There have always been challenges and risks involved in running a record label. Like everything else, those challenges and risks have shifted at the hand of the internet, and, as the founder and president of Relapse Records, one of extreme music’s most pioneering and respected labels, Matthew F. Jacobson has endured them all. From the exorbitant long-distance rates and leaky distribution networks of the 90s to the present, when most people don’t have to – or feel they don’t have to – open up their billfolds to experience music, and everything in between, Matthew has survived while a banner list of his label’s discoveries and releases provided the motivating soundtrack.
Relapse has existed and thrived for 25 years on both sides of the line drawn in the sand by technology. These days, Matthew is likely to be discussing “shifting revenue streams” and “new industry economics”, but in 1990 when he started Relapse in his parents’ basement in Aurora, Colorado, communication was probably the biggest stumbling block in trying to build a high-volume business worldwide.
“So, Bill moved to Colorado,” remembers Matthew. “When I look back, it was insane because the day he arrived at my parents’ house with his carload of stuff, ready to move in, was the first time I met him in person! I wonder what my parents were thinking, letting this person none of us had ever met just move in!”
It was while working late one night that Matthew had his ‘A-ha’ moment that not only put the label’s then-modest successes into perspective, but also laid out a philosophy that has since allowed Relapse to successfully exist as one of metal’s most pioneering institutions./o:p
“Very early on I realised we’d actually done more than I thought we could – which wasn’t really that much – and I was blown away. I was thinking about the next stages and our future trajectory when I decided I was never going to impose a glass ceiling on anything I’d do. This realisation was a turning point, for Relapse and for my view of the world, as I’ve discovered it’s one of the main things separating me from a lot of people who essentially say, ‘Oh, you just can’t do that.’ I say, ‘Well, why not?’”
Matthew started Relapse because he was a fan of extreme music. It may sound charming and folksy, if not disingenuously simplistic, but the label was a coalescing point for his obsession with metal, the enjoyment he experienced when turning people on to music he liked and the sky’s-the-limit attitude instilled in him by his hippie parents (the ‘F’ of his middle initial actually stands for ‘Freedom’).
“I never started Relapse to make money. I started Relapse to put out cool records and share music. Relapse was an extension of me as a tape-trader and the buzz I’d get sending friends music that I knew they’d love.”
As initial releases by Incantation and Deceased laid the groundwork, the label took off after Matthew and Bill were forced to move operations from the isolation of Matt’s parents’ basement in Colorado to Bill’s parents’ basement in Lancaster, a tiny town in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country. This not only allowed them to live cheaply, but brought the label to the more populated East Coast where Relapse found itself a stone’s throw from New York, Philadelphia (where its head office has been since 2000), Washington DC and the East Coast touring circuit.
“We were in Colorado for about six months when my parents decided they were going to move back to Minnesota. We had to decide if we were going to get jobs to pay rent and eat, or move to rural Pennsylvania with Bill’s parents because I certainly wasn’t going to move to Pipestone, Minnesota. Being out east was more ideal for what we were doing.”
Pennsylvania presented Matthew and his staff (Bill eventually became a silent partner and is no longer involved in day-to-day operations) with a ground presence which allowed them to see and meet with potential signees in the flesh. Bands like Brutal Truth, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Nile all hailed from various points along the East Coast and eventually became mainstays associated with the Relapse name.
“Some bands, we heard and right away we knew,” he says about the discovery process. “Dillinger is the best example: the first time I saw them, it was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a game-changer!’ In general, though, the qualities we look for in bands are a combination of doing something fresh or original, or someone who does something to change a genre and ultimately become a bookmark for that genre. Also, I love the term ‘Best In Class’; a band that’s doing something so fucking well, whatever that is. Not everything is going to be totally original, but if someone is doing it as good as anyone in that category, or the best in that category, that’s pretty appealing.”
Throughout the late 90s and into the 21st century, Relapse seemingly possessed the Midas Touch. There were albums like Elegy, Through Silver In Blood, Prowler In The Yard and Remission from Amorphis, Neurosis, Pig Destroyer and Mastodon respectively; Resound, their cheeky and immensely popular in-house magazine/catalogue; experimental/ noise subsidiary label, Release; the Contamination Tour/Fest showcase, the popular online hub of the original Relapse message board; and the record store in down- town Philly, which existed from 2001-2008.
“None of that was conscious,” Matt offers, “but all those things felt right. It’s interesting you bring that up, because in every business I’ve been involved in, community is very important. It’s something that’s just natural and part of the philosophy of doing things from the fan’s perspective. Relapse would go the extra mile with our packaging and spend more money on things. We’d just ask ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome if…?’”
After 25 years, Matthew finds himself reflecting with no small amount of disbelief about how Relapse has survived and thrived over the years and how his role has changed.
“I often said that I was proud I did everything in the company until we could hire someone to do it better.”
He’s also pretty stoked at being able to cross a few items off his bucket list.
“I still can’t believe we’ve put out Neurosis albums,” he pipes up with boy-ish excitement. “They were one of my favourite bands before we signed them. We’ve always just signed bands and put out records we thought were awesome. My goal has always been to balance art and business, with the emphasis on art. I mean, there’s no school to teach you how to run an underground, independent metal label. I’m just totally stoked and proud of how many great bands we’ve been able to work with.”
Having uprooted to the other side of the country a few years ago to chase down business opportunities in Portland, Oregon (where he heads up successful pizza chain Sizzle Pie), Matthew’s still involved in overseeing operations at the Philadelphia HQ, the smaller Portland office and the European home base in Holland, as well “vetoing and green lighting the bands we sign.” Most immediately pressing, however, are the celebrations set to occur throughout 2015.
“At this year’s Maryland Deathfest, Amorphis will be doing A Tales From A Thousand Lakes set, it’s going to be Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s first live show and Cephalic Carnage will be playing stuff off their first three records. There will be special shows, maybe a festival, we’re working on a beer collaboration and every record that comes out this year will have a limited silver vinyl edition to commemorate the 25th anniversary.
“Beyond that, I don’t think there will be any huge changes,” he concludes. “We’ll continue to put out killer albums from killer bands, make awesome packages, stick to what we are and build the cult!”
RELAPSE’S FIRST ROUND OF ANNIVERSARY RELEASES FROM AMORPHIS, HUMAN REMAINS, PAN.THY.MONIUM AND INCANTATION ARE AVAILABLE FROM FEBRUARY 24/o:p
Relapse founder Matthew F. Jacobson’s three essential albums…
NEUROSIS – Through Silver In Blood
“Through Silver In Blood is not only one of my personal favourites, but that album definitely marked a new era for the label. Those were definitely exciting times!”
MASTODON – Leviathan
“Leviathan was certainly a breakthrough. It’s our biggest-selling album and we kind of built a broader reach with that one than we had with anything else prior, or since.”
TERMINAL SOUND SYSTEM – RH-8SB
“This one is one of my personal favourites and probably the most overlooked record we’ve ever released. I think it sold a thousand copies, if that, but it is such a fantastic album. I love it!”/o:p