Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

By Brooke Parciak

With the major label system crumbling in front of our eyes and more and more indie labels capturing at least a piece of the music industry pie, the idea of DIY – doing it yourself, and starting your own record label – is enjoying a vogue it hasn’t enjoyed since the heyday of the college-rock Eighties. Mint 400 has long been one of our favorite Jersey labels, growing along with the rise of the Internet to release a consistent string of quality local bands, as well as the music of the label’s founder, Neil Sabatino of the band Fairmont. In this interview with college journalist Brooke Parciak, Neil talks about what it takes to run an indie label, and some of the lessons he’s learned along the way.

Q: How early in life did you have the sense that you wanted to be involved in music or entertainment?

When I was a kid I knew I liked music and I would make up original songs on a little Casio keyboard I had probably from the age of seven. I was also forced to take piano lessons and had no interest in playing traditional music, reading music and playing standards. I remember touching a guitar when I was about 10 and couldn’t figure out how to make a musical note come out of it. In about eighth grade I remember this kid in my grade was in a rock band and they covered Sweet Child O’Mine at a talent show and I just thought because I hadn’t already learned an instrument and started a band that I was just too old to pursue it. The same kid years later offered to teach me bass if I bought one when I was seventeen and I decided to give it a shot. I had the bass for a week and somehow had transposed everything I knew on keyboard to bass and was writing songs. I talked a friend of mine into playing drums and from then on I have always been in a band for 20 years now.

Q: What inspired you?

I went to art school and always viewed my band and record label as art. I have a vision for both and try to sculpt both to fit that vision. I have been inspired by everything from filmmakers to musicians to painters. I like the term Auteur, I feel like certain artists, for instance in film, Wes Anderson with each film sculpts out a world view that is unique to his vision and the viewer dwells in that world for the duration of his film. With each film he refines that universe that his characters are in. Tarrantino does the same thing. It’s also like Picasso moving into his blue period and making a major shift in his artwork and then moving out of that and into cubism. Also like Johnny Cash going from squeaky clean country songs to more grittiness. All of these artists worked for years and years to create their niche and I have tried to do the same thing with my band and label. I am also only looking for true artists to add to the labels roster. I look for bands or songwriters that are prolific and trying to become their vision. I have been as inspired by everyone from John Coltrane to Stanley Kubrick. So in short I am inspired mostly by artists with vision.

Neil performing with Fairmont

Q: Did you have any role models in terms of label?

In terms of label and a record label there were a few things that were catalysts for it. The digital age of music was a big help and in that regard because there were no other digital record labels that I had heard of I had no other role models to follow. As far as aesthetic, there was a label in the 1960’s called Command Records started in Harrison, New Jersey by Enoch Light. Enoch Light was a very famous producer and bandleader of his own orchestra the Light Brigade. His record label was one of the first to experiment with stereo sound. As well every album cover for all of his initial releases were created by world-renowned artist Josef Albers. Every record on Command Records had it’s own unique lounge-y jazz stereo sound and had a unique look to all of their product. You can spot a record that was released on Command from a mile away at a garage sale or record shop because of it’s unique look and the same was true about the listening experience. The records all had a unique sound to them. Part of this was because Enoch Light appeared as the producer on many of the releases but as well he signed artists that had a similarity to him. Some things on the label were a stretch but somehow fit with the whole feel of the label. The label attempted many genre’s from lounge to cha cha to country to folk and in the short amount of time they were in existence they never strayed from their vision. With my label I try to let the artists do their own thing but also have a certain aesthetic that I try to keep everything within. Of course when I am producing things and creating the artwork they all fall square in the middle of that aesthetic but I am open to things that fall to the left and the right of it. However I know right away even if something might make me a few bucks if it’s not within my vision I just have to pass on it. Keeping strictly to these guidelines is the only reason that this label that is run out of my house has gained attention nationally and has led to things like a licensing deal and press on a regular basis.

Q: Why did you want to start your own label?

