Here at Get In Her Ears, we’ve been committed to promoting female identifying and non binary bands and artists for a while now, so we thought it was about time we also focus on those amazing womxn working hard behind the scenes in the industry!
Following our feature with Alex and Phoebe from Southbank Centre , and with Kate and Frankie from PR company Stereo Sanctity, in the third in our ‘Behind The Scenes’ series, Mari had a chat with Sarah Lay from record label Reckless Yes. She’s works ethically with all the artists on their incredible roster, helping them to release and distribute their music, and so much more! So many of our favourite bands and artists are on Reckless Yes, and we’ve loved working with Sarah for a while now!
Find out about all the hard work she does, and her experience as a woman working in the music industry, below…
Hi Sarah, welcome to Get In Her Ears! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how it all started at Reckless Yes?
I’m co-founder and head of creative at independent record label Reckless Yes, a music journalist (sometimes for Get In Her Ears among other publications), a former editor, a music PR, author, and a digital content strategist. I’ve been writing about music since I was a teenager and I think I was about 16 when I first said I wanted to run a record label. I loved not only discovering new bands but supporting them to get where they wanted to go, helping them work the business side so they could be creative. I did little bits of music management here and there over the years as well as putting on shows and having a whole separate career doing digital stuff, mainly in the public sector, but the timing wasn’t right until more recently to become a record label.
Reckless Yes is in its fourth year now and is a label which works ethically with artists, making sure they are paid and treated fairly, supported by a membership as well as music fans, and generally here to disrupt the industry. My co-founder Pete Darrington was a professional musician, and while we’re both from the same small city and knocked around the same scene for twenty years. The first time we really chatted was when he wrote an article for the publication I was editor at (Louder Than War) in late 2015. We quite quickly decided we were going to put on some shows together – with a bit of a difference – and that grew within a few months to becoming a record label.
It was a bit of a surprise when it happened. We’d talked about maybe doing it one day somewhere in the future, but it ended up happening much sooner than we thought. Reckless Yes is an attitude as much as a name – so when opportunities arrive which feel outside of your comfort zone, that’s when you say a ‘reckless yes’ and see where the adventure takes you. We did just that to starting up as a label. When we knew we were going to be putting out records there were a few bands I definitely wanted to chat to about working with. LIINES were at the top of the list. I’d been covering them for a while at Louder Than War and loved their sound and what they were about. We saw them play a tiny show in Sheffield in March 2016 and they joined us shortly afterwards alongside a raft of others.
We’ve put out more than fifty releases since then and have had about twenty five bands through our doors. Our roster is like a family, definitely a community, so it’s amazing that so many bands have chosen to stay with us and see the benefit of being part of what we do. We’ve also done other stuff around releasing music; we’ve published books, put on shows, and managed bands including LIINES. We’re really starting to get into our stride as a label now with a membership supporting us and our releases reaching bigger audiences meaning brilliant opportunities open up for the bands.
It’s really important to us both that we aren’t exploiting the artists – they’re the only reason we exist after all – and are working on how the label can be a force for social good as well as a way to release and promote music. We have some really exciting things coming up for us and our roster over the next twelve months.
Can you explain a little about what your job as a record label entails?
Overall as a label we’re here to support artists to release their music, find people who love it, and achieve whatever they deem is success. At a practical level it’s about manufacturing and distributing music, promoting it, and opening up opportunities for artists. As artists can do all of that directly for themselves we believe the value of a label is giving access to the bits which are harder to do DIY or take longer to build, help artists scale so the business of being a band doesn’t diminish the creativity needed. For music fans and our members we’re here to be a trusted source of curation. Reckless Yes is also here to challenge the bits of the industry which serve themselves before artists or fans, and to find ways to make new technologies work to the benefit of creators.
We’re a really small team so my individual role within it is broad. It roughly separates into me looking after everything on the promotion and marketing side, including looking after our members, while Pete looks after the production side. We take a shared approach to A&R and make decisions about the roster together. We’re just starting to take on more team members to help us now everything is growing.
