Foreseeing the Future of Music...?
CoC chats with Digby Pearson, head and founder of Earache Records
by: Paul Schwarz
Digby Pearson (or Dig, as he is more commonly known and also referred to on various album sleeves) started Earache Records in his own bedroom in the late-eighties. Earache went on to help release not only some of the first grindcore albums ever in the shape of debuts by Napalm Death and Carcass, but also, as Earache grew, the label became one of the most important homes for death metal in the nineties. Morbid Angel, Carcass and Entombed, among others, found their first home and recorded all or most of their releases last decade under the Earache banner. Around 1995/6, various techno albums began to surface on the label (as part of a deal with the New York based label Industrial Strength), and Earache's main logo was changed from eardrum-splatter original to a more shiny, rounded piece of graphical work. Many people lost faith in Earache; by the middle/late-nineties death metal or grindcore albums with real punch appearing on the label were few and far between; Carcass and Entombed had left, citing money as one influencing factor, for the "greener pastures" of the major label, Columbia -- which they subsequently released nothing on, the former splitting partially as a result and the latter taking a lengthy break between albums three and four; Morbid Angel had seemingly split after the departure of David Vincent; only a few bands such as industrial heavyweights Godflesh remained from "the good old days". It didn't help Earache's reputation that, in a relatively short period of time, they released a lot of B-side compilation albums, live videos and the like from their departed or defunct artists. Though admittedly these were in most cases "contract fillers" that Earache were, of course, well within their rights to release, from the perspective of some of the bands and their fans such releases seemed like needless, money-grabbing cash-ins. In early 1998 things began to change. Earache's newly formed Wicked World imprint label began releasing material more in the vein of the stuff which had made Earache a big name. Additionally, Morbid Angel released the brutally brilliant _Formulas Fatal to the Flesh_ [CoC #28], which definitely bolstered confidence in the label from quarters who had got the impression that Earache were "running out on metal". 1998 was a good year for Earache, producing a number of well-received and exceptionally brutal albums, and since then Wicked World has helped keep Earache in the game of unleashing brutal metal albums. However, recently Earache took a step I, in my ignorance of the inner workings of the industry, had not seen coming: they released their entire back-catalogue to for sale over the Internet. Interested, I asked to talk to someone at Earache, and Dig was suggested. Though surprised to be offered a label's founder and head for an interview in our pages, I of course jumped at the chance to talk to someone who'd helped release (and, it -seemed-, produce) so many releases that I own and cherish. It turns out that Dig is big into "the digital revolution" and where it is taking things, so it made every bit of sense to talk to him about the Emusic deal, though of course I didn't restrict conversation only to this issue.

CoC: Are you ready to answer questions on the Emusic thing? The whys and the wherefores?

Digby Pearson: I'll chat all day long if you want, 'cause I'm really into it.

CoC: First, on a different point, are Earache still, in this new millennium, centralising themselves on metal, or are you going to be branching out with the main label and possibly relegating metal to the Wicked World side of things?

DP: No, hardly. I don't know how much you know about Earache's history.

CoC: I know a fair amount.

DP: Well, I wouldn't call ourselves a metal label. Extreme music, in all its guises, is what I try to say, which confuses a lot of people. Metal has been a thing that we're most known for: death metal and grindcore things. Nothing wrong with that. I personally grew up listening to that sort of stuff, Slayer and all that -- still my ultimate favourites to this day. That's what Earache's always going to be doing, to be honest. The confusion arose because three of four years ago we started to get -- I personally started to get really into, how can I put it... dance music, I suppose. In all its forms: drum 'n' bass in the UK, pirate radios and all that sort of stuff. I became a big convert to the programming skills, people who program beats on computers and stuff like that. And I thought it was just as much a skilful art and a way to be creative as normal bass/guitar/drums/vocals outfits.

CoC: I have to say, I agree with you on that.

DP: Do you? Well, yeah, not many people do actually. That's one of the things that makes Earache interesting as far as the label goes, I think. We're very maverick in terms of what we do, because we don't have any sort of central head office, Sony don't own us or we're not part of the Zomba group -- so many labels have a corporate headquarters and a chairman and board that you have to answer to. And Earache's so street level compared to that. We're big in one sense, but if you actually saw our operation here -- we're a bunch of fuck-ups sitting in a little office in Nottingham, basically.

CoC: On the earlier releases you helped with production as well...

