Interview: Jorge Tapia Of JEMS LABEL

Words/Interview by Kelly Tee

There are so many factions of the music industry, those that work on the front line and or in the background to ensure the scene thrives. However, behind the music – what do record labels do? You'd be surprised! I had a good conversation with the founder & owner of the underground record label, Jems hailing from Illinois, USA to find out in more detail what the role of a record label plays within the music industry, how important they are to the scene and how bands can benefit from a good record label.

Hi, Jorge thanks so much for catching up with me. Your record label business, Jems Label is growing at a rapid rate, with some deadly black metal bands signed with you now. How did Jems Label start? The year and your journey so to speak.

Jems technically started ten years ago after I ended my prior label "Nail In The Coffin Records". I had taken a year off and decided to release my then band’s album at the times. I released a few friend's albums and took a few years off again. When I kicked the label back into gear around 2017 I decided I simply release gnarly, dark, evil stuff, which is everything I had always loved. I enjoyed helping my friend’s bands’ out for years but felt a little moot and unfulfilled. I wanted the label to release the type of myself I would by myself, that being; Sick tunes and packaged amazingly. I wanted to rekindle the feeling I had when I was 13. Getting a record in the mail, opening it, smelling the ink, feeling the different paper textures, and pulling the piece of vinyl out of its sleeve for the first time. Then when the music starts, stare at the sleeve, you stare at the insert, you unfold the clamshell, and you breathe in the full essence of what it is to submerge yourself in an album. You can’t get that from playing music on your phone. So it was important for me to rehash that experience.

Aside from Black Metal – what other genres of music do you look to sign your brand to?

Noise, power electronics, postpunk, goth, darkwave, punk, hardcore. Anything I want as long as its dark/evil or sad in some form. That is just what resonates with me.

What is the role of a record label – does signing a band, go beyond releasing records and promoting? And if so, what else is involved?

For me, it is a sliding scale. It depends on what the plan is for the band/project release. We have done large rollouts that have taken months to plan and I've released ten cassettes for people with little notice. With everything Jems does it is decided in conjunction with the artist. Working hand in hand with them the entire time making sure they are happy with every aspect of the situation. I always tell my bands I am like a lawyer in the sense of whatever we discuss stays between us. It’s because of this, a natural friendship is developed with a lot of the bands and I,  outside of the music relationship. However, learning where to draw the line between friendship and label is also a very important aspect to me. I have had some bands come at me negatively about things relevant to our music relationship, but I feel I am an easy person to work with and ALL the bands I choose to work with are also very easy to work with. Any drama or negativity will lead to me choosing to not work with that band anymore. I don't feed egos or drama. Jems  do not "sign" anyone technically, there is not contract in place,  only email agreements. So when people say they "signed" to a new label or something like that it is far from a real record deal "signing,". I think that is just phrasing to feel cool. To me "signed" means "this dude is selling and promoting my record and I get a few copies for free". To Virgin or Capitol records it means "we got lawyers involved and ya’ll signed a contract".

Who was the first band you signed with Jems Label, and how many bands do you currently have signed today?

Honestly, when I started Jems from the ashes of my prior label (ten years ago), I only released my band (pointless to name) the ideal premise was to release music for my band and my friends bands that I enjoyed. That didn't last long and then I took a break from the label for a few years only releasing noise albums here and there. When I kicked the label back into gear in 2017 I started back up with the Closet Witch debut 12" which started me on a new path sonically. If there was a band or 2 I would consider "signed" in the sense we have an in-depth agreement on our music relationship and they are loyal, it would be Vide, Xchnum MiiiMiiikry, Ulvsblakk.

The relationship between artist and label is crucial. What are the most important aspects of this relationship to see the successful promotion of releases and a solid business working relationship thrive between both parties?

The relationship is quite important as far as not blurring the line of friends and business. First of all, I do not take emotions or feelings into consideration when it comes to label work. As a friend I will,  but with over 20 years experience of running labels, I have learned to not "cross the streams" so to speak. Bands have to remember that when they are "signed" or more simply put a label is releasing a record for them and they get a cut of the records that they have become an investment so any decisions linked to the label should be calculated with the label. I think a lot of bands get very antsy with their music and the internet has enabled immediate gratification. You can record something on your phone and do the art on your phone and in an hour have it on Bandcamp selling digital copies. That is NOT how I work. Jems is based on a physical medium. NOT BANDCAMP. I don't even have a Bandcamp, but I let ALL the bands maintain as much control over their music as possible. I'm sure it would make sales better but I don't want to mess with it and after running a label for so long I have learned that as soon as band disagrees on something or fall out etc. they want their music removed from any/and all platforms.

What are the key elements you look for when signing a band?

