By Zach Collier
As the Provo music scene continues to gain momentum, local labels are beginning to pop up across Utah Valley in an effort to organize the artists here and establish a permanent, economically viable music industry in the area. Last July, we spoke with Wish Granted Records founder Grant Fry about his new label. Recently, we got to sit down with Dave Cebrowski of Sonic Valley Records to discuss his years of experience in the music industry and his recent efforts to help local artists.
So Dave, you’re the founder of Sonic Valley Records. Tell us a little bit about your background. When did you get into music? How did you end up in Utah, what bands have you played with, and what are some of your most notable achievements as a musician?
I lived in Utah during my teens and, like many musicians, headed to California chasing fortune and fame. After achieving a certain level of success I decided that I wanted to raise a family far from the California music scene, so I returned to Utah and stayed far away from the music industry ’til around 1999.
I’ve been into music since I was probably 7 or 8; first playing guitar, taking piano lessons, and playing the baritone horn in the school band. When I was 11, I saw Rush and was blown away and said to myself, “this is what I want to do.” I set out to be a rock star playing in a lot of bands. I had had some success as a songwriter/composer in my late teens and had a songwriter deal, and then I ended up with a recording contract with a small label by the time I was 19. For the past 16 years I have been composing music for film and TV, along with recording bands and singer/songwriters.
One of the most notable achievements was being recognized by my peers with an award for my bass playing, and having Quiet Riot open up for me, as well as sharing the stage with some bigger bands like Testament and Slayer.
What is Sonic Valley Records, and what services do you offer? What artists are you currently working with?
Sonic Valley Records is a new venture for me. It’s a music/artist development and management label. Since our “soft-launch” a few months ago we have had a number of artists reach out to us about working together. Native/Tongue has contracted with us to act as their representation as they finish their album and self-release after the new year. Another artist we are excited about and have brought on is Pat Swenson, a very talented songwriter who will be releasing his debut album through Sonic Valley Records, also after the new year. We’re evaluating a couple more to work with – we don’t want to have too many artists as we value the personal involvement with our artists.
Why did you start Sonic Valley Records? What do you hope to accomplish with the label?
I believe that artists today have more opportunity available and all the tools they need to be successful and make a living from playing music. But they need help recognizing and maximizing the opportunities and knowing the right way to use the tools at their disposal.
During recording sessions, I found myself spending a lot of time answering questions about how and when to release the music; how to use social media effectively; reading “recording contracts” that were nothing more than fluff; and basically answering questions about how to market and promote better. I realized that what artists needed was a development label – an entity that takes the raw talent of an artist and focuses it, refines it, and markets it. Most major labels (if any) and few smaller labels offer development deals anymore. If an A&R rep didn’t feel like an artist could go gold – a half million copies sold – they would not even be looked at.
Sonic Valley Records is more concerned about developing talent and helping the little guy be successful than selling a million albums – although that is still a good thing, too! Most artists fare much better at writing and performing than they do at business development.
How is Sonic Valley Records different from other small labels that are starting to pop up in the valley?
I don’t know what other local labels are doing specifically. Sonic Valley Records’ model is based on artist development. It’s really a hybrid cross between an artist management company and a label services company. We’ve tried to develop an infrastructure that could truly support a career-development model. Our focus is on building the band or artist which might take six months or six years. We also wanted any money distribution and rights ownership to be very favorable and weighted towards the artist – something that the four entertainment lawyers we went to couldn’t fathom.
Additionally, having a recording studio in-house for pre-production and mixing can help cut costs and allows an artist to be a little more creative without having to be watching the clock. When recording something that requires a nice sounding space, I’ll take an artist to Jason Jones at Art City Sound in Springville. He’s got a great drum room, and a real relaxed vibe to track in, and best of all, he can work with budget conscious artists – or small indie labels like us.
How does your experience as a professional musician make you uniquely qualified to manage bands? How does your experience in sales factor in as well?
