Moving Metal: Black Lion RecordsFeb 26
An Interview With the Founder of Black Lion Records
Moving Metal is a new ongoing interview series I will be doing on this site with underground and indie heavy metal music labels, from one-man DIY distros to mid-sized outfits. The purpose is to introduce metal fans to the people and machinery behind the music and the bands they listen to, and to get a behind-the-scenes look into the workings of the metal underground.
Black Lion Records is a newer label, formed in 2015 in the northern Sweden city of Umeå. While a relatively small town, Umeå is nonetheless known as a hotbed of musical output, especially in the world of heavy metal, having been the breeding ground for such acts as Meshuggah, Naglfar, Cult of Luna, Refused, Nocturnal Rites, and many more, including a number of newer groups on Black Lion’s roster. Striking gold early on with last year’s breakout album ‘Seraphical Euphony’ from fellow Swedes Hyperion, a release that ended up on many end-year lists, the label has been on a roll releasing a string of solid albums that have found both acclaim and respect in the underground community. Founder and operator Oliver Dahlbäck took some time to talk about the formation of the label and some of its inner workings in an interview, which can be read below. While reading, make sure to listen to the companion podcast episode of AMP spotlighting some of Black Lion’s past and current catalog.
What’s the story behind Black Lion Records? How did it start?
Black Lion started as a small underground fanzine actually, in 2012, doing interviews and reviews for the underground scene. It was never meant to be a label, it was just me writing reviews whenever I had free time. In late 2012 I actually started working with a few other labels, like Senseless Life Records, mainly in the promotional department and that’s how I meet Ury from Sepulchural Silence and at the same time doing some extra PR work for Grom Records back in 2012, while also managing a smaller local band. Moving forward, these two things were just something I did on my spare time for fun, I can’t say I gained much other than I was able to at least expand my network, that started the whole process of a label forming.
A few years later in 2015 I had some friends of mine in Mist of Misery that I had gotten in contact with, I can’t really remember exactly how I got to know them but anyway at the time they had just released their EP Temple of Stilled Voices and wanted me print CDs for them; I had just finished printing and distirbuting my friend from Brazil’s band, Depressed, with homemade editions, you know, inkjet printing CDRs, and it looked alright for being cheap and homemade. That was one thing I always knew I did different and that I always wanted to make better! In the underground scene when you normally get a CDR it’s just a blank disc or simple artwork and then no back and front case art or anything, that’s the thing I did different, I always had a proper inlay card and booklet, in this case full colour 8-page booklets and it looked more professional this way, done by a local printing company in town quite cheaply; I think paid a total of 500 SEK for 50 booklets and inlays, and somehow someone in Mist of Misery had seen on facebook that I could print Cds. This was when inkjet printers were quite unknown at least before everyone got one, after that the band sent me the money to make 50 copies of their album, Temple of Stilled Voices. It was different; the artwork was very nice-looking and very cool songs, the band was very pleased with my work and that actually led me to print more CDs for bands. You can say I became the house printer for many underground bands, becaue they saw that with me they got quality stuff, and I was happy to help, you know, I helped bands like Bukvac, Abandoned By Light, Svartkonst, Hovf, Coldbound, Unholy Triumphant. I got to hear loads of different music, and I always kept one CD and still today I look back and see how things have involved.
Around 2015, at the end of December, I started recording for my project Dismembering The Unborn, a small old school death metal project, with Giovani from Depressed, however as we were about to record our EP a friend of Giovani, Marcos Certutti offered to mix and master the album for free, and thats how I got know Marcos, he was very easy to talk to and understanding, and most of all an amazing guy. And later on he became a very cloes friend who now actually works with me on Black Lion Records and he’s one of the main reasons I am where I am today! Because without his graphic skills and professional advise I would not know anything about CD production nor marketing. That’s pretty much how it started, the proper label thing didn’t really take flight or start properly until I started releasing the bands I now work with. Actually, it was thanks to Mist of Misery‘s Erik that I got in contact with Hyperion, as they were in the studio recording what was gonna be Seraphical Euphony, and for those that don’t follow them, Erik is also guitar player in Hyperion, and we became good friends with all of the members, we had many meetings talking about the process and the goals we had on working togther and I think it paid off in the end; I remember hearing ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ for the first time and I was just amazed by the songs and the vibe they created, and then I saw the artwork and all of it was really a huge bootcamp. The whole album cycle process, even months after, not just because we had no money to make pressed Cds, so we agreed that they were gonna be home made versions but this time I had gotten ahold of so-called high grade CDRs by Falcon media, they cost a fortune but the result is just so much better, smartguard surface and diamond dye, and looked glossy, anyway we did 500 of those CDs by hand, shipped 200 copies to the band and sorta took it from there.