To me, it's like a tattoo. I know what I want when I see it, or in this case, hear it. There are bands I have released that I'm not particularly fond of their style of "metal" or whatever BUT they do it in a way that intrigues me and I feel is unique. Those are the bands I'm interested in. bands that can resonate over the million other bands doing the same thing. Bands that have the talent or if they don't have the talent they have the innovation to make something unique out of their work.

You have a musical background, being in a band and a musician – tell me about this band, and what sort of music you create?

Yes, I am on a few projects. I think since this is about the label ill step over this but if people are interested in my band they can reach out personally or just do some online digging, you'll find it.

Do you think having been on both sides of the coin (a musician in a band, and also a label managing record releases) has assisted you to provide the best possible service? And why?

I always think about how I approach something, if I was on the receiving end would I appreciate it or be like "fuck off". I am a fan of everything I release as well as releases by many other labels. So it is all about what the bands want and then trying to keep the fans happy!

What are the most important functions of a good record label? And how can this benefit artist and bands move their career into the future?

PROMOTE! PROMOTE! PROMOTE! Don't take on projects if you don't have time. Don't fuck over your bands. Be upfront with numbers and band copies of their releases. I have many friends(bands/musicians) That have stepped away from labels because of all these reasons. I am always learning and don't feel like I know everything. Every day I learn something new that helps me improve on how I run the label.

Given that there are a lot of artists now, particularly in the underground metal scene that opts for staying independent to labels and would rather stay unsigned. How important do you feel the Record Label's role still is within the metal industry? And why?

I work with a few bands that are their own label but work with me instead of just doing the entire "label" thing themselves. Those are nice because the band usually have a set way of doing stuff or a good plan or idea we can build from. I think a lot of little labels are started out of the necessity that your music is not easily accepted  if you are just representing yourself. So the "label" aspect seems to derive from a shell company aspect. Representing yourself outside yourself to further one's music. Then you can get reviews etc.

Has the introduction of the internet attributed to bands becoming more independent from labels?  And if so, what strategies did you adopt to maintain your place within the music industry and keep your label moving forward?

Absolutely. Internet and social media seem to give that liquid courage. It's super easy to do everything from your phone these days. Record a song, put it online, do the art on your phone and sell it accepting payment online. I started my first tape label in the '90s. I advertised in zines and flyers through the mail. It took me a VERY long time to get into the internet stuff, or even care about it. Everybody kept telling me "you'd make so much money if you just worked on the internet more" and I did not care at all. I just kept doing stuff the same. I realized I was working harder not smarter. 2017 is when I went "online" selling stuff for the first time. I had a site years ago but it was more just a "yo go to this site" kind of thing and I never kept up with it. Instagram is pretty great for labels it seems, Facebook sucks for smaller stuff. I will be starting an email list soon, their seems to be a lot of interest in that especially with kids from Europe.

I hear stories of "people are hard to trust" in the music industry, and I guess this derives from bad experiences, so, therefore, if I were a band (imagine lol) looking to be signed with a label – what are some of the signs I should look out for to ensure I am signing with a reputable and ethical record label and on the flip side, what should I avoid?

That can be hard to gauge. I find the biggest issues I have is dealing with egos. I feel like social media enables the ego to its most extreme level. I have mainly stepped away from bands that expound on their ego. Nowadays you can just check out stuff online, google things. Shit talking and being negative is most prevalent online before positivity so I think it's pretty easy to find out the bad stuff online. Just like getting a tattoo,  always check out the artist's portfolio before you commit. I think a lot of facades come from shitty people working with good people.  I know I have worked with labels in the past that I want nothing to do with now. It comes from how the relationship developed and I saw some shady stuff I did not appreciate, or they did some stuff that led me to lose respect for them. BUT I do not cry all over the internet about these people. So I see a lot of bands end up working with these people and end up with shitty deals, or not getting copies of their albums or ripped off in some form and sometimes I feel partially responsible because I supported these people initially and after I was over it I just stepped away from these people instead of "saying something" online. I think that has been my biggest personal issue with "people being hard to trust in the industry"

I have noticed it's not unusual for record labels to co-release albums these days – how does this work for the labels releasing? And is it a good way to release an album? Are there benefits as such, or downfalls to this method? And if so what are they?

As with most things, it can go many ways, sometimes good, sometimes bad, or sometimes things just move sideways on you and out of your control.  It can work out many ways. Sometimes bands piece together labels to get their albums out or labels don't have enough money so they ask other labels to help. It can be a very successful thing as long as everyone involved is on board and communicating. Once someone steps out from the release agenda or gets side-tracked things can come apart. That becomes a hard thing to deal with. I try to learn from every mistake and do not work with people that are problems and not solutions.

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