Benjii Jackson, MUZAI, Impolitikal

Q&A | Benjii Jackson on his Leeds-based record label, MUZAI

Benjii Jackson has long been active in the New Zealand music scene. Whether writing about acts, promoting their music through his label MUZAI Records or just being an all-round supportive dude, he and his crew do all they can to shine a spotlight on artists that don’t always fit the mainstream mould. Benjii and his wife moved to Leeds (UK) at the end of 2014 to step things up a notch. May is Music Month in New Zealand, so we thought it appropriate to draw attention to someone chipping away behind the scenes to make sure NZ artists get heard. Sarah sent some questions his way.

How did MUZAI get started? Who are you guys?
MUZAI started as Martin Phillips – of god bows to math fame – and myself, one evening deciding that we should form a label that was more akin to the punk mail order labels of the 80s than anything else. He had a band I was – is, still am, forever will be – into called god bows to math and I was working as a publicist in Auckland at the time, and a bit of a journalist also. Which makes answering these things seem weird to this day still – having been the person aiming the questions at people rather than receiving them.

What evolved from that turned out to be some kind of monster – we did a fair amount with the all-ages scene, worked with some really cool bands in that scene and to this day work with some really interesting artists who could be considered a bit more left of the ‘left-of-centre’. It’s really just a bunch of good people writing some really good music who, thankfully, other people genuinely like – but are perhaps not destined for that ‘mainstream’ attention. At least, not just yet.

MUZAI is every band on the label though – it’s really cool. It’s more a family now than in the past and thankfully it’s people that understand what we’re capable of, for better or for worse.

Why did you move to Leeds?
Truth be told I wanted to be nearer my family – my actual family, blood and all that jazz – and my wife wanted to leave New Zealand and see what the rest of the world is like. Originally we wanted to move to Manchester but the people in West Yorkshire are incredibly friendly, hospitable and Leeds feels a little bit like Auckland. Except the sushi here is incredibly expensive.

With Leeds also, it seems like a nice, central place to commute to the other, ‘bigger’ centres for music – Manchester is about 90 minutes away, London about three hours away, Birmingham about two hours away. There are some incredible music stores here that have been gracious enough to take our music – a massive thank you to Jumbo Records while we’re at it, who say the nicest things about our wares – the venues are really cool and yeah, the people are pretty receptive. Once I finally go out and meet some people.

How has it been going so far?
It’s been hard work. It’s not a case of turning up and telling everyone “hey, I run a record label that is semi-successful in New Zealand – you should pay attention to us”. Not that I was ever naive enough to believe that would be the case. The most important thing for us was getting our feet on the ground, getting steady employment and getting our own house. After more than half a year Maeve and I have finally done that and financially we can afford to live and do things. So now comes the fun part: dedicating the time and effort originally spent looking to set up a home for ourselves to pushing the record label.

And it starts with Leeds and West Yorkshire. World domination in the space of a year is ridiculous. I always said to people it would take me a year to do anything once I came over here; it’s almost taking what we did in Auckland and using elements of that to create some noise in Leeds. Then you would hope that once you’ve got a good grounding in one area, you can look to expand. Trouble is there is a LOT more competition out here for media placement and the like. You’re up against so many more people vying for the likes of being included on the pages of NME or on the likes of Drowned in Sound or This Is Fake DIY – so it’s trying to cut through and get the music heard without the hyperbole that is sometimes involved. We’ve punched above our weight once or twice admittedly, but I know it’s a long game rather than something instantaneous. I’d rather the long game than something sudden though – it means there is, hopefully a sustainability involved and you have a brand loyalty rather than something procured from mere hype.

I’ve had it suggested a number of times, “get a radio plugger”. I don’t know if I’d want to do that. Would someone external share the same passion talking to a radio producer or a journalist about the bands as much as myself? Someone’s being paid to do that – I’m not. Well, not much. Ha!

But I appreciate the idea behind that – it’s not what you know but who you know. I just need to get out there and network, which has been an Achilles’ heel for a long time. I’m pretty lackadaisical with the schmooze and prefer to talk to musicians than industry types. Thankfully the industry types I am friends with at the moment have previously been musicians, so I’m not a complete hypocrite.

Who are some of the artists you work with? Are you looking to work with international artists now you’re living outside NZ?
I forget how many people we work with sometimes. Officially signed to MUZAI? 12 – one of which being a UK deal with two really, really cool people called She’s So Rad – though I’ve been known to give advice and discuss ideas with a bunch of other bands or music types. I think perhaps one of my problems is offering out that advice or help that someone else could charge for. But for me, knowledge and advice is a currency – learning from previous experiences from other people is invaluable. As is learning by your mistakes. I lose track of just how many people I am helping at times. I’ve scaled it down a great deal now.

I think it also makes sense to work with one or two Europe-based artists. It localises the work you’re doing. You could find a musician based in Leeds or Wakefield or even Manchester, which allows you to then push something with a local interest to that area, with the long tail theory in terms of exposure being that someone checks out what else is happening with this label a local band is on and realises there is a gamut of fantastic musicians on it – not just the local act.

We’ve kind of started working with Europe-based artists – Craig Elliot is the first UK signing that we’ve made. Albeit, he’s originally from New Zealand, but I’m always interested in hearing demos and stuff from bands out here in the UK. Even if it turns out we’re not going to work together, I feast on new music and always like to meet new people.

