When a seasoned veteran of the music scene is willing to open up about their experiences, it’s generally wise to open your ears. Those who have committed to the indie scene grind their whole life have a wealth of stories, knowledge, and warnings for those who wish to follow the same path. Michael J. Collins, the leader of FilthyBroke Recordings (and long-time indie musician) is one of these such people.
To keep it short and sweet (because this interview is long and wonderfully in-depth), he’s seen a lot. We were fortunate enough to get to have a long sit-down with Michael, and the end result is an unforgettable interview about clawing his way through the music scene, and establishing an independent music outlet. He’s also a super charismatic dude – the interview was an unforgettable process that we couldn’t be more pleased to have had.
This is necessary reading for anyone enticed by a similar trail, and recommended reading for those who just love music.
EN: So, I’ll start with the basics since I like to make sure there’s info for new readers. When and why did you decide to start up Filthy Broke Recordings?
MJC: FilthyBroke Recordings, often referred to as FBR, will be three years old in May of this new year. As for the “why”… Jeesh, there’s a multitude of factors, but I can distill things down:
I had quit music twice before, and realized I would never be satisfied unless I could have a safe outlet to put out whatever the fuck I wanted. Some of which is hip-hop, much of which is not. Having released on many imprints around the world for several years, I learned the hard way that I am much more comfortable being a lone-wolf. Even if that means making way less money.
EN: I can definitely relate to that – at least from the writing side of things. I like being in control of my own output, even though it feels limiting at times. Do you ever feel frustrated with the sacrifices you had to make to achieve that “lone-wolf” status?
MJC: Oh man, in the beginning? Heck yeah, often. Particularly getting used to not making money, even though I knew that would be the case going in. As an artist that had never tried the label thing before, I honestly almost quit music again as our first release was coming together. Basically, I had been used to putting out 12″s on other folks’ labels for some time. I would get my fee and my royalties quarterly, and not really consider what was going on over on the other side. At that time, as you said, I wanted some control over what I was creating rather than being told by a label, “make more stuff like that one [release] from 2008.” This desire for control, as well as my lack of knowing how hard it actually is to run a label are what manifested into FBR.
Dude, within three months of the label going from concept to [the first] 12″ order being placed, I was stolen from… A myriad other shady shit happened that nearly led to me walking away before it even started… At that point my money was all-in though, so I figured try to peddle a few records and then call it quits. Going through a divorce at that time certainly did not help my lack of enthusiasm. Somehow things just kept going despite myself and my tendency to self-sabotage.
I still plan to get my fucking $350 from that punk out in California. If you are reading this, “CM”, know this to be true. I may show up at 84 with an oxygen tank by my side, but I will get that money back. I know it seems petty, y’all, but stealing is wack as fuck, and there are principles at stake for me anyway.
In short, the beginning was a nightmare. Now I am so so happy I made those sacrifices and stuck it out. I still go crazy daily. Hourly.
EN: That’s pretty intense man – it sounds like you’re one hell of a stubborn dude (I mean that in the best way) when it comes to your label. Was there a particular point where you finally were able to say, “You know what? I can do this?”
MJC: Ha! I am stubborn to a fault, I am obsessed with people “doing the right thing” and realize all of that is based in my own unrealistic expectations of others… Like, for real, I in no way wanna come off as negative about things, how things started, just how it was for better or for worse. It was a learning experience of the highest order, in that it truly tested whether or not I felt I could work in music in some other capacity than simply being a recording artist. Though I felt like saying “Fuck it” so many times I learned that people (myself included) are flawed, some youngsters/older folk have never dealt with labels before, not worth throwing shade… Rather, learn from the “climate” of what’s happening in the moment, pick a solid circle of trustworthy people, and love them to death. Help each other to the end of the earth… So, yeah… It was probably like three months ago actually where I felt like, “I can do this. I may be good at this actually, I am growing a thicker skin and a wonderful network.” And the bottom line is that putting out a wide array of music that oddly caught on a bit, with no PR, is addictive. I wanna prove everyone wrong, like, “we don’t pay to play but are sustaining.” Maybe unrealistic, but now if ever is a time for idealism.