DP: Well, that's part and parcel of the thing: I was in the studio with the bands doing it. I don't think I actually touched the mixing desk back in those days, but it was part of an ego thing as well. A lot of labels have done it, early Cacophonous ones would have Nile as the producer and even Nuclear Blast records would have Markus Staiger as a producer. It's basically a perk of the job. I stopped doing that years ago because it's just an ego boost and I don't really need that anymore. But as far as the Earache label is going, we've flirted with electronic music, the real extreme end of it, the gabba stuff, and we tied up with the Industrial Strength label in New York and I became a big fan of that label's output, really. I thought it was fairly extreme but done in a different way. I think I'm seeing reverberations of that little thing that we did a few years ago: a lot of people are a lot more accepting of programmed beats. It's just the way the world is now: even black metal bands, it's like the new thing to have programs and experiment. It's another instrument to me.

CoC: I don't know quite how it has filtered its way in, but it has become way more accepted. I do agree with you that in general people who like extreme music in the metal sense tend to say, "and not all that dance shit!". I suppose I'm lucky myself, because I grew up not with just a metal crowd of people. I grew up just with a crowd of people who love music and so I got to hear what I term "good" techno. There's a lot of -bad- techno out there just like there's a lot of bad metal; there's a lot of poor, boring house and poorly constructed techno. So, people get the impression that it's totally uncreative. If you actually listen to something like Future Sound of London you get quite a different impression.

DP: Yeah, it's a real art in its own right and I think it's going to be accepted: the sampler. The "Q-Base" on the computer is just another instrument just as valid as everything else. But to answer your original question, I am actually bored of that now, believe it or not. We've had our flirtation with a lot of programmed beats artists and spurred on, I suppose, by Wicked World's success. Dan, the label manager here, had said to me, "Dig, do you realise that all these techno bands that you keep signing are diluting our appeal to our fanbase, our real bread and butter death metal fanbase?" And I was like, "Shit, you're right!" He was dead right, actually. So he was like bursting at the seams and Wicked World is basically Dan's A&R input. I said, "We'll give you another label name." It's all part of the Earache thing, but it's just concentrated on Dan's ears, basically. Those bands have done really well so far: Hate Eternal especially and Decapitated are doing really well.

CoC: It has got a response as well, the Wicked World label. Some people do say, "Why aren't these records on -Earache-?!" After that, though, people are quite pleased. You get something from Wicked World, you know the general idea of it.

DP: In a way it's going back to what Earache started as, it's a sort of a purist label and it'll be only underground metal bands on it: Dan's not into experimenting and that's fair enough, and I appreciate that and it's actually great. And it'll be for the purists, the underground purists, they'll be nothing but extreme underground metal on it. I don't want to say "death metal", but it's predominantly death metal. Gandalf are coming out with an album that's kind of hard to explain. It's actually brilliant: it's like AC/DC meets Carcass. It's really anthemic, fist-in-the-air kind of metal, with heavy vocals and heavy riffs; it's bizarre. Dan can speak better about it. Anyway, Wicked World's doing well and in a way that's had an impact on Earache. In my world the sub-label is now driving how I think about metal again. So we're actually in discussion with a few, newer metal acts to be released on Earache. I mean, we've never really given up on metal. We've had this bad press from a few quarters who just think Earache is putting out weird shit these days or techno shit. A band like Berzerker is interesting for me. I do like it. It's extreme. We're going to have some more extreme stuff coming out on Earache that'll surprise a few people, hopefully. I wish I could tell you the names, but they're not signed up yet. But at the same time we're doing bands like Linea 77, who I'm particularly into, who could be construed as on the Deftones' side of things. I think it's quite valid. I don't think death metallers will particularly take to it, but I think they're an extreme band in their own right and quite cutting edge and current: I like 'em, anyway. I mean, that's the ultimate thing: it's my label so we put out what we damned well feel like, really.

CoC: Moving onto the main topic of discussion, one of the things I love about the Emusic conversion is I've now got one of the ultimate contradictions in terms: I've now got "Technology Is Gay" on MP3. <we both laugh> What made you decide originally to put the back catalogue on Because not -that many- labels have yet signed these kinds of contracts [though there are, I discovered upon really looking, a lot more than I thought when this conversation with Dig took place --Paul], a lot of people are -very- dubious about the whole conversion to the Internet. They think it will possibly kill them [the labels], and give the power to the bands. What made you decide to really go for it?

