Last week, Chuck Daley was forced to do something he didn’t seem wholly comfortable with: Self-promotion.
“Our thing is to release great records and we’re content to do that,” the unassuming 43-year-old explained during a phone call about Tiny Engines, the North Carolina-based indie record label he founded 10 years ago with partner Will Miller. Tiny Engines is best known among punk and emo fans as a reliable source of exciting, up-and-coming bands: The Hotelier, Beach Slang, Cayetana, and Everyone Everywhere are among the beloved acts that have worked with the label, often early in their careers before bigger labels eventually swooped in to expose them to wider audiences.
In 2018, Tiny Engines had one of its best years creatively yet, putting out records that both cater to the label’s punk-minded base (like Restorations’ LP5000 and awakebutstillinbed’s “what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you”) as well as push beyond the niche into expansive, War on Drugs-style indie (Wild Pink’s Yolk in the Fur), genre-bending outsider pop (Illuminati Hotties’ Kiss Yr Frenemies), and avant psychedelic folk (Strange Ranger’s How It All Went By). In all, they put out more than ten albums this year, and all of them are at least worth hearing, with a high percentage being very good or great.
More than any other indie rock label in 2018, Tiny Engines was a true mark of quality. And yet, as far as the general public is concerned, Tiny Engines doesn’t yet have the imprimatur of Matador or Merge.
“We’ve never tried to market ourselves as an emo label or a punk label or DIY underground label,” Daley admits. “Maybe we should.”
Perhaps self-promotion is a challenge when you’ve remained a two-man operation — Daley and Miller pick the artists, they help support them on the road, and they even handle promotion via their in-house PR firm, Beartrap. In recent years, the label has done well enough for Daley and Miller to start paying themselves, as well as a part-time employee to help with mail orders. It’s a modest business compared with the majors, though that makes Tiny Engines’ ability to survive (and even thrive, on a small scale) all the more impressive, given how the industry increasingly seems consolidated around fewer and fewer hubs. Throughout its history, Tiny Engines has remained a true independent, choosing to forsake the distribution deals with corporate record companies that nearly all prominent indie labels now make.
It almost seems too idealistic to be true — a label run by music fans who put out records they actually like, rather than what an algorithm suggests that people want to hear. Daley talked about Tiny Engines’ history, and the future he sees for other like-minded people who want to carve an independent path.
How has Tiny Engines survived this long?
I think one of the keys is just being smart about how you spend your money. Do things that make sense. Do as much as you can in-house. Obviously, work with great bands, that helps. I think that’s always been at the top of our list. We haven’t ever really made any compromises with the records we’ve released. It’s always been stuff that Will and I have really loved. Maybe one of us loved something more than the other one, but usually one of us always really believes strongly in it. And when you do that sort of thing, I think that translates into the type of catalog that we have. If you’re working with bands that you love, it obviously gives you a lot of motivation to work harder and just do all you can for them.
As far as staying completely independent, is that a decision based on wanting to maintain creative freedom, or do you see it as a kind of moral stand?
It’s probably a little bit of both. Getting into this music business thing, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to anybody. [But] the reason why I got into it is because I love the community, I love the aesthetic, I love that whole punk rock thing of trying to do things a different way. I just like that whole DIY community, family-type thing. And, yeah, I don’t wanna be tied in with corporate interests. I don’t wanna be beholden to anybody else, really. Other than the bands and the people that we have close relationships with, I don’t wanna be a part of that.
Obviously the music business has changed pretty dramatically since you started the label in 2008. Let’s start with streaming. Has it made running an indie label easier or harder in 2018?
You could probably argue it’s a double-edged sword. Digital streaming is nice because you can hear anything pretty much instantly. That can’t be a totally terrible thing. But on the flip side, you’re obviously not making as much money as labels were 10, 15 years ago. People just aren’t buying as many records. So I don’t know. I think the streaming thing, to me, it is what it is, and I think our job is to evolve and change with what’s happening in the music industry.
I think we’re a pretty rare label in that our digital and physical revenue is pretty much 50/50. We still sell a lot of records and I think a big part of that is because the type of bands we work with are bands that really get on the road and tour and sell records to their fans. They tend to be the DIY, underground, indie-type fans that really like vinyl. Most of the industry is kinda trending towards like 35 percent physical revenue, 65 percent digital revenue. We are still split pretty even. Which is kinda cool.
Looking ahead, do you expect that there will still be a space for indie labels in 10 years? Or are we reaching a point where the major labels, in concert with the streaming platforms, will eat up everything?
A good label does a lot of things. They act as manager and agents and PR people. In a lot of ways, a label is kind of like a bank, too. We front a ton of money for every record we put out, knowing that in a lot of cases we’ll never recoup that. So, we are making investments in the bands and we provide resources and try to guide them in the right direction. A lot of labels don’t do that.
I don’t know how Spotify becomes a label. What are you doing for your bands other than throwing their shit up online? If we ever get into a world where it’s 100 percent digital only, then yeah I would get worried. But, I’ve always said, I feel like there will always be a core group of music fans who want a physical record. Just because they wanna support the bands. They wanna feel like they own a piece of that band. Digital is nice, but it’s also this thing that doesn’t exist. It’s not a tangible thing, so in that respect, I don’t think it will ever satisfy the hardcore music fans out there.
Another change that’s occurred since 2008 involves the media. There used to be indie music sites and mainstream music sites. Now, most indie music sites also cover pop music. Has that made it harder for indie labels and artists to cut through the noise and promote their records?
I guess that would be a question of how people are discovering music these days, and I think there’s obviously a lot more factors. Five, ten, fifteen years ago, music websites and blogs were a huge part of it, but now you have Spotify playlists and Apple Music playlists. The amount of outlets out there where you can discover new music, it’s almost never-ending. So, I’m not sure what the answer to that is. I don’t know if we find it harder, I think it’s hard to know what to focus on.
When we get a cool playlist placement, that is kind of a big deal. It usually ends up with a lot of plays. But it’s sort of hard to comprehend how some of that translates into anything. I’ve told bands this for years — yes, it’s great if Pitchfork covers the record or you get a cool premiere with Stereogum, but if you really wanna connect with people, tour your ass off. I know it’s super tough. I know bands lose money and I know it’s no fun sleeping on people’s floors. But, really, that’s the best way to connect with people and make lasting connections and build a true fan base.
It sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about the future.
Yeah, things are good. There’s always gonna be hard stuff to deal with, that’s just how it is unless a miracle happens and one of our bands becomes the biggest band in America. But until then, I’m fine doing what we’re doing. And I like it. I think this goes back to the independence thing. I like being able to work for myself. And I’m gonna make mistakes, I’ll do it myself and the consequences are what they are. I like that. I like being an independent label, even though it’s hard.
Check out Tiny Engines here.