An Interview with No Sleep Records’ CEO Chris Hansen
No Sleep Records was founded in the summer of 2006 by Chris Hansen, with the purpose of bringing back the originality and uniqueness that was long missing from today’s ever-changing music scene. Originally founded while Hansen was working as the art director for a larger independent label on the East Coast, No Sleep eventually moved back out West to Huntington Beach, CA. We got the chance to speak with Hansen recently, to take a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to run an indie label.
I think people tend to glamorize record labels. Can you give a more realistic description of what the day-to-day operations are like at the office?
It definitely depends on the day. Some days are more relaxed than others, depending on if there’s any new releases coming out or bigger releases being planned, you know?
It’s also different now than it used to be. I used to be a completely one-man show, but now I have someone who does my mail orders, which is nice. I pretty much get in the office between seven and nine in the morning. Sit at the computer, do a million emails. Then I talk to our press guy everyday to make sure everything’s going correctly for each release. I also send out updates to all of our booking contacts to make sure everyone can get on the road, get updated info for managers and look for new bands all the time. And there’s always various drama to deal with…
How much do you actually interact with bands on your roster?
I interact with at least one band every day. Sometimes all of them. It depends on what’s going on, but everyone is my friend, so everyday I talk to them at least from a friend standpoint. Because one of the things I look for when I’m signing a band is that they’re good dudes who I can be friends with. It’s a family to me. I always wanted No Sleep to be something that I enjoy. I don’t want it to be something that leads to me hating what I do.
What is your submission policy for new bands?
A lot of it is word of mouth between bands on the label. I mean, we obviously get press kits and listen to them, but 90% of the press kits we get are pretty bad. That’s just how the press kit game goes.
When we are talking to a band I like to make sure that they’re doing it for the right reasons, you know? Make sure they have a good work ethic, that they’re gonna tour as often as they can and that they know all the right things to do. Be able to take advice, and like I said, make sure they’re genuine people.
What advice would you give to a band on how to approach a label they want to get signed to?
Just get word out there about your band. Tour, play shows, because a lot of the bands we do hear about are from other bands on the label. It’s just because of the world we’re in and our friends are a community. So knowing that our bands know about the bands out there definitely helps [your shot].
Is it less effective for them to just send you an unsolicited package of their stuff?
I mean, not really, but sometimes we get press kits for things that don’t make sense at all [for us]. Then, obviously it’s a waste of time. I definitely think press kits are still a good thing. It shows that the band cares about what they’re doing and wants to put time into it. When we get press kits where it’s a complete form letter and you can tell it’s been sent to a million people, that’s a little off-putting. I think it’s still important for bands to send the material out, though, because…it shows they’re serious. The only downside is that they get buried sometimes in the really bad stuff that gets sent.
Have you signed any bands from press kit submissions?
I’ve signed…I think two, maybe – based off of having not heard them before and getting a press kit. As far as not knowing of a band, there’s been a couple where I have actually gotten to know them from [their press kit]. It definitely helps, doing the press kit and then also working on getting your name out there. Just [sending] a press kit when I haven’t heard of [the band] and none of my bands have heard of [them], it shows they’re obviously not really working that hard on playing shows, getting their name out there.
So it’s beneficial for bands to interact with and get to know your bands, not just the label heads.
It’s definitely beneficial because for us it’s a family, a community. So whenever there’s a band that I haven’t really heard of, I ask if there’s someone on the label who might know them or has played a show with them, just to see what they think of them. That helps to know if they’re good live, or if they’re douche bags and you don’t want to work with them.
What misconceptions do bands have about behind-the-scenes stuff at a label?
Kids assume that if a record goes into second pressing, that means that the band and label are making money, but you and I know vinyl is an expensive thing. I think from the band’s standpoint, sometimes they don’t realize everything that goes into marketing and working a record, you know? The costs involved can add up [for us].
What about other misconceptions?
There are still people who think that the label just presses records and sends them out, and that’s all they do. But there’s dealing with the distributor, dealing with the press guy, dealing with the radio people, because we do college radio campaigns with every release, too. I don’t know if it leads to more sales, but it helps get people aware, you know? Then dealing with our friends’ labels and the community and just trying to do whatever we can to get more awareness for everything. I think bands sometimes have the misconception that they send us the stuff, we send it out and then they move on to something else, you know?
And what about money issues?
Some bands think, ‘Well, we sold 500 records, how come there’s no money in yet?’ When we press a record, it varies depending on what terms you have with the [pressing plant or duplicator], but mostly we’ll pay upfront for product. So you pay [for a record] a few months before a release is actually out. Then it comes out and any copies that were distributed you [might not] get paid on for three months after the release date, because of [additional] terms.
And then the distributor takes a cut and they also hold a return reserve, which is 25% or so for about ten months of the year. So it’s a long time before any money comes in. I think that’s definitely one thing, especially when I first started a label, that bands didn’t really understand. Once a band’s been around for a while they realize [how it works].
I mean, let’s say the record’s in store for 13 bucks, we wholesale it for a price that’s obviously less than that, the distributor takes their cut and then there’s a return reserve for a while, which you won’t get paid on for a year, basically…
Knowing what you know now, are there any things that you would have done differently with the label from a business standpoint?
There are definitely things I would have done differently, but also some stuff where I don’t think I would have, because I wouldn’t have learned from it. I definitely lucked out by working at various labels, distribution companies and record stores, which helped me to learn the good and bad side of things, you know?
I’ve done larger specialty radio campaigns for some stuff that I shouldn’t have and there’s been a couple of bands that I shouldn’t have [worked with] because it was a big loss for the label, which obviously hurts.
What advice do you have for folks thinking about putting their own label together?
Know that it’s going to be a lot of work, and you’re not going to get a lot of sleep most of the time. It’s very stressful. It’s very time consuming. Lots of money will be spent on things that you may or may not ever receive a return on. Running a label is a big gamble at the end of the day. We all have days where we want to stop because it’s overwhelming at times. And then be wary, there are a lot of sketchy people in this industry, clearly.
Definitely don’t go overboard in choosing too many bands or doing too many things at once. Start small; try to have it as a hobby and not a full-time thing, especially at first. It’s definitely an expensive industry to be in, and it’s definitely a cutthroat industry. It’s hard to survive, honestly, with labels failing all the time.
If this is too personal you can let me know, but when you started the label how did you fund it?
Oh, every penny outside of my rent went towards the label. My salary at the time and then freelance work all went to No Sleep. I’ve sold my personal record collection a few times to pay debt that has accumulated from pressing [the label’s records]. I really put everything I had into this financially, mentally, and physically. It’s what I knew I wanted to do. I can’t play any instruments; I’ve tried, and I can’t do that. I knew I wanted to be involved, to do something to help spread good music again, because there’s definitely a lot of [great] shit out there. I wanted to [leave] a mark in some way, you know?
photos by Jonathan Weiner