EN: With that in mind, I guess this goes back a bit to what we talked about before the interview too, that artists and labels need to respect each other. How important is that respect to you in your operations both as an artist and label head?
MJC: In my mind, Dustin, [it] is paramount to everything. Respect is huge, I think that also taking a step back from one’s own bubble to listen to [and] push the work of others is crucial. I am always preaching, “Support Independent Music.” It was not until starting the label that I really knew what that meant, for me. And for me that means actually SUPPORTING good art by good people, whether it is associated with FBR or not. I believe that at the end of the day, cooperation trumps competition (pun intended. Like, I feel happier (and feel the label does much better) when I am sharing music by other people.
Sharing my own stuff all day is not only boring, but feels stale and selfish when there is so much other amazing music out there. I get turned off by (what I consider to be) ego-driven people, artists and labels. Folks that claim they are “The Best.” Folks that scream for support of their work yet do not engage with others. Liars, cheats and thieves. I guess it’s selfishness that turns me off, as I see it as completely nonproductive in this day and age.
Yes, I prefer the “lone-wolf” aspect of control over the label’s output… However, I would have been dead in the water were it not for people like Fake Four Inc, Oliver Booking Company, Walter Gross, Ceschi, Fremdtunes outta the Netherlands, [and] so many others. These types of people contribute so much to our underground music scene; [they] do so with grace and a willingness to push the work of other unaffiliated artists and labels simply because it’s good stuff and worth sharing. The act of sharing someone else’s music may not seem like much, but when you do not pay to play nor have PR it is actually invaluable. I personally make a point to share non-FBR music all day, mixed in with some stuff about what we have going on. It feels so good to have someone say, “Yo, this is so dope. Thanks for sharing it, I have never heard this before.” And said person then has been turned onto something they can relate to or enjoy. I know that most of our music has been heard due to other people taking time to mention it.
That feeling of community is so necessary for me, as I have had some very bad experiences as mentioned earlier.
EN: Man, I definitely feel that – one if my biggest passions is putting people onto new stuff. Especially when it comes to independent art. Do you also feel like the music industry as a whole is pushing toward a more “grassroots” collective of small communities now that major labels have fallen out of favour (in part due to how they disrespect artists)?
MJC: Yeah man, I do see things moving towards a more “grassroots” perspective! And like you said, putting people on to other stuff seems to be a part of that. As far as what I was trying to explain before, regarding folks trying to band together, I am really happy to say I am observing it more and more. I know I often come off as crabby and negative, however the ideal I was mentioning earlier… As far as people big-upping each other rather than trying to push a singular agenda? It’s happening and I love it. Thus, I choose to surround myself with artists that see the benefit of exploring new music, sharing new music by friends or some 16-year old in Greenland.
Promoting myself and the label naturally comes with the territory. On the other hand, by actively participating in the scene as simply a fan? That has been not only the most fun, but the most rewarding because of the relationships that have manifested over time. I have been fortunate to work with people I have admired for 25 years, people I would obsess over as a kid… It’s such a trip. The only reason those things happened is because of friendships building over time. Friendships that organically started from a simple retweet in some cases. Let people know you dig what they are doing! Make a point of telling friends what you are into at the moment! It’s as grassroots as it gets, but it’s fun and the only way forward in my humble opinion. Little collectives banding together can make a big fucking noise.
EN: Related to this – I have to ask, how does it feel for you when you see someone repping a project you were involved in (either as an artist, or a label head)? I know for me, when I’ve received props for the site from someone I’ve admired it really brightens my day. Hell, even my whole week sometime
MJC: Oh dude, you have no idea! I still freak out like a little kid on his birthday! Call me a fanboy, but I am so full of self-doubt when it comes to my own music (which I have now been releasing for 20 fucking years). I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about that [laughs]. Not to mention I am so busy with the label and mastering for other labels I don’t often get to write these days. Thus, when someone I really admire takes a liking to a new piece it is refreshing and I feel elated. Like, “Okay, maybe I don’t suck as bad as I think and don’t need to quit.” I’ve become much better though, in that these days I am my own harshest critic. Back in the day when I was releasing a lot of music on other labels, I would smash my copy of the 12″ before it ever entered my home. Now I can listen to what I have done over the last couple years and not cry or throw up… Progress! I simply find reassurance when others reach out and say, “This isn’t bad, keep putting out music.” Otherwise I would just record for myself and never release it.
