Approfondimenti

Snowstar: the birth and rise of an independent label

di Lorenzo Righetto e Francesco Amoroso
In 2003 Cedric Muyres creates Snowstar, an independent label initially dedicated to punk-rock. As the last revivals of the nineties die out, the label starts attracting the Dutch reflections of the new folk movement, creating a recognizable "Snowstar sound" - managing to make itself noticed at European level, even with a totally local base.

We have thus contacted Cedric - and, with him, some of his most important artists: I Am Oak, Kim Janssen and LUIK. Not because there exist secrets to worm out, or a supposed "role model". In the end, it's all about music.


It is becoming more and more difficult to define what a label can do for artists, since it is easier now to promote a record on your own and so on. How do you think the role of labels has changed in recent years, and how does Snowstar cope with the new situation? What can labels do that bands alone can not do by themselves?
I still think one of the most important roles of labels is discovering good music. Their role as tastemaker is what I love about the labels I like. I own almost every Saddle Creek or Suburban Home release there is, and 9 out of 10 times, I like what they release. I like the idea that people who like one Snowstar Records release, can check out the other releases there are and will be surprised (in a good way) by the rest. This hasn't changed and will never change. Indielabels have never been the ones with the huge budgets, so it's more about the network they built for their bands.

One thing that, in my opinion, Snowstar has managed to do, much more successfully than other bigger independent labels, is to put together and promote its own scene, its own sound, even though each of its artists maintains his own signature. Like 4AD and Sarah did. Is this something you did consciously? Would you go as far as not signing a band you like but doesn't "fit" in Snowstar?
The only reason for signing a band to Snowstar is that I absolutely have to love their album. That's the only way it works because I am putting so much time into all this, that I can't do it when I'm not 500% behind the releases. That said, I'm really proud about that own scene and sound and enjoy people noticing it.

How has the Dutch music scene changed since Snowstar was created, in 2003?
Like worldwide, the indiescene has grown. It has become much easier for bands to record and release DIY. To create output. And for ‘the audience', it's easier to discover bands. Because there are millions of songs out there online. And that's also why those tastemakers such as labels, or blogs, or friends with good taste, are still important.
And of course genres shift, also for me personally. When I was younger, I used to listen to punkrock. Just recently I realized how many new folk-oriented bands and artists there are in the Netherlands, while it's such a small country.

Which would be the signing of your dreams?
Difficult question. I'm really happy with signing Kim Janssen because I was a big fan of his first album, and I believe his next album (which will probably take him some years) is going to blow everyone away. But I guess that doesn't count... Then I would love to have signed Emmy the Great, a UK-based brilliant songwriter who I found out about years before she released her debutalbum and who is now working on her third.

Do you also look for bands outside Holland?
Not actively no, I used to work with a band from the UK but they split up. It's easiest for me to work with bands that are from the Netherlands because it makes communication easiest and because I have the strongest network right here, but that doesn't mean it will never happen. In the end it's always about the music.

snowstarDoes Snowstar earn money only on records or do you manage (and earn money) to organize tours and gigs for the bands in your rooster?
Yes, when I have the chance I absolutely help out with tours. Or I connect artists to agents I know and work with. Actually, a lot of my label-work is actually artist-management. From some of this work, I earn money.

Many of the indipendent labels from the past used to have a distinctive image and the sleeves of their records were made by the same artists or designers. You choose a different approach? Why? Do you think it's important to give your artists a total control of the product?
Yes, I do think that's important. Also, I happen to work with a lot of artists that have a strong view on their artwork. And I don't think it's right to limit their possibilities by a label-standard. Personally, I wouldn't like that. And I'm really happy with the artwork of all our last releases, so I think we made the right choice there.

In which way are you involved in the creative process? Do you like to be in the studio with the artist/band or give him/them some suggestions or do you prefer to listen to the final product?
I am involved all the way, but I'm not there in the studio. I do like to listen to the ‘work in progress'. And if wanted or needed, I help out with advice or with tracklists, which are always difficult.

What's your approach to internet? Do you use it to check new intersting bands? Do you think that this media can harm indipendent labels or can be useful for them?
I use it, I love it, I couldn't do without it. I have no idea how people used to book tours without the Internet. It is the easiest way to get your music out there and to reach people so yes, I love it. All our releases are up on www.snowstar.bandcamp.com, please listen to them as much as you want and tell all your friends about them.

How many people works behind Snowstar? And how many of them earn a living from the label?
I am the only one working on it full time. Then there is one guy who helps out one day a week, and we are blessed with very good interns.

Is there any "trick" you use to understand if a band or a song are worth your interest or you only judge them on your tastes?
My taste is where it starts, and then I will definitely play it to some people who's opinion I respect. But if I end up playing it on repeat for over a week (which really happens), then I know I'll probably end up releasing it anyway, no matter what anyone says.

