Interview by Conny Bruckbauer
with Carl Erling in February 1999
for the Manastir Baroue fanzine
Automatic translation: www.deepl.com/translate
Carl Erling - founder of Gymnastic Records/Chrom Records and discoverer of DEINE LAKAIEN, QNTAL and Helga Pogatschar has become a standing term and role model in the music industry for many of us fans and also label employees.
This and your questions about the music business are reason enough for us for a little interview with the cheerful label boss.
How did you come to build your own label? Where did you get the contacts?
Coincidence. Well, at the age of 6 I hadn’t said, “when I grow up I want to be a label manager” (I think I always wanted to become an astronaut). I had also done a classical foreign trade apprenticeship and then studied. During my studies a then good friend (Cornel) had a band and he asked me if I could promote his maxi single (that was “The Gap”) by founding a small label. At that time I was already a big music fan and also very active, but in other music scenes: Classic and House (House was more underground than Darkwave at that time; you can’t imagine that anymore). Anyway, I was curious and found the idea interesting. I then began to actively deal with the Darkwave scene: I was quickly fascinated by the variety and depth of feeling in the wave music of that time (which I had previously heard, but never really consciously heard) - and in some cases the relatively close proximity to classical music!
Establishing contacts was a quite difficult and lengthy process at the beginning (at first only the real insiders took the small label seriously). But the fans were very open for something new and “cult” at that time - and the press eventually followed us.
You produced more American Gothic in the beginning. How did you come to leave this style and devote yourself more and more to ClassX?
The “American Gothic” sampler was mainly Cornel’s influence, who lived in the United States at that time and now knew the scene in L.A. well. He had brought up many topics from this environment. I then dealt with the material as well as possible and promoted it. I believe that the fact that I wasn’t really an insider of the scene at that time was actually useful: I couldn’t fall back on “proven” (in other words: “worn out”) paths, but always had to come up with something new. I “heard” music differently and promoted it differently. That must have earned us the reputation of “innovation” our concepts were soon copied by other labels). As Cornel retired more and more from the label work, more and more the topics that I had brought in myself predominated: Deine Lakaien, Run Run Run Vanguard, Soul in Isolation, The Eternal Afflict, Fairies Fortune, etc. Finally, they dominated the label program completely. Maybe the new topics were just better? Who knows.
You’re known as a classic fan (especially Wagner): Was that a challenge for you to combine classical music with wave with musicians from the Deine Lakaien environment?
Oh, not only Wagner, but to start with that would probably go beyond the scope here…
But back to the question: Well, actually it was the idea of Deine Lakaien’s (if at all, such things often come from the gut and not as a planned concept), I never interfered in their music. The real challenge for me was to work with it as it was and to promote it as good as possible, i.e. to communicate it to the media and fans. That was great fun for me. Sometimes it was even to be observed - or it was reported to me - that listeners had discovered the classical music by listening to Deine Lakaien. That made me especially happy of course, since the classical music is, as said, my other great passion.
In the beginning, the former Gymnastic classX Records was a synonym for Dark Wave, New Romanticism and finally for Deine Lakaien. But with Distain!, Silence or Stendal Blast you have gradually made the leap from the dark scene to synth pop. What was the trigger for this for you?
“Wave” as it was in the early eighties was not depressive or negative. (These facets came later.) People had as much fun at a party or a concert as people nowadays e.g. at Britpop parties. For example, the parties at the Melodrom in Kaufbeuren (Bavaria) were legendary. It was a “colourful” dark, slightly eccentric audience. From this point of view Deine Lakaien and e.g. Distain! are not so far apart.
Besides, and this may sound arrogant, I thought, with Deine Lakaien I already had the best music possible in that kind of music, and therefore wanted to get something new… I’m just too curious about what happens musically. There is alwaiys a slight tendency to melancholic and sometimes weird music (Stendal Blast!)… Our music should be always atmospheric and kind of unique.
The biggest project released on the label was the recording of Helga Pogachar’s “Mars Requiem” and the world premiere in Munich’s “Reithalle”. A project that has probably remained unique in the field of indie labels. Wasn’t this huge project a financial risk?
