Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips sat down with Pop Preservation Society’s Victor Stranges to discuss his background, the label, and its philosophy.
Victor Stranges from Pop Preservation Society, welcome to Australian Musician.
Thanks, Greg, great to be here.
Before we get into talking about your label, I just wanted to get some background on yourself. I believe you were a musician back in the day.
Yes, I started playing drums when I was eleven years old, influenced by Adam Ant and Peter Criss, about 50 percent each, and I took drum lessons for about four or five years. I played in some garage bands but the first band I played live with was a band called ‘Drunk 'n' Disorderly,’ we changed it to ‘DND.’ That was a punk band in the 1987, 88, and 89 periods. Then I realized the band was playing three chords and I thought I could do that as well, so I picked up the guitar in my late teens and pursued that. From there I started songwriting and then my own bands.
Before that what was the spark? What was the first concert you went to?
The first big concert was Paul Young when I was fourteen, and that was at the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Centre. It was a real soul show and just an amazing experience. I think I’d seen bands before that, I think at Saint Gerard’s Primary School when I was a little kid, there was a band there called ‘Trax,’ that played in the school hall there, I think it must have been in 1976 or 77, something like that when I was a little tacker. That was pretty cool. And seeing those drums, visually, I was just in love, and I thought, I’ve got to get one. I want to be like that.
As a young musician do recall trying to get some traction yourself, from other labels? What sort of hurdles were you coming across?
Drunk 'n' Disorderly didn’t have that business acumen. We had audience pull, and we pulled some great audiences but we only really demo’d, so we never really sought a record contract, and the band fell apart, as they do, for various reasons. It was after that in about 1992 I was in a group called ‘Rainbow Snakes’ which ended up being ‘Caravan’ and we were looking for a deal. I traveled to Europe on a family holiday and went to England, and Canada as well. In the old days I was literally dropping off demo tapes and short bios, media sheets for the band, literally typed up and photocopied. I think I can remember all the labels too, there were quite a lot of them, Beggars Banquet, Fiction Records which was The Cure’s label, Go Discs, and we had a contact there being Cathal Smyth from Madness, through the drummer. He heard the tape, but it was a case of … come back to us, we want to hear more. We weren’t quite ready then, it was still early days. It was all a mystery in those days, how to get a deal and how to make a career out of music. But it was a lot of fun pursuing it, and I’ve still got the rejection letters.
I love getting the rejection letters .. from Island Records …Dear Victor, we’ve heard your music and thank you, but no thank you. See you later. Signed, the girl at the desk, or the guy at the desk.
In the past, some record labels have been very influential in bringing new music into the mainstream, you mentioned Island Records, and there was Stiff Records, Factory Records, Rough Trade, are you a student of labels like that, and have you studied why they worked?
Someone like Rough Trade, I believe started out from their record shop, actually, I think I sent a demo to Rough Trade as well. It was a really organic process for them, I think because they were close to the bands and the fans, and it was almost a labour of love. So it didn’t start off as a corporate consideration, it was more an idea of “hey, let’s get a label together,’ and that is the sort of spirit that Pop Preservation Society has gone with as well. We realize you have to put food on the table as a label, and we’re working toward that, but that’s not our priority at the moment. We are investing in artists at the moment, and developing them.
What is Pop Preservation Society, and why did you start it?
Pop Preservation Society originally began, if I can go way back, with my son, we started a duo called ‘Pop Preservation Society,’ and we were doing corporate work and covers, just to make ends meet, sending the kids to school and getting little extra things for the family. It was a good way of making money. We were playing classic hits, anything from the Ramones to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Anything melodic that had harmony. So that was the genesis of the name. My wife, Nerida, came up with it actually. Then a couple of years ago I set up a partnership with my wife, and it is only recently, the last two or three months, literally the start of this financial year that we’re a private company now, registered with ASIC.
In terms of answering your question, the reason we got it together is, that I’m a performer as well, and I’m a songwriter and musician still, and I’ve got other friends and family who are doing music projects, and we wanted somewhere to gather those people and support them, but also have relationships with other contractors in the music business, producers, engineers, some friends that I’ve been knocking around with for years, and some new ones. Colin Wynne for example at Thirty Mill Studios, is involved. He’s not actually part of the company, but he is a friend and partner. So if you’re in business, and you can’t give your friends that you love and trust the work, then what’s the point of being in business? So that’s the philosophy of the company. It’s not so much to chase the dollar. Dollars are important but secondary. That’s the genesis of it.
Let’s talk about the acts on the label, Lipstereo is the main act. A four-piece Melbourne rock band, how did that band come together?
Lipstereo was a band called ‘The Reasons’ in Melbourne, and pre-COVID they actually had another drummer, and they were starting to play shows. We’ve been in close contact, Sam from the band being my son, they were looking for somewhere to do some recordings. He lived with me at the time, but he doesn’t live with me now, we have a rehearsal and recording studio at home. They were looking for somewhere to record, somewhere like a University, and I thought, well why don’t you do a good recording, and do your best, and I will help finance it. That was how it started.