Do you encourage the artists in your rooster to play live? Do you think that this could be the best way of promoting themselves, or there are more effective ways of promoting music?  
Absolutely. It is the best way, by far. I really think bands should tour as much as possible. Get out there, play for people and build audiences.

I Am Oak



iamoak
Why did you choose to sign with Snowstar and not to self-produce your music?
Cedric and I met through Stefan (I am Oak's bass-player) a number of years ago. Stefan and I had become friends through a mutual appreciation of each other's musical output. He then introduced Cedric and I saying he though it would be a great idea for Snowstar Records to release something by I am Oak. I really liked that idea too. At this point in time I had done some low profile cd-r self-releases, which was great fun, but I was also feeling ready to make a "real" record. So, teaming up Snowstar Records would mean I would be able to step up my game a little. So in the end Cedric liked what I was doing musically, I liked what Snowstar Records had to offer and the direction it was heading in as a label at that time and we seemed to be getting along on a personal level, so we decided to join forces, which has played out well!

What is your relationship with other Snowstar artists?
We all know each other and are friendly with each other. We try to support and help out each other in some way or another. I guess that's the nice thing about being part of a (small) local independent label.

In "Oasem" we find a feeling that is quite new for the "usual" place of mind in songwriting records. An expansive feeling, a breath of freedom, like a process of self-discovery in which someone finds his inner world exotique and pure. Was this concept inspired by something or someone in particular?
I think this concept came from the state I was in at that time. I was really in-between two phases in my life. I was taking a break from my bachelor at art school to be able to focus more on my music, which gave me a lot of freedom all of a sudden, but which was also really scary because I had lost all of the steadiness and ‘routine' I had before. So I started to become really focused on this whole exploration of the self to find I what I was about.

You got inspiration for your moniker from your hometown. How did your "environment" shape "Oasem"? Has it anything to do with this neat feeling of swimming you get from it?
Environment can have a direct effect on my music I guess. While I was writing songs for "Oasem" I had spent some time in Finland during summer, which had a pretty strong influence on the lyrical imagery on the album and became an important chapter altogether on "Oasem". A song like "Island" for example describes an actual experienced I had during that time, standing in heavy wind on a hilltop on an island during sunset.

I read your process of arranging your sound is also quite random: you pick up instruments from your friends and so on. Are you satisfied with the final result?
I am. I am satisfied about the direction the album went in during the whole writing and arranging process. It felt like I was creating something totally new, something that sounded unlike anything I ever did, but also unlike anything I had heard before I guess.

Why did you choose to name your record after a dialectal word when you decided to sing in English? And why did you decide to sing in English and not in Dutch?
"Oasem" means breath, which is a vital part of life. By using a word in the dialect of the place I was born I am referencing my origin or roots. "Oasem" is pronounced like ‘awesome', which relates to the feelings of awe and the sublime nature/landscapes depicted throughout the album. So it's a very rich title that relates to the albums content on various levels.
I think the foremost reason why I don't sing in Dutch is a very banal reason; sound-wise it's just such an ugly language. Some people know what to do with it and manage to pull it of, more or less, but I can't. I find English to be more poetically rich. Maybe it also distances me further from reality, because it's a foreign language.. which maybe makes it easier to be honest and open, while giving me a certain protected feeling also.

This is the first album you have recorded with your band and not alone. How was it? Does this reflect on the album's sound and style and how?
"Nowhere Or Tammensaari" is the first album that was recorded together with my band. It was a great experience. I think everyone (sort of) knew what I am Oak is about for me and we knew each other's abilities and qualities and used this knowledge to turn my unfinished songs into an album pretty quickly. We actually played together as a band during the recordings also, so I think you can hear that, it has more of a "live" or loose vibe than previous work. It also sounds a more dynamic because of this.

Can you tell us about this "Island of oaks" that names your record? Was it the actual place you were recording in or a general "theme" you wanted to express?
"Tammensaari" is a Finnish word that translates to island of the oaks. It's the name of a fictional place. It's a different name for the "Nowhere" in the title of the album. Which is this intangible, ever-changing and moving place. It's where the origin of I am Oak lies somewhere.

Kim Janssen




kimjanssenWhy did you choose to sign with Snowstar and not to self-produce your music?
I had known Cedric for a while before we decided to release this album together. I could see how he was working with other bands over the years, touring, promoting and managing them and building up his label at the same time. I have a lot of respect for that. So it felt like a great privilege to have Cedric/Snowstar on board to release this album with me.  I've also known the other artists on Snowstar for a while so it really feels like joining a family.

What is your relationship with other Snowstar artists?
I've known Thijs and Aino from I am Oak and the Secret Love Parade a few years now through mutual friends, playing shows together, staying at each others houses during festivals and tours. I was also a fan of their music right from the start! I know the guys from Luik even longer than that because we were class mates at the Pop Academy in Leewarden. Lukas (Dikker) also recorded my new album. Bart van der Lee and I also played in a band together many years ago for a while and our families even know each other since when we were kids. So basically we all go way back! It's a special thing because we all know each other well and at the same time are a fan of each other's music.

