down to] financial inequality, and after the pandemic I think that’s going to be more of a thing. There are lots of ways for people to get funding to set up cool new ventures like record labels or studios.
"It is literally about education, and calling people out when they’re being inappropriate. Some people know they’re being inappropriate and they do it on purpose to get a rise out of you and unfortunately it’s so systemic that I don’t think they realise they’re doing it, so I think gently being pointed in the correct way of thinking will help a lot.
"It’s such a gradual thing that has to happen. I feel that even in the just under 10 years that I’ve been in a band, it’s improved. I feel that there are more females in bands now, so hopefully it’s only a matter of time before the industry sees that as well."
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The Kerrang! Chart
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