I had the idea of commissioning a requiem for a long time. As a child I had collected requiems (and even sung two in the choir itself, Mozart and Fauré). In a requiem many of the deepest human feelings are addressed and expressed (such as pain, grief, anger, fear of loss, hope, faith, longing for death…) as only music theatre can do otherwise…. Such music will never (ever) sound so abstract and highbrow as many other productions of New Music. That’s what I like about this musical subject.
Anyway, when I saw a performance by Helga Pogachar, “Lux Aeterna”, I suddenly visualized this very crazy idea of an “own” requiem, since Helga’s music seemed to have exactly what I had always imagined, and in addition it somehow sounded super modern and unconventional. Helga found the idea exciting and soon after that it really started.
Financially the whole thing was of course a catastrophe for the label and all this was only absorbed by the huge success of our bands like Deine Lakaien or Qntal. Those bands remained loyal to us small indie label even in times when their success was growing and growing. And we also had, at least as far as the performances were concerned, sponsors (like the Bavarian State) who supported this project with money,equipment and ideally. Anyway, I’m very glad I did it. Who knows if I’ll have the courage to do it again today.
How did the name change from “Gymnastic Records” to “Chrom Records GmbH”?
Time for a change… Cornel hasn’t been around for a long time, the new name manifests this change to the outside world.
What has changed as a result of this change?
Nothing important, really. Everything is evolving, including the label philosophy and the label programme, but this has nothing to do with the change of company name. In any case, we had taken over all employees and bands at that time. Fortunately, it was a smooth transition. (Many fans hadn’t even noticed the change at all).
Where does the name “Chrom Records” come from?
From English, scientific abbreviation for “chromosome”….. Well, basically we wanted a relatively neutral name, a brand we could define and fill with life through our work. And chrome sounded nice and somehow no other label had used the name in this way. But we define ourselves through our work, our bands. The label name is of secondary importance.
Chrom Records has become with the time - beside the projects of the Deine Lakaien musical family - a figurehead for good, partly weird Avantgarde Pop and Wave. Projects such as “Kirchohmfeld”, “Idea of the North” or “Oliver Dean” are examples of the brand name “Chrom”. Many labels would prefer more striking pop projects to avant-garde ones. What excites you about producing these demanding bands, which unfortunately only reach a smaller circle of listeners who are willing to engage in quality?
Exactly because we have already won this audience and these individualists remain loyal to us for the most part… (At this point a big thank you!)
A label should always have music on offer, which is currently in demand, but also experiment with new things. Last but not least, to keep the scene alive: if the scene itself doesn’t keep coming up with something new and the scene reinvents itself, people will look for another scene in the long run, and that would be the end of it… and a lot of work would have been wasted.
Of course not all projects - in a commercial sense - will work, some are more a hobby, some are simply experiments (you never know: we rarely had such a weird “gothic” band like Kirchohmfeld, maybe suddenly they will be top…) But the scene will always discover “their” bands, we can only make offers. Exuberant press articles (and we had a lot of them) help a lot to give us an audience. But when a good music does not meet the spirit of the times and works right away: if you personally believe in the band yourself, you just have to be patient. The taste pendulum strikes back again. And who knows, as soon as the hard Teuton Wave/EBM is over with the people, maybe even the “big crowd” will rediscover our more intellectual music?
In any case, I’m pretty proud of all the projects we’ve released over the years. (I just had to compile some older tracks for the internet, I had even rediscovered older stuff of ours, like Fairies Fortune personally for me and was really really happy about the production…)
How did you come to look for your big newcomers like Silence and Niwot in Slovenia?
This has nothing to do with Slovenia directly (except that I find Ljubljana a totally beautiful city and the scene there super great). They were just good and very talented and original bands that I fell in love with right away.
What prompted you to make a songwriting record like Oliver Dean’s?
Once again I could really bathe in emotions. Really! the record isn’t at all “gothic” but still somehow totally “dark” in its very own way. I just enjoyed making a record like that once in a while. It was - as so often - ultimately an emotional decision.
How are such projects financed?
Good question! :-)
Today it is no longer a problem to release a CD in self-distribution. What is the advantage of a band that decides on a label or better: is accepted by a label?
Label work is an unbelievable amount of work at first. When a band tries their own label, they run the risk of getting bogged down in organisational matters and finally neglecting the actual music-making for label work. And not every musician feels happy to become a label manager. And then offering his own music is often particularly difficult. In any case, there are a number of examples of how bands either gave up label work very quickly or at some point only did the label work. But I know: There are more and more really good musicians and at the same time less and less possibilities to get a label contract. These are difficult times. In some cases, self-distribution via your own label can be a good solution. (By the way: Deine Lakaien had also released their first album in self-distribution in the beginning.)
