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Branding & Marketing

Catbird Records: Small-Scale Goodness

Ryan Catbird to discusses control-freak tendencies, comfort versus stagnancy, and building something worthwhile.

Ryan Catbird is what we’d like to call an indie rock preservationist. As the world steadily moves away from compact discs and onto digital acquisition of its music, Ryan continues to produce some of the most intriguing, beautifully crafted CD packaging available today…that is, if you can get your hands on the super-limited-edition releases he churns out of his itty-bitty apartment in Brooklyn. Behance caught up with Catbird to discuss control-freak tendencies, comfort versus stagnancy and building something worthwhile from those little things referred to as “blogs.”

Catbird Records started with perhaps the humblest modern beginning: as a blog. “I started the label back in 2005… I had been running my music blog, since 2002, and I really liked how I was able to use my blog to introduce new artists to people.  I started thinking that maybe I could do even more on that front, though, and I realized that if I instituted advertising on the blog, I could then take that ad revenue and use it to actually put out releases by great new artists.  So really, the label was just the logical extension of what I had already been doing with my blog for years.  My only real goal for the label is to maintain a very high level of integrity, and follow the examples set by great independent labels of the past, like Dischord, Simple Machines, and Merge.”

Catbird, like many creative professionals, finds a bias-to-action approach the most effective for overcoming obstacles. “Certainly with any project, planning is key.  But whenever I have a project that seems especially daunting, my tendency is to just go ahead and jump in, and try not to worry or obsess over the amount of work.  The journey of a 1000 miles begins with 1 step.” Knowing his strengths and weaknesses allow him to keep Catbird Records small yet highly functional — but this doesn’t come without its frustrations. “Being a one-man operation kind of guarantees that you’re going to become a control freak about everything, so the single most frustrating part of every release is having to rely on an outside party for certain aspects like supplies.  I’ve torn my hair out many times over super-delayed shipments from the CD-pressing plant.”

His clear, defined vision remains unaffected — sometimes even vivified — by trends towards the contrary. “Even as music seems to be moving toward an all-digital MP3 model, I still believe in the CD as a tactile, tangible artifact.  The label was started in September 2005, after I discovered this band from Springfield, MO called Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, and I really wanted to do whatever I could to help spread the word about them. In 90% of all cases, I’ve collaborated with the recording artist on the vision for the packaging… sometimes it feels like I’m really guiding them, and sometimes it feels like I’m just executing their ideas, but either way, I still feel a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment upon project completion.”

I’ve received offers from both indie and major labels  to make deals with them, and I’ve declined in every case.

Knowing there’s a fine line between ambition and overkill, he walks that line with awareness and confidence. “Many of my packaging projects have proven to be challenging. Simply finding space to silkscreen 200 sleeves in a 300 square foot New York apartment is quite a feat.  In many cases, I think that some of the more elaborate projects have only been taken on only because my enthusiasm has outweighed the practical considerations.  Case in point:  the Jason Zumpano CD/Print Set, which was an edition of 200 copies, with 3 prints each, 2 screens per print.  That’s 1200 printing passes right there, plus I had an additional 400 passes to do for the outer sleeve.  Your arms get tired.”

Catbird sets a classic example for contrarianism, proving it a model which works just as well in small-scale operations as it does in massive corporations. “I think conventional wisdom about the music business would be to pursue growth, take partnerships when they’re offered, etc. I’ve received offers from both indie and major labels (as well as major distributors) to make deals with them, and I’ve declined in every case.  Because Catbird Records is exactly as I want it as-is; I’m doing exactly what I want at exactly the scale I want.”

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