Tom Loftus started Modern Radio Records sixteen years ago. With it, he has built a community of great bands, had over seventy releases and also many great friends and acquaintances.
In 2005, His friend Peter Mielech joined the fray, by becoming a partner in the label.
The quality and quantity of releases have been impressive, and I can’t think of another label in town that has been around as long and has continued to put out as many great recordings.
I interviewed Loftus about nine years ago when Rift was in print, and his attitude and ideas about music have stayed the same while the way him a Mielech release things has changed with the times.
This interview is also about doing things you love, despite the fact it might not be your full-time job or what pays the bills. Whether you’re in a band, putting out music or even publishing a music blog. Sometimes just doing it is well worth it, with the connections you make and the experiences you can have.
The are having a couple shows to celebrate sixteen years, so make sure you get out there to help them celebrate.
Rift: You started Modern Radio Records, to put out friends bands. Has that philosophy changed at all, and what has changed with the label since you started it?
Tom: While part of the reason for starting the label came from a desire to help out specific friends, I have always been interested in supporting bands/people making interesting music that I thought should be heard by more people. This hasn’t changed at all and is still a primary reason for running the record label. It’s still important for us to work with people we like on a personal level in addition to the music.
Rift: It looks like you have put out close to 70 releases, what’s coming out next and is the plan just to keep releasing music?
We are reissuing Sicbay’s magnificent LP from 2001, “Firelit S’Coughs” to start off the year. This is the first time this album has been on vinyl, and we’re doing it in coordination with the anniversary weekend and a rare live show by the band. We’re also helping our friend Sheridan Fox (His Mischief, Model Down, Free Energy) in digitally distributing his first solo album, Patagonia.
In 2015, we added four new vinyl releases and two new digital releases to the catalog. This took a lot of energy and planning. I expect 2016 to be a little slower in comparison but who knows. We’re still massive music fans and if there is something we can release, and it makes sense for all parties, we’ll be as busy as ever. The focus of the label is to support the music we love in whatever way makes the most sense.
Rift: How has the Twin Cities music scene changed over the years, since you first started putting out music?
Tom: I don’t know if it has changed dramatically over the years. There is still an abundance of artists making interesting music in town. We try to get out to shows on a regular basis but don’t get out to shows as much as we did in the past. Some of it comes with getting older and a decrease in activity by people in our peer group in the music community.
We’re both still huge music fans and know there are always things happening that are exciting. We try to see it live, but we follow what’s going on and try to contribute where we can be useful. There will be moments when we hit a wall and get the sense that nothing new will kick our butts, but then we see a band like BOYF play a small show with Hollow Boys and are just blown away. There are a ton more small record labels around putting out super cool records and as fans of music, this is a positive for us.
One extremely positive change I’ve seen in the last few years is the increase in the volume of women and LGBTQIA+ folks in the music community. It’s still not perfect, but it’s moved in the right direction with a load of really rad bands around these days. When I started the label, I was inspired by Kill Rock Stars, K and the Olympia, Washington music scene and was bummed for years that we didn’t have a more diverse group of people in the music community. Again, it has a long way to go, but it’s exciting to see some significant progress in the type of people involved in the local music community.
Rift: Have there been any surprises for you as far as bands on the label that sold more then you thought, or bands you couldn’t understand why they didn’t get the attention they deserve?
Tom: We’ve always felt like every one of our artists should get more attention than they do because we believe they make awesome music that a lot of people should hear. If we didn’t feel that way, why would we release records? We feel fortunate that most of our bands have found some level of devoted fans who not only buy their records but go to see them live time after time.
Rift: Back in the interview, I had with you around nine years ago; you were getting six and twelve demos a month from bands. Do you still get them, and do you accept them?
Tom: Physical demos are far less common these days with the age of Soundcloud, Bandcamp and other platforms to share music. We still get a handful of bands sharing their music unsolicited, and it comes in the form of a link in an email. I try to respond to all of the emails but am more apt to respond if the description of the music has some points of reference that sound interesting. We still haven’t released anything based on an email or physical demo. We have eclectic tastes, but we don’t love all music equally. No one who truly loves music deeply is interested in all of it equally so if you’re going to reach out to us or another label, be proud of what you do. Don’t try to oversell us. The music speaks a ton and then include some opportunities to check the music out live.
Rift: With digital releases and vinyl’s resurgence, has the label changed the way it looks at putting out music and how it’s distributed?
Tom: In the 16 year history of the label, releasing, promoting and distributing music has changed several times. Since our last interview, mass manufacturing CDs has shrunk considerably across the board, and vinyl has become the favored physical format for the majority of our audience.
Cassette tapes have come back in vogue, and while it isn’t a perfect medium, it does offer an affordable way to mass manufacture albums on a small budget and scale. We always try to manufacture enough records to meet the interest in the band now and a little bit into the future.
It’s a bit of a guessing game, but we have gotten much better at predicting what quantities we should make of a release on a given format. While we feel like we’re putting out as good as music as ever, the quantity of pressings the label are doing is far smaller than when we began in 1999. We’re not alone, though. The entire music world has been flipped on its head and trying to figure out how to adapt.
Digital has become the main place where people take in music these days, and it’s a mixed blessing. Digital offers up the opportunity for people around the world to hear the artists we work with and love with the click of a button.
It’s important for us that people can hear something by all of the bands and artists we work with because we think music is special. We want people to buy something because they got a taste or heard something good and excited or at the very least, curious.
The challenge with digital is to make the argument that people should spend money to support the music they love. This is especially hard in the US where the arts are treated like a commodity and not as something that requires patronage. The streaming platforms have embarrassingly low royalty rates and it’s easy as a fan to not spend money on music in our culture of “cheaper (or free) is better”. We try to make the argument that despite the music being readily available and likely free that it’s worth spending money to support artists in their creative endeavors.
Rift: In the last interview, you put it on the line and said that “Anyone who realistically thinks they can make a lot of money making music is going to have a rude awakening.” Has that changed for you at all?
Tom: It’s, even more, true today than before. The entertainment media has always focused too much time on the .1% of artists who are celebrities but rarely tell the story of creative artists who sell a bunch of records but still have to keep their day jobs to pay the bills.
There are Bands who headline small festivals that travel to play music 200+ days out of the year who don’t make much over minimum wage. They would be better off financially taking a stable minimum wage job over playing music for a living.
The overwhelming majority of people who make music do it because they have something to say or want to try to make something special like their predecessors. Since the last interview, the entire music industry has contracted considerably, and there are even fewer opportunities to make a living. It’s just a fact. The monetary value of music across the board has shifted dramatically. Licensing and sales of physical records has fallen off quite a bit and the only way an artist can make a living is either through touring and/or fan patronage. It’s not easy but being involved in music is and always will have tons of opportunities for fun and transcendent pleasure.
Rift: If you could give a piece of advice about anything, what would that be?
Tom: Support music and the artists you love. If you’re broke, send a nice message to someone in a band about their music if it means something to you. Even if you don’t get a response, it’s worth sharing. It’s a noble pursuit to create interesting music, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Night One of the 16th Anniversary – http://riftmagazine.com/event/modern-radio-sweet-sixteen-anniversary-night-1/
Night Two of the 16th Anniversary – http://riftmagazine.com/event/modern-radio-sweet-sixteen-anniversary-night-2/