These days the biggest rush comes from the mastering stuff. I just finished mastering the new Walter Gross for Sole’s Black Box Tapes. Just being entrusted with something like that is so humbling and exciting.
EN: That’s so cool, I own some of Walter Gross’ music and he’s a beast. Dude’s got one of the most evil sounding styles out there, in my opinion. Did it take a long time to get to the point where artists regularly trusted you? I imagine building that rapport could be a lengthy process.
MJC: I have no idea how it ended up this way to be honest… It really should not have. I mean, Walter is literally my favourite contemporary recording artist. [He] is the most underrated person in underground music plain and simple, in my opinion.
I actually remember how it kinda started! I had recorded a remix for a label outta Canada. It was to be broadcast, pre-mastering, on some BBC radio show mix. The artist hit me up and said, “louden it for me so I can play it on the radio.” I had never messed around with post-production before, as I had been advised to leave it to the professionals. This was like 7 or 8 years ago. So, I started playing with a limiter and making really bad, really loud pre-release “masters” of stuff for promo purposes, [like] DJ mixes and such. I sucked so bad and knew it. As with everything else I knew I had to step up my game – learn some shit. I was totally secluded in the mountains of Arizona, and had no one to help me out. I just lived on engineering forums and started out with a few plug-ins. After playing around for a few years I felt like I was sorta getting a sense of what sounded proper and what sounded like trash. I bought some more gear and started doing it for FBR.
The turning point was when we released the Hoot cassette. It was archival material recorded between ’05-’09. It was all over the place, and I felt that I was ready for a challenge. For some reason the whole thing just flowed and turned out okay! Then I mastered the Walter Gross release for FBR, [which was] a while ago. From there I realized it was time to really go for it, but was still nervous as hell about ruining the work of others.
For some reason a few people trusted me as I continued to learn. I did the post-production on the joint release we did with Fake Four (which is awful now that I listen [laughs], but it taught me a lot). That trust enabled me to make a lot of mistakes and also learn a ton of stuff. I stepped up the studio and started trusting my ears. For the last six months I have felt really comfortable in the mastering lab, and somehow attained a client base. I just got a job tonight in fact, from someone I did an eight CD mastering project for a couple months back. I thought it was gonna take forever to find clients and build the rapport you spoke of; [however], I think since mastering is so fucking expensive (and I love doing it), trying to make it affordable has helped. I also think that my communication with the artist helps. I am so picky that I would never want to put out someone else’s project with my name attached if the masters were shit. I turn down jobs that I do not feel I can improve upon aside from loudness. It’s taking time, we’re still in the beginning stages really, but much love to the several repeat clients! I have over 100 songs mastered for all formats dropping on various labels in the next 6 months. I am so grateful, and still learning. However, the fact many folks have come back repeatedly really enthuses me. Like, “maybe I can do this!” So much self-doubt [laughs]… Our latest, the new V8 tape, was mastered by me. I think it is my best work to date in that department. Thanks all for the one day sell-out!
EN: It sounds like you have a very strong sense of pride in your work – Do you ever get frustrated when you see an artist or label being lazy/sloppy with what they’re releasing?
