KUT 90.5 | By Elizabeth McQueen and Miles Bloxson / Published December 21, 2022 at 5:01 AM ET
Releasing music is a daunting task. It can be hard to make money on recorded music, both for record labels and for artists. Sales of physical products are down. Streaming music pays, on average, half a penny per stream.
But one Austin nonprofit is re-thinking the way record labels work to make it better for everyone.
Spaceflight Records was founded by Brett Orrison, a long-time sound engineer who sometimes tours with Jack White. He had seen a lot of Austin records go nowhere because the artists didn’t have label support.
Orrison was particularly frustrated after producing a record for the Austin-based band Kalu and The Electric Joint in 2017.
“So out of angst, I guess, I said, ‘Let’s start our own label called Spaceflight Records,’” he said.
They had some success with Kalu’s album, “Time Undone,” but the for-profit record label was suffering financially. Orrison knew if he kept things as they were, the label would fail.
Then one day he was talking to Erica Shamaly, director of the City of Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division, when the idea of Spaceflight becoming a nonprofit came up.
“And the ideas just started running,” he said.
Orrison joined forces with filmmaker Sam Douglas, and Spaceflight was reborn as a nonprofit. It took them a year and a half to get official 501(c)(3) status, but the process allowed Orrison to get clear on how Spaceflight would work.
“At that time, my business plan was not what it is today. You know, it was … full of dreams and aspirations,” Orrison said.
As the IRS asked him for more information, he was able to make more concrete and realistic plans.
Most record labels pay for the manufacture, distribution and marketing of records. They then try to make back their investment in an album through sales — be those physical sales, digital sales or streams. But as a nonprofit, Spaceflight is not dependent on sales to recoup the money it invests. Instead, it gets funding from donations and grants.
Spaceflight’s model has evolved over the years, but it’s now a three-tiered approach.
On the first tier, Artist Development, the label works with musicians and bands who already have finished recordings. Spaceflight’s role is to help the artist think strategically about how their music is released; the artist pays for any physical product.
“We help them release it. We send it to radio,” Orrison said. “We do a PR campaign. We maybe shoot the music video. We do photography. We do anything and everything we can.”
Spaceflight also helps get the artist’s music on streaming services — but it doesn’t take any money from streaming revenue. It provides artists at this level with legal services. It connects them with sync licensing, to try and get their music into television and film. It connects them with merchandise at cost and mails out their products.
All of these services are free to the artist.
Spaceflight can offer this with the help of corporate partners Saving Face Austin, Ruper Neve Designs, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP, Blue Suitcase and El Famoso. In March, Spaceflight was the beneficiary of a charity concert at the Ladybird Lake stage at SXSW. It also collaborated with Wild Turkey on its 101 Bold Nights Campaign, which included an online contest, a series of concerts to benefit Spaceflight and a $75,000 donation.
Spaceflight started out as an all-volunteer-run organization. The money it’s received this year has enabled it to hire Samara Simpson as director of public relations and artist development. It was also able to establish a second tier to its approach, the Fellowship Program.
Under this program, an artist receives the same benefits as under the Artist Development Program, but Spaceflight also pays for the manufacture of CDs and vinyl.
This year Spaceflight helped Austin-based Urban Heat launch a successful pre-sale campaign for their “Wellness” EP. The money the band made from the launch allowed it to go on tour. The vinyl will be in stores next year.
“And then there’ll be a … retail promotional campaign around that that we won’t be paying for,” Urban Heat’s lead singer Jonathan Horstmann said. “There’ll be a social media campaign around that that we won’t be paying for. And then, of course, a PR campaign for that. And we’ll be getting some CDs that we’ll be able to sell, which are great merch to have on the road.”
Under its third tier, which hasn’t launched yet, Spaceflight hopes to offer bands with an established track record an equitable recording contract where they would take a small percentage of sales. That money would go toward the artist development and fellowship programs.
Spaceflight is looking for artists who are willing to put in the work.
“We do have symbiotic relationships with our artists. So we put in just as much work as they put out,” Simpson said. “So we really appreciate artists that are equally as hands-on as we are.”
To learn more about Spaceflight Records, listen to the full episode of Pause/Play by clicking on the player above.