So, Dear UK… give me your unsigned music.

I should really go out more. There’s a fantastic Leeds-based band called Commiserations who are absolutely fantastic. I mean, it was one of the first live bands I came across and it blew me away; that was the stuff we were championing back in New Zealand. Young Attenborough and Thee Goldblooms are two other artists I’ve been digging.

What was your experience of running an independent label in NZ?
Ah… ok, we’re going into that territory now it’s been brought up!

There are few downsides to be honest with you. I was blessed with an interest in what we were doing since we started – you know, the ‘underground’ kind of aspect people talk about. By that, people that we’d go to gigs with, we’d see at gigs a lot… they took an interest. When we started doing the all-ages thing with bands like BandicootFATANGRYMAN and Nice Birds, suddenly there was more interest.

We were doing something that, in all fairness is nothing new. Putting on shows for a crowd that couldn’t get into venues because of drinking laws. We were supporting young artists and their creativity, and there is always a genuine interest in that. It’s, in PR terms, a human interest story – young kids play music and open an international music festival. But the thing with Bandicoot, for example – we didn’t know how big that was going to be. That just fucking exploded. We knew they were good – I really, really, really loved working with Reuben, Pearl and Daniel, but I don’t think many of us expected how popular they were going to become. There are two bands on the history of the label that, if they didn’t exist, MUZAI wouldn’t exist. Bandicoot are one, god bows to math are the other.

But as much as there is an interest in what we do, it sometimes feels like we’re all living in someone else’s shadow: Flying Nun. It’s only natural that there are going to be comparisons, I mean Flying Nun is an institution as much as the Dunedin Sound is a very important moment in New Zealand musical history – but it sometimes can be very frustrating. I’ve been ‘quoted’ saying some things about Flying Nun when it first came back and came off as somewhat iconoclastic. The guys running it now are amazingly supportive of MUZAI, so I can’t blame them at all for it. Perhaps it’s just an easy comparison to make if you grew up and that was your most definitive memory of getting into alternative music, like how someone heard Nirvana for the first time and thereon-in fell down the rabbit hole of alternative rock.

In any walk of life you are going to get detractors – there are bands that have previously talked other bands out of working with the label because I cannot offer them something they can’t do themselves or some shit like that. It used to eat me up inside but I really could not give a shit about that anymore. I’m happy with what I do with the bands and what I can offer, but like I said, that can happen in any walk of life.

Getting called a waste of time and money, however, is a different story altogether.

New Zealand is pretty unique in the level of support offered to local artists by NZ On Air. What are your thoughts on the funding? Does it get to artists who need it most?
I would be an absolute hypocrite if I was to complain about NZ On Air funding to you, because in all honesty we’ve benefitted. We’ve had a few bands on the label garner funding, and truth be told I’ve had chats with NZ On Air also who – despite not granting us funding at times – have been generally positive about placement and plugging in New Zealand.

Of course there is going to be a gripe about who gets funding and who doesn’t, but admittedly it is a case of returns and protecting investment. When I was younger, full of piss and vinegar I’d complain about some of my bands not getting funding. You get older though and you appreciate it for what it’s worth. So you’re right, it is incredibly unique that there is a funding entity solely for music in New Zealand.

It’s a far cry from what it used to be – the same ‘bigger’ bands getting funding but their returns in terms of album sales reflecting incredibly poorly. It may be a case where it’s, for the most part a more mainstream group that gets the funding but there are still moments where an up-and-coming artist receives that all-important injection to help further their career, regardless of what music genre they represent.

Is there support for independent labels?
I think there is – it’s a lot easier for artists or independent labels to get some form of attention than, say 20 years ago. Things like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Mailchimp and the blogosphere exist to help good musicians get their music heard by people. By the right people, however, is the trouble. The internet at times can be a massive echo chamber. Jamie Lenman, who was in the absolutely incredible band Reuben and now doing amazing things in his own right – brought up an interesting point in an interview once talking about how people were upset about Reuben splitting up. But where were all these people, upset about the band finishing up when they were actually a band? He described it as being akin to an echo chamber – there is sometimes all this noise, but in essence it’s just a handful of people that are causing the noise.

It’s the same also when it comes to music and the internet. Sure – you’ve appeared on Pitchfork or NME’s Radar section and you’ve generated a massive groundswell of support. But will that translate into people coming to your show? Will that translate into people buying the album? It’s sometimes hard to say. It’s great exposure, don’t get me wrong – but sometimes that hype can come off as a half-truth, and can vanish as quickly as it appeared.

The entities out there to help independent labels are also pretty cool – AIM here in the UK are pretty helpful and have an incredible resource that allows independent artists and labels to draw from. I’m not sure of the status of IMNZ anymore as I don’t have much correspondence with them. It’s ultimately the support of the general public that is what an independent label requires – all the reviews, the radio play, the industry networking and festivals, the plugging and kudos for running a label mean absolutely nothing unless people are buying your music. The audiences are the livelihood of this business. So as long as we’ve got their support we’re going to be doing fine.

 

Benjii Jackson heads MUZAI Records, the little indie that does. Find them at Muzairecords.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.