MJC: I think the word “sense” is the operative word here, man. I wanna take pride in everything, but always feel I can do better. I think this can be good though, always challenging one’s self to do more, better. Our latest release, the V8 cassette, was certainly an exercise in trying to do “the best we have ever done.” It was by far the most complex and involved project we have ever been involved with. There were a lot of key players that allowed this thing to even make it to the point of release. The 12″ and digital are forthcoming on TSLOS outta Chicago this spring… I ended up mastering the whole thing for all formats, and then subsequently was asked to release the tape. I gladly jumped on it, as it features some amazing talent: DJ Pain1, Kenny Segal, Vyle, and more. Lot’s of close producer friends too. It ended up with me mastering like 30 songs that spanned nearly 90 minutes. Then we pulled from that for the 25 song cassette edition with a bonus track. We were so grateful and lucky to sell it out, as it was pretty expensive, but so worth it. V8 and I handled the music stuff. His girl Vern Royale did the packaging, [and] she absolutely killed it. It’s the most intricate and in-depth packaging we have ever done. It took months to finalize everything, the custom cassette pouches, custom handkerchiefs, and such were all placed in take-out bags with receipts and all. Each one custom, numbered, and with lots of extra goodies. It was really hard at times, I didn’t think we would pull it off to be honest. Now, seeing all of the pics that folks are taking of their orders is the payoff. I really liked V8 and Vern’s concept of basically making a takeout meal of music and art. Thankfully my girl and label partner helped a ton with design layout and such, as I suck at it.
My point in telling you all of this is basically that I want people to know how important each release is for us. I always wanna keep pushing to do something different. This leads to my answer to your question [laughs]… Yes, I get pissed off when I see sub-par merch. I recently ordered a limited release, it was quite expensive. The record had no label to indicate Side A or Side B. I mean, if this were some obscure drone release I could get with it. It was not though, and the packaging was flimsy as well. To this day I have no idea which side is which. I’m not really trying to talk shit, it’s a good record; however, I think attention to detail is hella important, especially now with so many people releasing music.
EN: That V8 packaging was really something unique – had I been in a better financial position when it dropped I would have scooped that up. Seeing creative physical packaging is, honestly, one of my favourite things about the independent scene. Which leads me into asking: do you think artists should strive to be creative with their releases now that physical media is becoming more of an indie scene thing? It feels like physical media is shifting more towards being an art form, rather than a bare bones distribution method. And I’m curious about your thoughts on it.
MJC: That’s a cool question because I actually thought a lot about this over the last couple of weeks. Everything I spew about quality packaging, art-centric releases, and unique extras that create a “theme” of sorts with the physicals? These are all very true for me personally, and how I plan to move forward. We have some really weird shit in the works for FBR011 and FBR012 as far as design and concept. While all of these things are vital to our vision, it’s simply a matter of taste I think. At the end of the day, the music is the most important thing to me. Thus, I can’t really speak to how other artists should approach their releases.
I have some bare-bone 12″s and cassettes, as far as packaging, but it just works. A white label with an “A” stamped on it for example, nothing else. And the music speaks for itself, in some ways adding more flair may have taken away from what was trying to be conveyed musically (but this is different than just sending out un-labeled records that seem kinda sketchy, as I mentioned earlier). So really, I think it’s a matter of quality product no matter the aesthetic. As long the artist feels they have seen their vision through completely, that’s a successful release in my opinion. Having an idea and feeling that the physical or digital final product fully conveys. With FBR, things are very “artsy” right now [laughs], but if you see our Walter cassette it is bare-bones as fuck yet fits the music perfectly so we all thought.
Oh, and the reason I just used the word “digital” is that I think digital releases rule. I love them. And for someone with little to no overhead, packaging can be pricey and time consuming. Maybe trying things digitally first is a way for one to dip one’s toe into the waters of releasing music. We are beefing up our digital series big-time in 2017, coordinating a biggie right now. Digital is just as viable as physical is my take on it. Like you said though, people really like physical goods and cool art concepts that coincide with them. I suppose if one wants to go down the “limited art release” route, it is just a matter of developing said concept and deciding if it can be executed well. If so, go for it.
EN: I feel like you’re describing a very tasteful minimalist approach, and I think that has a lot of artistic merit for sure. Even going back a few decades, New Order’s first release after Joy Division ended was incredible that way. The cover was just the band name, album name, and catalogue number. It looked amazing.