Many of our readers wanted to know more about the background to the creation of a record: What steps are necessary after receiving an acceptable demo (e.g. from Deine Lakaien) until the CD is finally available in the store?
A hundred thousand steps! But let’s start with a rough timetable. The artwork for the cover is designed by us together with the band, the cover is then printed. Advertisements are being prepared. Press photos are taken, press release innformation is written, the websites and catalogues are updated, sales dept. gets informed, the CD is registered with GEMA as a new production. The DAT tape with the finished music is then mastered (the tapes are partly post-processed sound-technically here, perhaps the sequence and the pause lengths are also determined here, title numbers are assigned for selecting the songs and the whole thing encoded in such a way that a pressing plant can start something with the material). A so-called “glass master” is made of the mastered tape in the pressing plant; this is the “mother” of all CDs, so to speak, and the CD copies are made from this. We receive some CD samples in advance to sample press, radios and DJs.
Then the whole promotion machinery starts: Reviews, articles, radio and DJ appearances, everything that is so necessary for the buyer to even know that a new CD is coming out with us in the many releases. The sales department informs the trade, the trade orders (hopefully) and then the record is in the stores. Besides that, if there is a tour, the label has to take care that everything works out, the people are informed and the posters etc. are ready in time. Sometimes we also take care of merchandising such as T-shirts, etc. That’s a lot of work.
And that’s just one part. There’s also a lot of stuff to do that only indirectly has anything to do with creative label work: All that accounting and financial stuff. Listen to and evaluate one hundred thousand demos. Maintaining contacts with all kinds of people and institutions at home and abroad, processing mail orders, etc., the list is endless….. This accounts for 70-80% of daily work.
What is the function of a music publisher?
The “classical” function was once the reproduction of notes so that the many orchestras could perform the works. Then records and pop music were invented. This has changed a lot, the printing of notes is no longer so important, except e.g. in classical music. Today, on the one hand, a publishing house is there to administer the artist’s copyrights (controlling GEMA accounts, searching for labels, providing artistic and legal advice, etc.). On the other hand, some publishers pre-finance the artist and/or support the label in its promotional work. In return, the publisher receives part of the artist’s GEMA income.
What is the function of sales?
The sales department ensures that the records are sold. It is impossible for a label to know all shops or even send representatives there. In the best case, distribution is, so to speak, the extended arm of the label to the trade and recommends our records so that the dealer notices and also lists the record despite the multitude of releases. In return, the sales force receives a part of the turnover.
By the way, the fan also has an influence on the assortment of a shop. If you don’t ask for records and annoy with orders but simply go again, if you don’t find what, the buyer may not even notice a demand. It takes time, but it still works today.
According to which criteria are the titles compiled on a record?
If it is a concept album, the order is more or less mandatory as with the individual chapters of a book (which cannot be swapped at will either).
Otherwise, decisions are made according to musical criteria. The record should be nice to be listened in one piece, without lengthy parts, boredom or unintentional breaks. Good, if the beste titles are first, because often people only play the first titles to decide whether they like the CD.
Are there more and more titles, some of which remain unpublished?
This may happen, but it does not necessarily have to be the case.
Your artwork are as much a legend - you can say “typical Chrom Records” artwork. The designs from this label is a symbol of recognition between “classic-noble” and “weird”. Who brings the suggestions and ideas, who is responsible for the cover?
Oh, very different. Often the bands bring their own ideas, sometimes we think of something, often we also have foreign designers (which we have of course carefully selected) who come up with good ideas.. We find a nice and appealing cover extremely important.
How are press photographers and photos selected for a new record?
Quite simply: he/she has to fit the artist, the record and the label artistically and humanly, deliver top quality and still be affordable. Not easy. But we were often lucky that such great people as Fred Stichnoth, Claudia Böhm, Irina Pasdarca or Peter Zierlein, to name but a few, simply liked our music and supported us there very much and indirectly.
What is the difference between a promo CD and the one that is finally available in stores?
So that the press can discuss a record and this can then be published exactly at the time of the release of the record, a journalist must have the CD already often 4-8 weeks before. Because the article has to be written, the newspaper has to be laid out, printed and distributed. (Ask Conny how complex and time-consuming such a thing is).