My day-to-day can be quite varied: everything from strategic planning and financing for the label as a business, through to coming up with and delivering the PR and digital marketing, as well as looking after the membership community we’re growing, keeping the roster up to date with what’s happening beyond their own releases, looking after and developing the brand and our divisions, and trying to keep on top of the accounting. We’re very hands on and still true to our DIY roots so I also do all the mailing out of orders – I can be down the village Post Office one day, and negotiating a partnership with a supplier for something to happen on the other side of the world the next!
What’s your favourite part of your job?
Without a doubt it’s working with the artists and other creatives, and being part of the community we’ve built. It’s absolutely a privilege to support such fantastic musicians who are also wonderful people to know. I learn so much from them all and it’s an honour when someone trusts you with the art they’ve made. I love finding ways to get it to people who might fall in love with it, for who it might become their favourite song or the band that gets them through something – it’s magic and different every time. And I love working out with Pete how we keep Reckless Yes growing into a label which disrupts the industry but stays committed to working ethically, and lives our social and environmental values. We don’t want to be just another record label, or in this purely for our own personal gain. We don’t just want to say stuff is important but not follow up with action, or have ideas which don’t get implemented.
I guess it all boils down to my favourite part being connection, having the opportunity to turn possibilities into reality, and using my skills and experience to build something of value.
And do you have a least favourite part…?
On a personal level, not really! There are definitely worse ways I could be spending my time or jobs to have.
Anytime the respect turns out not to be mutual – while thankfully rare – is pretty horrible to work through. Right now there’s little personal financial reward (we put back into the label) so when someone is shitty, dismissive of the effort taken, or money-grabbing, that’s a real kicker and hard not to take personally. More generally it’s frustrating when an artist doesn’t reach as big an audience as we believe they should – not because they aren’t amazing or we haven’t put the effort in but because mainstream music is set up for such a narrow sound and type of artist.
And it’s disheartening to see so many artists getting a bad deal and being undermined by an industry which relies on them. That might be on a wide scale, like streaming payments or live fees, or down to there being plenty of people around whose enthusiasm and skill starts and ends with taking the money. There are artists who are unscrupulous too and while they’re unlikely to have the reach to screw someone like Spotify over or even be someone we’d work with, it’s disappointing to see people with poor values or actions continue to get coverage and support.
The industry will only change if individuals stand up against what’s wrong, so my least favourite part is seeing people turn away from the hard conversations, or the tricky work, and the status quo be maintained through inaction.
Reckless Yes is home to some of our favourite bands and artists (including Bugeye, Captain Handsome, Eilis Frawley, Grawl!x LIINES and more!), How do you normally go about choosing who to work with? Do you get in touch with them, or would they normally approach you?
We’re glad to hear you love so many of our bands – we do too! Our roster is more like a family than a business, and the records we’ve put out (or are working on now) are genuinely among our personal favourites. We’ve only signed a couple of artists after an approach to us, and the rest were artists we were aware of already and wanted to work with. A lot of those we discovered through my work as a music journalist, or through other bands nudging us toward them.
We also love blogs like Get In Her Ears, for championing new music and introducing us to lots of ace artists and tracks. That DIY network is so important to bringing the right people together at the right time. Eilis Frawley found us through recommendations after asking on the Loud Women Facebook Group, Turkish Delight were recommended to us by a Boston label and blog Iheartnoise who just thought we’d love them based on what we were playing on our old radio show. We really value recommendations like that.
We definitely tend to be more proactive than reactive in building our roster though. Pete was given some advice when he was a musician which has really stuck with us and been born out by our experience as a label: if you’re sending out demos you probably aren’t ready for a record deal. We’ve found this to be pretty true, especially when there is so much artists can do for themselves without a label these days. So, even with artists who’ve contacted us and we’ve ended up working with then we’ve been aware of their music beforehand as they’re out there doing things for themselves and are looking for a partner to help them grow, not a company to do it all the work while they reap the rewards. They’ve also looked at Reckless Yes and our roster and can see why they are a fit, and say something about why what we do appeals to them – we don’t ever want to be contacted as part of a blanket email to as many labels as they could find contact details for.
We aren’t just looking for amazing music when we consider an artist – although this is a key factor! – but also their approach. Artists who are building something and making opportunities for themselves, and then are also a match with us in values. We only work with artists who hit all three of those markers.
It is also noticeable that a great percentage of the artists on your roster are female-identifying/non binary, which obviously we’re super pleased about! Is this a conscious decision on your part, or does it simply work out that way by chance?