You also just lead into the next thing on my notes! I wanted to ask, do you think there’s too much negativity toward “digital only” releases? I see a lot of people complain when there isn’t a physical, but digital ultimately seems like the easiest distribution method.
MJC: Bro, I have the Factory Records book (FAC451, they did it just like a record release) sitting on my coffee table! That’s funny you bring up New Order and Joy Division, the Factory Records aesthetic was so dope. Exactly, you nailed it with the “tasteful minimalism” for many of their releases. It was a huge influence to me. Cabaret Voltaire released on Factory I believe, one of my favourite bands ever. Somehow founding member Stephen Mallinder has become an internet “friend,” and he has done two guest mixes for us. All because of non-ego driven people just giving each other props years ago! I digress, but it’s just a cool coincidence.
Hell yes, I think people hate on digital-only releases sometimes and consider them less artistically valuable or some shit. No way, not in my opinion. Again, that’s why we are expanding our digital series over here at the label. Digital releases are awesome and just as viable as physicals for many reasons: One can still make awesome digital art for it, the music can be amazing, the overhead is basically nothing, and it can be downloaded immediately in all formats, even .wav! I hope we see more folks with larger labels start to do some digital-only stuff, if only to make it feel more approachable to someone starting out. I hope to see the digital platform utilized even further.
EN: Do you think iTunes gave digital releases a bit of a scummy aura back when they were the dominant platform? I remember buying tracks and having the quality being all over the place (even though it’s listed at equivalent to a 256kbs mp3). To me this has always stood out as a reason why digital is looked upon so negatively. Fortunately we’ve got outlets like BandCamp now.
Hell, iTunes in the early-mid 2000s was half the reason I relied on scummy shit like WinMX and Limewire, unfortunately.
MJC: I was the same. After about a year of novelty, iTunes disinterested me and I stopped using it. Yes, 256kbs threw me [too]. $9.99 for a DRM album of sub-par audio quality ain’t my thing [laughs]. I think people like us may be in a very small minority though, to be honest. Like, do you think the average listener knows the difference between downloading something from iTunes as opposed to Bandcamp? I seriously have no idea! From the fact that the artist gets paid more to the fact that the music is better quality, even CD quality if one chooses? Seriously, I have no idea. And every time I go to get digital distribution set up, I sorta just let it slack and forget for another six months [laughs].
I’m not hating on streaming, but at my level I prefer to have shit available via BandCamp only these days. As far as I know, it’s the best platform as far as paying out to the artist or label. Were I Faith Hill or MC Hammer though, I would likely be all up in Spotify’s guts. I still get shit from music friends about this. Maybe it will change soon, maybe I am just lazy… I think part of it is that I only want the music available on platforms that provide a minimum of 320kbs MP3s, but especially .FLAC and .WAV. Since firing our distributor two years ago it’s been just me until quite recently, and that was rough. Hence, my laziness in certain areas.
EN: Do you see potential in streaming as an option for small labels though? I’ll argue until I’m blue in the face about how flawed streaming can be, but it definitely seems to have intriguing capabilities.
MJC: I am probably the last person to ask about that [laughs]. I have never even explored it due to all the horror stories I have heard about how it is useless. However, I am open to learning more as I agree with you, there must be potential there. High-res streaming would be cool. Maybe exists, but I missed it. I was just talking with my girl and we will likely explore it in the future, but maybe only if things get to a large enough scale where it would be advantageous.
EN: [Laughs], I appreciate the honesty. It’s just an interesting subject. Streaming is definitely heading toward higher res, but the big issue is ultimately still royalty payouts. They’re incredibly low.
I’m going to go somewhere a little cheesy, but we’ve got a lot of aspiring indie label owners who check out the site regularly. What advice would you give to someone just starting out, like you were with FBR a handful of years ago?
MJC: There are more labels than people in the world [laughs]. I honestly was gonna say, “just don’t do it.” But that’s a dumb thing to say.
