Interview: Michael Gilligan of Fake Chapter Records

Fake Chapter Records

A couple of weeks back, I thought of a cool idea to start a small “series” of interviews taking a look at a few indie record labels and some of the unique facets of what makes them important in our scene. First up is Michael Gilligan from Fake Chapter Records, whose label is celebrating their 25th Anniversary this year. To celebrate, the label has put together a compilation of 25 bands from the 25 years of the label. The compilation releases on November 11th, but you can secure your copy here.

Thank you so much for your time today, and congrats on the 25th anniversary of Fake Chapter Records! What stands out most to you looking back at this landmark?

What really stands out is just the length of time when I was doing this retrospective, and trying to go through the tracklisting. It was a rare moment to step back, and realize just how many different bands there have been over the years. And the variety of the bands, where we started out a punk-ish kind of label. I’ve released electronic, kids music, and different kinds of singer-songwriters. And since it happens gradually over the years, you just kind of forget. When you step back and look from a retrospective position it is crazy all the different directions of the label.

Sure, so what made you want to start this label in the first place? And I’m sure there’s been plenty of lessons that you’ve learned along the way, right?

Well, yeah, so it was 1996, and I was 18 naive and stupid. It definitely was a time where it was such a peak of the music industry and the CD-era. There were just so many labels and from a name recognition standpoint, these labels were as popular as any major. I’m talking about Matador records, Sub Pop records, Lookout records, there were so many. I just had that stupid thought of, “Well, me too! Why don’t I do this as well?” So I was in college and I started doing it. I obviously had no idea what I was doing. I was just ready to start it and have that youthful enthusiasm.

What were the early days like with the label? I’m sure it’s much different than it is today, right?

Oh, yeah. I mean, that was the funny thing about it. I had the name, I had the logo, and I announced to the world that I had a record company, and I didn’t have a single fucking band. The first group that I released was my college roommate’s brother who was in high school. I thought, “Oh, great, I’ll release a cassette of them!” And they were horrible. They later became a great band, but at that moment, they were playing in their basement for maybe a month. They had to be like, “oh wow, we’re already on a label!” I also did a couple compilations. I just reached out to any band and said, “Hey, I’m doing a comp, do you want to put a track on it?” And that started the ball rolling. It probably wasn’t until my eight or ninth release that I was more legitimate as far as what a traditional label does. The first couple releases are really just kind of thrown together. “Oh, you’re a band. Great, let’s do a record.” It took time to really have a proper relationship, and saying, “Okay, I’m going to sign this band, and put out a record, and then we’re going to do a tour, etc.”

Okay, that makes sense. Looking back, what are you most proud of with the bands you’ve signed over these years? And how do you feel the labels adapted to both your customer’s needs, as well as your vision for the label?

I think what I’m most proud of, for the most part as there’s always a couple of exceptions, is I have made really good relationships with the bands. A lot of great friendships. I think that’s because I did my best and I always did it honestly. So when I look back, I can think about all these relationships I have. As far as the vision of the label, that also started morphing. In the very beginning it was just who’s in a band, then it became finding a band that going to be successful and to be on the ground floor and having that trajectory. Finally, it just morphed into where I was only interested in bands I had a strong relationship with. Whether they were on their way up or their way down, or already as popular as they were ever going to get. That didn’t matter. It was my vision for my label to become more about the music relationships than the success, if that makes sense? 

Yeah, it really does. Are there certain albums that you most fondly upon, as you look back on your time of this 25th anniversary now, and with this roster?

One band that stands out is Arms and Sleepers. I made three records with them, and I will always love those records, because it really was the full growth of a band. When I met them, they were just finishing up college, and I was sent a demo before they had anything. And then after each record, their fan base grew, their artistic talents grew, the popularity grew. And I really saw them go from amateurs to professionals, and now they’re still professional artists. I always look at those three records as such great moments of this whole ride.