Promos are always the first edition of a new album, sometimes even in a special cover (often because the actual cover is not yet finished). Promos are real rarities, so always 1. first editions, 2. often special and 3. only in small quantities (“Limited editions”, without it being written on it). There are not few collectors who are super keen on it (we also, therefore we always save some for ourselves). However, promos are not intended for sale.
What criteria do you use to select the bands you want to release on your label?
(A) Totally successful, (B) first-class musicians with first-class music suitable for the label and (C) nice guys: Two of these three criteria must be fulfilled, hehe…
Seriously now: Of course we have certain criteria and also a strict label policy (which is sometimes subject to changes), but in the end this is often simply a emotiona decision: We all need to love the music and also expect that it can somehow be sold, because many other people hopefully also like it.
What costs arise from the demo tape to a finished record including the promotion?
Depends. That’s different for every band. In any case, a lot of money! Many would be surprised how little money really is left in the end for further investments.
What would you like to produce if money didn’t matter?
I never thought about that. I think the same thing as now, but I could work a lot more relaxed. Maybe I would finance an opera for Ernst or Helga?
What criteria does a newspaper article on a CD depend on?
I wish I always knew.
Why are indiependent-titles so rarely played on radio stations - even when they are as well-known as Deine Lakaien’s? Why do you think indiependent-videos rarely have a real chance to be played in MTV or VIVA TV?
Good question! This often has something to do with their musical orientation (this is called “format”). And that’s what we have in common with our audience. We don’t love mass-produced music and then we shouldn’t be surprised…..
But it is annoying and sad to often get no support at all (at least from the big influential stations). But there are also good exceptions, such as M94.5 Radio in Munich or e.g. Radio Fritz in Potsdam, to name but a few. There - and occasionally also with the other stations - are editors who simply do not want to adapt to the mainstream stuff and are really happy about our things and try to promote them as good as they can…
And it’s also a question of money for us: Trying there again and again, maintaining contacts, advertising (expensive fun, especially at VIVA TV)…..
But I am convinced that the media landscape will change in the future. There might be room for us again…
How much does it cost to create a video such as Deine Lakaien’s “Mindmachine”?
A lot of money. 10.000-20.000 DM easily. This usually goes to the limits of what a label like us can spare and can quickly eat up the potential income from a complete record sale. And there is no guarantee that we will be played on air. That’s why there are so few videos in the indie sector. But technology is rapidly becoming cheaper (with almost the same technical quality), sooner or later artists and labels will be able to make some of their videos themselves without much effords. This could be really exciting.
How to book a tour? What are the criteria for selecting cities and venues? What is the role of the record company and the concert agency?
First, the time frame gets defined. For example, are 10 or even 20 concerts possible? Then a budget for the concerts is determined. Then the agency checks what venues are interested in the band and where it can be expected that the deal at least covers the costs. Then it is considered how the concerts are located centrally in such way that the largest possible number of fans can reach the concerts well.
What motivated you to collaborate with Motor Music?
I’m currently working with Motor on Alexander’s solo album. To go to Motor was not my own decision, but that of Alexander’s, who wanted to try new ways of record distribution for his solo project. There were a lot of offers from the mayor labels. He then decided on Motor and I liked the decision. Later we collaborated with Motor on promotion.
Motor took care of the album with a lot of enthusiasm and we can be very satisfied with this work and we are: In the end ta very ambiguous goal has to be achieved: Make DEINE LAKAIEN and VELJANOV independent projects of equal value. Alexander can then live out both sides of his musical being equally. (There are not many examples in music history where front singers had luck with solo projecrts). My task is to plan and coordinate everything in such a way that the two major projects VELJANOV and DEINE LAKAIEN can be brought into harmony in terms of timing. And this seems to be possible.
The same question also applies to Christophorus?
Together with Christophorus we produce ESTAMPIE. This collaboration was actually an idea of both Michael Popp and me. Here’s why: I’m sure everyone’s knows that already: In most record stores, classical music is strictly separated from pop music in the shelfs. The Darkwave listener did not find Estampie in the unfamiliar classical section easily. We and simply licensed the band “for wave marketing” from the classical label for early music, Christophorus. Now Esympie was in the store’s pop section (marketed by us) as well as in the classical section (marketed by Christophorus). I don’t think there’s ever been anything like this before. But it worked out well and the band really made good progress. The cooperation with Christophorus is very relaxed and pleasant.
