Interview: Luke Rathborne Discusses Founding His Own Label & More

April 21, 2016

Rathborne (aka Luke Rathborne) has been writing and recording music since he was 17. He packed up his things, migrated from Northern Maine to New York City, and wound up working under a famed Tin Pan Alley producer for a short period of time.

With an affinity for hip hop,  R&B as well as pioneers like the Velvet Underground (and everything between), Rathborne’s indie rock is tinged with influences of all sorts. He’s received critical praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, SPIN, Q Magazine, BBC 6 Music, The Guardian, and VICE, who explained Rathborne’s sound as “laid-back, confident new wave-meets-classic rock cut containing just the right amount of Nick Lowe and early R.E.M.

We’re proud to say that Rathborne has been using TuneCore for over five years to distribute his music. He’s got a true DIY mind state, which likely contributed to the start of his own label, True Believer. We talked to Luke about his influences, the state of the music industry, and his upcoming single, “Losing It“, which drops tomorrow on iTunes! He’s got plenty to say, and can serve as an educational figure of sorts for indie artists on the start of their own musical journeys:

Your music moves in and out of sounds, from proto-punk to indie pop. Who were some of your earliest influences? Who have you been digging more recently?

Luke Rathborne: I think in the beginning influences were coming from all over, which is pretty much how I embarked on my first record. I was 17 and played the majority of things myself, with help from a few friends. I can’t explain why but I’ve always had a bit of a restless feeling if I stay in one place too long.

Lately all I’ve listened to is R&B from early Prince, Sly & the Family Stone, to some of the newer trap pop coming out. I stumbled upon There’s A Riot Going On recently and have that and some other things on repeat.

Songs like, “Pale Blue Eyes” and, “Candy Says” were documents to me as a teenager that could tell you how to live your life and be more open.

Early influences were of course the Beatles and the 60’s stuff, always had a hankering for Van Morrison, and the kinda things you hear on the radio as a kid. The Velvet Underground set me in a different direction. Things will jump around from O.D.B. to the Cramps to Bruce Springsteen. It’s all music.

Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, Future – that stuff pretty much knocks me out. There’s a vitality there in the trap stuff that’s gone from alternative music.

Tell us about the journey from Northern Maine to New York City. How did it live up to expectations?

Northern Maine, (near Jackman, ME) was somewhere I only lived in the summer and (occasionally) winter time. Where I’m from in Maine is more of a proper town than those areas. To be honest, it was so long ago that I moved to the city that I can barely remember the years of moving here as a teenager.

I think New York City let down my expectations in its propensity towards finance and fashion triumphing over art. Walking through a city block, it’s much more a triumph of money and capitalism than any kind of meaningful human triumph.

In terms of what I’ve found in relation to the industry here, many times a brand decides to devalue music and musicians, by exchanging cash behind closed doors on the backs of artists. We’re almost in a position to Re-value musicians and their time, like we’re transgressive and going back in time to a period of the business that is buried in history.

It’s something you’d expect to change, but there’s this attitude of, ‘If you don’t do it someone else will‘ directed at the musicians that can be difficult to walk away from, especially for people trying to create future opportunities.

I’m not any kind of authority on anything I can just tell you my own experience.

What kind of tips would offer to a young indie artist making a similar move early in their career?

You don’t really need to move anywhere these days. Focus on your art and what makes you happy, and find something that can pay the bills! I was just reading a theory that the Swedes became such powerful songwriters, (a large percentage of the Top 40 hits each year are written by Swedish folks), because they are so isolated from live performance and must focus completely on song.

Never underestimate where your journey might lead.

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You’ve worked with a Tin Pan Alley behind-the-scenes legend Joey Levine. How did that come about and what was the experience like?

Joey Levine is a cool guy. He produced my song, ‘Dog Years‘, years ago. Doing the track(s) together was pretty similar to working with other producers, though in retrospect I think Joey thinks in a big picture and is more old school; he’s looking to get the engineer to embolster the overall feel.

I was an assistant at his studio years ago and someone who worked there gave him my first record, After Dark. I never would have given it to him myself, not in my nature. I also recall it being written in the job application not to do that.

What inspired your decision to start your own label, True Believer? What was your experience in the world of indie labels prior to its launch?

I decided to start my own label because I realized I had a very unique way of doing things. It can be a lot of work but I enjoy engaging on that level and I find it can be interesting to be your own proprietor. Music is such a personal thing, I don’t know how many people out there know me better than myself.

How has running your own label impacted the way you view the music industry of today? How have services like TuneCore assisted in the development of True Believer?

Straight and simple TuneCore – and I apologize to those not in the ‘industry’ who read this – does NOT take a percentage of what you make. It’s a one-time payment and you own your masters. ALL of it.

In the past, ‘larger entities’ and distributors have made me offers sometimes eclipsing up to 20% of what you make, (and occasionally more if there’s a label involved), in exchange for providing their ‘services’.  As an individual representing myself, it’s easy to get lost in the fold and not be able to challenge these folks for not making good on their initial promises.

Often times, what you’re left with is that their services can boil down to something completely identical to what TuneCore offers, except then they have a piece of what you make.

There’s a huge attitude coarsing through the veins of the entertainment complex to make artists that you think, ‘might do something‘ offers with incentives towards signing their distro/record/agency deal. Those can be different things, sometimes cash, or some other kind of exposure.

It is the unfortunate truth that in so many cases, these incentives are not met and it’s a kind of ‘camping’ by the organization on an artist’s rights in the hopes that they could ride a train of the artist’s personal work and profits – in the unlikelihood that they are able to catapult themselves on their own accord. 

In a sense, it boils down to a white lie. Set a large enough trap as a distributor/agent/label/publisher and you’re bound to get someone that sticks.

Keep in mind: this isn’t malicious. It would be pointless to be. It’s just the way it goes.

In so many ways, I wanted to philosophically get away from those principles. In the music business many times someone shows you one hand they’ll play but they don’t have the intention of actually playing it. TuneCore, in this case, lets you bypass even being at the poker table, cause it’s a long wait at that poker table, and nobody ever makes a bet.

You’ve racked up over three million streams through True Believer so far. What were your initial feelings toward the shift into music streaming?

That’s true! Can you believe it!? I can’t. Streaming is unavoidable. The royalty rates will change. They’ll have to. I was the kid on Napster, Soulseek, whatever. I would download all the music I could because I loved it.

When you think about it, that’s three times the population of the state I came from, Maine. 

I don’t think it’s possible my grandma listened three million times.

What do you say to artists who might be disenfranchised as a result of this newer method of consuming independent music?

Stay disenfranchised. Always. There is a war going on between the people making the thing, (yourself), and the people selling the thing, (the music business.) 

Don’t let yourself or what you’re doing be undervalued. Be courageous and believe in what you’re doing.

Don’t put yourself in a perilous position and take care of yourself; watch out for the fakes. Have FUN.

Tell us about your single, ‘Losing It‘. What are you going for instrumentally, and what kind of story are you hoping to tell?

‘Losing It’ was a song inspired by that Paisley Park kind of feeling. I love the way the electronics and other pieces just kind of drift over each other, and especially the bridge with the tiny tinkling keys! I used a tiny Casio to play those.

The story kind of ties in with the upcoming new album as a kind of aimless drifter, losing his cool.

What plans do you have for 2016 in terms of new music and taking your label to the next level?

2016 I hope to get off my ass and kick this thing into high gear! Here we come world! There’s more than a few surprises on the slate for the label, you’ll just have to stay tuned.

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