Originally my band Fairmont was releasing it’s 4th full length record and we had spent 5 years on small indie labels and never were satisfied with their efforts. I had also been on larger indie labels and had seen the negative side of the label in full effect. By this point I was hiring the producer, hiring the PR firm, hiring the ad company and basically doing everything for our releases. Our label would hand us money like a bank and we just had to pay it back and then after that it was a 50/50 split. If you’re not touring full time and by that I mean over 150 shows a year, then this deal sucks. We basically sold CD’s for the 100 shows a year we played and all that money went right to the label. So we were out the money we had spent on PR, studio time and advertising and all of our money paid back what we spent on CD pressings and the rest went to gas and hotels. We would take about a year to pay the label back then we would be ready to do our next record and the whole cycle would start again and we never recouped what the band had to put out. As I said we were on our 4th full length record and we also had a handful of EP’s out and our manager at the time let us use her semi-fake label’s name for our new record but in actuality she was getting no money, we were running the show and doing everything. It was at that time we also were able to get digital distribution and switch every Fairmont release to this new entity. At that time I was called crazy for trying to start my own label and was told by a few people it was too much work and money. One of those people was our own manager, we parted ways and I started Mint 400 Records in order to have a label to digitally distribute our records. As I got talking to our digital distributor they basically said that Fairmont had enough records and EP’s to sign up for digital distribution as a label and not just as a band. We released our entire catalogue and then inquired about helping other bands release records through our Mint 400 digital distribution account. The answer was yes and now seven years later we have over 45 releases.

Q: What jobs helped you build the experience necessary to start your label?

Although I have always hated it I was forced to be a salesman when I was younger and feel it really did help with some of the basic skills you need to run a record label. I sold ad-space for a newspaper and was even a telemarketer. Things like that in later years helped me to sell ad-space when I was running my own art zine and was able to get enough ads to fund three issues. This in turn down the road helped me to be able to basically sell the label and bands to different websites and publications for press coverage and things like that. It also is what led to the labels licensing deal and other various dealings. Art school is what prepared me for the creative part of the job and it helped me in a sense to become a jack of all trades which is now used to help bands on the label. I really hustled after college to find work and basically learned all about graphic design, video editing, film editing & directing, web design, music production, etc. All of these skills that I learned at various jobs allow me to take on artists with the label that have no budget and help them create a web page, CD design, produce an album, produce a video, etc. Currently I work in special education and I feel like even now just working with students who have significant issues and trying to figure out creative ways to help them learn has helped me to look at problems and solutions in whole new ways. Also working with high school age students I feel keeps me in the loop with what music is out there that I wouldn’t necessarily have known about. For instance I have a few students who are into all kinds of metal, death core, screamo, etc. and I noticed similarities in what I do and what these metal labels do. They have vision just the same as me, bands that share common influence as well as an aesthetic. Although cliché, it gives their fan base something they can be engulfed in, an instant familiarity with new bands because they have a similar feel to everything else on the label. A really big reason I feel my record label might actually succeed and where others fail is that this is not my livelihood. I have a full time paying job and have been developing the label over the course of a decade and am able to take artistic risks and not worry about making my mortgage payment. If from the start I was depending on this to pay my bills unfortunately I would have starved to death and been divorced. I feel like bad artistic choices are made by people looking for a paycheck. If this label had to pay my bills I would have signed a lot of bands that were popular for a short span and made me money but were awful musicians and did not fit the labels vision. It is only by trying to keep the label “pure” that I feel it’s any good. I believe in the label and believe that in time by keeping a certain code of ethics that this label will be very special and different from anything out there and that even though there are ways to make a quicker buck, that is not what I am after. I was told the first day of art school that if I wanted to be a real artist I should be prepared to die poor.

Q: What were your biggest concerns when you were just starting out?

My biggest concerns came when I began releasing other bands albums. Now my decisions didn’t just impact me they were impacting these other bands that I loved and I was worried if a release just kind of flopped that I would be responsible for these bands fighting and maybe breaking up. I had to be willing once I started a label to fight as hard for other bands to get press and different things as hard as I would fight for my own band. I had been part of the indie world for a long time and had witnessed companies that had lost over a hundred thousand on a band and not broke a sweat and I saw that because I had released so many records I knew better then them what sold records. I had seen that bands with $40,000 videos sold only 100 records and knew that I had to avoid wasting money at all costs. One of these ways was that basically I could offer them the whole package from beginning to end without the bands or myself spending almost any money, from album production to cover & web design. Luckily I started the label with the idea of being a digital label between 2007 and 2009 right when compact discs were majorly declining and becoming a thing of the past. I was concerned that I did not really offer a physical product and that remains a worry but through other sources such as licensing is where our artists could see money instead of back in the day where traditionally they would make money from album sales.