We got Mark Opitz involved. I sent him an email, I’d never met Mark. It turned out later, I didn’t realize that he and Colin Wynne had been working together for twenty years. So that worked out really well. He called me back the next day saying ‘this stuff is great’ and I’d like to produce it. Get in contact with Colin and we’ll sort out some dates. So in that lockdown period for two years, they were writing a whole heap of stuff. They’ve probably got in the can, fifty or so songs, so there’s a lot of material there. They just choose to play short sets, they prefer to play a thirty to thirty-five-minute set, to slay you in the aisle, and that’s it, say goodbye. So that’s how we started, with them.
In terms of what we’re offering when we’re working with a band, going back to your initial question Greg, what is Pop Preservation Society about? We’re like a one-stop shop. We do things like social media campaigns, and we work with a company in the States called ‘Venture Music,’ they’re based in Nashville, and on a weekly basis we have a work-in-progress meeting with their Account Manager and one of their designers, I believe it is. Every second week we have a strategic meeting with the data guy there, the marketing guru, Dustin, so that is working really well. They are developing TikTok and social media. We’re trying to break the artist. We’re working with radio, and we’ve got Michael Matthews with us. Design, we’ve got Chiara on design, and we’ve got Anthea Palmer now, who owns Jimmy Hornet, the venue, she is doing publicity and marketing for us as well. The team is building and there’s a support base of really good contacts, friends, and people who are very experienced in the industry, moving the project forward.
You’ve also got your own duo on the label, Saturday’s Child with Frank Apicella, and you’ve got a single called ‘Cola’ with Ema Jay singing. Tell me about Ema Jay.
Well, Ema Jay is a close friend of myself and Frank, she’s actually a family friend, she’s a young artist that’s developing and she likes to keep incognito as far as her image. A bit like Sia, you know how she covered her face. We’ve found this way of working together. She’s got an incredible voice, the most drop-dead gorgeous voice you’ve heard, and we wanted to capture that in this particular song. She didn’t want to go through the marketing machine and hype of being involved and being ‘out there’ at this stage. She is doing her own thing musically, and this is a little bit different for her. She’s staying more in the background, and you’ll notice in the film clip on YouTube, she actually appears in the film clip, but you only see her from here down, She’s a wonderful singer and songwriter, and we will continue to work with her. She may eventually want to be upfront a bit more.
For the project Saturday’s Child itself, we’re agnostic to particular singers, we will work with whatever singers as well. The project has just started off, and I might even be singing some of the songs myself because I’m a singer as well. For that particular track, we wanted Ema Jay to do it. That’s how it came to pass.
What would you say the point of difference is between Pop Preservation Society and what other labels might be doing?
Well, I don’t know what the other labels are doing exactly, because I’m not involved in them. I’ve never worked for a record label, but I’ve worked in record retail. So my understanding of how the business works is that it’s fairly intuitive, and I’m working with other people around me. I don’t know what others are doing but I imagine it’s artist services, which is what we do. We are first and foremost for the artist, and if we can somehow monetize that for the artist, great. It’s a creative pursuit first and foremost, and we believe in messaging it out in such a way that it’s palatable to the public, so there is a commercial aspect to it, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. We may engage in projects later that is a bit out there, and a bit weird, but these days you can have niches in different areas. You might release a Captain Beefheart-style album if you really love it, because I love Captain Beefheart, but it’s not something that I’d push to radio necessarily. We are genre agnostic in that sense.
There is a pop element to it currently, so Pop Preservation Society, the label itself was named after … we used to listen to The Kinks, "we are the Village Green Preservation Society," and we were sitting around trying to come up with a name for the duo, and my wife said “Pop Preservation Society” and we thought, that’s cool. It’s a nice long name, we realize now it’s too long, Victor at Pop Preservation Society dot com... anyway, the next business will have a really short name.
You managed to distribute the label’s music into some territories that labels wouldn’t normally go into, like Croatia, West Africa, Belgium, Portugal, and Lithuania, how were you able to do that?
We work with Michael Matthew Media, he’s been in the industry for forty years so he has a lot of contacts overseas, particularly in England and the States. The European market is a developing market for us, and we’re using a PlayMPE platform to get it out there. To be honest, it is to mixed success, we’re still trying to work out which artists are suited to markets. Saturday’s Child, for example, a lot of Europe, like France, Belgium, Portugal we’re getting played on major radio in Portugal. I didn’t even send it to Portugal initially and they started playing it, so I don’t even know how they got the Saturday’s Child song. I think stylistically, that sound suits that area. It's quite interesting. While America might be more of a Lipstereo territory, for example. Or Germany might be a bit more Lipstereo. We haven’t really broken into Germany for Lipstereo yet, we’re still trying to find those avenues where we can get the music out to them efficiently. It’s not the timing of the market, it’s time in the market. The longer we stay, the more our presence is felt. I think if we keep pushing this stuff out there, eventually we’ll be heard.
So many avenues to success for artists have been cut off, for instance, radio doesn’t play new music, and you can’t make music by selling CDs because of the free streaming services. An increasing number of venues want a cut from merchandise sales, and the touring industry is recovering from COVID, how the hell can an artist make a living from music, and what solutions does your label provide?