DP: Well, again, we've embraced technology since the Internet was getting past the technologists stage and moving to mass popularity. We had an site in 1995, which is a long, long time ago in Internet time, and we had, within a few weeks, some of our music available for digital download from the site. It was the obvious thing to do as far as we were thinking, we didn't really have any second thoughts about people downloading it and that ruining our CD sales. That's absolute bunkum, in my opinion. As will become evident, in my opinion, in the next few years. It's a whole new -paradigm-, to use the current buzz-word, it's a whole new way of looking at music. I'm not a Nostradamus, but it's a new thing and Earache wanted to be involved in it straight away and that's why we didn't say no when Emusic was knocking on the door, basically. Any label that doesn't want to embrace the MP3 revolution is kind of crazy, really. They're hangin' onto an old mindset. Music: you can now download it, it takes a few minutes if you've got a good modem, and you've got a track.

CoC: One of the reasons I was prompted to do a piece is because I'd never really bought MP3s before. At university, I'm on a LAN so I can download it really fast. I ended up getting really into the whole downloading thing.

DP: It works, doesn't it?! It's amazing, isn't it?!

CoC: It also allows you to get stuff which is different or rare or stuff like the _Love of Lava_ which was only re-released with the entire album.

DP: Which you wouldn't want to buy anyway... Actually, that's a funny one because each song is really only a solo, so one of the catches is that Emusic, with our permission, also allow a thirty second free sample of each song as well, so if you're lucky the _Love of Lava_ might actually have the whole song. I'll have to check. The full version might be forty seconds, so why bother? Unless you want to pay a dollar for the extra ten seconds...

CoC: Is it Emusic's policies on the albums and tracks or can you put different prices on the albums? 'Cause the songs are universally 99 cents, so you can pay forty dollars for an AC album...

DP: No, you can download the whole album for $8.99...

CoC: Yes, but theoretically you could pay forty dollars for an AC album if you wanted to.

DP: But you wouldn't, you'd pay $8.99, wouldn't you?

CoC: Fair play. It's kind of interesting, though, 'cause you can get Iron Monkey's _Our Problem_ for less than $8.99...

DP: That's true. We've gone with the standard pricing that Emusic advise and it's their experience of the pricing. It's still such a new thing -- the prices could come down, presumably will do. You can get it, presumably, on MP3 from Napster for free. I do. Though we use Macster 'cause we have Macs here. We just thought, MP3s are out there, the genie is out of the bottle; why pretend otherwise? Also, we want to embrace that as well. When I've heard stories about how people have used Napster, people who've sort of gone out of music and Napster's revitalised their interest because you can get hold of stuff quite easily. So, you read about bands and you haven't got it and it's hard to get. Napster just brings it to your desktop, your PC or Mac, straight away, and you can just enjoy the music and become exposed to new music.

CoC: The other thing I was curious about was: was it just a decision to put it on the Internet just for the sake of it, just to get it out there, or is it for a particular market? One of the advantages of Emusic is that though I, living in England, -could- get it through the mail, if I lived in some country which didn't have all of Earache's releases available to me...

DP: Exactly.

CoC: So would that be a lot of the purpose of it: so people can get it wherever they are in the world?

DP: Exactly. It's also a phenomenon 'cause we don't have physical distribution of our CDs in every territory; we have it in most territories. We have a lot of Malaysian people actually -- it's hard to get deals over there to distribute the CDs, it's a different market. I don't know why we just haven't really cracked it.

CoC: I think they have quite an oppressive government, don't they?

DP: Absolutely dead right, you've just reminded me of the reason. We've had deals before and they've gone sour; the minute we put out something crazy they go: "We can't release this." In Singapore, for instance.

CoC: I've got letters from people in the past saying "don't write back using my band name".

DP: Yeah, our deals have fizzled out in those places. So there you go, the beauty of the Internet and MP3. I think they're bringing plans in to try and censor it, they're always talking about it. But now our music is available for legal download, globally. We've noticed a few e-mails from China, and we've had no distribution in China ever, physically. There's a steady trickle of Chinese e-mails, I don't know if they're picking us up from the Internet or whatever, or downloading those tracks. It's a fantastic feeling to know that we're reaching places -- that's the power of this thing, it's a powerful tool. You never know, it might actually lead to a physical distribution deal.

CoC: If you permeate the market, people get used to it and they might as well let you distribute the CDs. I have to say as well, the catalogue you've got on there is the whole -available- catalogue.