Q: Did you have a formal label plan?

The record label’s label plan started out simple, don’t lose money and don’t make the band lose money. In the world of indie records I had been part of projects that went on to make over $500,000 and the bands initial budget was $1500. That was a fluke and it usually doesn’t work that way, but we got lucky. As I got rolling with my band Fairmont we had over the course of seven years increased our annual album budget from $1200 a record to $12,000. For struggling bands that plan on making the same mistakes I did, I suggest getting a credit card with a good APR. The funny thing is that as the decade progressed we saw less physical sales and almost made more money at the very beginning. A typical record consists of hiring a publicist, running an ad campaign, radio campaign, making a video, producing/mixing/mastering your record and then making a physical product and getting it distributed. With every release we hired a bigger better publicist and tried to buy more ads and do a higher quality video. In the end we ended up mostly breaking even, we got bigger as a band but spent so much money getting there that there was no monetary reward. It wasn’t until we researched dates of sales spikes and correlated it with what services were in place during those times. For us the ads were getting us nowhere, the publicity was ok but basically if you got five good quotes from notable publications you didn’t need to hire an expensive publicist. Videos could be clever and do their job without costing a mint. We found with the label that radio was one key for sales spikes and so was album quality. That was where our focus needed to lie, we wanted quality records and we got them out to radio. We also shopped around forever before finding the best deals on all of the other necessary expenses. By reducing fees such as mastering from $800-$1200 down to $200 or less through an experienced local studio we were able to save significantly. We also were able to work out retainer deals with certain companies like our radio promotion company and in the long run it ended up costing us significantly less for one of the most important aspects of releasing our records. After our peak spending in 2005 when we spent $12,000 on one record we were able over the years to reduce that to under $500 with better results. This is something that however took time because in 2007 when I started the label I was not able to produce and engineer a record fully, it took years of sitting with other producers and learning. However everyday we are learning where our money gets the most bang for the buck. Hence, not losing money and not making the band lose money has always been the label plan.

Q: How did your location or geographic region impact your label?

Being in the northeast and near New York City benefitted the label in the early years when label showcases in bigger cities helped us to build awareness and even now we try to do at least one big showcase a year with all of our local bands. A majority of our bands are in the northeast and that does help them to all network with each other for tours and show trades and things like that. It does make it easier when a band is local that we are working with because services like recording, art design, etc. are easier to do face to face. Like currently one of our bands is older guys all with day jobs who are recording their record in pieces and if they weren’t local it would be impossible. As far as our online presence we could be located in a barn in the middle of nowhere and as long as you have wi-fi you would have access to us. So region affects the product being made but doesn’t affect it’s distribution at all.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome while starting your label?

One of the biggest obstacles was trying to sign bands and have them not jump ship if they got a better offer. By better offer usually it meant someone offered to make them a physical record but they didn’t offer anything else that I offered. So bands would get their nice new shiny CD’s or vinyl and they’d sit on the 900 copies they had left after their friends and families bought it and that other label would be done because there was nothing else they could do but say “give it to a record shop on consignment”. For a small number of artists who are insistent I was able to get a physical distribution deal and they pressed their own album but I have seen every artist who has made physical albums not be able to move many at all because they are not full time touring bands. That is not what the label is about and I could care less if a band plays arenas or just in their own bedroom, I am concerned with musical talent and songwriting and that may make the label look bad to some artists who are looking to sign. You win some and you lose some as far as artists who are willing to sign with you. However I have always left the door wide open because there have been artists who say no and then have changed their mind. Also I try to make the label what the artist needs, I have very few stipulations and the little artist agreement I have with every band is very much in the artists favor. It does become hard when you find that artist you kind of make into your star attraction and they just kind of fall off the face of the Earth. It has happened a few times and I still bug them from time to time to just write music and send me a song but I guess when you hit your mid 30’s you kind of realize the music industry is an awful shallow place, things become less fun and you kind of just part ways because of the bad taste it left in your mouth. Hopefully when the mood strikes them and they find their passion for it again they will give me a call and release a record. It does become heartbreaking for any artist to go unnoticed.

