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Interview: Manic Kat Records owner Peter James discusses label origins, staying creative during Covid-19

Peter James is a musician and founder of Manic Kat Records, which he’d establish in 2014. The Pomona, New York-based punk label focuses on closely building and fostering fledgling talent regardless of “hit” potential, an approach that still proves effective over half a decade later. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the label has launched Punk Hub Live, a live stream platform that emphasizes direct band-to-fan engagement, as well as insightful tips for making an impact in the music industry.

I caught up with Peter to discuss the origins of the label, the initial uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, and the untethered resilience that the label continues to exhibit today.

You’ve been a constant presence in both the New Jersey and New York scenes for well over a decade. Can you tell me a bit about your experience in a band, and how that transitioned into starting the label?

I’ve been in the scene for a really long time, like you’d said. My old band did the whole Warped Tour thing, signed to an indie label, and had opportunities with majors. But honestly, we found out it just wasn’t what we wanted to do. When we were on the road back in 2009, we did our longest run yet, and after a month, we decided that we could do this on our own, pool our resources together, and put out our record without being endowed to a label. We didn’t want to be under anybody’s thumb.

So, we put out the record by ourselves, it did pretty well, and then it became a thing. Our label started out just as a vanity label for the album, but then we started signing more bands to it, and turned it into something more. I think since then, we’ve come to the table with a totally different model than what a lot of labels are known for, so that’s why bands tend to gravitate toward us a little bit more.

From what I gather, your goal with Manic Kat is to closely nurture the potential of your artists, whether they’re able to necessarily write hit songs. Were there any labels from the past that you’d take inspiration from in terms of implementing this approach?

Yes and no. It’s almost like I’d used a lot of the stuff in labels from back in the day, and just did the antithesis of that. But growing up, I was in the North Jersey scene, and I was actually a big fan of Drive-Thru Records at the time. I liked certain aspects of what Richard and Stefanie Reines were doing, and I liked the sense of family within the label; we sort of brought that approach over to our end when it comes to nurturing our artists. But when it comes to the overall business model, what we’ve seen and what we needed in terms of making the label successful is what we started rolling out to the bands.

It seems that in the late 2010s and now in 2020, the idea of the hit song has somewhat faded from relevance. More focus is now on the endless pool of bands on the internet, rather than those who follow the conventional, in-person path, and given how many artists can ‘blow up’ under the right circumstance. In your own experience, which qualities do you sense from a band that influences your decision to sign them?

There’s a lot of different factors. Blowing up on the internet is great in terms of having that fan interaction, and liking, commenting, sharing, and following. But at the end of the day, it still comes down to a band’s ability to tour, to grind, and have that face-to-face interaction. You could amass a huge online presence, but the flipside to that is, when you’re out on the road, how many of those fans will actually come to your shows?

Exactly.

Yeah, so there’s a challenge with that, and it was a big issue prior to Covid. A band can be really popular online, but what kind of following are they going to have outside of that? That’s really the key.

In spring, Covid hit the world, and has essentially changed life as we know it. Prior to Covid, was business going well?

Yeah! We were actually projected to have one of our best years ever for 2020, actually. We’ve had global major label distribution without being tied to a major label, so we’re really fortunate. We’re with Lionsgate Entertainment for our physical distributor, which is one of the largest of video and audio content in the world, and they’ve been tremendously supportive with what we’re doing. With Covid, obviously, everything went sideways, but we’ve managed to hold our own. With our corporate and advertising backgrounds, we’ve developed a pivot in late March, because we knew this wasn’t going away anytime soon.

Were you initially frightened while finding the best way to implement that pivot, since you were unsure just how detrimental the virus would become?

Absolutely, 100 percent. The biggest thing is uncertainty, right? Quite frankly, no one knows what’s happening, and we don’t know the full potential yet of what’s going on, which has really crippled our industry, you know? When it comes to touring, I’ve spoken with agents, and they all have their speculation of when this would blow over, but no one really knows for sure. In our case, we knew we had to take the dive because what’s the alternative? To sit and wait?

I understand. Given that, what does a typical day of work look like for you nowadays?

We’re still working with bands and signing new talent, and we’re going to release new music within the next couple of months. If all goes well, we’re going to have a really busy fourth quarter, which is fantastic. We have this new platform that we’ve rolled out, and we’ll have a lot of other stuff tied to the platform, so we’re really excited about that!

I was just checking out Punk Hub Live through Facebook. How has the reaction been from fans so far, being that this is the first of its kind?

