Founder of German label City Slang Christof Ellinghaus has had an enviable career. The executive has managed to last 24 years in the music business simply releasing music that he likes and hoping to sell a few records along the way. Notable names on the label's roster include US sister duo Coco Rosie, indie rock outfit The Notwist, Arizona band Calexico and Canadians Arcade Fire.
After being honoured with the first Primavera Award for an “exceptional contribution to the development and enrichment of the musical community” at the annual conference in Barcelona on May 28, Ellinghaus revealed the secrets to his success during an onstage interview. Known for championing the most creative forces in music – rather than the most commercially viable – how has he done it? And is it possible to do the same in today’s age of ever decreasing income from recorded music? Apparently so, all you need is a good ear, patience and a bit of business nous.
Founded in 1990, City Slang started “for the same reason every other indie label in the world starts” - to obey a need to put out music. At the time, Ellinghaus was a 23-year-old booking agent in Berlin, touring American bands such as The Flaming Lips, Nirvana and Mudhoney around Europe. The Flaming Lips asked him to help them find a European label for their fourth album. “They sent through a cassette, I thought it was amazing, called them up and said I can start a label for this, they agreed and that was it,” he explains.
Bands like Yo La Tengo and The Lemonheads heard the young exec was starting a label and he fast earned a reputation for doing a good job for US bands in Europe. It took a while to make money (“You can build a bit of catalogue and constant income but with every other new release you could lose all that quickly,” he says) but thanks to the Courtney Love fronted band Hole, his fortunes changed. The label released Hole’s debut album Pretty On The Inside around Europe in 1991 and the UK took note. The record's lead single, Teenage Whore entered the UK Indie Chart at No.1 and after less than a year in business, City Slang was officially credible.
Learn from your counterparts
As a young label owner Ellinghaus was pretty clueless, but thankfully, he was surrounded by people he could learn from. During City Slang’s beginnings, Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt were off to a great start with the Seattle-based indie label Sub Pop. Ellinghaus was booking tours for Sub Pop’s early signings in Germany and admired their Grunge-based brand identity. These days he’s friends with Domino founder Laurence Bell and Mute Records’ Daniel Miller, who all share best practice. “We go have dinner and try to avoid making the same mistakes, “ he explains. “I think in a lot of ways you look at what these people do, look at where they have success.”
Accept that you might lose money (at first)
City Slang is known for signing some of the most leftfield acts around. Amongst its roster are the Tennessee born Kurt Wagner-fronted Lambchop (described as “14 people trying to be quiet,” by Ellinghaus) and pianist/ composer Hauschka. Lambchop released “about four or five albums” before making City Slang any cash. However, their 2000 LP Nixon caught the attention of a new UK fanbase and they now sell over 100,000 on every record. Says Ellinghaus: “I think what these people do is culturally valuable so you can accept a small loss for a while. At some point obviously it would be good that they make money but nowadays when you can just stream the records on Spotify, the return on new bands is not what it used to be. You can literally go and sell no records. We have to make a calculation across the label and find those release that pay for the other releases.” City Slang does also have a merchandise and publishing arm that are profitable and allow for some creative freedom on the recording side of the business.
Have local experts
For any future label founders considering breaking markets aside from their home turf, local experts are essential. City Slang has offices in London, Paris as well as its homebase in Berlin. Using a distribution company and hoping the record will sell isn’t enough, says Ellinghaus. “In Europe every country has its own national specifics. France is so different from Germany; Spain is incredibly different from both of them as is the UK. You really need to have somebody in those countries on the ground knowing the market, knowing what they do. The distributors are conveyor belt organisations, they are a service company. We have to have our own local approach - our French guy knows exactly what trigger to pull at what time.”
Ultimately: trust your gut and be original
City Slang’s A&R policy is largely based on a gut feeling and doing the opposite of whatever trend the major labels are jumping on the back of at any given time. “Whatever we put out on the label is pretty much a direct reflection of what we like. In the ‘90s when Nirvana happened all the majors started to sign everything and anything that had long hair and a guitar. It sounded like a watered down version of what we had been doing. I just got so bored,” says Ellinghaus.
“Don't put out something that’s already there, that's the whole idea. We get sent so many demos where you listen and go, “Wow, this already exists somewhere,” why should we put out the Belgium version of Dinosaur Jr.? When you start a label you need to put out music that is original and has character of its own.”
Future City Slang records to look out include releases from Canadian composer Caribou, Sudan-born one-man-band Sinkane and Black Yaya – fronted by David Ivar of Herman Dune. And if none of these work out, Ellinghaus has one last trick up his sleeve. He describes his newly opened wine bar (and potential retirement hobby) Cordobar in Berlin as "fucking shit hot right now". A true tastemaker in every sense of the word.
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