"Ancient Crime" is a concept album placed in a "North West England school in winter". Is that an ideal place representing the spirit of the record, or is there a specific connection with the subject of your songs? What is this "Ancient Crime" you are referring to?
Yes, the boarding school in Northwest England provides the setting for the whole record. Everything takes place in this world of an isolated, idyllic, old boarding school during winter. A world where tradition, ambition and discipline are part of everyday life as well as string quartets, clarinets, silver horns and church choirs.
"Ancient Crime" is from a Christmas hymn by Edward Elgar. I think he is referring to the Ancient Crime that necessitated Jesus' birth and death. I thought it was fitting to have a title that refers to winter and Christmas and at the same time carries a (slightly dark) weight of tradition, history. It's interesting thought that what is ancient history may or may not still cast a shadow over lives today.

Your record has very minimal songs, others with orchestral or even choral arrangements, and many instrumental tracks. What is your musical background?
When I was in high school, I listened to Coldplay, Muse, Travis, etc.  I think I was a changed man when I discovered artists like Sufjan Stevens, Mark Kozelek e Iron & Wine, just out of highschool. The composer Nico Muhly and his work with Sam Amidon also has had a major influence on me recently.

How are you going to coordinate this solo career with Black Atlantic?
It's quite hard to coordinate and I guess this is a good thing. It's a good problem. But it does mean sacrificing a little from both sides. We really have to plan things down to the hour to make it work. And we plan things a year in advance.

Why did you had the urgency to express yourself like a folk musician (a singer/songwriter) when you were in a band yet?
I think both things are really fun: rocking out with a band or doing more quiet folk stuff. Obviously my own material is also a lot more personal. With The Black Atlantic it's more a group effort and the main spark is coming from the frontman, Geert van der Velde.

LUIK




luik


Why did you choose to sign with Snowstar and not to self-produce your music?
We did self-produce our own music but as you're growing as a band it is a good thing to get people to work with you on the things you want to approve. I think the main reason is that Snowstar Records and us, share an ambition and approach to making and releasing music. Also living in Utrecht we met a great group of alike musicians that were signet to this small but great record label! If Cedric releases your record you can be quite certain that he really loves it, that's an important thing!

What is your relationship with other Snowstar artists?
Kim and us joint Snowstar this last year, we've know each other for years cause we where friends and class mates at The Pop Academy in Leeuwarden. Also Kim and I played together for some time. I known the guys and girls from The Secret Love Parade and I Am Oak trough house shows we'd organize at the house in Utrecht were Keimpe and I jused to live. We are fan of each other's music. We played a few shows with I Am Oak on the release tour of their album ‘Oasem', that's when  Thijs (I Am Oak) introduced me to Cedric.

"Luik" is the dutch name of "Liège". Why did you choose this name? Is it for the famous battle in first world war? Are you somehow linked to that city in Belgium?
It is the Dutch name for "Liege" as well as it is the Dutch word for 'hatch' or 'shutter'.
I choose it as an anagram for my own name (LUkas dIKker) I like the fact that is relates to different meanings and translations.

Oppositely to other snowstar bands/artists, your background seems more influenced by slowcore and slowrock, than folk? What are your musical influences?
I think LUIK is more influenced by 'Blues' oriented music, rather than Folk. Slow and groovy stuff. I'm influence by progressive/psychedelic rock groups, jazz players an funk & soul music in the way musicians play together in a (inter)communicative way. I'm influenced by indie and folk groups in trying to create an authentic sound and dimension in which to tell your own story. Nowadays we listen to Julian Lynch, Real Estate, John Frusciante, Mount Eerie, Ilyas Ahmed, Dirty Projectors and lots more! Also great Dutch bands like Herrek, Bebe Fang, Woud and our Snowstar label friends The Secret Love Parade, I Am Oak, Kim Janssen and The Subhuman.

We know very little about the band and both your sita and the snowstar one are very poor with news and information. Is it a conscious choice? Do you prefer to deal with fans only with your music?
Instead of trying very hard to be heard and seen we choose to communicate stuff in a non-obtrusive way. I myself am not intrested in what other musicians do when they get home and take off their shoes. Our music is the only thing we want to be known for.

What are the themes of "Owls", your debut album? Is everything in its world, so dark and gloomy, or are there glimpses of light?
The main theme on "Owls" lyrically, is loneliness. In sort of a romantic and nostalgic way as well as in an unromantic, cold and empty way. I try to write about things contemplative.... considering and wondering. That way I hope the words sound rather hopeful.
Playlist
I AM OAK - On Claws (2010)

I AM OAK - Oasem (2011)

I AM OAK - Nowhere Or Tammensaari (2012)

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KIM JANSSEN - Ancient Crime (2012)

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LUIK - Owls (2012)
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