Rodney Holder of Australia's Music Business Facts recently conducted an interview with guitarist/vocalist Mikael Åkerfeldt of Swedish progressive metallers OPETH. You can now listen to the chat using the audio player below. A few excerpts follow (transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET).
On the importance of having the business side in order when running a band like OPETH:
Mikael: "Yeah. I mean, obviously, music comes first, and I've never been too interested in the business side of things. I don't want it to have the upper hand on me, because I feel like friends of mine who got too much into the business side of things, they seem to lose a little bit of creativity, which I'm afraid of that happening to me. But it does… I mean, especially nowadays, it's a completely different scene from what it was just ten or fifteen years ago. I mean, when we started out, there were people still selling records, there was more streams of income… there were more set streams — like, secure streams — of income then, even if we didn't really make much the first ten… we didn't make a living the first ten years or so. But definitely now, I think you have to be on top of things. We are in this position where we can employ people, so we have a management, we have an agency, etc., so we don't really have to take care of a lot of the business side ourselves — luckily. Because if we would have, we would have been fucked, basically."
On whether OPETH could achieve the same success if the band was just starting out under the current market conditions:
Mikael: "I don't think so. I'm not business minded, really. Like, for me, these days, I don't know how you promote bands these days. I mean, you have things like pledge [campaigns] happening, where you kind of involve the fans and those kinds of things, but I'm old school — I like the idea of signing to a record label and doing it the old-fashioned way: selling records and touring. That's the bread and butter for us."
On whether OPETH still sells physical product:
Mikael: "Yeah, we still sell physical CDs, and we also… we've always done vinyl copies, and that's escalated with a few hundred percent the last couple of years, but it's nowhere near like it was the '70s and '80s, and, to a certain extent, '90s. But we still sell CDs. We also sell… You know, now you generate some income from services like Spotify and, obviously, iTunes and that kind of stuff. I mean, we don't sell a lot of CDs, but enough to end up in the charts, because nobody really sells lots of CDs, so in the perspective of things, we do still do quite well. I mean, we end up in the Billboard charts, we get a good position there, but when you see it, like, okay, you ended up at [position] 19 on the Billboard chart, [you think], 'Oh, that must be, like, a hundred thousand, a million copies,' but no — it's fifteen thousand, or something like that."
On whether music downloads are a good source of income for OPETH:
Mikael: "Well, for many years, I don't think it was an income stream at all, really. It kind of took off with streaming services, I think. Like, before, it was kind of unregulated — we didn't get anything from the likes of Spotify. But now, when I get a rundown of income streams for publishing royalties and stuff like that, there's a little not that says 'Spotify paid out this and that amount to you.' So it's a little bit — not a lot. I mean, you couldn't make a living from streaming or downloads. I mean, downloading… Buying a record on iTunes is a similar price to buying a physical CD, at least for us in Sweden. But I don't really know. I still want it to go back to what it was before, because that's who I am — I like the physical product."
On not having to work a day job while continuing to keep OPETH alive:
Mikael: "It's so hard being an artist and a creative person. You put out a product and people easily throw the whole 'sellout' thing at you, because you depend on some type of income for doing this. It's, like, 'Oh, you're lucky to be in this position. You shouldn't complain. Get a proper job, just like the rest of us.' Which, I guess, is fair enough, but I think people underestimate how much they need music, and once it's gone… I mean, it's really difficult for new bands starting out today to get their names out there. I think the filter that was provided by a record label back in the day was ultimately good… I mean, it sounds crass, but I think, to a certain extent, somebody had the good taste of signing LED ZEPPELIN and DEEP PURPLE and KISS, and whatever have you. So I think it was, like I said, a good filter. And today, you don't really… Bands today, they put something out… They start their own YouTube channel and put out their record on YouTube, but they're fighting, they're rubbing elbows with millions of bands, and, quite frankly, many of them [are] shit. Not everybody is cut out to write great music. I'm not saying I'm the greatest at all, but, I mean, we have something, obviously, that people like. And for a starting band who also have something, starting out today, it would be very difficult to make themselves heard, because they would be caught in that stream of just shitloads of bands."
On whether he ever thinks about the possibility of OPETH one day not being able to make a living from recording and touring anymore:
Mikael: "Yeah, that's a very valid question, because I'm not yet in that position. I can say, like, we do whatever we want and fuck you — we put out the records that we wanna hear — but if the sales would go down completely and if we wouldn't have an income, maybe I would actually sell out — who knows?! But I'm hoping that's never gonna happen. I think that people will see right through me anyway, if I try to cater to the needs and the wishes of the fans, which we don't really do now — we just do music that we wanna hear, and we're fortunate enough to have people around who are also interested in our music. But if we would end up in that position, I think I would have to reconsider my life and maybe change it around completely. I would not want something that I love so much, as I love music, I wouldn't want that to become a way for me to put food on the table without having the passion and love in the music that I put out. That would be disastrous for me. So I would probably move away from music if that happened. I'd still write music, of course, but I wouldn't want OPETH to end up in that position where we just put out music to pay the bills."