What role does a fan club like “Manastir Baroue” play for you?
Very important!! How important, you can see that before the founding of the club we had something alike ourselves (some will remember): the GymNet and later the ChromNet. But I do appreciate that this important work has become label independent. Many fans, especially younger ones, didn’t dare to contact us if there were any questions. And the Manastir has already become an institution in the meantime, really great!
Chrom Records now has a website that deserves an award. What prompted you to do the work of building this site, which has over 600 subpages?
We have independent minded fans who want to inform themselves, and often very in-depth (as these interview questions also show), and we wanted to react to this.
As far as the information is concerned, the Manstir Baroue and our website complement each other quite well. Not least because our website reports about all bands and activities of the label Chrom, which Manstir Baroue, on the other hand, has consciously specialized in a certain selection from the program.
[Commercial break on:]
Our site is called: www.chrom.de
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Do you see a future for indie labels on the Internet?
It’s hard to tell. Of course, labels like ours are perhaps simply faster and better when it comes to conquering such new media, because we don’t have to spend hours discussing it with ten specialist departments, but can simply get started. However, I cannot yet say how this will be in the long term. It is to be expected that the big companies will soon recruit programmers with a lot of money. However, money is not everything on the Internet and even smaller labels have a real chance if they only provide original, convincing and simply good information.
How do you generally see the future for small labels with big bands in the music business?
It’s getting harder and harder. This is due to the market and the ever tougher conditions. Cooperations and collaborations are obvious, it is hardly possible to do it alone. But we will always try to keep our ideas and concepts. In other words: sales and organization may change in the near future, the rest, the music and the label “feeling” to the outside world will not, and that is important.
I have often heard the opinion that some bands of Chrom Records would be too high demanding for an indie label. Do you think that your demands overburden the listeners?
I don’t think we are demanding too much from the people we want to reach. The nice thing about music is that you can simply listen to it with no knowledge, you only need curiosity and openness. But you can also hear music having lot’s of background information and knowledge. The first option is very nice, and I often do it myself with something new. But having more knowledge about the music is undoubtedly much more entertainable. So we do everything possible to provide this information, to a great extend on our website.
And the rest is simply a matter of taste. Some people may just don’t like like Deine Lakaien’s music - I don’t like hard rock, for example. Who cares.
Is the the public pictuure of being the label of “Mars Requiem” and the discoverer of “Deine Lakaien” positive, or a burdon for you?
This is actually a problem. Many magazines compare (measure) new releases always with Deine Lakaien, e.g. for some Silence also sounds like Deine Lakaien… This comparison is not helpful often, as this is about different types of music.
In which musical direction do you see the future of indie music?
The landscape will become more and more diverse. I don’t see big trends at the moment, everything happens at the same time, everything is allowed.
The relationship to the musicians and employees on your label often has the character of a “family”. Do you think this is important to survive as a label?
Personally, a good atmosphere in the company is important to me. And I find it an enrichment to be friends with many musicians too. But it’s not necessary for survival. You just have to do your job as good as you can, that’s all that matters in the end. However, it makes the hard work much more pleasant if you really like the people working with you.
Has your work as label manager changed you personally?
I think so, yes. I’ve really gotten a little older in the last 12 years. (Joking.)
The ultimate question: What does the Deine Lakaien record company expect from a fan club like “Manastir Baroue”?
Being a mediator between fans and label/artist. We can all learn from each other. I need the feedback from the fans, they are closer to me than the media. Even if I do not receive the feedback directly, I get it indirectly through the close cooperation with Manstir. For me it is important to know how our records and other things are received well and how we can improve our work. There’s always room for improvement. And in the end, the close cooperation also benefits the fan. We listen to ideas and we help out answering quesions.
The last question: A very personal one: How do you see yourself?
Kind of like a gallery owner, actually. I do not regard myself as an artist, but as a multipifcator and promoter. It’s nice sharing something important to you with other people.
Is Carl Erling an idealist or a realist?
Both: an idealist, of course, otherwise I would have chosen a simpler profession. But also a pragmatist: I simply have too much responsibility to be able to live in pure fantasy worlds.