Starting your own record label with Julien Fournier (VLEK)


In this section, we let the professionals do the talking. Each of these talented individuals possesses a vast amount of experience, knowledge and know-how within their respected fields – from production to DJ-ing and other professional activities in the music biz. By letting these people elaborate their craft by a simple list of personal tips, all you inspired followers can learn from the best. Whether you’re serious about building a career in the business, or just interested in a good read, these experts explain their craft like no one can.

In this third instalment of the series, we visit our great nation’s capital – the place where Julien Fournier and his crew have built up their brainchild, VLEK. This fully independent record label might not be a massive powerhouse that many have come to associate with this line of work, they are probably our best example of how anyone with a clear vision and a DIY-attitude should go about starting their own imprint. Turns out, it’s not that simple – especially if you want to be more than a Soundcloud page that churns out free downloads. Starting your own label, pressing vinyl, supporting your artists and staying true to your vision in order to make a lasting impact is a demanding process that would scare off most people. However, if you are not like most people, the following practical list of tips by Fournier will come in very handy one day…

Fournier: The thing you have to understand is that VLEK is evolving in a very particular environment. It’s focused on Belgian music, with 95% of its catalogue comprised of artists from Wallonia or Brussels. We like to keep a close contact with everyone we're working with: from being able to go out to their gigs, to discussing the communication plan or reviewing the sleeve design. We couldn’t work with emails and FaceTime only. We have most of the skills needed to make a release in-house: David designs and produces the artwork and sleeves from scratch, Thomas is in charge of managing the money flows and I do the communication. The general label management and music decisions have mostly been collegial throughout the years, even though scouting has recently been more in David’s hands. Also, we’ve been lucky enough to have struck a funding deal with the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, which allows us to work more comfortably and dedicate our time to the promotion of the artists, not to deficit-reducing schemes. VLEK is very aware of its place in the development of artists - we have no interest in ‘growing’ for the sake of it. We want to get better at what we do: giving projects a platform they can use to go bigger if they want to - which also means we're very, very pleased when one of our artists signs a deal with a bigger record label (Lawrence Le Doux’s Hivern release was the latest example). That said, let’s get into it…

Take time to get to know about your landscape

It’s a painfully long process, but it does pay off big time. In the first months of VLEK’s inception, we have spent hours on end adding people to Twitter lists, making databases, re-posting and commenting, learning about the media, the DJ’s, the venues and the record labels we felt close to. This is really important. It allows you to understand where you stand within your environment and, ultimately, where your music will be listened, commented, shared from.

Cherish your customers

You will invest a lot of energy in getting the word out to media, influencers, DJ’s, etc.… But in the end, the ones you’re hoping to catch the interest of are your customers: the people who will buy your release when it’s first announced, who will ask about you in record shops or who will download your packs. So it goes without saying you should take extra care of them. Value their input, try to slip in a word in the mail outs, refund or resend upon request (vinyl orders CAN get lost in the post). We’re all in a niche now, and it’s extra important to not let go of your fellow, weird, music-loving humans once you got their attention.

Find the right team and share responsibilities

Unless you’re a 3-hours-of-sleep-a-night type of person or you have tons of friends willing to work for you for free, you will have to be more than just one person to run a label. Finding the right people with the right skills is one thing (the 3 VLEK founders all have their specialities in one or more areas of label management) but more importantly, you will all have to realize you can’t be in charge of everything. Confidence in your teammates’ skills is key. Running a label often involves a lot of talking, even more talking (potentially of the foul-mouthed kind) if you question every choice that is being made. Making sure each of you is in charge of the aspect of running a label they’re most-skilled for is not only efficient but also rewarding for all parties involved.

Get a good distributor

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. We didn’t really start VLEK until we had a proper distributor, but fortunately, our beloved German friends at KOMPAKT Records signed with us on day one and they have been good to us ever since. They take care of our presence in remote markets like Japan, the USA, the UK, etc.… They also manage our digital distribution like a boss. There are lots of different ways to distribute your records nowadays and some of them are plain rip-offs, but yeah. Bottom line: you will have to get your tracks on the right download sites and your vinyl records in the right shops all over the world – you just can’t do that by yourself selling everything from your own website. So, get a distribution deal. Your promo efforts will be rewarded way more if people can stumble upon your release in a shop or save up on shipping by ordering locally.

Be present on Bandcamp

We have been there since day one. For those who don’t know, Bandcamp is a website that allows independent artists and record labels to stream and sell their digital and physical music or merchandise directly to their fan base via their own microsite, creating to gain a bigger margin of the revenue. Get your distributor to ‘be ok’ with the fact that you operate your own online shop on the side. Along the way, it will allow you to set up promotions on the go, do presales, discounts for regular clients and so on – but most importantly it will give you the data you need to keep in touch with your cherished customers. We also use the ‘pay what you want’ feature a lot on the older catalogue. Once a release has been out a year or two, it won’t really sell digitally anymore. So to counter that, you can revalue it by re-packaging it as a freely accessible MP3 pack. It will give exposure to the artist, the label, and maybe even bring in a few euro’s again if the customer genuinely wants to support you. All in all, the best part of this thing is that you get to keep downloaders’ email addresses. Those are people who didn’t buy anything, but they found you worthy of several clicks. This is now already considered a relationship – and a great starting point to manage your fan base.

Build an image and have a solid communication plan

This is possibly one of the most important, yet most difficult part of this game. Image is crafted through everything the label does. It has to be consistent on the website, the design, the logo, on Twitter, on Facebook, in e-mails, in the way you communicate with your customers, etc.… There’s no point in putting something half-assed out there, this would be wasting everyone's time. We pride ourselves in providing the artists with a situation they’re comfortable with and always work closely with them when we create the communication around the release. We put VLEK’s image at work for them, so it’s important we keep it consistent. It supports each of them and in return they add their share while we go along. 

Craft an international shipping scheme for vinyl sales

In Belgium, we all have to deal with the ridiculous pricing for sending out vinyl packages abroad from the regular post offices. After a while, we realized that 50% of the value our buyers paid was going to the Belgian postal service, so we devised a workaround: we’re sending out 65% of our production to our distributor KOMPAKT and 30% to a friend in Berlin (shout out to Fabrice) as the costs to ship worldwide from Germany are way cheaper; so he’s taking care of the mail-outs for the international orders, via German postal service, for a small fee. You would think that’s a lot of expensive hassle, compared to just sending out everything from Belgium – but it’s still cheaper. In this way, we are able to strip our web shop from overly expensive shipping costs.

Have a clear demo policy

When you’re getting some buzz, people will inevitably send you demos - and you will have to sift through them. We can get up to 10 of every week and if we’re honest, a lot of them are just desperate and untargeted fishing efforts, not taking your label’s identity into account and sending these to at least 100 other imprints. If you get into this label game, chances are you like to listen to new stuff, you like to go out and you don’t mind asking artists you like to send you tracks. If you don’t, you should. We never really took on any offer we received via unsolicited emailing - we listen to most of them, but to be brutally honest, we often don’t take the time to give a proper response. Having a clear demo policy (for example: a clear message like "do not send us demos or don't expect a reply if you do") takes away the guilt from not listening or replying to all demos get sent your way.

Follow VLEK on Facebook, Soundcloud or Bandcamp to stay up to date on their latest releases! 

Picture Julien: Pierre Humbert - Moltisanti