A bit of both. We’re committed to supporting under-represented artists, and we both find that the most interesting music around right now is coming from non-male musicians. More than half of our current roster identify as female or non-binary. And it’s not been hard to build our really amazing roster at all so we know that when something like festival line-ups continue to be male-dominated, the issue isn’t non-male artists being too hard to find, it’s either laziness or sexism on the part of the promoter.
We’re also committed to making our roster a safe-space so we’d hope that those who identify as something other than white cis males feel we make a good home for them (and that the white cis males who are on our roster or who work with us also feel at home, but know it’s part of their role to be an ally to others). We want to hear and support individuals’ experiences as well as release and promote their music.
The roster could still be more diverse – in sound and in the artists making the music – and this is something we’re working toward and are completely open and welcoming to hearing how we can do better.
How have you found being a womxn in the music industry? Are there any obstacles you’ve come across because of your gender?
I think my experience may be fairly typical for womxn in the music industry. We’ve found some people wrongly assume the power dynamic at Reckless Yes based on our genders. Some go right ahead and assume Pete is fully in charge and making the decisions, while I’m just here to do the admin and laugh in the right places to flatter egos. They address everything to him, and I become somewhat invisible (and that seems to only be getting worse now I’m over 40). It’s not an assumption we tolerate well and it’s something we both work together to challenge back on.
As a music journalist I’ve faced the assumption I’m writing about male musicians because I want to fuck them, or that I can’t write about music with as much authority or knowledge as a man. I’ve had personal abuse over working as a journalist – way beyond disagreements with a viewpoint in a piece I’ve written, and that saying “even the least qualified man is a better choice than the most qualified women” has definitely rung true at times. Thankfully not often and it is a view less openly tolerated than it used to be.
The female experience of being a music fan is also often dismissed or diminished and a lot of men working in the industry seem oblivious to the hidden gender obstacles, or how patriarchal structures are bad for us all.
On a different level to that entirely – the #metoo movement was very personal. I’ve not spoken openly about my own experiences, but like so many others I’ve had them and the movement is vital. I was long overdue facing things which I’d experienced while working in the music industry when the movement came along and it was comforting and distressing at the same time to know I wasn’t alone. At Reckless Yes we’ll always support survivors of abuse.
A lot of gender obstacles are quite subtle, so hard to challenge on while deeply felt. Sometimes it is proactive and hateful, but more often it is casual or ingrained. It’s not always on the scale of assault or abuse, but overtime those smaller obstacles and dismissals do add up. I find it pretty tiring to need to justify my place and my value because of my gender, before I can get to doing the job I’m here to do or sharing what I love, but I also recognise I have a level of privilege as a white cis woman. There’s perspective in understanding that.
And it isn’t all struggle. I’ve found huge reassurance and support from other womxn in the industry, not just through shared experience but in supporting each other. She Said So, Loud Women, Get In Her Ears, the whole Reckless Yes roster, and individuals like Wendy Smith at Music Industry Speakers, author Jennifer Otter-Bikerdike, artist Catherine Anne-Davies… all these networks, connections, and mutual supporters are so hugely important generally and have been vital to me personally in learning how to navigate work, have the confidence to challenge back and be seen, and see other womxn out there being successful in the industry. It’s really important womxn raise others up and celebrate each success – we’re not in competition with each other after all – and make ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ irrelevant through being visible in what we do.
Male allies too are important and can really help to make the change happen – I wouldn’t work with Pete if he wasn’t willing to give and share credit, to stand aside so I can come forward, speak out when he sees something wrong, and be open to learning how to be an even better ally. We’re both learning how to do better, be more supportive and take positive actions, all the time.
Experiences in the industry come down to individuals and we need the supporting networks, the allies, and the challenge, if things are to change and get better for all of us.
And what advice would you give to other female-identifying people wanting to get work in music management?
You are vital to the future of the music industry so don’t be afraid or not have the confidence to get involved, join or start discussions, and find ways to implement your ideas. Be brave and reach out to the networks that exist to support you and give back what you get from them. Find someone you can be inspired by – even better if you can connect with them and get their advice. Don’t feel you’re in competition with other womxn, or with anyone but yourself really.Don’t feel you have to ‘be’ a certain way to do what you want to. I’m a 40-year-old socially anxious mum of two living in Derbyshire running another business as well as a record label so probably as far away from any stereotype of a music industry professional as you can get. None of that defines me or is going to stop me from doing the work which I want to, or seeing the value in what I bring to the label and our community of artists.