Having managed my last band to success and a recording contract, I learned the principles of what works and doesn’t. Techniques and tools change, but principles don’t. Once we got big enough to need management, I also learned what I liked and didn’t like. That allows me to translate experience into practical hands-on with the artists we bring on. What many managers of bands fail to understand is that unlike the top-down hierarchy a “day job” might have – where the manager can tell someone to do something – a band is largely a volunteer effort and if you become the “boss,” most bands rebel; so you as a manager have to essentially be practiced in the art of herding cats and fighting hydras in order to get a band to move from point A to point B.
Everything in life is sales. From the little girl selling lemonade to the boy selling you on shoveling snow or mowing your grass. Bands need to always be selling. They just don’t know the art and science of who to sell to, when to sell, why they are selling, or what they are selling. I’ve studied this process; it’s how I have been able to get my own music placed on TV, used in corporate ways, and landed composing gigs.
What are some of the challenges associated with starting a record label, especially in the current music market?
It’s exhilarating and overwhelming. There are so many non-musical things to do. I find myself working longer hours than anyone I know. There are so many ways to lose money if you’re not careful. It’s frustrating when you don’t have a large enough budget to do the things you know need to be done. It’s frustrating waiting to get paid. The overall challenge is how to get your artist to rise above the noise, and how to compete with the increasing number of entertainment sources available today that didn’t even exist 25 years ago.
Do you have any advice for artists who may be looking to sign with an indie label? What should they look for in a good label? What should they watch out for in a bad one?
What to watch out for in a bad label or bad deal? You could fill a book with that info. In fact, there is one – Confessions of a Record Producer. Read it and learn how a label can rip you off.
Things to look at for any label are:
- How many similar artists the label currently has under contract.
- Whether the label has budgeted to add an artist to their label.
- How much promotional work with the label provide verses the artist.
- If the label have the staffing necessary to support another artist.
- How risk-averse the label is.
- How much skin are they putting in the game (money, time, etc)
Likewise, a label is going to look at some things too before bring on an artist:
- How big their fanbase is and if it’s growing.
- The music they write and record.
- The image they present and if it is marketable.
- Their self-assuredness and confidence in who they are.
- Their experience selling tickets, recordings, and merchandise.
- Internet traffic to their websites and social-media sites.
- Their uniqueness and contemporary appeal.
What’s the most rewarding thing about working with musicians? Why is this something you love to do?
The most rewarding moments are when you see the biggest smiles and joy on an artist’s face. Our artist, Pat Swenson, has a couple of songs that are duets with a very talented songwriter who had never really been in a studio before. The whole recording she had this grin from ear-to-ear. Then when the song that she wrote, which featured her vocals, was presented to her, the smile got even bigger. I love this. This is what’s it’s about – connecting emotionally with people. I want the artists that Sonic Valley Records works with to have that kind of connection with their audience.
What do you feel like the Provo music scene needs to improve on in order to become the music capital of the Mountain West? You know, really make an impact on a national level?
That’s hard to say. Provo has had a lot of buzz over the past several years with a handful of great musicians/bands moving to bigger things. The Provo venues have done a lot to foster that. I think a lot of improvement to the scene has to come from the bands themselves. Lots of great talent, but very little awareness of that talent. I think Reach Provo is doing a good job at helping create that awareness. The more awareness the artists have, the more interest in the scene. With more interest comes desire – a desire to play the Provo scene, a desire to see bands in the Provo scene.
What do you love about the Provo music scene? What about it made you want to get involved in music again?
The talent. When I moved to Spanish Fork several years ago I was blown away with the number of incredibly talented musicians I saw and heard in Utah County. It was exciting. It was diverse. Indie-music and folk, bluegrass, and classic rock to metal and screamo. And the majority of it didn’t suck! Contrast that to southern California. Thousands more bands, but most of it was mediocre at best.
Make sure to like Sonic Valley Records on Facebook. Sonic Valley Records is currently taking artist submissions. For more information, visit SonicValleyRecords.com. You can check out the music video for “Feast In Famine” by Sonic Valley recording artist [Native/Tongue] below!