Q: Do you feel as if there was a break through moment when you knew your label would work?

We started to see things like my band charting with CMJ and other bands on the label getting invites to SXSW & CMJ and it was at that point that I kind of felt like I had made good choices on the bands I decided to sign. I also am very happy when I really like a small band and pursue them and they go on to be very big. It makes me feel like my intuition about signing bands is right on. It’s happened a few times. Recently we were told that Fairmont is being considered for a Game Of Thrones commercial and it feels good to know that music directors are starting to pick up on the label.

Q: What are your core beliefs and how do you keep them?

My core belief with the label is that I will not sign shit. I don’t care if some huge band like LMFAO or Justin Beiber asked me to release their next record, I think it’s awful, I barely call it music and it would undermine what I tried to spend the last five years building. If I stray from my main objective to release quality music that exhibits certain aesthetics then it just wouldn’t be fun for me to do this anymore. What is money if you aren’t proud of the company you built.

Q: Do you ever find your creative brain at odds with your label brain?

Not really, as stated before I don’t depend on the label to pay my bills and I am building towards something slowly and I won’t get there if I go for the quick buck and sign a terrible band.

Q: How has your label changed from your initial vision?

I never thought I would be able to find so many talented bands that I actually wanted to work with. I was shocked when I talked to some of them and found out they had no other labels interested at all. I originally thought the label might end up being only three or four bands and maybe two releases a year and it has exceeded that greatly.

Q: How has the economy affected your label?

Unfortunately there is very little money left in the music industry and I could write you a 500 page paper on why that is. As the economy has declined and as technology changes so does the system for music delivery. For awhile you could get anything you ever wanted for free online by searching “ mediafire .zip “ and the artists name. Millions of people had uploaded everything under the sun and there was no regulations and you were a sucker if you paid for music. Regulations recently have made that tougher, where as the government now holds websites responsible like mediafire and they kind of locked down all that. So just when labels thought YAY we can actually make some money, Spotify and services like that show up and say enjoy everything you ever wanted to hear for free and we’ll pay the artists a fraction of a penny when you do. So the label and artist are stuck between a rock and a hard place. How do you go on when you can’t make money? Most bands don’t. The trick is finding the money, it is there in touring and you can’t download a t-shirt for free but even that has been on the decline over the decade. Small bands have very little shot of being noticed when they are up against major label bands in major cities. Where as ten years ago kids couldn’t see a band live on youtube they actually had to leave their house. So right now the money is in licensing for the bands on my label and unfortunately that seems to be it. However you will notice the licensing world is just as shitty sometimes as the rest of the music industry. One month there are 500 bands and songs that sound like Edward Sharpe and the next month every car commercial sounds like NIN side project with just low rumbles and sparse drums. The declining economy I feel has cleared the room of all the posers and the ones who are left are in it for the long haul and hopefully will benefit financially at some point for their hard work.

Q: Do you have any future plans on expanding your label?

We have built slowly over the years by working with companies such as Rumblefish and Pirate who give us the best shot at being heard and we are always looking for more opportunities like that for our artists. We have many things that we would like to do like a Mint 400 Tour or different things like that, that hopefully we will eventually do. However in the meantime we are researching everyway possible to get our bands out there and heard.

Q: Do you have any regrets or anything you would change?

I would have started this label a lot sooner had I not listened to the few morons who said it was impossible. I don’t regret anything, I feel like every mistake allowed me to grow and move the label in a good direction.

Q: Do you have any advice for prospective entrepreneurs?

Someone is always going to tell you why something is a bad idea. If you think your vision is worth pursuing then at least you can say I tried. However, you don’t have to go bankrupt chasing your dreams. Build at a pace you are comfortable with otherwise you will be your own worse enemy and be forced to fold.

For more information on Mint 400 Records, visit their website. is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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