Hailing from Brighton, UK, Mike Five is a guitarist and podcaster, the curator of the Off The Record Independent Music Festival, and the manager for the music collective and independent record label Lights and Lines, which runs the aforementioned festival. According their website, Lights and Lines aims “to share new and exciting music from the underground with music lovers everywhere.” Sharing stories is a major part of their philosophy, and so is the belief that real power “comes from below, not above.” Hence their mission to build “real, strong, and local communities up from the underground.” These ideas square perfectly with my own philosophical inclinations, so I dropped Mike a line to find out more.
Can we start with the idea that real power comes from below, not above? How so? And why is that idea central to building strong communities?
Ah, this could be a long answer! Community is really important to me. And the idea of real power coming from communities is something I believe to be absolutely true, but more and more it’s in danger of being forgotten.
Too often we’re told what to do, what to like, where to go and everything else. Governments and global corporations spend too much time and money dictating what we should be doing with our lives and not enough time listening to what people actually want and need. This top-down exertion of power stems from authority figures determining goals that often suit themselves rather than the vast majority of people.
But the reality is that if you push people too far they will push back – look at all the great protest movements in history: the Suffragettes, workers rights movements, and more recently things like Black Lives Matter, or the vigil’s that were held for Ashling Murphy and Sarah Everard that reignited debates about violence against women.
Some of these enabled real change – women can vote, workers get paid holiday and so on. Others are working towards real change by keeping the conversation alive and letting the establishment know that the issue isn’t going away. When people band together to address some of the wrongs in society, their power is often realised.
So communities have the power to bring people together to enact change. But in a society where human interaction is becoming more marginalised, and technology encourages us to hide away from real human conversations, I think people are drifting apart. We’re becoming lonelier and more isolated.
If communities weaken and dissolve, so does our ability to join together and change things, and I don’t want that. Society only really works because the majority of people work together within it, sometimes we need to work together to break stuff, challenge the norm, and change things that are simply wrong.
And how does music fit into the equation?
Music is central to it all for me! It’s an innate part of human existence that often provides a window into the human condition at any given moment in time. There are loads of great examples in history of music being the driving force behind movements that create change.
Take Reggae music in Jamaica. It became a way to bring the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience. Or something like Bella Ciao, popularised again as an anti-facist song in Money Heist (Netflix) – originally this was an Italian folk song sung by workers in protest against the harsh working conditions in the fields of northern Italy. There are countless other examples throughout history of music marking a moment in time, and helping create a movement.
The sense of community in music is also really strong. Take live music, for example, people who know nothing else about each other can go to a gig and connect, dance, and sing along to the same songs together. For a few moments the band and the fans have a shared experience, a brief opportunity to connect and forget about the rest of the world, and a shared sense of emotion. I think that’s really energising.
With the label I wanted to create our own place in the independent music community where we can help amplify the voices of up-and-coming artists, and work together to do something different. I think the whole music industry is a mess and anyone who accepts that music is art has a right to be angry that musicians are getting paid 0.003p per stream, are being asked to pay for reviews, and to play gigs, and are forced into competition with each other to survive. I’m angry about it anyway, so I wanted to do something about it.
The battles we’re fighting aren’t always big global ones, but the community we’re building rally together to support real, independent, underground talent, and go against the grain of the mainstream and accepted norms of the industry.
I’m on board! Connecting the dots, how did you go from recognizing the relationship between music and politics to starting a record label? Or maybe to put it another way, what inspired you to start a label?
I suppose everything is political, and I’ve always believed that music can be a force for good, a way to share stories and perspectives. Starting the label was all about connecting with people. It’s interesting to me that in a world that’s more connected than ever so many people feel alone.
Most indie artists work alone, they self-release and self-promote. This can be alienating and lonely at times. Indie labels can help artists double their efforts, reach new audiences, develop their skills, and provide a sense of community to support and encourage their creativity. I think my skillset and experience enable me to help coordinate and bring structure to those efforts, and bring people together.
How do you find the artists that you work with?
It varies. With people like Gozer Goodspeed and GRIM17, I was a fan of their music and owned quite a bit of it before I set up the label. When I approached them to see if they wanted to work together, we just seemed to click and that was that. Similarly with Crushed By Pimps, I was already a fan and they approached me just before they went into the studio to talk about what the label was up to. It’s easy to sign a band when you’re already a fan!
Others are more of a gut feel. Torrid (A Love Affair) asked me about playing a gig and we ended up putting out their debut album. I’d only really heard a few demos and seen a live video but there was something about them that made me think we’d work well together. We do, and that album is stunning!
I’m a music fan first and foremost and I’m always listening to new music that I either discover or people send to me. I think you have to really love a band to put their stuff out. It doesn’t work if you’re not a bit obsessed with their sound. So however I find them or they find me that’s the first thing. Then after that it’s just about attitude and working together – will we get on, do we have a similar vision, can we collaborate?
What is your relationship with your artists like? How involved are you in aesthetic decisions, for example? Or even business decisions, for that matter?
