A Conversation with Deep Elm Records Founder/Owner John Szuch

On the About page of their website, Deep Elm Records describes themselves as “fiercely independent.” This description will make more sense after you read our chat with Deep Elm founder and owner John Szuch, who started the label with a bike, a backpack and pretty much zero industry know-how. In a post-interview email, John wrote: “I poured every penny I had into [Deep Elm] while taking no salary, working 18-hour days and living on ramen. It took five years to break even. Many times I thought I wasn’t gonna make it...but I just kept believing that it HAD to work.”

On the About page of their website, Deep Elm Records describes themselves as “fiercely independent.” This description will make more sense after you read our chat with Deep Elm founder and owner John Szuch, who started the label with a bike, a backpack and pretty much zero industry know-how. In a post-interview email, John wrote: “I poured every penny I had into [Deep Elm] while taking no salary, working 18-hour days and living on ramen. It took five years to break even. Many times I thought I wasn’t gonna make it…but I just kept believing that it HAD to work.”

This year, Deep Elm will celebrate its 19th birthday and 200th release, so clearly something went right. If you asked John, he might say Deep Elm worked because he followed his gut, didn’t sell out, and treated people the way he thought they should be treated. But I think there’s more to it than that. Deep Elm is currently navigating one of the most tumultuous industries out there today, and yet they’re trying new and dangerous ideas. For example, as of this month, all of their music is available on a “name your price” basis. So what I think John left out of his explanation of Deep Elm Records’ success is that his company’s got balls, and maybe that’s what it takes to survive now.

Take it as you will: Here’s our conversation with John Szuch of Deep Elm Records.

You’re in Texas, right?

Dallas/Fort Worth area, yeah.

So that’s actually where we got the idea to name the label Deep Elm.

Oh, really? After Deep Ellum?

Yeah. I visited Deep Ellum in 1990. I didn’t know the spelling of it, but the name “Deep Elm” just kind of rang in my head. I was sitting on a plane one day, flying to Switzerland, and I was jotting down a logo for the label. I wrote “Deep Elm” on it, and that was that.

I don’t actually know what Deep Ellum means, to be honest with you. Deep Ellum is the title of an old song by…Jesus, why am I blanking on this? That big hippie band. Jesus, why am I blanking…? The biggest hippie band of all time…not Fish but…Grateful Dead, hello!

The Grateful Dead.

They had a song called “Deep Elem Blues,” and I think that’s where that name Deep Ellum came from. Or Deep Ellum came first, I don’t know.

Yeah, I don’t know.

That’s a good thing to look up on Wikipedia. Hang on.

I think Deep Ellum has a pretty interesting history, but I don’t know what it is.

I’m looking at Wiki. In the 1990s it became the prime jazz and blues hotspot in the South. Artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Bessie Smith played in Deep Ellum clubs like The Harlem and The Palace. The area got its start in 1884 when Robert Munger built his first factory for the Munger Improved Cotton Machine Company in what is now Deep Ellum. It doesn’t talk about the origin of the name though. I guess we’re not going to find out.

That’s even older than I thought — 19th century. That’s back there.

Yeah, it is pretty far back.

So you’re on a plane to Switzerland, and you have this idea for the name of a record label. Had you been thinking about starting a label for a while?

When I was on that flight — it was probably in 1994 — I was an investment banker. I was working with mergers and acquisitions, public debt and bond offerings. We got an opportunity to fly around, which was fantastic, but it was an incredibly stressful 24/7 job where you pretty much sold them your soul. That’s why it compensated so well. But no compensation can really compensate you for years of your life. It doesn’t matter how much money it is.

Do you remember a specific moment when you decided to make this transition from Wall Street to starting a record label? Were you on a plane listening to Sonic Youth and suddenly had a revelation?

One thing I remember: I went on a blind date to see The Jon Stewart Show, to be in the live studio audience. This must have been back in the really early ’90s. I didn’t have a good time on the date, but there was this band on the show called Sunny Day Real Estate, they were the emo kings. And they just blew my mind. There was so much emotion conveyed in their music.

Then I was walking by Tower Records on Broadway — which no longer exists because of music piracy — and I saw their [debut studio] album in the store. I was like, “Oh, it’s that band I saw on The Jon Stewart Show.” So I bought the album, Diary, and it totally changed my life.

Really? Changed your life?

I’ve always listened to impactful music — Genesis, Pink Floyd, just really amazing bands. But, man, this record…when I heard it, I was like, This is what I’m going to do. This is what I want to be involved in. I gotta figure out how to do this.

I had no connections in the music business at all. I had no idea what I was doing. I bought every book I could, talked to people, went to conferences. But a record label is not like any other business. It has a life of its own. It lives and breathes. It’s impossible to explain to someone how to build a record label without actually doing it.

