Photo by Kristen Goodall
Reckless Yes is independent in the purest sense of the word. Actively opposing exploitative industry norms, the record label stands out against a murky backdrop of unethical practices that have become hallmarks of the trade. The curating of an inclusive roster, offering fair deals to their artists, and making sustainable choices are the pillars that hold up a label determined to make a difference.
Hailing from Derby, Reckless Yes’ first release was a 7” for local legends Bivouac, dished out at the band’s hometown comeback show in 2016. Pete Darrington, who co-founded the label with Sarah Lay, reflects on this moment: ‘It just seemed too good an opportunity to miss – we knew the show would be busy – Bivouac had been on Geffen in the ‘90s. […] We hand folded sleeves and numbered each copy with a pen on the night of the show and that was it, we were off.’
The single came about as a continuation of a collaboration between Pete and Sarah, who had been putting on DIY shows in Derby throughout early 2016. Writers and journalists in their own right, the pair met when Sarah was Editor of the brilliant music mag Louder Than War. ‘We got chatting when [Pete] submitted a piece, about a gig at JT Soars in Nottingham I think. It was evident pretty quickly we had lots in common, and as we talked about how we thought things should work in running gigs or anything else it was clear we shared the same outlook about what was fair, or not, in music.’
Today, Reckless Yes is home to a diverse and ever-growing community of artists. As of 2020, more than 62% of the label’s roster were women, non-binary, trans, or other gender minority artists. Although maintaining this balance is an active commitment for the label, the inclusive lineup developed naturally: ‘It was never a tick-box exercise or a gimmick but it’s been fairly easy for us to be inclusive when womxn, gender and other minorities are genuinely making the most interesting music around, in our opinion’, Sarah says, ‘But we’re also aware regardless of talent most of those people will be passed over by other labels, and diminished or oppressed in other areas of the industry simply because of who they are.’
It was never a tick-box exercise or a gimmick but it’s been fairly easy for us to be inclusive when womxn, gender and other minorities are genuinely making the most interesting music around, in our opinion.
It makes sense that a label built from an ethical standpoint is going to be attractive to artists, especially those who face continual oppression within the music industry and away from it. The formation of a safe space is a priority for Reckless Yes, who clearly recognise that the wider music community does not actively work towards curating these spaces. Of course, it is marginalised groups who bear the full weight of this negligence.
The label compounds its progressive nature by giving all artists 50% of their record profits. Pete, who himself released music under the ever-looming presence of a major label contract, explains why this is the case: ‘The good thing about being on a major is they’ve got money. Promo and plugging isn’t a problem. Getting paid for being in a band, as long as you don’t live a ridiculous lifestyle, is also not an issue. But they own you, your songs and your recordings. You can’t leave them if you’re not happy with the team or the service, but they can leave you on the pavement whenever they like. […] I also wanted to make sure it felt like a partnership by having a 50/50 split of the profits of the record sales. Without these talented folk making these great records, we’re nothing, so it should be equal. You don’t get that from a major label either – it’s typically 70/30 or 80/20 in their favour.’
‘We don’t live or die by the next record, which was a big fear for us for the first few years – the cash flow was such that if the next record was a commercial disaster, it would be game over.’
In a further attempt to financially support artists, Reckless Yes’ business model is built around its revolutionary membership scheme. Members pay a one-off annual fee and receive all of the label’s releases for the year, presenting benefits for the label, artists, and consumers at once. ‘For our artists it means we can offset the costs of their releases. We don’t try to recover the membership money so artists are in profit faster, It also means they have a group of enthusiastic and supportive people ready and waiting to advocate for them and spread the word about their music to others’ explains Sarah. Pete adds, ‘We don’t live or die by the next record, which was a big fear for us for the first few years – the cash flow was such that if the next record was a commercial disaster, it would be game over.’
Reckless Yes don’t fail to recognise the intersection between their social cause and the need for climate justice: as a result, environmentalism plays a key role in their business model, including giving a percentage of label profits to causes working to protect the environment and signing up to schemes like Offset Earth.
Predictably, the label’s social and environmental commitments have led to resistance from reactionary corners of the industry. Sarah and Pete would both like to see reform in the exploitative major record label model, but they understand that change will likely only come about when profit margins dictate. As Sarah explains, ‘The model is designed to exploit the artists on which the whole thing is dependent, and profit will likely always be a priority over doing the right thing. What’s quite interesting is that we can work this fairer model and still be a successful business. It does show the two things aren’t mutually exclusive.’
For many artists, though, any systemic change will be too late. This is particularly true during the national lockdown, where a musician’s only reliable source of income from their art, touring and selling merchandise, has been cruelly ripped away. Spotify royalties aren’t going to provide a wage for the vast majority of artists and most have been forced to compete with one another for limited employment opportunities outside of music. Government responses to the pandemic have repeatedly put corporate profit above human life, and it’s been made perfectly clear that artists will have no choice but to fend for themselves.
Reckless Yes seem to have navigated the lockdown relatively smoothly, presumably in part thanks to the effectiveness and security of the membership scheme. Of course, the lack of gigging will no doubt have had a negative impact on the artists, but the label’s packed release schedule shows that creativity hasn’t ceased under the restrictions. ‘It’s been a rollercoaster!’, reports Sarah, ‘It’s definitely been really hard on our artists who are missing being able to play live – for the connection as much as the income. Some releases have been delayed but otherwise, our plans didn’t change hugely, and we were even able to pull in a couple of extra releases we hadn’t expected.’ Pete adds, ‘It’s also allowed us to pour more energy and effort into the label as I’ve been working from home and doing label stuff and day job at the same time. So I’m a little worried about when I have to be in the office full time again!’
The label hopes to carry this energy throughout 2021 and are already looking forward to some big plans for 2022. ‘This is undoubtedly our most ambitious year yet in terms of the number of releases, and the scale of those releases too. We’ve pretty much got something out every week this year so there’s plenty of stuff to get into, and really makes that membership amazing value. We’re also setting the foundations for some big things happening in 2022, and wanting to support our artists come out of what is an awful time to be a musician (not only the pandemic, but thanks to Brexit too) by supporting their wellbeing and development as much as we help them get their music out there.’
Reckless Yes’ latest release is Hannah Rose Kessler’s new single Come Feel Me. Hannah is incredibly talented and she has a real eagerness to experiment with different genres – she’s not afraid to try on new hats as it were, from one song to the next, so while I totally expect what she does next could be entirely different from what she’s done with this selection of songs, at the core of it are great well written catchy songs that deal with big issues from a female perspective – Pete.
Information about Reckless Yes’ Membership Scheme can be found here – https://recklessyes.com/become-reckless-yes-member/