Majors’ inflexibility encouraged illegal downloading, says Marek Čulen of independent label Starcastic

Marek Čulen, photo: archive of Marek Čulen

For the last decade the independent label Starcastic has been releasing much of the best Czech and Slovak alternative music, including in recent times from the likes of Please the Trees, Bonus and Mayen. The man behind the label is Slovak-born Marek Čulen, a well-known figure on the Prague music scene. Ahead of events celebrating Starcastic’s 10th anniversary, I asked Čulen what had led him to establish the label back in the mid-2000s.

Marek Čulen,  photo: archive of Marek Čulen
“I was into music from a very early age, even though my family was not really very much into music or arts – maybe that’s why I got so into it.

“I first started as a promoter, 20 years ago, in Slovakia.

“The label was founded in 2006, but at first I started a distribution company called Starcastic. That was the main focus of Starcastic and the label developed later on.

“I was doing distribution for music labels from Germany, the US and the UK, so naturally I became a record label too [laughs].”

Obviously 10 years ago there were MP3s and there was digital music distribution, but now it’s much more advanced. Has that changed your work?

“It definitely has, of course. From the early beginning I was trying to also release albums in digital form.

“Actually in the old times, when MP3 players were big, we were one of the first labels to release an album on MP3 player with headphones; it was recorded on it, so people could buy it and listen to it immediately.

“Of course the sales of CDs and vinyl have dropped significantly in that time.

“I think everybody got so into MP3s and free downloading [laughs] – stealing music online – and that had some impact, definitely.”

I think in this country most people probably consume music that they haven’t paid for. Is that equally a problem for small labels like yours as it is for major labels? Or are people more prepared to pay for something that they know is produced by somebody who isn’t going to sell in large amounts?

“That’s an interesting question. I think the amount of music stolen is due to the fact that there was no access to the music before, when you had no credit cards or PayPal and ordering from abroad was quite difficult and expensive.

“People were forced to burn CDs and exchange music with friends and it kind of became a big hobby.

“And later when there was no excuse – everybody has a bank account and uses PayPal and is online and it’s easy to buy anything – there’s no way back.
“I guess people got so used to it that it just became a habit.”

Do you think the major labels screwed up because they were too slow to serve people in this way?

“Yes, they were very inflexible. CD prices were so high it was ridiculous. We all know how much the production cost of a CD is.

“The price nowadays reflects reality, but 10 years ago it was sometimes two, three times more for big international bands.”

But getting back to my previous question, are people less likely to unlawfully consume music from a small label like yours than to music from a major label?

“I think people are more loyal to independent labels, small labels, in the Czech Republic.

“If they follow what a band or a label is doing, they are more likely to buy, sooner or later.

“We also release a lot of records which are accessible for free, as free MP3 downloads, while at the same time releasing them on CD and vinyl, and it’s not a problem at all.

“More people download it, but we still sell the CDs and vinyl produced. It’s just a good way to promote the music and to attract people to come and see shows.

“So people support the band later. It’s turned out to be a good strategy.”

You’re Slovak yourself. How big a part of Starcastic is Slovak? I know you’ve released several artists from Slovakia.

“I would say it’s half and half, now. I work with my friend who runs Deadred records [in Slovakia], so we release some titles together.

“There is a lot of talent in Slovakia, and the Czech Republic is a good market. The music press is much more developed than in Slovakia.

Please the Trees,  photo: Dušan Tománek
“Very often Slovak bands get much more attention in the Czech Republic, in Prague, in the media. So it’s a natural step for them.”

So Slovak artists don’t have to try especially hard to convince Czechs to give them a chance?

“No, I don’t think so. Slovak bands are quite popular here. Especially music in the Slovak language – it’s quite popular among Czechs

“Very often you hear people saying Slovak is sexy. And when it’s sung, it’s even sexier. Probably that’s why [laughs]. I can’t tell!”

Today bands can at least in theory do everything for themselves. They can self-release their music, promote it and so on. Why do they go to you? Why do they want a music label to help them?

“That’s a question I ask myself very often, actually. Because it seems, especially if you are a little bit skilled with social media, that you can easily build a website on your own and send MP3s out to radio stations.

“So it seems to me that many bands could do it, and many bands do it.

“But still there is this aspect of many years of experience, networking, contacts – which is hard to gather in a short period of time.

“For some artists, [doing it themselves] is a good way. But for some, they find out it’s not so easy to get promoted.

“Artists often approach us who have already released an album themselves but have found out that it wasn’t so easy as they imagined to get good press, get good distribution.

Ohm Square,  photo: archive of Starcastic
“Getting worldwide digital distribution by yourself is not so easy.”

Tell us about the international aspect of Starcastic – can an artist release stuff internationally via your label?

“Yes. We do worldwide digital distribution for most of our releases on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Deezer – all the streaming or downloading services you can think of.”

You have some artists who before they were on Starcastic already had quite a profile, like Please the Trees or Ohm Square. Is that easier for you, when somebody comes to you who’s already well known? Is it more work when you’re trying to break somebody who nobody’s ever heard of?

“It depends. With some new artists, new talent, it’s actually quite easy. It’s something new. There’s a lot of attention because it’s something nobody’s heard of.

“That might be easier than to work with established bands like Ohm Square. People know them and have an opinion about them, and either hate them or love them.

“So it might be harder to promote a new album by an established band, because of expectations.”

This year Starcastic is celebrating 10 years of existence. What are you doing to mark those 10 years?

“Yes, January 2006 was the first release by Starcastic – a record by Atlantic Cable.

“So we had 10 years this January and in September we will do a concert at Náplavka in connection with Full Moon magazine.

“We’ll have a vinyl bazaar and most of the Starcastic bands will perform, if they can at the time.

“There will be an after party at the club at FAMU. So definitely come over!”

Atlantic Cable,  photo: archive of Starcastic
And what does the future hold otherwise for Starcastic?

“I don’t know if we can make another 10 years [laughs].

“But there is still definitely a lot of interesting music and artists coming out of Slovakia and the Czech Republic...

“We don’t have any specific goals – just keep going!”