It’s like any business Greg, it’s like if you’re a printing company, and I used to work in printing so I’ll use that as an example, you buy a printing press and you put it there, and you say ‘business, come to me,’ and it just doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got to get a sales rep and give them a Melways and keys, or a GPS and keys these days. Send him or her out, and it takes a very long time to get the flow of that business coming in. Music is the same, there is a capital requirement up front that is required, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that. It’s something I didn’t understand for years. I thought you just got signed and you’re on the radio, and you're famous. It just doesn’t work that way. Particularly now. I think. In the old days, it did. Michael Matthews used to tell me firsthand, that in the old days he’d gone into a Triple M or EON FM and he’d literally have the vinyl singles for what he was promoting that week and he’d say, you’ve got to play this one. He'd have a meeting with the Program Director there, and before he left he’d hear it being played on the radio station, as he was walking out through the speakers. That doesn’t happen anymore. You don’t have that personal relationship. So a lot of those avenues are closed to us now. But having said that, there are other opportunities with social media and TikTok.
With Lipstereo it’s interesting. We’ve been doing some advertising on TikTok, we just started, and we’re actually getting fans coming to gigs from TikTok. A couple of guys at a gig we did recently came from a TikTok reel that they put up. I found that incredible and I said to the band, if you’ve got x amount of followers, imagine if you 10x that, you might get twenty people to the gig. And if you 100x that, you could get 200 people. See how the maths works? So it’s a very real way of measuring. Whereas with radio it’s a bit of a mystery. They play it, who listens to it? I don’t know. And to be honest, I think the challenge with radio is that … well I was talking to a friend of mine last night who is very in the radio industry, he’s been around for a very long time, and he knows about all the measurements they do on the radio, and who listens to it. They do not measure the actual number of people who actually listen to it, they don’t disclose it, or they refuse to measure it.
I believe, and this is only anecdotal, it is not even a quarter of what it was twenty years ago, maybe ten percent. Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t believe radio leads, radio follows. I know that for a fact because we’ve sent some material out to some formats of stations that we believe would work for our material, and they say .. that’s really good we like it, but it’s not quite right for our station, but come back to us if something happens. Hang on, that’s not my job. I’ve presented the product. Do you like it or not? Use your ears. But it doesn’t work that way. I think the way they work is that they’ll probably look at .. who is this artist? They’ve probably got 250 thousand followers and half a million on Instagram. Yeah, we’ll play that song because we can grab some of that market and pull it into our station. They don’t look at business development in the music industry, which is the hardest part of the industry. It’s like any business, when you start in printing as a sales rep, it’s exactly the same thing. The hardest business is new business.
I think radio, its days are numbered to an extent, because with the emergence of digital technology, moving forward, if you’ve studied marketing and the Boston Portfolio Matrix, (I'm) speaking to a small niche here, you’ve got a growing market, and then you’ve got a maturing market, and then you’ve got a market that's a cash cow, and you pull all the money you can out of it but you don’t develop it, and then you’ve got the decline. I think we’re somewhere between a cash cow and decline now. I don’t think they’re interested. It’s not music radio any more. To quote my friend, not verbatim, but he said something like … the way they do radio, is they try to maximize the number of advertisements they have on there, and they’ll stretch it as much as they can, and they’ll use a song to keep them there, not too much song, and then another advert. That’s how they look at it, and that’s a bit boring. It doesn’t interest me. So we’re looking at other avenues and we want to develop some new things that we’re looking at in the background at the moment, but it’s too early days to talk about those yet.
So, what’s the grand plan for Pop Preservation Society?
It is to be a home to artists, so in whatever they do, they can do it to their best ability, if it’s a thing that they want to pursue for life. If they’re willing to invest in themselves and invest the time. We find with artists that they expect the label to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but when you get a team of people with a band or an artist that is doing a lot of the heavy lifting themselves, that really works, and you need both of those sides these days. Whereas in the old days you’d be told.. go to this interview, go to that interview, whereas now you literally have to put yourself out there. Have your own TV show virtually on TikTok so that people get to know your own personality. That’s how we’re currently developing artists. I’m sure there are going to be different ways, but in terms of the grand plan, we just want to be at the cutting edge of where things are going. Whether it be in the future with your cryptocurrencies and things like that, we will probably get involved in that as well at some stage, but not quite yet. Possibly in the next twelve months or so there’ll be some sort of offering we’ll have there. Not with NFTs necessarily, I don’t really like NFTs. It’s a picture of a jpeg loosely related to a serial number on the internet, that may or may not be hosted. So you don’t really own it. I don’t follow that.
What we really want to do is just put out good art, good music, and great songs. The holy grail for me is songs. It’s like, I think it was Kanye West who did a YouTube video with Paul McCartney, and on the internet, people were like .. who’s the old dude? They might not know who he is, but they will remember the songs. To me, it’s about the songs because I believe it’s the songs that take you there. Anything to do with songs, I’ll always be there. Not so much sound effects and things like that, but good songwriting and going back to that ever-green period where there’s great art. That’s where we want to be.
Victor Stranges, thanks for joining us.