In Pali they call it bhavana-maya panna, which is “wisdom through experience.” That’s the most powerful form of wisdom you can get: actually doing something. So I started doing it. I started doing things I thought were right, and I did so many things wrong. Like, I spent money foolishly. Everyone was telling me, “You need to do this. You need to do that.” I went through the whole process of doing everything the industry told me I should be doing.

Then I quickly came to the conclusion that these people don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I’m going to do things the way I want to do them. I’m going to build my label the way I want to build it. I’m going to sign the kind of agreements that I think are fair, regardless of what the industry is doing. I’m going to treat bands the way I think they should be treated, and we’re going to promote bands the way I think makes sense.

I started doing that on my own, and we built our entire relationship with the media from scratch. We built our relationship with radio from scratch. We built our relationship with the global licensing community from scratch. It all started from scratch.

Do you remember the first deal you made?

I offered a huge deal to this local band I really loved, and the band turned it down. It was actually a blessing in disguise because then I reassessed everything. What I decided to do instead was take a couple of steps back and start small. I had this intern who said, “You should release a vinyl 45. Just release two songs for a band. Maybe do that instead of offering some huge deal.” I was like, “That’s not a bad idea.”

So that’s how I started the actual label, by doing two-song vinyl 45s. Of course, I couldn’t find any bands who’d work with me because here’s this guy who doesn’t have any relationships in the music business. He’s just starting his label. It seemed impossible. Now we get dozens and dozens of submissions every day. Back then, I couldn’t get a band to work with me to save my life.

I started going to tons of local shows and approaching the bands I loved. I’d say, “Hey, would you like to do a couple songs?” I was like, “Look, just give me two songs that are going to be on your forthcoming CD. Let me just run with it. Let me see what I can do.”

The first band I got, I’d run into a guy who was putting up a flyer for a show. He gave me his EP, I listened to it, and I was like, “Wow! You’ve got something great! Can I put out a couple of your songs on vinyl?” He said, “Yeah, sounds great.” So we put out our first vinyl. It was all white. That was the first one. Then I went and met with these guys from a completely unknown band at that time. They’d probably played four shows in their whole career, and it was this little band called Nada Surf.

No way.

Yes. I’d met these guys, I saw them play, and I was blown away. I remember sitting down with them in a park — I think it was Tompkins Square Park in the East Village — and they let me listen to all their songs. They said, “We have all these demos, and we’re thinking about putting out an album.” I was like, “Hey, I’d love to put out two songs. Which ones do you want to put out?” They said, “Well, we think ‘Popular’ is our big song, so we’re going to leave that one for the CD.” We put out two other tracks “Deeper Well” and “Pressure Free,” both of which are amazing songs. Nothing Nada Surf does is bad. They’re incredible. Matthew Caws is an amazing songwriter. I just came across a photo of me and them that was taken in December 1995 after their vinyl came in. It was snowing, and it’s the four of us holding up the vinyl.

That’s awesome.

Nada Surf got big overnight. So with all of that going on, we started getting a lot of attention. Like, who is Deep Elm Records? What are they doing? Then it seemed like every single time I signed a band and put out a 7-inch disc, they’d get signed by a bigger label or a major record label or a publishing company. It was crazy. People [in the music industry] were following me around. What show is he going to? It felt like the whole A&R community was walking around together in New York.


So how were you getting these records out there? Did you have some sort of distribution?

Our method of distribution was me on my mountain bike with the 7-inch discs in my backpack. I’d ride around New York City risking my life and begging stores like Bleecker Street Records to put one copy of this 7-inch on their shelf for a whopping $2. No one would do it. I was like, “Oh, God, this is so impossible.”

Then finally, one store did it. And then we sold one. I think I probably had an intern go in and buy that record. They were like, “Oh, hey, it sold. Here’s your $2. We’ll take another one.” So that’s how the beginning of our distribution started. I really just wanted to build things on my own. Making money has never been a goal of mine. If that’s your goal, you’re never going to be successful.

Music is so special. You can’t even think about it in terms of money. The record industry has taken some serious blows over the course of the last 15 years. This year Deep Elm celebrates our 19th year of being a totally independent label. There were some dark days when I didn’t know if we were going to get by, but there’s always a way. If you want to do something, you find a way to do it.

At one point I’d invested every penny I’d made into the label, and I was like, Oh, God. I’ve blown it all. What was I thinking? But I felt like I had to do this because I’d rather fail at doing something I love than be successful at something I really just like.

Did you ever think Deep Elm would end up where it’s at today?