Nice! That must have been really rewarding, I’m sure. To just see that all the way through…

Absolutely! I mean it just kept getting better in the 10 years that we worked together. And then I also look fondly on, weirdly, some of the big misfires. One that comes to mind is a band called The Sixfifteens. They were in a band called Dryer, which was a popular group that broke up. And it was like, all right, “We’ll work on the new project together.” I spent and lost a lot of money on this band. I mean, we made two records and the first one did okay. But the second record didn’t sell anything. I mean, they didn’t sell anything. But that second record called “Feature, Conference, Transfer” was so good. They really came into it, found their sound, and made an awesome record. I had nothing to do with it creatively but if I wasn’t a part of the support engine from day one, I’m not sure that record exists. So even though it was such a huge misfire from a business standpoint, I can still listen to the record and love it. It makes me proud because it’s only something that would happen with this type of label. It gives it that charm feel to it now years later when the money part doesn’t matter anymore. 

So in your opinion, how has the music industry shifted both before, during, and then kind of where we are right now in the pandemic?

Well, in terms of pandemic, we all know the devastation that was done on small businesses, I can’t complain at all with this label. But the live show is really what was the first immediate impact. The Bright Road and The Nuclears were both literally about to go on tour in the spring of 2020. And I still don’t know, even though we’re getting out of it. The Nuclears actually recently said, “We’re breaking up and doing these last shows,” and I haven’t gone to any of them. You would think I would go and I want to go but I don’t feel comfortable yet to go to shows. And so I just don’t know when it will return.

Yeah, and I’ve kind of been looking at some of the local listings…I live just outside DC, almost near the 930 Club and stuff like that. The 930 Club is kind of like my home away from home, and I noticed like a lot of the shows that were previously marked as Sold Out, are now suddenly becoming available again, because of the vaccination status requirements and things like that. But also just the upstart of touring returning and all the cancellations that go in with shifting dates. So I’m just curious about what you’ve noticed with your roster in regards to touring?

Yeah, I mean, and a lot of them don’t know what to do. One of my main releases during the pandemic was this artist out of LA, MaryLeigh Roohan. We did a single (The High Wire). We honestly didn’t know what to do. In a normal world, it probably would have been with a tour. And then we scaled it back. We said, “Alright, let’s just do a single and spend all our money on the video, because there’s not going to be any anything else.” And we got a kick ass video, but then with the marketing, we really just didn’t know how to navigate in that landscape. You already feel as an indie label that a release is just like dropping something into a black hole. Now it’s how do we get attention to the single and if that’s even the right move to make during the pandemic, and ultimately, I think it was, and it worked out pretty well. But it’s certainly not what any of us wanted.  As I said in a “normal world,” it would have been a proper release, vinyl or CD, with a tour but we didn’t want to take that chance. It really, really hindered how you approach things. And yeah, I guess that’s continuing.

Yeah, definitely. And a lot has been written about vinyl manufacturing plant delays, but what’s been your experience with requesting either a cassette, CD, or vinyl for your artists lately?

Yeah, I mean, it’s never been good… <Laughter> I haven’t done much lately. But I’ve been doing vinyl since the very beginning of the label, like seven inches, but as far as doing a proper LP release alongside with the other formats, I’ve been doing that for maybe 15 years. And even back then when it wasn’t as flooded, nothing ever was on time. Obviously lots of stories I can tell you…boring stories of having to drive 10 hours to pick it up before the release show, and all those. I literally have been through that many times. And I just saw some artists not on the label, but I pre-ordered their vinyl, and I just saw them post today that it will probably be months from now. Obviously, I don’t know their issues with the manufacturer. But we’re going through that right now. And I don’t know what else to say about it. It’s just part of the things that when I talk to a band, and I know that they want to do a vinyl, and I just hammer into their heads, even if they’re an experienced band about how the lead time has to be like a year.

Yeah, that’s what I’m hearing too! So in that role of being the label head, what type of advice do you give to artists, as they kind of tried to look at their marketing strategy, merchandise designs and stuff like that?

Well, it depends on the band. When I start working with the band, one of the most important things, especially nowadays, is to have that understanding. Because truthfully, a band can do everything themselves. The reason why they still seek out a label is because they don’t have the resources, and time to do everything themselves. The most important thing is transparency, and that communication of exactly finding out what they need from me. And I think, from the marketing standpoint, the most important thing is really making sure that you’re spending the right dollars. That could mean Facebook or other online advertising. Maybe you’re working with a publicist or something like that. But it absolutely has to be the right dollars and everyone has to be on the same page, because so many times the bands think that just spending money will equal results. And that’s just not the case. You’ve gotta put it in the right place.