I’m really close to all of them, I think you have to be. When you put an album out you probably spend six months working with the artist beforehand, and then when that album is out there I think you have a lifetime commitment to keep it alive! If you don’t have a good relationship with the artist then it’s hard to deliver on that. I chat to all of them most days either by phone, zoom, or on various messaging apps.
The way I work is very collaborative but the focus changes depending on the artist – e.g., for some I’m more heavily involved in things like artwork, for others I don’t need to be. Similarly with business decisions, sometimes people want to try different things and I’m up for that, other times they want me to suggest approaches and I do. The business side is often more about can we afford to do it rather than what should we do!
I’m also curious about the phrase “music collective and record label.” What’s the difference between the two, and how do they complement each other?
The idea of collectivism runs through lots of things I’m involved in. For me it’s about giving the group priority over any one individual.
The label aspect is us putting out other people’s music. We choose who, and to a certain extent how and what, we put out.
But we also do other things under the Lights And Lines name like put on live shows. We run a festival every year, we’re putting on a songwriting exposé in May, and we offer support and opportunities to collaborate in lots of other ways to the entire independent music community.
The collective is our community if you like. It’s everyone from the people who work with me behind the scenes on all the things we do, to the artists we collaborate with, and the fans who support the label.
For example, we offer a label subscription. Sign up for a year, and we’ll send you a copy of everything we release for 12months. People love getting CDs through the door throughout the year, and the money we get upfront covers things like manufacturing which means we can pay the artists quicker. All the people who sign up to that subscription are part of our collective. They are giving the group priority over the individual – and I love them for it!
A lot of my readers are independent musicians, and we all know that promoting music from the ground up can be a daunting task. What kinds of challenges do you face as a label manager? How do you overcome them? What have you found works, and what doesn’t?
It is a daunting task – and actually just recognising that and acknowledging it is an important step, I think!
We probably face the same challenges as everyone else: How do I reach more people? How do I get more reviews and radio plays? How do I afford to do any of this in the first place? Where am I supposed to find the time?
I don’t think there’s a magic formula, or at least if there is one, I haven’t found it. But we are trying different things and just seeing what lands well. For us a lot of what we are doing is about creating blended or hybrid experiences – mixing physical and digital assets to create a more holistic listening experience.
For example, we record interviews with the bands pre-release where we go track by track through the album and then release it as a podcast called The Inner Sleeve: Digital Liner Notes. Liner notes have always given listeners an exclusive behind the scenes look into the artist and album. But sadly, in the age of streaming, these little windows into the creative process have been largely lost. The podcast is our attempt to bring that back, but for the modern world, and it’s really popular!
We also quite often do things like release physical copies first through Bandcamp, and wait a few months before releasing albums to streaming. The idea is a bit like a film release – when it first comes out you’ve got to go to the cinema to see it, or wait three months for it to appear on streaming.
This builds interest around the music, and especially the physical product, which is not only a much nicer thing to have but also where the artist can actually get paid a decent amount of money for their art. Interestingly, I’ve found it naturally extends the lifecycle of the album, too. For example, if just as sales are levelling out the tracks come out on streaming and one gets playlisted, that gives you even more to talk about.
I imagine the festival presents its own challenges as well. How big of an undertaking is it, and how do you manage it?
I love the festival! Last year was our biggest event so far with twenty-three bands playing across three stages.
It started off as just me, I was bored of going to see three bands play on a Tuesday night and watching all their mates walk out after their set—what’s the point in that? You might as well charge your mates a fiver to come and see you at your house.
Live bands need to grow their fanbase and this just isn’t the way to do it. I realised that if you want to keep people engaged enough to stay and discover other bands, then you have to do something a bit different. So the first year I put on eleven bands on one stage in one day.
Quite quickly I realised that it was a bit much to do all on my own. I was doing the door, introducing the bands, loading in gear, coordinating with the sound engineer, managing set times, and basically everything – which was hard work! So after the first year I started to ask for help from people who I knew and thought would be interested and since then it’s become something much bigger than just me.
It is a lot of work, but it’s fun. Each stage now has its own curator so I only manage the one and then just oversee everything to make sure it runs smoothly. There are now about ten volunteers who all help out on the day, which makes a huge difference. They are awesome humans!
All of that and podcasting, too! Do you still have time to play guitar?
Ah well guitar is my first passion so there’s always time for that!
I co-host a couple of new music podcasts; New Music Saturday with my good friend Dr. Bones in Canada which has been going for about seven years with the two of us. That’s basically a poker night for me, we sit down on a Saturday night, have a few beers, and go live on the podcast with a mix of music and chat, we play about thirty tracks by independent musicians every week, it’s great fun! And this year I was asked to join the team at You Haven’t Heard This Music Podcast which is more of a magazine style new music show. Those guys are great fun as well and that one is only every two weeks so it works well for time!
What’s on the horizon for Lights and Lines?
At the moment I am applying for some Arts Council funding to help us reach more people through more live shows, and to help fund some things like vinyl releases. Other than that, I’m always looking for opportunities to reach new fans, find more artists, and grow our community. I think we have something special here and I want to build on that!
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, Mike! I really appreciate it!
Thank you – I really appreciate the work and research you put into this and the really personalised approach. Very cool interview, thank you!