BLOG: FLYING NUN Roger Shepherd and Me: Part One

28th December 2009 - by Ben Howe from Arch Hill Recordings and Mystery Girl Presents. I first met Roger Shepherd sometime in the mid 1990s in Auckland. It was at the Powerstation music venue in the back bar. My band Superette had just played an opening slot for Garageland Loves Ugly Children or King Loser. I can’t remember exactly who or when. It may have been at Flying Nun’s week long 15th Birthday party. Photo: Superette in the 1990s (L-R David Mulcahy Greta Anderson Ben Howe)
Roger said to me “I wasn’t so sure about you guys when I first saw you play live. But that was a good show”. I thought to myself ‘you mean we aren’t amazing all the time?’ At the time this was a revelation. I had thought we were showing punk rock attitude – or something.
After this I reported back to the band that we needed to give this some serious thought. We needed to get our shit together. I didn’t know it at the time but in the music business this kind of thing is called ‘A&Ring’.
Superette never did set the world alight but we did end up making quite a good album. It was called “Tiger”.
Leslie Paris who was head of Flying Nun NZ in the 1990s advised me “Whatever you do Ben don’t start a record label”. I don’t think she was serious but it was probably good advice.
About ten years later long after Superette I had somehow ignored this advice and was running a label I had started called Arch Hill. Our first release was by David Mulcahy from Superette and JPS Experience. Then we followed with others including one of my all time favourite artists - David Kilgour from the Clean. I had also written an MA thesis on independent music and Flying Nun and started (but not finished) a PhD on the same topic.
So around early 2006 when I heard Roger was back from London living in Wellington I decided to look him up. Apparently after Mushroom had brought out the remaining shares of Flying Nun he vowed never to work in music again. I didn’t want to be in that situation. I was sure he would have some wise words. He might even have something to add to Leslie’s good advice.
We met up at a cafe. I gave him copies of recent Arch Hill albums. He said he’d already heard Bachelorette and Ghostplane. He liked them. We talked about all kinds music related things. He said he’d be interested in working in music again. He was enjoying working on the Flying Nun 25th anniversary box set. We loosely agreed to work on some projects together.
In the following months Roger would often phone me. The conversations were usually long and entertaining mostly music gossip trivia and so on. Often I would be concerned I wasn’t getting any work done. Roger helped out with someCommunity,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations, Funding applications for me to go to SXSW and for David Kilgour to tour USA on the back of his second Arch Hill release called The Far Now. I felt I was helping introduce – or re-introduce – Roger to the New Zealand music industry. A lot had changed in the music industry in the 10 years he had been away.
Out of these discussions a plan started to emerge. Roger and I were going to start a new record label. Actually we decided we were going to start two new record labels. One for new emerging artists and the other for re-issues and re-releases of the old good stuff. I would also keep Arch Hill going and the three labels would work together complimenting each other.
For the new artists label our focus was going to be overseas. We had a couple of good acts in mind. I wrote up proposals and met up with the head of Sony/BMG Michael Bradshaw and with A&R man Malcolm Black. I also met with Adam Holt at Universal. Our plan was to look for some kind of backing to help try and make this new label happen.
For the re-issues label we also had a few things in mind. One of these was a band formerly on Flying Nun. They were one of Roger’s favourites. The band were keen to release a re-mastered compilation. Of course our first question was legally could we do this? Was the band still contracted to Flying Nun (now owned by Warners who had bought Festival Mushroom who had bought Mushroom)? After some back and forth we quickly figured out we could. The band had never actually signed a contract and had paid for all the recordings themselves. Flying Nun/Warners legally had no rights to any of their songs and had to concede this fact to the band.
At about this time in mid 2007 I was back at the Powerstation attending a gig by US band the Shins. Charlotte Ryan – who was then the sole (and last) person responsible for Flying Nun at Warners – was there. We were discussing the re-issues label idea and she said “you know at a staff meeting the other day Phil Howling [Head of Warners NZ] said they should probably sell Flying Nun”.
Needless to say this was interesting news. Next day I phoned Charlotte back and asked if she would make some discreet enquiries to see if this passing comment was actually true. I also phoned Roger and told him about this. Charlotte got back shortly afterwards to confirm that indeed Warners would consider selling the label.
After this Roger and me had a serious discussion and decided to make a serious attempt to buy Flying Nun – together as a partnership. Roger said he didn’t want the responsibility of doing it on his own. Additionally Arch Hill had a successful and functioning label infrastructure in place. We had physical and digital distribution and pretty much everything a contemporary record label needs. In fact many artists on Arch Hill were once on Flying Nun. It all made good sense. The two labels – and the Mystery Girl international touring company – would become one larger shared operation. The labels would differentiate themselves by releasing different music and targeting slightly different audiences (probably based on age). After his experiences with Mushroom Roger said he didn’t need the stress of doing Flying Nun alone.
It was a deal.
We decided that the best strategy was for Roger to be the front person in negotiations with Warners. My involvement would be kept quiet. As the founder of Flying Nun this would clearly appeal to any sense of ‘doing the right thing’ that they may have. Roger would play everything down as much as possible. The idea was to encourage the idea he would be relieving Warners of all those dusty master tapes in the basement and ridding them of all those pesky old artists as well.
At the time I knew keeping me out of negotiations was a risky strategy for me but it also seemed like the one most likely to get a good result. So I went with it. The future also held many unknowns: what would a deal with Warners look like? Would we need investors? Would there be other partners? At this stage it didn’t seem possible to come to a fixed written agreement between us with so many future possibilities.
I thought to myself we have a verbal agreement we are in this together. That’s the main thing. And Roger is a trustworthy person".
So from July 2007 we started work. We were trying to rescue Flying Nun. Save it from the clutches of a multinational corporate giant. It was an exciting prospect. Part Two - Coming Soon... by Ben Howe from Arch Hill Recordings and Mystery Girl Presents.