Achal Dhillon and Sam Hong.
The IMI 19th Aug 2021

'There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a cottage industry'

The AIM Independent Music Awards returns on August 25. In the weeks leading up to this year's ceremony, The IMI has been sitting down with the people behind the nominees for Best Small Label. This week, meet Achal Dhillon and Sam Hong from Killing Moon and, now, The Music Federation...

Killing Moon has completed a pretty significant evolution since being nominated for Best Small Label at the 2021 AIM Awards.

Earlier this month, the Killing Moon team revealed The Music Federation, a distribution and services entity, partnered with Believe, that works a bit differently, in that it brings together a growing spectrum of fellow indies in a formal and collaborative capacity.

The idea is that, rather than having a one-way, transactional relationship, members of The Music Federation (which include Metropolis, Fierce Panda, Export Quality Records, Elephant Music, Native.fm, Wild Paths Festival and more) help each other by sharing skills, resources and expertise.

It’s a philosophy that has been with Achal Dhillon ever since he founded Killing Moon in 2012.

“When I started the label, the main vision was to learn,” he says. “I had worked at several record labels and management companies prior to founding Killing Moon Records and, at that point, I still would not have been able to tell you how to actually put out a record. So I tasked myself with learning everything from production and contracting through to distribution and marketing. I also picked up a few other tricks along the way, like how to put on a gig without waiting for an agent or promoter (it does involve becoming at least one of those things yourself).

“I’d say the vision has been realised, and we’ve also had many more visions along the way. Community seems to be very much at the forefront of our now collective mind.”

Joining Killing Moon as a live intern in 2018, Sam Hong went on to run the company in tandem with Dhillon, as well as building the Killing Moon Live promotion arm. He now heads up The Music Federation’s live activity.

When Ach brought me onto the label in 2020, my vision was to get us back to doing what we loved: working with artists and music that we are passionate about. Since launching The Music Federation, I feel that ideology has expanded and we now get to do that with every brand or business we work with.”

With the AIM Independent Music Awards just around the corner, on August 25, we caught up with Dhillon and Hong to talk about both Killing Moon and The Music Federation ahead of the big day…

How do you define success for your releases?

AD: Sometimes, just getting the release out can be seen as a success in itself. I’m a big fan of subjectivity and context so, whilst a big playlist add or being chosen to support on a massive tour can be quite the feather in my cap, we’re actually pretty into setting objectives for the release in the eyes of the artist themselves – and that usually takes place before the campaign commences. Sometimes we will disagree with those objectives, in which case, we’re probably not the right label for those artists. If we can meet those objectives, or get really close to them to the point that we all feel the release was worth doing in its own context, then it’s a success. I will say, outside of that, there is nothing more awesome from an artist going from zero people giving a shit about them to a lot of people giving a shit.

SH: Success differs for each release; it depends on what our goals are and what the artists want. Every artist wants radio plays, placement on editorial playlists and online press, which is fine to have as a measurable component for success. Personally, I think that if we can walk away from a campaign with a handful of hardcore fans that’s a success.

TMF staff: Danny Gillies (Project Manager), Isabelle Ljungqvist (Project Manager), Jasmine Hodge (Head Of Promo), Siofra McComb (GM)

What have been your proudest moments with the label?

AD: Honestly, I think a lot of people seriously underrate how vindicating it is to even have skin in this game, or indeed survive once in it. Me and my chosen family have been through so much over the years, and people and artists have come and gone, of course. I guess what I’m proudest of is that we have never wavered from what we originally set out to do – to boldly go where the music industry probably should have gone before. I am especially proud that we are indeed a “we”, and that we have not screwed over anyone to get here.

SH: My proudest moment at Killing Moon is happening right now. We are working extremely hard as a team to help make a change within the music industry with The Music Federation. We’re actively having discussions about social and economic issues that have been occurring recently and before. We are all trying our best to make a difference. There are a lot of exciting new projects coming to life very soon and, of course, The Music Federation is one Ach has been dreaming of for a very long time.

Why do you think you’ve been nominated for this award?

