New Zealand was a different planet back in 1981. GARY STEEL dips into his bulging archive with this piece on Wellington record label Bunk.
October 1980: Dunedin group The Knobz could be found shopping around for a record label to release their single, ‘Culture’. Rejected by EMI, journalist Mike Alexander released it on Bunk Records, that being a banner with which The Knobz had advertised their tours. The thing took off, and WEA contracted the band. But Bunk had shown that it could be done independently.
Bunk Records may, therefore, have been a one-off. But Alexander, wishing to spread his wings further into the industry, decided that he “wanted to carry on the concept of independent recording.
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“I felt that there were a lot of shortcomings in the local industry and there was room for a service label that was prepared to take the ego out of the industry and put it back into the artist,” says Alexander.
But what you’ll be asking right now is: ‘What’s a service label?’
“In the terms of which I am employed by artists rather than I go out and employ artists or contract artists to me. I don’t work within contracts. My artists have no obligations to me. I don’t have any obligations to my artists.”
So, what does Bunk Records offer an artist?
“A national distribution deal through CBS without any lies, obligations or commitments. Instead of working on a royalty deal, I charge a service fee – at the moment $50.”
What if an artist approaches you from scratch?
“I can arrange studio time for artists at discount rates. I could virtually assure you of being able to record two tracks up to production standard, engage the services of a producer, and arrange payment of my own service fee within $500.”
What criteria do you use with artists you work with?
“If someone genuinely approaches me and they want to put a record out I try as much as possible to divorce myself from any thoughts and feelings of my subjective [opinion] about their style of music. And I do this by reminding myself that I’m a service label. It would be rather hypercritical of me to turn around and withdraw my services from certain artists because I didn’t like their music.”
One of the main differences between Bunk and the usual deal is the practice of A&R men looking for budding talent and reworking it to suit a specific market and audience. Alexander has no sympathy for this approach. He steers intuitively away from the contract situation for fear that he would be forced into thinking too much in terms of long-term returns from his investments, thereby reducing the role of the service.
His primary role?
“To sell records as effectively as possible… realistically, that is the job of any record company.”
The fact that the majority of Wellington artists are cut off from the gigging circuit has further defined Alexander’s task.
“I’m convinced that the shortcomings of the New Zealand recording industry are such that the artists do not spend as much time as they should in the recording studio. Their considerations are primarily towards touring and the obligations of going around the circuit, encouraging a live following, garnering the interest of a record company, and getting some sort of a recording deal as a result of that.
“Both in my capacity formerly as a journalist and my involvement in Bunk Records, I’ve come across a lot of artists on the road who are bored, depressed… they’ve got financial problems. I don’t feel that that is conducive to a creative environment.
“I’m trying to encourage artists to spend as much time in the recording studio as possible. It’s a pity that a lot more record companies haven’t spent more time in encouraging artists to work in the recording studio. That’s the sort of commitment we need from record companies if the New Zealand recording industry is to take off. Overseas, New Zealand artists will be judged on their recorded product.”
Of course, Alexander isn’t against live work, but does have a point that “pub circuits are pub circuits… people go along to pubs to drink beer. If you’re playing to people whose basic motivation isn’t to go along there to listen to music, it can be frustrating. Whether you want to constantly confront the apathy or to look for an alternative – hire out community halls.”
It’s clear that the role of Bunk Records is different to that of the average company, be it independent or major. While some have already accused Bunk of releasing commercial product more in line with a major label, the service label philosophy must be taken into account. Bunk Records will probably never have the hip status of an ECM or Factory, simply because some of its product is bound to be (subjectively) bunk. But its aims are surely commendable.
* It seems like ancient history now and because Bunk Records ceased operations after just a couple of years, it’s seldom noted. But Mike Alexander’s short-lived label made its point at a time when our own music lacked label or audience support and desperately needed conduits like Alexander to get things happening. There was one big hit with The Knobz ‘Culture’ that must have pissed off the ‘major’ labels in this pre-Flying Nun era. And the two Beat Rhythm Fashion singles it released are probably the best (and best-produced) things to have come out of Wellington in the early ‘80s. I would have been quite nervous interviewing Alexander, who had been writing about music for the Sunday Times for some time and was therefore, someone I looked up to with a degree of awe. Originally published in In Touch magazine.
Here’s Simon Grigg’s AudioCulture piece on Bunk: