Perhaps it would be more accurate to call him "Label Guy of the Month," but either way Todd Severin is one cool dude! A glaucoma surgeon by day, he has spent the past decade running Ripple Music, a California-based stoner/doom record label that's become one of heavyweight tastemakers in its genre. Severin took some time out of his holiday weekend to answer questions from Metalhead Money about what goes on behind the scenes at Ripple, his thoughts on health care in the United States, and more. Enjoy!
In case our readers are not familiar, you are the CEO of one of the coolest labels in the stoner/doom world: Ripple Music. Tell me about how you got Ripple started. What made you wake up one day and say, "Hey I'd like to start an underground music label..."? How did it get started? Hell if I know. I’ve just been sitting on the tracks as the Ripple crazy train came and swooped me up. Actually, I have a history in radio, and I’m a diehard music junkie. My partner used to front a heavy metal band, Blind Justice, and is just as sick in the head about music as I am. About 10 years ago, we’d been talking about starting a ‘zine to review the masses of LP’s and CD’s in our collections. Finally one day, I started The Ripple Effect on Blogger, which quickly became a very cool review site. About a year into the Ripple Effect, a good friend said “Rather than just write about the music, you should play it for people to hear.“
Next thing you know, he set us up on Blogtalkradio and Ripple Radio became the top-rated music show on the station, and we're hanging out interviewing Marky Ramone, Fee Waybill, and others along with Ripple artists like Tony Reed and Kent Stump. Had a ball.
Within about another year, one thing led to another and JPT Scare Band, the amazing proto-metal, acid blues, heavy psych band from the 70’s dropped a stack of unreleased masters on my desk with the words, “Put this out for us.” So with that, we started the Ripple Music record label; JPT’s Acid Blues is the White Man’s Burden was our first release on glorious yellow and green translucent vinyl, psychedelic double LP. That was 2010. And we’re off and running … All started by a love of seriously heavy riffs.
Aside from putting out great music, how do you account for Ripple's expanding fan base over the years? How do you guys use social media to reach people? (Because from where I'm sitting, it looks like you have a pretty good system!) My views on social media are pretty simple. It's an amazing tool to reach out and engage in conversation with your customers/fans. And that's always been the way I use it. Yes, we promote our releases and special sales, but social media is so much more than a sales tool, and I really feel that any label or band that sees it only as a way to sell product is missing out on the real value. The connection you can make with fans, customers, bands is amped up exponentially with proper use of social media. I use it all the time to ask our fanbase questions about releases, share sneak previews, run contests, and ask daily questions like "What's your favorite song that mentions food?" and just to converse. People enjoy the interaction.
Also, and very importantly, I use social media to break down the barriers between the record label and the fans/bands. People enjoy seeing that there's a real person behind Ripple, who has fun and his own taste in music and is a fanatic record collector. Who works his ass off and is a part of the very scene that he's promoting. That concept that we are all one community, one scene, really is one of the most beautiful things about the underground, and that is something created by being personal, not just hawking product all the time. Social media is crucial for this.
It's all about interaction, and very importantly responding to the interaction. Communication is a two-way street. I always respond in some way to every comment, and I'm always easily reachable via DM on every site and email. And I actually respond to each DM/Email. People like to communicate.
Finally, we're on most social media platforms, FB, IG and Twitter. I don't Tik Tok (yet). We're on YouTube, but that's more of a hosting site for us, I don't interact much on that site (only so much time in a day). The reason I mention this is that you have to learn what each social media audience responds to. Something you post on Facebook may get huge engagement, and barely get a blink of an eye on Instagram. And vice versa. It's up to you to learn what works where, so you better reach and engage your audience.
Are you a musician yourself?
I've broken a few strings on a few instruments, but no one would ever call me a musician. What kinds of things constitute a typical contract between your label and a band? What kinds of services does the label provide, and what do you ask for in return? Ripple was one of the very first labels created with the idea that a label and band should be in a 50/50 partnership. More than that, we were one of the early labels created with the concept that a band should always own their own music. It's their creation, their baby. The old school stories you hear of bands losing all their music are heartbreaking. So every deal we do is a licensing deal. Bands record, mix and master, then create the art (most times). We license for a period of time, manufacture, distribute world-wide physical and digital product, promote with full PR, and welcome the band into the Ripple family. It's a very simple agreement.
What does Ripple look for in prospective bands? Mainly, of course, the music -- which sounds cliche, but it's not. The stoner/doom scene, like all scenes runs the risk of becoming dull as the 20th and 30th iteration of recycled riffs plods out. I'm looking for band that bring that riff, that heavy, that groove, melody, songcraft and musicianship, and brings a fresh take on it. Keep the music moving forward, even while it's looking backwards. Make it groove. That's Ripple. Beyond the music, we definitely want to see a band that is hard working and working hard to make things happen. Social media following and engagement is very important, as it shows the band knows how to work it, sales, bandcamp plays, video plays are all important, and we want to see bands that are actively touring, gigs, festivals. We want bands with a plan that we can partner with. A label can't make a band that doesn't know how to work hard, but a hard working band and a hard working label can make something happen!
Finally... Be nice. Be professional. I’ve declined working with people who acted entitled, rude, or difficult. We’re all in this together, it’s a long, close relationship. Let’s enjoy it.
What kind of merch sells best for Ripple, and what are your favorite sales platforms?
Vinyl sells best, but don't underestimate the power of the CD. They still sell well worldwide. In fact, many countries haven't jumped much on the vinyl train. We have amazing full physical distribution into record stores worldwide via our distributor, and we also sell on our own webstore (www.ripplemusic.bigcartel.com), bandcamp (www.ripplemusic.bandcamp.com) and our Euro Webstore (en.ripple.spkr.media). Each of these channels is an essential aspect of the business and contributes about equal percentages to the bottom line.
I'm continually impressed by Bandcamp. They really do it right. From the "Free from their Fee" Fridays, to their articles and editorial content pushing bands/labels, to their platform, Bandcamp is an essential part of Ripple. Their subscription service alone makes being associated with them worthwhile. In this day, I can't understand any band that doesn't have their music up on bandcamp. Since it *is* December, does Ripple have any special holiday promotions going right now? We will. I eschew the glut of Black Friday sales, and instead every year we do a massive sale on the Ripple bigcartel that usually starts about 2 weeks before Christmas and ends after the New Year. We do massive savings, and that is usually a great sale for us. I was impressed by a recent post in the Waveriders Unite Facebook group listing all of Ripple's releases in 2020 -- there were a lot of them! How have Ripple and its artists fared in this bizarre year? Thank you, and thanks for mentioning Waveriders Unite. That's another essential aspect of our social media. It's a group open to anyone that wants to share/discuss the stoner/doom/metal/heavy psych scene -- not just Ripple. Ripple doesn't' operate in a vacuum, we're a part of it all, so it's great to talk about it all. That group has been a lot of fun. 2020 has been difficult for many people, and particularly the bands who can no longer perform. We had to cancel our 10 Year Anniversary Party, a 2-day 12 band blowout in San Francisco, headlined by Wino, Mothership, Wo Fat and Mos Generator. That was a shame, but perhaps we'll do it one day. Maybe we'll have the Ripple 10-year, Crank It Up to 11 Motherfucker!!! Party.
It's all about adapting and pivoting to find new ideas and ways to move forward. Same with our bands. No use being idle, they're setting up live streams, distanced concerts, acoustic shows. Whatever it takes to keep moving the needle forward.