And look after yourself. Self-care is a radical act in these times; such a necessary one, yet the easiest to pop to the bottom of the to do list. I learnt the hard-way by burning out and I really don’t recommend it.
Reckless Yes have also recently pledged to ‘Save The Planet’ and to be more environmentally friendly in all they do – can you tell us more about this?
We’re fully behind the Music Declares assertion that there is “no music on a dead planet” and are doing what we can to educate ourselves about the impact making and distributing music has. We’re moving toward better, greener, choices in what we do. Whether that is for for packaging – both the artistic and mailing kinds – the vinyl we press, reducing single-use plastics as much as we can (shrink-wrapping needs to go!), and looking at our distribution to try and cut down on air freight.
We’re also supporting our artists to make sustainable choices around merch and touring, and pointing our followers and members at information about being a greener music listener. We try and find partners and suppliers who are as committed to our values as us. Our pressing partner DMS have been great as they’re already doing work to source green and sustainable options and it’s been ace to provide a joint membership with Last Night From Glasgow, a not-for-profit label with an amazing roster and an intention to disrupt the industry.
There’s individual choices we can make too – for me that’s about being more mindful of the impact what I eat has on the environment, or how green my travel choices are, and making the Reckless Yes home office as green as I can. I’m learning all the time – Reckless Yes alumni Nash, of the band Mower, now has a great blog about all this stuff which I learn a lot from.
We also give back from the label profits – each month we’re giving to tree planting charities or other good causes. That’s an example really of how our environmental commitments sit side by side with our social ones (you can find them here: http://recklessyes.com/about/social-environmental-commitments/), and our ethical approach to working with artists. We believe in collaboration not competition, looking after each other’s wellbeing, and that a record label can be a force for social good and so much more than a commercial enterprise. We’d love to see more labels and music organisations taking this approach and not just disrupting for their own ends.
Reckless Yes probably can’t save the planet single-handedly and so much of the future of the planet is in the control of a few big corporations but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our bit, and find the right way rather than the just the easy way, to be a label.
Finally, as we’re a new music website, are there any other upcoming bands or artists that you’re loving at the moment and would recommend we check out?
Of course I’m going to recommend checking out the artists on our roster – our next releases are from Grawl!x, GodNo!, Bugeye, and Fightmilk. Later in the year we’ve an amazing record from Order of the Toad people need to check out, plus new music from Chorusgirl and Eilis Frawley already confirmed – pretty sure there’ll be other stuff to announce too.
Away from Reckless Yes I’ve been loving Jemma Freeman and The Cosmic Something, Sink Ya Teeth, Breakup Haircut, Charmpit, Slime City, and of course Dream Nails. I’ve started keeping a playlist of new music as there’s so much good stuff around at the moment – Gold Baby, Jeerleader, HANYA!. I’m a sucker for that bubblegum pop punk sound, so anything from Upset is a winner. I also love seeing what bands come from First Timers Fest each year. We signed Panic Pocket after they began there and we love everything about that festival from the ethos to the music which comes from it.
I think most of the artists I love Get In Her Ears are already supporting – I’d love to hear more recommendations and particularly love to hear about artists outside of the UK who are doing something different. Guitar bands are great and my love for them is going nowhere but music is so much wider than that sound – if anyone wants to send me links to good stuff on social media, I am open to that!
Anything else you’d like to mention?
We’ve opened our doors to a membership for the first time this year – as a way to help people discover new bands, save themselves some money in doing so, but still support independent artists. It’s an all round win – all our 2020 releases plus discounts and other bits. You can even do a joint membership with Last Night From Glasgow and get all their releases too. At the moment our membership is mainly men, so I’d love to see more women get involved, or have a chat about how they prefer to listen and buy music as I’m really keen we’re representative not only in our roster, but for music listeners too.
More about the membership here: http://recklessyes.com/become-reckless-yes-member/
Massive thanks to Sarah for answering our questions!
Photo Credit: I C Things Photography