On how the members of OPETH share music publishing royalties:
Mikael: "Publishing, I take the publishing, because I write the songs. But there's a dripdown from the publishing money, so [the other members of OPETH] get a certain percentage for being in the band, you know. So even if I take the publishing, they do get a certain percentage from that. And the rest, all of other income, we share."
On whether OPETH is a partnership or a corporation, and whether they are governed under Swedish law:
Mikael: "Yes, we have a limited company in England, we have a partnership in England, and we also have a merchandise company in England. We have an Inc. in the U.S., but that's purely for tax reasons there on tour, and then we have our own companies in Sweden, which we take out a wage from the partnership, basically — a monthly wage. But that's not really… I had to change, because I got a massive tax bill, so I had to change, and I'm starting the equivalent of a limited company in Sweden now as well. We call it 'AB,' so I'm just in the process of starting that now. And I'm hoping it's gonna be better for me, purely on a tax level."
On handling money withing the band:
Mikael: "When money comes in, that's when problems comes in, really. So I think it's better to keep it… for us, at least, to keep it… like, have an outside person take care of the business side of things. We never had money fights in this band. We had only had money fights whenever someone has been kicked out of the band, or left the band, and they want to get the money, if you know what I mean, that they feel that they have earned. But as it is now, we never, or rarely, have money fights."
On whether the members of OPETH have a partnership agreement or if it's all verbal:
Mikael: "We own different shares in the partnership, and that's based on how long you've been in the band, basically. So I have the biggest cut in that. So I have more credit in the partnership than the other guys. But I think that's fair enough. We've done more work; we worked for longer. So when we go out playing… Like tonight, for instance, we're playing songs from ten records, and I've been on all of them, but there's some guys in the band that have only been on, say, two records, or three records, or something like that. So I think that's fair enough. You have to work your way up, basically. People might [say] that's greed, but I don't think it's got anything to do with that. You have to work your way up. In this band, once you join, you can't expect to have, like, 'Okay, I'm gonna buy myself a penthouse suite and an Aston Martin [car].' You have to work."
On whether record labels still have a role in 2015:
Mikael: "Well, I think so. But that's going downhill too. I mean, we're signed to Roadrunner Records, which now is not really Roadrunner Records anymore; it's Warner Brothers. Roadrunner was an independent label who were run by Warner back in the day, but then the owner sold his shares, so it became Warner Brothers. And when that happened, a lot of people got fired and laid off work. They used to be a Roadrunner office in every country, Australia included, and that's all gone now. So there is no main office, really… There's no main office. I mean, there's usually one guy taking care of the Roadrunner releases; it's still an imprint, you know. But, generally, it's a major label now. I mean, record labels are suffering. The idea of a fat guy in a pinstriped suit and a cigar just swimming in cash, that's gone. That's gone. And I always thought that people who are not in the music business, it's always been unfair, because a record label is similar to evil to a lot of music consumers. But that's not the case; it's just regular people working there — regular people with a monthly wage. And maybe they're working with something that they love, which is almost seen as an ugly thing; you're supposed to suffer at work. But those people are, like I said, just normal people. But I don't know… We signed for… The contract remains the same… We signed to Roadrunner in 2003, or 2004, whatever it was, it's still the same contract. So we signed for one record, and then the record label has options to release another five, or whatever it might be. So once you put out a record… In our case, we put out a record, and then we wait for them to pick up the option. It's not our choice — it's the record label's choice whether they wanna release a new record. So if you're successful, they're likely to pick up the option. If you're not selling records, they're likely to throw you to the sharks. But in these days… I'm not sure. I mean, you can do it yourself, I think. You can put your own record out these days, have your own record label, which, again, probably generates more income, but also generates a lot more work, to get the distributions and everything out there. I don't really know how it would work for OPETH. We're an established band now. We have one more record with Roadrunner. I'm sure that there's gonna be offers coming in from other record labels, so maybe they'll wanna renew the contract or something like that; I don't know. They had a chance to drop us several times, but, for some reason, they have always picked up the option. So I think we might even live through the whole contract with them. And after that, we'll see what happens. Maybe we'll start our own label, or maybe we'll sign to a different label."