But the label has been doing good. Our production schedule is set almost a full year in advance, so really the bigger question was would I put my nose down and proceed with all that I had planned, and I decided the answer was yes. I owed it to the bands, to the fans, to myself. After all, it's what Ripple does! Direct sales have been good all year with amazing support from our customers, so we're still floating. Distribution checks got gutted about 66% when all the record stores closed, but fortunately that's been rebounding. I release albums. It's what I do. Folks might be surprised to know you are an eye doctor (eye surgeon?? ophthalmologist??) by day. How do you balance what must be an intense career with the day to day aspects of running a label? Yes, I'm a Glaucoma Surgeon/Specialist. Two sides of the brain. Medicine appeals to my logical side. It's a lot of learning and education, and detective/scientific work, and very rewarding. Ripple appeals to my creative side, constantly coming up with new ideas, working with bands, designing vinyl. It all goes together very well. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, I have a very understanding wife, Corinne aka Mrs. Ripple, who gives me the leeway to do what I'm passionate about, but also knows how to pull in the reins to bring me back to a life of balance. Couldn't do it without her.
This is something I've always wanted to ask a doctor: how did you choose your specialty? Like after you got done with all the general medical courses, what made you choose "eyes" as opposed to the hundreds of other possibilities? Everyone will find the specialty that entices them, personality-wise, fascination-wise. For me, eyes in general are fascinating. They are a window to the entire health of the body -- every disease you can name has an eye manifestation, so you have to always keep up on all of medicine cause you never know when you'll diagnose a brain tumor or tuberculosis, or even tertiary syphilis. But at the same time, no other medical specialty knows anything about the eyes or can do eye surgery, so you really are a specialist. Surgery is fun and rewarding, so it's the perfect combination of caring for patients (with glaucoma it's lifelong care) and surgery. Very rewarding. As a medical professional, what are your thoughts on the US healthcare system? How about the Affordable Care Act, which is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court? Has ACA affected your practice in any way? Everything affects the practice, but my response is always the same, even with the record label. I can't control that which I can't control (like the government, insurance companies, or even the pandemic and record store closings). But I can control how I respond to the situation presented to me. I've always been a firm believer that every challenge is an opportunity to rethink the way you're doing whatever you're doing. Integrate new ideas, new technologies, expand or contract or what have you and make things better than before. What is presented to you, "just is." How you respond to it will determine whether you succeed or fail in that new environment, and also will determine who you are as a person. Specifically for the ACA, it was an interesting first step, but it really is deeply flawed and needs to be replaced by something better. The problem with it is what it really did was mandate that everybody must have for-profit private insurance, throwing all of us as patients under the control of the insurance companies, when it didn't address what the real problem is.... The insurance companies themselves.
Health insurance didn't even exist until after post-War USA, and then it was created to be a catastrophe protection against major health expenses. But it was never meant to be the system of health care delivery. Like auto insurance, it covers the major accidents but it's not meant to cover your oil change or even a blown engine. Health insurance wasn't created that way either. As it is, insurance companies take billions of dollars out of the health care pool for their expenses, marketing, payroll, shareholder earnings, and their mandate is to collect premiums and deny as much as possible. It's inherently flawed. The only true answer is to abolish the private health insurance industry (perhaps keep some policies for folks who want it) and institute national coverage. The Medicare system is already in place and if we pay into it with premiums, like we have been doing with insurance (but at less costs because the private insurance take is out of the middle) then the cost would be much reduced and still take in plenty of money for the health care.
Back to the music, what are you most proud of about Ripple?
I'm most proud of the amazing bands I've had the opportunity to work with, get to know, and call my friends. Final question: any words of advice for people thinking about starting their own record label? Don't do it for the money. Small labels struggle every day to cover expenses, much less make a profit. I've never taken a salary or payment from Ripple, I do it purely as a labor of love. Do it because you love it, because you have to do it, because it's who you are. Then no matter how it turns out financially, it will always be a success. On a more business basis, my advice is very simple. Be honest, keep your word, and always deliver what you promise. That will put you in the top 10% of business people in the world. And find some kick ass bands.
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