No. This is…give me a minute here…this is far beyond what I thought it would be. All I ever wanted to do was help people with music. And then other people, I think, saw the genuine spirit — the sincerity of what I was trying to do — and they wanted to be a part of it and they wanted to help. It’s always been about the music.

But, wow. To go from riding around on my mountain bike and begging record stores to put a 7-inch on the shelf for two bucks, to being involved in the trailer for the new Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman movie, Transcendence, with this incredible band Lights & Motion that we work with? We’re so blessed. Did I ever think we’d end up here? No.

How did the licensing portion of the business come about?

Funny story. One day a guy by the name of Chris Burch gave us a call. He was one of the music supervisors on a little show called The Real World. Apparently one of his cast members, a girl named Melissa, was a fan of one of our bands. She was wearing the band’s T-shirt on the show. So Chris is like, “Hey, if you can send us some music and some apparel, we’ll see if we can use some of your music on the show.” That was pretty much how the licensing segment of our business started.

Some girl happened to be wearing a T-shirt.

My approach has always been “let’s see what happens.” You’re never going to find anyone from Deep Elm calling everyone and saying, “Please use our music. Please use our music.” I think the beautiful thing is — and you have to have patience for this to happen — the process where someone can discover music through the right channels. If it’s in the flow of the universe to happen, it’s going to happen.

I’m not saying we just sit back and don’t do anything — of course not. But we’re not trying to force something on everyone. Not all music is appropriate for everything. We want people to be exposed to the music because hopefully it will enhance the project they’re working on.

In terms of the rest of the music industry, I never did what everyone else is doing. The industry has tons of problems. First, it was Napster, then piracy running rampant. Then we had this global financial collapse, and people didn’t have a lot of extra money for music, which is surprising to me because at the end of the day, music is the cheapest form of permanent entertainment. You can buy an album for $8 or $10, and then you have that music for the rest of your life.

The other thing the industry is dealing with is how pretty much everyone is converting over to streaming. The outlook for digital sales isn’t that great. Streaming companies pay tiny, tiny fractions. I think we did an analysis that showed you have to have someone play your song in full 400 times to make the same amount of money you’d make from one download of that track.

Oh, God.

It’s like the industry just keeps taking these blows — boom, boom, boom! Even with that, starting Deep Elm was the smartest thing I ever did. Probably the scariest thing I ever did. Everyone thought I was totally out of my mind. The people in the music business that I first talked to about what I wanted to do, they thought I was nuts and I was going to be a failure and lose everything I had.

I feel so blessed every day. We have such an incredible roster of bands. I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that our entire roster has been built based on bands submitting music to us, not by us going out and trying to find bands and do a traditional A&R approach. It’s not about that at all. It’s about bands submitting their music to Deep Elm. I’ve listened to every single submission we’ve ever received. And there’s been a lot of stuff. I can always tell when something is going to be really, really good or not that good.

How can you tell?

After having received tens of thousands of demos from bands, you have an idea. Usually the packages that come through that are kind of scribbled and scratched on, someone did an incoherent job of putting the thing together and casually sent it to us without a jewel case, and now the CD is cracked — that’s probably going to be gold. But when you get the package with a nice folder that has a beautifully designed logo on the front, and inside is a letter from an attorney, band photos, bios, lyrics, and this blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah — it’s going to be shit.

Haha, that’s not what I would have thought.

I go with my gut. If it gives me that Deep Elm feeling, that’s something I want to work with.

A while back in the late ’90s, we were offered a distribution deal by a very, very big punk rock label. I remember going to L.A. and hanging out with the owner. He was giving me some pearls and some pieces of advice. One of his big bands had just been snagged by one of the majors. He said, “God, wouldn’t it be so great if you could build a record label and sign one record at a time and have bands work with you because they want to, not because they have to?”

I thought, You know what? I’m going to try to do that. That was my ultimate goal and that’s where we are today. We work with bands one record at a time. Bands are here because they want to be here and because we love their records.

The music has got to move us, and I think that’s beautiful. Every band we currently work with submitted their music just the same way.

So has it all been worth it? Worth the struggle?

I guess I’ll say this: Last month I released the 200th album on Deep Elm Records, a label that is still 100 percent independent. I’ve gone from selling vinyl out of a backpack in NYC to providing music for major Hollywood films, TV shows…even the Oscars. It blows my mind, man. I’ve made my share of bad decisions; but whenever I fall down, I get back up. That’s been the most important part. I fight for fairness in an industry that’s swimming with sharks and dominated by corporate giants. I fight for what I believe in. I’ve found a way to make it work. And when there is no way, I invent one.

I know so many amazing people with such incredible talents, ideas and visions. And I always encourage them to keep fighting the good fight. Stay sincere, keep your heart pure, work hard and be willing to sacrifice. Love what you do. Everything is possible.