It had to be explained to them really well, since there isn’t anything else that offers a multiplatform, multitap streaming kind of experience. Realistically, when we first launched it, we didn’t know what to expect, but now we see there’s clearly a need. I think we’ve watched that site at the end of July, and we’ve already amassed over 14 thousand followers, who are all very active.

Do you feel that, with further implementation, this will suffice for now?

For the time being, yes. It’s definitely going to reach, and we’ll get a global audience out of this, but I know that it won’t fully supplement, because it can’t. There are no places that are open, where bands and fans would have that face-to-face contact and feel each other’s vibes. We know that this isn’t going to replace a live audience, either, but for now, this is the best we’ve got.

You’ve also started live Q&As with the label’s staff, covering the dos and don’ts when it comes to bands preparing to get signed, or starting their own record labels in general. Far too often, you see these vague lists online talking about “5 Biggest Mistakes an Independent Artist Makes,” or “5 Things You Shouldn’t Do…”, but on the flipside, how do you focus mainly on what you should do?

I can really only speak for us, and from my own insight of being in a band all these years. Lord knows I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, trust me (laughs). It’s all about learning from other artists who have had success, and not being afraid to be open about where you are with your music. At the end of the day, having good music will shine through. Put yourself out there and be very active on social media. Be as ready to go as possible independently, without relying too much on a label’s assistance.

You’ve also worked on giving back to the community, and allow fans to donate to New York hospitals like Westchester Medical Center and Mount Sinai. How did you get involved with this opportunity?

When we first rolled this thing out, being in the New York market, we got hit relatively hard. We were basically in ground zero. We’re about 45 minutes outside the city, so we were directly within the ripple of the Covid impact. For us, we have quite a few people tied to the medical community, and we saw, in a big way, how the pandemic affected everybody. We have staff who have lost parents and close relatives to the virus, so this is our giving back. We didn’t want to do a GoFundMe and be expected to funnel money back over. Instead, we’d have it so that fans can directly donate whatever they can spare to some of the bigger-area hospitals in need of PPE. At the end of the day, I’d want as much of these donations as possible to go to the essential workers on the front lines, since they’re the ones risking their lives to protect others.

With all that you’ve been through so far, do you feel like you’ve gotten stronger?

As a company, definitely. We’ve had long conversations with our bands and taught them how to pivot as well. That’s all you can do at this point because if you don’t get creative in a time like this, you’re bound to fail. For those people who are waiting for this thing to blow over, it’s just not a good idea. Lord only knows that we’re what, eight months into this whole thing? It’s not slowing down anytime soon. We really need to be creative, and we’ve done that. We’re going to be launching a couple of new products tied to the Punk Hub Live platform that we’re really excited about. One’s going to be rolled out by November, and the other, probably mid-December. It’s going to be really cool. We definitely expect a strong fourth quarter, and in some respects, this pandemic has pushed us to be creative, and to pivot, and we wouldn’t have been able to do this had it not happened. Would I trade not having the pandemic for it? Sure, 100 percent, but we’ve got to be creative as much as possible.

Overall, what have you learned, especially working with your team nowadays?

I was in the corporate world 15 years prior to doing this, and for me, I learned how to implement the good parts of the corporate world, without the corporate BS. I’ve also learned to delegate, because if I didn’t, I’d burn out. Our team is phenomenal. I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and that’s a fact. Their passion level is on par with mine, which is fantastic. We have some great ideas and concepts for 2021, which is probably when touring will be brought back, so we hope it all goes well.

It’s all about building that team. Not just one you can bounce ideas off of, but one that challenges you and genuinely wants the best for you.

Definitely. I mean, you can’t cut yourself into eight pieces. We all work well together and support each other, and at the end of the day, we love all our bands, not just as musicians, but as people too. I know each band member of every band on a personal level, and for me, that’s a big deal, because I’m personally vested in their success.

Anything else you’d like to say to the people out there?

Keep an eye on us. We have a lot of new stuff on the way – new signings, and concepts for the platform that will be rolled out at the end of the year. We appreciate you checking us out, and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without your support.

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About Jake Kussmaul

I come from a family who is passionate about all things music. I learned to sing at an early age, and by 13, had my very own Fender Strat guitar. I tried my hardest at learning all that I could. Because I was born with cerebral palsy, I had to teach myself an adaptive playing style. I learned to write and record my own music, despite these difficulties. In college, I started making great use of my writing abilities by reviewing music, as well as copy editing. I guess it's best to stick with what you know, while welcoming a fair challenge at the same time.

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