This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Germany’s pioneering progressive rock record label InsideOutMusic. To celebrate, they have released a special digital compilation featuring some of their best artists, and have announced an anniversary tour, which will see Spock’s Beard hitting the road alongside the return of The Flower Kings.
I had the chance to have a chat with the label’s founder, Thomas Waber. He reflected on their success, their vision and their true progressive spirit. This milestone has also given me the chance to remember how it all began from a personal point of view.
INSIDE FROM THE OUTSIDE
Where did it start for you? Well, for me, I can still remember picking up my very first InsideOutMusic release. The year was 2003, and it was a dark time for vinyl. The new millennium had come and gone, internet piracy was rampant, and vinyl had died on its arse. I had to fuel my habit for good music by buying more and more CDs. Internet-based music blogs and dedicated sites still had to gain any traction, so to keep up to date with new bands, I had a subscription to the UK magazine Classic Rock. This mag featured not only classic rock as we know it today, but also a wide variety of other, more progressive artists. On one rainy Sunday morning with a cup of tea, I read a review on a little known (to me) band and decided it sounded like the kind of thing I’d be interested in. The album? Tug Of War by Enchant. At that moment, my journey into the deep, deep catalog of InsideOutMusic began.
ENCHANTED FROM THE START
When the CD arrived, not only was I taken with the music of Enchant, but InsideOutMusic had executed a genius marketing move. Inside the CD was a leaflet that detailed other releases on the label. Bands like The Flower Kings, Spock’s Beard, Devin Townsend,and OSI were all there for the taking. ‘Who are all these oddly named bands?‘ I thought. ‘I can get more of this?’, ‘Can a record label really be catering specifically to my love of progressive rock and metal?‘ The answer was a resounding ‘YES‘.
Thomas Waber also reflected on where it all began for him 25 years ago. He started the label to help out acts that he was friends with, in a genre that he had a serious passion for. It all started in his bedroom and, in his modest style, he revealed that the whole thing ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.‘ He wasn’t wrong! Waber’s early contacts included a who’s who of Euro-centric prog, from neo-prog acts like I.Q., Jadis, and Pendragon, to what would become some of the new progressive stars, Threshold, Symphony X, and, of course, Enchant.
FINDING THEIR AUDIENCE
Back in the UK, record shops were a dead duck. The only way I could get CDs was online. This was actually fantastic, as I could just work my way down the InsideOutMusic promotional leaflets, buying other things that took my fancy. Again, their marketing worked its charms, as each new CD that I ordered came with another different leaflet, detailed even more bands that I should check out. I was on the rollercoaster of prog, and there was no getting off! Some of the CDs even started to come with sampler CDs! Jeeez, I couldn’t say no to parting with my hard-earned cash for great music!
It was clear to me, even at that time, that InsideOutMusic were giving new, modern, and innovative progressive rock and metal artists a way to get their music out there to the right audience. This wasn’t a label resting on its laurels, just picking up prog acts from yesteryear to re-release old albums (although they did briefly re-release some Amon Düül, but that was short-lived). They wanted young, modern bands offering superior quality music and something different to what had come before. There aren’t many labels who can say that.
A PROGRESSIVE VISION OF QUALITY
This quest for quality has not only helped them sign artists as influential and diverse as Bent Knee, Toundra, Steve Hackett, and Spock’s Beard, but has also bled into the artwork and packaging. At the time, each album I ordered came with a nice CD slipcase (remember those!) and a lavish booklet with great artwork, lyric sheets, and photos. I really felt like I was getting something of high quality for my money.
Waber elaborates on this; the lavish packaging was something that was very carefully thought about. He wanted to create something that ‘had value’ for the fans’ but also, crucially, wanted to ‘offer something different to stick out from the crowd.‘ This was essential for the fledgling label at the time. It might seem normal now, and fans have come to expect it, but at the time, most record labels were releasing standard silver CDs and single-page booklets to help keep their costs down in a troubled market (remember Napster?).
This commitment to quality is still alive in 2018. It shows in releases such as Ayeron‘s The Source and the 10 CD boxset of Enchant‘s back catalog. They all have amazing cover art and extensive booklets of interviews and liner notes. Each release has been something to own and treasure. Given that prog music typically features high quality recording and overblown content, it makes a perfect match! The packaging is so important to fans; as Waber puts it: ‘80% of fans probably don’t even play it, they just want to own it and cherish it.‘
This might be a stretch for some of the musical snobs out there, but I equate InsideOutMusic to the other pioneering German record label: ECM. They have both followed a laser-like focus to bring us music they themselves really believe in. And the similarities go beyond just that.
First off, both companies are more than just a record label. They take a true interest in what their artists are creating, from helping with the artwork (the lake on Threshold‘s Subsurface is from InsideOutMusic‘s headquarters) to hand-picking artists that they personally believe in. Of course, this led onto a discussion with Waber on how exactly he selects the artists he wants to work with, especially given the sheer number of unsigned bands out there. What is InsideOutMusic‘s philosophy, if you will? Again, a modest answer. As Waber said, the team aims for ‘…if Thomas likes it, we’ll work with it.‘ He also commented that he has only ever signed one band based on a demo sent to the label, and prefers to keep his ears to the ground with the prog-rock scene and to spend time seeing bands live first.
Although he is probably simplifying things a little, Waber’s taste in music and his ability to seek out bands that work well in the context of the label is pretty impressive.
One of the other things I associate with InsideOutMusic is the sheer amount of successful ‘supergroups’ that have been released on the label. Notable examples are Transatlantic, OSI, and, of course the most recent one, The Sea Within. ‘How is this managed?’ I wondered. Waber elaborated further.
First of all, he was clear that he didn’t want to focus his energy on bringing these bands together himself. ‘What is the point?‘, he mused, ‘[permanent bands] need chemistry to work.‘ His view is that if artists come to him and want to start something new, he is more than happy to allow it, rather than specifically encouraging it. This freedom has allowed for some of the best cross-over bands of the last 15 years or so. For example, The Sea Within was the first time these musicians worked together on a full album, and it resulted in something fresh and exciting, as our review testified!
HERE’S TO 25 YEARS AND 25 MORE
I always think the journey is more interesting than the destination. I’m still on my journey to discover new and interesting music and InsideOutMusic is a go-to for me. If I want superior quality new bands to grace the speakers of my stereo, I know that InsideOutMusic will deliver.
What does Thomas think about the future? Well, he is worried about where the next generation of bands will come from. ‘The main guys are getting older…the up and coming bands are few and far between‘ was his understated response. Sobering stuff, but he also conceded that Riverside popped out of nowhere, a new band taking the genre forward. Surely this could happen again? I for one hope so.
What lies ahead for InsideOutMusic? What do the next 25 years look like? A hard question to answer, but Waber had a pretty succinct response: ‘It will be business as usual.‘ InsideOutMusic is plainly in good hands, and they will continue to support bands they believe in, and let the quality and talent shine.
I’d just like to say to Thomas and InsideOutMusic, thank you. Thank you personally for helping me discover bands that will be with me for the rest of my life, and thank you on behalf of all your fans. Your dedication and vision has be inspirational and has lead to hours and hours of enjoyment for everyone. Long may it continue.
If you want to find out more about InsideOutMusic, you can follow them on Facebook. A complete list of their diverse artists can be found here. If you want to purchase any of their music, check out their own store.