AD: Because we have the best team. I am utterly convinced that the people I work with at The Music Federation represent the care, integrity and honour that I know I couldn’t even buy if I really wanted to. As rag-tag and dysfunctional as things may seem a lot of the time, I feel utterly secure and looked after by my brilliant staff. I know they care about me as a human and as their employer. If anyone deserves credit, it is them and I am inspired by them on a daily basis. It’s like watching a new episode of your favourite show every day for the rest of your life. For the last few months, I’ve been pinching myself every morning to check I’m not dreaming any of this or making it up.

SH: The team that we have at Killing Moon is awesome, everyone is a team player. We are a family. When something happens that threatens us, or one of us, we protect each other like family and are transparent with each other. There’s no bullshit here.

Over the pandemic we’ve been able to spend a lot of time working on the fundamental principles that define us, and to build back from the ground up based on those principles. Something we wouldn’t have had the chance to do pre-Covid.

"I'm not even sure the sky is the limit anymore. I feel excited to be involved with music for the first time in at least 10 years. Like it's an anniversary of 'getting it' all over again."

How have you coped over the pandemic? How have you adjusted?

AD: As a business, pretty well, but I say that with the rather large caveat that we are lucky to have access to various communities, such as AIM, that actively support us and other people like us. Whilst no organisation is ever going to be perfect, us included, it is so important to give and receive hope within your community. Nearly 10 years ago, I started this thing in my parent’s loft. I’m now doing this thing in my kitchen. Now, that’s what I call progress.

Personally, for a while in 2020, it was touch and/or go for me. My mental (and indeed physical and emotional) health has never undergone quite what it did last year. I had to deal with people who have pretended to be my friends, and who have been stealing from me and mine. It has changed my perspective a lot, especially when it comes to dealing with difficult people, and has left very little appetite for bullshit these days.

I’ve adjusted by trusting myself, and recognising that my feelings are never ‘wrong’. I fell in love with someone who really has managed to bring out the best in me, and I wouldn’t have even contemplated The Music Federation were it not for her. The stuff we’re working on, I now realise I was always capable of, but now the home support is so solid, I’m not even sure the sky is the limit anymore. I feel excited to be involved with music for the first time in at least 10 years. Like it’s an anniversary of ‘getting it’, all over again.

SH: The pandemic has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Ironically, spring – summer 2020 was my best year. I learnt a lot of things that I would have never picked up pre-Covid. Like many people, I had to adapt, from working as a promoter to being in management and records, and now I can competently do all three professions (although my main role is Head Of Live for The Music Federation). I also started releasing music as a solo artist again.

The winter lockdown was extremely difficult, I found that my mental health was deteriorating from the lack of sunlight and being outside. Life was grey. But everything happens for a reason and I’m extremely grateful to be coming out of this stronger, with more experience, and with a reason to wake up happy in the morning. 

Where do you hope to see the The Music Federation in five years?

AD: Can I be really honest? We’re evolving now. Killing Moon is much more than a label, it’s really a concept that I think is much larger than I can handle, and so the logical approach was to evolve this ideology into a zeitgeist rather than another “my band’s better than your band” style label. It’s the idea that, despite the bullshit, it is possible to have success on your own terms, so long as you work out how much is actually enough for you from the outset, and you get rid of all the bastards (or just fight them). I therefore hope to see many more labels, members of The Music Federation and beyond, and cool music folk just making it, and I hope to see all my talented friends happy. It really feels, at this point, that we’re not just inheriting this industry now, we get to shape it.

SH: I hope that in five years’ time, as The Music Federation grows as a company, that our core values stay the same. That we are transparent with our partners, that we cut the bullshit that we tolerate on a regular basis in this line of work, and that we don’t turn into the next cluster of music industry scum.

If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?

AD: The pursuit of material wealth as the sole narrative. We don’t all have to be Hipgnosis, and I guess I’ve finally learned that I was never meant to be like them. I want people to know there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a cottage industry. Anyone who tells you any different is either trying to sell you something or steal from you. And I have encountered many, many of those sorts of people. I know their time is coming to an end, and that of our community is just beginning.

SH: To call out all the crooks and stop them from continuing in this line of work.

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