This is where it got really interesting ’cause I had no expereince in general with marketing, so I started to study months prior to the set release on how to actually market music, because I didn’t know how to get major reviews or do press kits properly, I knew how to send a physcial CDs to an address and then a response came back in the mail later. At the time, I lived in small town in northern Sweden where I also work and went to high school, a town called Lycksele, about 13 km from Umeå where I live now. As the release date got closer I started with the PR work and read about PR firms, and later on Erik from Hyperion got an email from Fullblast PR offering their services and we felt that, well 50 bucks is not that much, lets see what they can offer us. And so we agreed to use their promotional service, and it was amazing to see so many reviews and proper feedback. Later in the year I got to know Zoheb from Qabar Extreme Music PR, they charged $100 for their service and thats was a lot of money for a small unknown label, but I kinda felt like if this music really can get good attention with just 50 bucks, lets just throw in another and see if it works, and that’s where it took of really, I had two PR companies running my marketing and it was crazy. And the same year I met Malito from Metal Underground Global who helped me alot to get into the radio stations and connect with people there.
Funny enough, Hyperion was my first ever pro release; I had never ever dreamt of this huge breakthrough for them, but I am really happy for them! I used to joke with my friends and say they are the At The Gates to my Erache. And all this took place early 2016, a crazy year for sure! As when me and the guys of Hyprion were talking, I didn’t know nor they knew that the album they had been working on would take this crazy journey and became a household name in the scene.
It’s a been a year of ups and downs really, but I am really thankful for the guys in Hyperion for trusting me with their music and being patient, ’cause 2016 became the roughest year for me ever, both economy and label wise. It was crazy, and that’s where the turning point came, being close to just throwing it all away and focusing on other things ’cause I was still a chef trainee at the time of all these things happening.
What has been the biggest learning curve so far in running a record label?
The biggest learning curve apart from just keeping up with the label’s growth was the fact that in Sweden when you take in over a certain amount of money you have to register as a company and get a VAT number and that was the huge turning point and biggest learning curve, handling tax, bookeeping, sales statistics, so much I had to learn. As of February 2016 Black Lion Productions became a registered trademark, we just changed the name to ‘records’ instead of ‘productions’ once we started working with more bands and actually had more than 3 on the label, just that was a lot, and today we have almost 40 bands on the label and we have released over 30 records in 1 year.
The label has grown a lot in a year, I do think we have matured a bit more in the roles since Hyperion‘s debut; that campgain was more like, ‘Lets just toss all our coins and see where it takes us‘. Today, we are able to properly plan the releases months ahead and actually roll it out to the press in good time! But despite all that I still think there is so much more to learn, and I would say everyday you learn something new. When it comes to production you need to know alot; I’ve worked with a company in the UK called River Pro Audio since early 2016, they were the first professional factory I’ve worked with and they have really supported me greately and helped in so many ways, more than any other pressing plant I have ever worked with. Basically, they are a broker; they score deals and get me prices on whatever job I may have. It has been a huge learning expereince and those guys certently helped a lot, especally Adam and Sampson, who were the first people I came in contact with when I was looking for a pressing plant for Murdryck. They guided me through the whole process and kept me updated and most of all actually truly cared. Most companies in Sweden just want you to order your shit and get the fuck out, plus it’s hard to get good customer service in today’s times.
I am still shocked every day that I am still doing this, ’cause it’s a lot to do; we are 3 people who work almost full-time, despite not earning anything. Since 2015 Marcos Cerutti and my close friend Nova have been running the label with me, helping out and I am very greatful for their help. Marcos handles the layouts and all the beautiful banners and Facebook posts about releases, he’s truly gifted and an amazing person and I feel really lucky to be able to have him! Nova and I go way back since 12 years old so she kinda got forced in automatically and helps me with packing and shipping out orders. And since early 2016 I’ve hired Zoheb to work with Black Lion full-time aside from his other PR work, but it’s just such a relief to know you have a strong team behind you, and I feel lucky as hell I get to do this.
Many of the label’s releases are from fellow Swedish acts, do you consider Black Lion to be a ‘Swedish label’, or is the focus more global?
I was actually talking to Nova about this the other day. Most of our bands are from Sweden, I think it’s just a coinsidence; Mist of Misery came through because we knew each other personally. Murdryck was the only band that actually contacted us through Facebook and was interested, but that releationship got started thanks to my good friends at Goregasmic Cinema (an indipendent horror fanzine magazine). We are always open for bands outside of the EU or inside EU, it’s just a matter of if the band is interested in working together.
People familiar with Black Lion’s catalog can definitely get a sense of the label’s style, but in your own words what kind of music do you want defining the label?
