Interview by: Mut Asheru
Indie record label Idol Records has been in business for 20 years. *round of applause please*. This year marked the 20th year of hustle, determination, success and preservation for the Texas based label founded by Erv Karwelis. Watching Erv operate makes me tired. He’s everywhere and always working. The thing that stands out about Idol Records is not just the hard-working ethos of its founder but its groups are also willing to get in the trenches and work their asses off in order to bring us music that is true and good.
Let’s dig in and learn a little bit about this indie powerhouse and what has led to their two decade long longevity in the wonderful, maddening business of music.
Knowshi: Idol Records is celebrating 20 years this year! First congratulations. Longevity for an indie label in this day and age is a rare thing. How do you maintain your stamina?
Erv: Thank you, it has always been extremely challenging to operate a record label, and even more so for the past decade with the huge decline in record sales. In my case, it’s truly a labor of love. I’m a huge music fan, and I love checking out and discovering new bands and music. I love going to record stores, I love talking to people about music and helping artists create music and bringing it to the public. So it’s easy for me to stay excited about doing this for the long haul.
Knowshi: How many acts do you currently have under your umbrella?
Erv: Idol has released records from over 100 different artists, and there are about 15 current bands that the label has signed in the past few years including:
Dead Flowers, Dove Hunter, ADMIRALS, Descender, Here Holy Spain, Red Like Heat, These Machines Are Winning, Little Black Dress, Boys Named Sue, The O’s and Calhoun.
I still work with the earliest bands though and a lot of these artists are like family, the drummer from Descender… one of the most recent signings played on the very first Idol release over 20 years ago. I’m proud of the long-term relationships that I have had with most of the artists on the label, and grateful for our friendships.
Knowshi: Do you still love music?
Erv: Absolutely, Music is my passion. Whenever people ask what I do for fun when I’m not working, I always tell them I listen to music or go see a live show or go hunting for more records to buy. I’m lucky that my job and life’s passion are one in the same.
Knowshi: I’ve always like your logo. Simple yet riotous. How did it come about?
Erv: I wanted to have the name be the logo rather than an image or design, so I could really brand the name, so a friend of mine that had graphic skills sat down and went through hundreds of fonts and designs. The one that we ended up going with reminded me a bit of the DGC Logo (a Geffen Records imprint) which was one of the hottest labels at the time so I figured if it worked for them, it will work for Idol.
Knowshi: The landscape for music sales, distribution and promotions has changed drastically over the past 20 years. In the past, obtaining a major record deal was considered the best thing in the world. But now…not so much. What would you say is the definition of “success” for an indie band these days?
Erv: A major label deal is probably the worst place for an artist these days. But it’s still best for an artist to have a team working with them, and strong indie labels can do almost anything that a major label can do, while giving the artist much better terms and creative control. Success for an indie band comes down to building a fanbase through performing live and social media and having a team to promote them and pursue the new opportunities that are continually evolving.
These days streaming is growing and new services are launching monthly (Spotify, Beats Music, Youtube). There are also opportunities to make good money licensing music to TV, film and video games etc. But the best income for an artist comes from performing live and selling merch, so if a band wants to become successful in this day and age, they have to be able to tour and play live (and be good). There are several bands that Idol has worked with that tour the world and continue to make new fans every night. There are very few successful bands these days that do not play live on a regular basis and connect with the fans. But if a band has talent and a strong work ethic, they can still make a great living playing music.
Knowshi: You’ve been successful at licensing music to TV, film and video games? Can you tell me about some of your success in that area?
Erv: I saw the value in licensing music to TV, Film, video games and commercials etc early on. MTV approached me about using some songs in their first reality shows The Real World and Road Rules which didn’t pay much, but it was great to see how many fans of those bands heard the songs and it really boosted the bands profiles. Some of the MTV music supervisors moved on to work on major films and networks and continued to license tracks from Idol artists and the budgets grew a lot bigger. They also referred other music supervisors and editors to me because Idol has such a diverse roster of artists that I was able to fill a lot of different music searches.
I’ve licensed music to every major and cable network, a lot of advertising and marketing agencies, video game companies and movie studios. David Gordon Green who is a successful film and TV director that grew up in Dallas and is a fan of many Idol artists has licensed tracks for several of his films including George Washington and All The Real Girls. I just placed 2 songs in Nitro Circus 3D movie which is produced by the same guys who do Jackass (who have also licensed a lot of Idol artist tracks).
Music licensing is really based on relationships, and I’m fortunate to be well established with a lot of key people in that world so it is a major benefit to the artists on the label, some of them have received some really nice checks over the years.
Knowshi: Do you have any insane, momentous plans for Idol Records in the future?
Erv: The plan for now is to just keep doing what I have been doing, finding and working with great artists and songwriters. I have a lot of wild ideas that I would like to try when the time is right. I would love to maybe do some comedy releases if the right opportunity presented itself. This business is rapidly changing, and I’m still learning new things every day. So that keeps it exciting. I’m very lucky and grateful that I get to do what I do.
Knowshi: I have to ask…If you could travel back in time and talk to Erv of 20 years ago what would you tell him?
Erv: I would tell him to find a different career choice! (just kidding) I would tell him that the changes are going to be insane. Personal computers, cell phones and the internet had not really been developed yet, and it would have blown my mind to think that you would be able to download or stream every song ever recorded from a hand held mobile phone someday or that you would be able to carry around your entire record collection on a chip in your wrist watch. I would tell him it’s going to be a roller-coaster of ups and downs, but there would be a lot of amazing things and that it was going to give me the best experiences of my life and take me all over the world to places I would have never imagined going to.
For more on Idol Records visit: www.idolrecords.com