Andrew Ferris started record label Smalltown America (STA) on a business plan that was, by his own admission, “not the best”, but it has grown from a digital start-up into a major platform for local talent. STA is ten years old this month. In that time the Derry-based company has helped to develop local artists as well as signing artists from as far away as Iceland and securing hits in Brazil.
Originally the label was started to be a ‘self-serving vehicle’ releasing material from the band Andrew was in, Jetplane Landing. STA is now part of the very fabric of the Northern Irish music scene.
The label now employs five people.
Andrew says, “We also depend on a larger team of 16 staff and contributors such as illustrators, video directors, a marketing team and sound engineers.
“I can’t believe it’s been ten years. But I can believe that we’ve had 100 release. It definitely feels like we’ve done that but that’s because I remember every band, relationship, argument, tantrum, tear and chord in the recording studio.
“We invest a lot of time in our bands - it is one and a half years of their lives as well.”
Brian Fahy, STA label assistant, quips, “We might work in the studio but at times we’re more like social workers for definite.”
Andrew says: “We are incredibly proud that we now bigger in Derry than we were in London.”
Small Town America moved from London, where it began, to Derry two and a half years ago.
“We are known for being experts locally. There is a great artisitic community in Derry and that is very encouraging. The sense of an art community is palpable in Northern Ireland. It was part of the reason we were happy to move the business to Derry.
“We are trying to commercialise the art but in a supportive way and in a way the artists themselves can support.”
That attitude has led to a real sense of loyalty even after bands depart the label. ‘And So I Watch you From Afar’ were signed to STA but their second album ‘Gangs’ is being released on Richter.
“And we couldn’t be happier for them,” beams Andrew. “Our contracts are organised in such a way that if in the pursuit of a larger goal or audience, artists need to be released, they can be. The bands know at any point they can return to us. Fighting With Wire needed to sign to Atlantic in order to get their record out in the US and we’re delighted to help them in any way we can.
“In terms of And So I Watch You...the only thing I’m sad about is that I will not be involved with them as much. We spent three years breaking the first record. Like I say, we make a big investment in our bands, that’s what we do.”
The label arrived in its new home in the Nerve Centre over two years ago. There are now offices in both Derry and Belfast.
The Derry studio is on Clarendon Street where the “laid back vibe” has been appreciated by “General Fiasco, La Faro and Oppenheimer to name a few.”
Its walls are adorned by the art work of STA releases, and these, with recordings, cds and vinyl, decorate every available space.
“It is good that we now have a recording legacy to trade on,” said Andrew. “We always have worked hard so it’s good to look back after ten years and think, it’s working.”
The beginning wasn’t always encouraging.
“I started the label on a credit card so it probably wasn’t the best business plan in the world,” smiles Andrew. “I had one year to pay back the bills so it was a bit of a risk.
“My wife, then girlfriend, Laura hated me for it. There was always equipment around the flat, the postman and post office hated me because every Saturday I had hundreds of records to ship out.
“It really was a speculative spend and I suppose we’re still hand to mouth in many ways but we have a schedule of releases organised for the next two years. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I’ve been doing it for ten years already.”
Andrew acknowledges the help and support he’s received from DCAL, Invest NI, the Arts Council and Belfast and Derry City Councils.
“They all warmed to the ideas that we are a creative and technology led industry and that we are bringing international trade to NI.
“If I was to put our success down to anything other than team work it would be that we spent a lot of time and effort getting our digital platforms right. It means our products are available to anyone with a computer from right here in Derry.”
In fact a remarkable 80% of STA records are sold abroad. “We sell to the mid-Eastern European block, Latvia and Poland etc and South America, that’s where we see the areas of growth for the business.”
Icelandic outfit Feldberg have recently been signed as the theme music of a Brazilian soap opera. Their track ‘You and Me’ will adorn the intro titles of ‘Morde & Assopra’ (Bites & blow).
STA acts have also been featured on Made in Chelsea and Peppa Pig.
“Music is everywhere these days. A band needs to realise that careers are not about album sales anymore. With the proliferation of social media there are just so many more platforms out there. In fact I would say only 20% of our time is spent making music -.the other 80% is trying to sell it with tours, promos and radio play. A band can spend two years writing ten or fifteen songs, so they have to be pushed hard when they are ready. Working on songs is a luxury!”