Name: Egīls Šēfers
Occupation: SKANi Label Manager, Latvian Music Information Centre Director & Clarinettist in Carion Wind Quintet
Recommendations: Forgive me a shameless plug here but there is one piece of music that I seem to be coming back more often than others, especially in times when I need clarity in my life. It’s The Fruit of Silence by Pēteris Vasks performed by the one and only Latvian Radio Choir. It’s one of our very first releases and still one of the absolutely best.
Enjoy it here.
As Latvia is marking it’s first 30 years since regaining its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, there is one particular book I’d like to recommend. At first glance Soviet Milk (Mother’s Milk in original Latvian) by Nora Ikstena depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Latvia between 1969 and 1989. Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to provide – love, and the desire for life. It’s a deeply moving story, I wept reading it.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview about SKANi, visit their website for current updates and music.
When did you start with your own label - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
It was out of pure necessity. I have always been deeply involved in producing albums for my group - I’m a clarinettist in the Carion Wind Quintet - and knew the process inside out. Back in 2012, when I joined the Orpheus' Ear team of experts - a popular recording review series at the Latvian Radio 3 station - one of the segments we had to do was to compare several interpretations of a given work. To my terrible surprise, every time we encountered a work by a Latvian composer other than Vasks, there were almost no commercially available recordings at our disposal - only Latvian Radio studio or live recordings that were not available to the general public. This is when an idea of a classical label focusing on the promotion of Latvian music was born.
I started to actively and often publicly ask questions about it - how come a nation that prides itself on having so many classical music superstars (Mariss Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Elīna Garanča, Baiba Skride, etc.) has no classical label promoting it's own music?! And, eight years later, I run a label doing exactly that. Be careful what you wish for!
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a label curator and the transition towards your own approach? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
SKANi is unique in that its mission already defines its profile. Meaning, it’s not so much a particular artistic approach or style or even type of performance that attracts us. It is purely and simply to bring yet unknown and often undervalued music by Latvian composers to the world. But, of course, at the very beginning I was looking for good examples for inspiration. I lived and worked in Denmark for a few years and got quite acquainted with the Danish Dacapo Records label. I think in many ways SKANi is still very much similar to that label in its approach to catalogue but things are changing rapidly for labels nowadays, and our situations within our local music scenes are different.
If in the past a label tailored its approach to the record market, today the end user is often no longer the prime customer of the products and services we as labels provide (it is no secret - it’s virtually impossible to return the investments of such niche products as classical contemporary music by CD and digital sales). The artist, art institutions and public cultural policy and funding play an increasingly major role in the decision making process. I often feel like a small fish in a big ocean current - I have to be able to adapt and use these currents to my advantage. I have my artistic ideas and goals but I have to be very flexible and adaptable in the way I realize them.
What were your main label-related challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Ha! The hardest thing was to convince our first international distributors to give us a chance, convince them that the idea of SKANi will be around the block in 2 years’ time and continue to deliver the same high quality releases!
Today my greatest challenge (apart from what I hope are temporary virus related setbacks) is the ability to maintain long term strategic goals. For example, I want to release all 21 symphonies by Jānis Ivanovs - a composer whose symphonic writing is very much on a par with his contemporaries Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich but few know about his work. But it is a big challenge to align the artistic goals of conductors and orchestras with the long term public funding needed to accomplish such a project.
How do you see the role of labels in the creative process? What is the scope and what are the limitations of what you are capable of doing?
I touched on this a bit in one of the previous questions. On the on hand, as so much music is self-produced and self-released and given the relative ease of market access the digital platforms provide, one might argue the days of labels are over. On the other hand - it’s a jungle out there! Good luck self-releasing an album and hoping that it will be noticed without proper placement and promotion unless you are a superstar.
Let me give you an example. I’m a certified open water scuba-diver but I still like to use a local guide to show me the best sites, guide me through the challenging bits and make sure I’m safe and have the best experience possible. As a label from one side I provide such a service to my artists by helping them reach their audience. I look at these ocean currents at play - the artists’ creative ideas, my own aspirations as label manager and my long term goals, the market forces at play and different funding possibilities, and we together decide how we are going to approach our “dive” together. We cannot predict what we will see on the way with definite certainty, whether the critics will love the release, if curators will pick it up and place in popular playlists and what the global reach and sales figures be. But the chances for the artist are still much better with an experienced guide on their side.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the buyers, your own demands in terms of quality?
In my limited experience as a label manager (SKANi is still a very young label) I’m learning more and more that my personal quality standards have to be much higher than those of the artist, listener and critic. I have seen so many sub-par recordings released by prestigious labels in terms of sound quality but getting rave critical reviews. I have seen great artists listening to their recording on very low-fidelity audio equipment and making artistic decisions based on that. What I’m getting at is - if I maintain the highest possible standard myself, both artists, critics and listeners will be happy as well.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the music-, music-PR- and music-journalism landscape? How do they affect labels in general and your own take on running a label in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
There are several, but the most important one - I have to be very careful in determining who my actual customer is. It’s not always the end user - the listener. In order to survive, thrive and grow I have to constantly have the acute sense of this - to be able to adapt my own artistic aspirations as label manager to the expectations of my real customer. And to do this, I must know what my customer eats and where he sleeps so to speak.
It might sound strange in the present day and age, but sometimes this real customer that pays my bills doesn’t even use social media. Sometimes - all he cares for is the maximum reach on digital platforms and social media. It’s very different for each album. Adapt and overcome is the rule of the game today.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
It’s an interesting question. We are conducting this conversation, for example, completely remotely, we haven't met in person and haven’t even heard each other’s voice. We rely on technology very much in this day and age, and so do artists and labels. At the same time, perhaps even despite that, modern humans yearn for meaningful emotional, personal and deep connections.
Music can provide that. One person conveying their deepest and most intimate feelings, ideas, almost like a footprint of the human soul - to another person. It’s magical. It transcends all barriers of culture, language, space and distance. No technology can replace that nor will it, ever. It can only be used as a tool to help.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, including the artists on your label?
A musical album is a collaborative effort by definition. It’s a delicate dance between all of its many components - from artist, sound producer, mastering engineer to authors and translators of liner notes, photographers and designers - and promoters and distributors as well! They all play their crucial part in bringing these unique stories each album carries to each listener. Further, all of SKANi releases are collaboration projects, even on a production level, especially with concert organizations like the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra or State Choir “Latvija”.
On one hand, it sometimes feels like there are too many cooks at the stove but I love it! I like to see each person involved in the process motivated, I like seeing them all care for the album like it is their own. Because it really is their own!