Look, running a record label is really hard work and there is not a big payoff if one is looking to get rich. It was not until 2016 that we were finally able to say we were in the black and able to fund future releases with sales. It took a couple of years and money was spent as we do a lot of physical releases. Things feel good now, thankfully, but I guess I would ask myself a few questions before making the decision to start a label:
1) Am I willing to struggle and work thanklessly for 10-16 hours a day, and even be working when I am not actually “working?”
2) Am I willing to put my own art aside in order to have the time to start things out properly?
3) Am I OK with rejection?
4) Am I OK if someone decides to fuck me over, will I maintain?
5) If things pick up, do I mind living at the post office and dealing with all the angry people behind me in line as well as irate postal workers?
6) Am I good dealing with a variety of personalities?
7) Am I cool with doing nine things at once all the time?
8) Will I reply in a timely manner to emails, texts and phone calls that come in all day?
9) Am I willing to take risks?
10) Am I willing to support other artists and labels?
I think if one answers “yes” to these ten questions, this could be for you. Or just do what I did, make a bad decision because music is life, and we are all gonna die so fuck it.
EN: Could you ever see yourself doing anything else, is is music where your heart is forever? As far as your main passion and focus in life, I mean.
MJC: Nah, I could never do anything else at this point. Seriously, I mean… I am gonna be 40 in a couple weeks. I never intended this, even though music has been a dominant force in my life as far back as I can remember. I went to university. I actually worked as a psychotherapist and administrator for both the public and private mental health systems for years. At the end I was seeing so many people die, and not improve due to bad policy and greed, so I quit. At that time it was to attempt getting back into writing and releasing on other labels. The experience was frustrating because I was being asked to make the same type of music I was making 10 years ago, so I went off on my own. Hence, FilthyBroke Recordings.
EN: Now onto something a little more current. You’ve got a compilation album coming out soon to benefit an anti-bullying organization. When and why did you decide to put this project together?
MJC: I will be totally honest: First off, I feel like we are currently dealing with the biggest bully in the world tearing people apart, dividing people. It is disgusting and sickening and even as a straight white man I am unable to process or accept what is happening. Secondly, I was relentlessly bullied as a kid. I moved when I was nine and was “the new kid.” Being beaten and laughed at without any intervention from those that were supposed to protect me has never left me, and it never will. I am not happy much of he time, often hate myself, and feel like no one actually cares about me sometimes. I know this not to be true in my head, but occasionally my gut says otherwise. I do not like seeing people hurting. I do not like the vulnerable being taken advantage of. I do not approve of bullying in any way, it ruins people. Donald Trump is a fucking bully. There are 70-year old women being detained in airports, as we speak, in 2017. Just no.
I’m not very good at many things, but this is a very serious and personal issue to me. The response to the compilation has been overwhelming, I am shocked. I feel like this may be an issue important to other people as well, thus we just want to donate all proceeds to Ditch the Label.
EN: As someone who also went through a lot of hellish bullying as a kid, I really respect and think it’s wonderful that you’ve taken the initiative. Seeing the response even from the outside has been touching to say the least. Do you see a lot of merit in music being used as a fundraiser? It seems like a really cool way to raise awareness and funds.
MJC: I do see a lot of merit in it, especially in that using art to raise money also raises awareness in and of itself… Like, the “product” that facilitates an ability to donate is music; music on its own is very powerful and certainly can deliver a message singularly. Just seemed so easy to try to do the compilation. Like you said though? About the response? People came out of the woodwork, no ego all positivity. People that I never would have thought of approaching… They seemed “out of my league” and I woke up to an inbox of songs donated from these amazing people. Mostly unsolicited aside from my tweet about wanting to do it. Some people give a fuck I guess, and that’s just amazing to me.
EN: I’m happy that it took off – I suggest to all of our readers to check this thing out when it drops, and support it if you can. We’re at about length. Is there anything else you’d like to say as we wrap this bad-boy up?
MJC: Just thank you for the best interview I have ever been a part of, for real. I needed that, thank you Dustin.
EN: Cheers, man. We’ll do another one for sure. You’ve got so much experience and insight into the music world that it’d be criminal for me to not have you on again.