DP: It's the whole damn thing, supposedly, everything. Every record, I mean there might be some gaps there where they haven't uploaded it yet, but technically it will be every CD, every track that Earache has ever released will be on there sooner or later. Some of our early releases have not been available since their release and they've become sort of collectible things, and they're supposed to be up there because that's the beauty of it again: there's no inventory for us, we don't have to keep CDs or vinyl; it's just available for download as and when people choose to download it. I know that the whole beauty of it for me was to have our complete and utter catalogue up there for download. There's no reason why some albums are up there and other albums aren't, it's just a matter of: our biggest bands are up there first and then the other stuff will probably be put up later.

CoC: I didn't yet notice stuff like Carnage and Old Lady Drivers...

DP: They will be up there.

CoC: And especially bands like Spazztic Blur are a bit of an underground classic...

DP: That's a band I was going to mention: it's meant to be up there. They've got the master, all I can think is they haven't got around to it yet. We've got a total of two thousand tracks available on that. Ten years of Earache are now available for download. In theory, you can hear a thirty second sample of everything we've ever done, every track. The power of it is still hitting home, to me. I mean, to do that in the physical world you'd have to... I don't know.

CoC: It's great for the older, less requested stuff. If one person wants one copy of one album it's no difficulty. You don't have to repress a thousand copies.

DP: That's another beauty of this: it makes our catalogue complete and available on an individual download basis. Spazztic Blur is one that I'm looking at to get on there as well. There's no CD available of it, it was only ever released on vinyl. Technically, our whole catalogue should be up there in the next weeks.

CoC: What other re-issues do you have planned? You've done Massacre and Carnage. Might you use the Emusic site to determine what re-releases you do in the future?

DP: It's debatable. Unless there's a huge, huge demand, I don't think we'll be doing any more re-issues of so-called old classics.

CoC: No Cadaver then?

DP: Cadaver's possible because one of the bands we're thinking of signing is the new Cadaver: Cadaver Inc. [A stupid name in my opinion, but, I admit, I got it wrong: I reviewed the Cadaver Inc. demo as Cadaver back in issue #47 -- Paul]. We're close to signing them. That's what's so funny to me: when we did Cadaver originally, no-one gave a fuck about it, it was just some weird band from Oslo, Norway, pre-black metal and pre-all the murders and stuff. If we have a huge demand for Cadaver after Cadaver Inc. comes out then there's a slim chance we'll be re-issuing, but it just seems kind of why now, you can just download it, can't you?

CoC: I think the concern from people is that a lot of the fans of the old Earache stuff aren't technological people that own computers. A lot of them are still CD collectors working a nine to five day job and so until MP3 players become part of stereos I think people will say that you're kind of leaving out the old fanbase because they won't have the capacity to get the MP3s; that's the problem.

DP: I guess then it would be a case of if there's sufficient demand. From a record company's point of view you've got to sell at least five hundred or a thousand to cover the costs, really. And that's a pretty big number, really, for something that's many, many years old.

[Conversation turns to the Carnage album -- see this month's classics section for a review -- and then comes to]

DP: Napster is as we speak transforming the music industry. And I'm a big fan of it, actually, even though it could put us out of business. It's about the music in the end, and I'm sure we'll find a way to get involved with it. I've been talking to Napster in America about doing something. It's amazing the mixture of music you can get on there. The smallest band; someone somewhere has got their out of print 7" or something, on MP3. We're big fans of Napster, so I guess with the whole Emusic thing we're actually having our cake and eating it. Napster lets everyone swap MP3 files for free. I don't know, as long as the music's out there and people are enjoying it, then I think it is just promotional stuff and at the end of the day people will want to either download the full album or buy the CD. Either way the artist will get paid at the end of the day, through us, the label, and everything should be OK, hopefully.

CoC: I think the whole MP3 "scare" is about equivalent to the "home taping is killing music" label they used to have on vinyls. In the end, if you tape something for someone, they don't keep the tape and never buy the CD unless they don't have the money to buy the CD. Most people who love an album will buy it on CD. It's not just a question of honesty, people like to have albums. I don't think that will stop. I think people will still want albums even if they have MP3s: they're nice to have. Maybe a generation from now kids won't even care 'cause they won't even have this whole CD [hangup].