Thats a tricky question; I like to think of Black Lion as a more commcercial taste of my own music style, although lately one would maybe think I should be working at Solitude Productions, as I have been on a doom metal obsession. I have always seen Black Lion as a black metal label, as that’s where we started and continued over the course of its time, however as new doors open of course you try to have a bit of variety, but I will say that we will always be a label that defines the darker kinds of metal, whether it be black or doom, I think those are two genres that I personally feel closer to, especally doom. However, we are not really locked into one genre, despite how it might seem, but I can tell you that you will never see a core band on our label, no disrespect to the bands or genre but it’s just not something I personally enjoy, so it would make zero sense to release that type of music. We have Defiatory, an excellent thrash metal band that really shows how thrash metal should have been done. I am personally not a huge thrash fan but when the band approched me, I was so shocked that they were actually interested in working with me.
I would love to work with more doom metal bands or funeral doom bands. In fact, we have two really killer bands, Vanha and the German band Frowning. They have to be my favorite band really, both personally and musically as of late.
Speaking of tastes in music, what do you look for when combing through demos for bands to possibly work with?
I tend to follow my own taste whenever signing bands, for example Frowning, that is our latest band, I got to know Val quite late in 2016 and we started talking a bit on Facebook, merely me admiering his band, ’cause I have been and will always be a fan of Frowning no matter if I work with the band or not, but I actually got a message from him about his upcoming album because I was watching his page, waiting for a release date for his new album. Expecting it to be on Wretched Records or Solitude Productions, but then he approched me and said that his old label had closed down and apperently Solitude was not interested, and aksed if I was interested in releasing his new album. I can say I had to take a moment to really think aobut it cause it was so unexpected plus it was in the middle of a very rough month for the label. But I said yes with great enthusiasm, as Frowning is one of the leading bands inside the funeral doom scene, and I felt confident I could offer a good work relation. My main creteria for singing is the band has to be serious, ready to give it all, wanting to work professioanlly for their music, and of course their music must appeal to my own taste.
Unlike many underground labels you do a good job with the digital side of distribution; your albums are easily accessible through Bandcamp, Spotify, etc. Do you see the physical side of the industry being viable for much longer, or will CD’s and vinyl soon be nothing more than a novelty for die-hard collectors as the trend already is?
Glad to know it actually works. Like Gordon Ramsey says, “You have to move with the time or the time moves you”. I always felt that a lot of times when looking for band’s new albums they were never out on the digital market, more than just Bandcamp and Youtube. I felt that I personally always enjoy buying music from iTunes ’cause I spend a lot of time outside running around in town doing this or that or working from cafes, so being able to take the music with me has always been important. I do think that this will be the new way of marketing music in the future; we always have our albums up for a name-your-price and that will stay for as long as we can! It encourges people to support rather than download and priate the music, I saw a Vanha torrent the other day and I was just laughing because the album is up for free download at our Bandcamp page, yet someone found the need to waste their time on making a torrent.
I know a lot of the bigger labels are afraid that if you have it out digitally for free people will not buy the physical merch, but that is just pure fear; I can say 90% of all the fans of metal will go out and buy a CD or vinyl after hearing the album digitally first through various streaming sites. So to answer the question, I don’t think CD or vinyl will ever go away, sure there will be new ways of packing the music and selling it but I don’t see it going away. I think it’s important to just avoid the trends and not fall for it; as people say, CD sales are down, and sure its not like the 90s but it’s not really that the CD sales are down its more that people have become more picky because there is so much music out there. Everyday something new is coming and of course eventually it becomes like nothing. ‘Cause we are litterely forcefed music everyday.
You also run a distro as part of Black Lion that includes several other small labels and you have been expanding it recently. How important is that to the label as a whole?
That is totally Zoheb’s fault haha! No, but I’ve seen other labels both big and small selling other label’s music, and it’s cool. I think it just allows people to be able to get it more places, ’cause some people live in places where the music is not that known and they could be missing out. I recently started to expand by adding Avantgarde Music titles to my distro, mainly bands that I enjoy like Sojourner, ’cause there was nowhere in Sweden to get them. I think it’s important to have a wide variety to offer people.
What does the future look like for you? What are your plans for the next few years?
I don’t know honestly, I never think that far, I always consider myself lucky if I wake up the next day and can actually still do Black Lion. Nobody knows for how long we are going to be around! I try to take it month by month really, at the moment we have a new release on its way, the 17th of February we have the new Frowning album Extinct comes out! Really looking forward to that! We have the new Sons ov Omega album coming out this year and even more from Mist of Misery. The future I don’t know, I am still working as a chef part time outside of the label, but yeah, who knows? One thing is for sure, and that’s more work with the label.