That’s really interesting to hear! Are there any future releases that you can provide some insight on, and why you’re excited for them to come out?

Yeah, I’m very excited about the 25th anniversary compilation. It’s coming out in November in two ways. One will be a limited edition CD, double CD, for the membership program. Members pay a lifetime fee and then automatically get every release that I put out and so the CD is going to be only available for members. And of course, I’ll do a little bit of a push to get new members. And then we’ll have the digital release. I’m excited. It is 25 tracks for 25 years. Out of my over 60 releases, it covers a lot of different areas. I think the oldest track was from five years in, and then all the way through to a couple new tracks. The whole gamut, and I think does a good justice to the catalog. And then there are three bands on there that have never done anything with Fake Chapter before. So if you’re talking about a “tease” or anything like that, you might expect other things from those three bands on Fake Chapter, in the future. But that will probably be announced sometime in ‘22, but I’m so excited for this compilation.

That’s really cool! So when you actually look for either signing a new band, or even established artists who fit your vision for your label, what steps do you take to ensure they will sign with you?

I think it is similar to what we just talked about. Understanding. One artist might be all about just getting help with the project and getting it on vinyl. Another artist might be like, “Look, I can do all that. But, I’d like more TV and film exposure.” Or they need more help with the marketing or want to hire a publicist. And being transparent to them about what my strengths and weaknesses are, so first I understand what they want, and then I can be as honest as I can about how I think I could help. And it might not be a totally natural fit. We may say, let’s get a couple of things in movies and TVs, but if that’s your main goal, it’s not a strength of mine. But, we’ll have that conversation. And that transparency not only I think sets up the relationship, because we’re on the same page, but also makes for a long-term relationship. Being transparent to each other from day one is only going to strengthen the relationship when good things start to happen. And then we start talking about another release, and all that kind of stuff. We’ve already got such a good foundation. That’s been my experience.

Yeah, that makes sense also from just an organic experience of molding an artist so that you feel like you can kind of take them under your wing a little bit and give them the right push. Seems like it seems like you’ve seen that over the years, too, right?

Yeah, and it sucks when it falls apart because of that. There’s definitely been times where I have great conversations but it starts becoming clear that they probably have a better option. It sucks to have to let that go. But that’s the right decision for both of you. Otherwise it would have just been a release that didn’t do well. And then both people walk away angry saying, “Oh, they didn’t do what they were supposed to do.” And that’s why the records didn’t do well, or whatever…

Gotcha. The last question I have for you is what do you most look forward to with the exciting future for this label? You’ve already talked about the past, but what would you like to say to the fans of these artists who supported you guys over these 25 years?

Well, I’m so grateful for the fans, of course. Doing it for so long, you get such interesting responses. I mean, even the other day, some guy wrote to me that he bought a bunch of my records, and wanted to give me his unsolicited opinion on all of them. He said, “Well, this guy’s good. This one’s not as good…” <Laughter> But it’s out of nowhere. I just love that sense that people like to feel connected to the label. I’m most excited about is another 25 years, and knock on wood, I’ll live a long enough. I’ve never been as motivated as I am now, and I love putting out records. I love the diversity of the label. As soon as I put out this record in November, of the three other bands that I talked about, I’m going to be chomping at the bit for those other records to come out. I just love the whole process. So the fact that it’s been 25 years, it’s so exciting. But the next 25 years would be incredible. And if I can then have the same conversation with you congratulating me on my 50th…

That would be awesome! And you sound like you’re not burned out after these 25 years. You definitely sound rejuvenated and energized. Thanks again for your time, I wish you guys nothing but the best and keep sending me band “pitches” from time to time.

I really appreciate it. If there’s any band that stands out from what you heard or whatever, I’ll be more than happy to send you more to listen to. I’ll be in touch!

Sounds great, take care! 

All right, thank you so much.