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.