DP: I think there is a revolution imminent about how people treat music. I think music's going to become like free software. The only thing that really bothers me is when we get e-mail from guys like this guy, I think he's in France, who compile like four CDs of MP3s of death metal, basically -- it's got four hundred tracks on it --, for ten dollars he's offering it. That's actually getting us pretty annoyed, because he's actually charging, basically, for compiling four hundred of his tracks onto a set of four CDs.

CoC: I think that's where you have to draw the line: if you want to use someone else's software, that's cool, but you can't sell someone else's software.

DP: Exactly. If Napster started charging, then they'd be closed down. The fact that it's totally free is what makes Napster the equivalent of tape trading: there is no charge. This CD thing, I mean four hundred tracks is some labels' entire output. A lot of the labels have sent each other e-mails about this. Although, I was talking to the guy at Century Media about it and he said he didn't want to join the MP3 revolution <laughs> just yet, so it's weird that you can't get any of the German label bands on MP3 -- they've got different attitudes. All the tracks that are on this guy's compilation, with the four CDs, we're going to try and e-mail him and make him see the error of his ways.

[Conversation moves through various topics and we get into the idea of people taping or trading for CDs as a form of promotion.]

DP: At the end of the day, from a record company's point of view and from the artist's as well, we want to get people to hear the music and whatever technology or tools there are to achieve that aim we want to use them all and that's kind of why we're here. I'm just glad that you discovered some of our stuff that you wouldn't otherwise have discovered 'cause then it will have proved the whole point, I suppose. [I was talking to Dig earlier about my buying via Emusic certain Earache releases that I'd been meaning to check out. -- Paul]

[Conversation moves again to Napster in connection with use in universities, where Dig says it has in some places been banned; we then proceed to the freedom the Internet offers: how difficult it is to censor?]

CoC: That's the great thing about the Internet, I think, especially for underground music because underground music has always been beaten down a bit by lack of exposure and the attitude taken to it by certain people. Earache was really helped early on by John Peel's patronage of Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower.

[We chat about the possible redundancy of journalism in the future, accounting for the possibility for fans of simply listening to a release rather than having to read a review.]

DP: I'll tell you what I think is going to be needed: I think it's all going to be about trusting people in the future. If you go on Emusic, go to genre "metal", it's got an A-Z. You haven't got time to wade through every band that's got an MP3 out, and is even worse.

[ becomes the topic as we discuss demo bands and I tell Dig about the fact that many of my recent demo reviews have been of MP3s.]

DP: I think it's all going to be down to tracks in the future. I think it will just be compilations that will rule in the future. Like, "here's this month's selection of the best stuff out" and it'll be the people who you trust to make those selections who are the Sonys or whatever of the future. It'll be the ones who are the experts in the music genre that people trust. Good MP3s will aggregate around those people and then other people will know that instead of wading through all the MP3s, it'll be, "I'll just go for the readymade compilation that my selector has already done", to use a term from dance music. I think it'll be the same as where DJs decide the tracks in the dance arena, because you can't be arsed to wade through every track, you trust the DJ to do it for you. The same, in rock.

CoC: It happens in a lot of industries. That's one of the purposes of service industries: to cut down the amount you have to look through stuff. A good search engine does that. It can be depressing as well, trawling through, because although there are plenty of good bands there are lots of -really shit- bands. Bands I think are starting to record way too early.

DP: Oh, absolutely, yeah.

CoC: There is an over-abundance of bands who spend three weeks together and think they need to get a release out.

DP: Oh, tell me about it, we get demos like that every day. Some of them I'm tempted to say, you know, "Ring us back in two years time." But actually they usually end up on a French label before then or something like that. It's actually shocking the amount of bands we see and then they end up with a CD deal. The labels are to blame a lot of the time 'cause they just add to the crap out there.

CoC: Certain magazines contribute to it as well, if you don't tell a band they're not very good when they are not very good. A lot of the time they won't get that much better.

DP: Bands do get better, actually. Some bands are absolutely crap and then they can have a burst of creativity and get very good very fast.

CoC: Fair enough, but what I meant was that it's less common or less likely for a band to get better if they're not aware of the fact that they have to improve. If you get ten out of ten consistently for each album, then why change your format? Unless you're a particularly creative person.

[We wound up our conversation talking about CoC itself and the fact that Morbid Angel's new album will be an MP3 promo as well as eventually being physical.]

To date (August 7th), only the non-deleted Earache catalogue is available on Emusic -- no Spazztic Blur yet...

(article submitted 12/8/2000)

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