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Mikee Tucker: The sound man

The music biz is struggling, but Mikee Tucker is always ready to take a punt. His Loop label sells indie Kiwi music adorned with the labels of megabrands. He‘s packaged music with t-shirts, AA Memberships and broadband, bought rights to Aerosmith and Nirvana and opened an office in LA. Peter Griffin charts Loop’s hits and misses

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Photograph by Stephen Langdon

The Music Biz is struggling, but Mikee Tucker is always ready to take a punt. His Loop label sells indie Kiwi music adorned with the labels of megabrands. He’s packaged music with t-shirts, AA memberships and broadband, bought rights to Aerosmith and Nirvana and opened an office in LA. Peter Griffin charts Loop’s hits and misses

Mikee Tucker is looking the worse for wear, as if the sleeping patterns of his six-week-old son Theo are taking their toll.

“No, no,” protests the 31-year-old behind iconic independent music publishing house Loop Recordings Aot(ear)oa, as he lights another cigarette out the back of a trendy Kingsland café. “I don’t have a breast. I’m not up much.”

It is work, of sorts, that explains the bleary eyes and—let’s face it—the hangover. Last night Tucker sat up late with friend and resident Loop artist Rhian Sheehan, helping settle on the track order for the electronic virtuoso’s new album, Standing in Silence.

“It’s probably the best album that’s ever been on Loop,” Tucker says hoarsely. “He hasn’t followed the norm, like the next level of Café Del Mar styles or anything. It’s all strings and drums. It’s cinematic and symphonic.”

It would have sounded even better last night after the pair had polished off a bottle of port and raided iTunes for some comfort music—in Tucker’s case, Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’. It’s an unlikely tune for the head of an indie label to seek out, but it did top singles charts around the world.

If Tucker, the former hairdresser, photographer, magazine editor and polytech dropout, ever had plans for world domination himself, he’s revised them slightly.

When Idealog last caught up with Tucker five months ago in Wellington, he was clutching a business plan he hoped would get him onto New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s North American Beachheads Programme.

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“Monthly record sales aren’t enough to pay wages for a week, it’s that bad.” Loop acts record and tour with the backing of brands as diverse as Cadbury, New Zealand Post and, ironically, Smokefree. “I don’t think I’m the target market,” exhales Tucker

The pitch worked and now Tucker gets to choose a US music industry veteran to serve as Loop’s mentor, courtesy of the government.

But if the logical next step is a move to Los Angeles, the heart of the old-school record industry, he’s not interested. He already did a stint in Tinseltown following Loop’s unconventional tie-up with Earth, Wind & Fire funkmeister Maurice White, who invested in Loop in 2005.

“I don’t need to be in the States. And why do I need a Wellington office in the digital age?” reasons Tucker. So he ditched any plans to return to Los Angeles on a full-time basis and shut down the office in Wellington, where Loop started life as a glossy magazine ten years ago. He’s not thinking too far ahead career-wise at the moment, something he attributes to the arrival of Theo.

“It gave me clarity about the business. Because you can’t nurture the baby, feed it, you do what else you can. You start thinking in terms of the family and the future. It’s the old-school model, but I do most of the cooking, so it’s not that old school,” he says.

The business plan, which Tucker hands over after ripping off the last page outlining Loop’s financials, hasn’t changed much. After transforming Loop from cafe culture magazine to a full-blown music label representing acts like The Black Seeds and Fly My Pretties, Tucker now describes the business as a “360-degree, music-driven marketing company”.

What does that mean?

It’s simple: “We do a bit of everything,” he says.

It became obvious early in Loop’s tenure as an independent music label, pushing rising new acts from the dub, roots and electronica scenes, that record sales alone would never keep Loop afloat. “Monthly sales aren’t enough to pay wages for a week, it’s that bad,” says Tucker.

Loop had to get creative, forging sponsorship deals with big corporates to support its much-loved Loop Select compilation albums—volume nine is due for release soon. Acts in the Loop stable regularly put out albums and go on the road with the backing of brands as diverse as Cadbury, New Zealand Post and, ironically, Smokefree. “I don’t think I’m the target market,” exhales Tucker.

Sponsorship deals generate 40 percent of Loop revenue. “Our biggest income stream is the music-driven marketing, then the publishing,” he says.

Loop now runs PR campaigns, organises soundtrack releases and puts on sponsored gigs. Tucker and colleagues wrote the US marketing plan for Jackass: The Game. He has also come up with new ways to sell music. When hip-hop duo Yes King released their album in June, what was actually sold was a $75 Huffer t-shirt. The CD came as an extra.

“It wasn’t amazingly successful to put out a t-shirt in winter, and the t-shirt was expensive,” admits Tucker. But he has since done two similar deals with corporate clients.

He put together an exclusive remix album for loyal customers of Internet provider Orcon and does a regular CD giveaway with the Automobile Association—just two of a number of tie-ins with major brands that he reels off.

Loop seems incapable of putting out a business-as-usual CD. Sheehan’s upcoming album, scheduled for a November release, will debut in a package that includes a wind-up music box that plays a 24-bar bass track of the album’s music. “We’re trying to figure out a new name for it, we’re not going to call it an album,” says Tucker. “We’re doing a thousand units only, special edition, hand-numbered.”

Where do you get a thousand wind-up music boxes?

“You can get anything made in China, mate.”

Just back from a major music conference in Brisbane, where ‘band versus brand’ was the topic of discussion, Tucker isn’t letting the gloom pervading the music industry get him down.

“Any word on Groovy?” he asks a business partner on one of the several calls he’ll take during our interview. Rumours are rife that music retailer Real Groovy may have to close its doors, following in the footsteps of defunct high-street music chain Sounds.

“It’s not going to go down, it’s too much of an institution,” Tucker says confidently. His view is that the industry players who reinvent their models will survive. “Publishers are fine, events organisers and managers and tour promoters are fine. I mean, who is coming here next? Def Leppard? They’re not making all that money from record sales, they have to tour,” he says.

“Is your music now your business card? Is it your loss leader for creating touring, sponsorship, merchandise and publishing revenue? To some extent, I think yes. We haven’t done an album release this year that hasn’t been backed by a sponsor.”

But do the punters mind their music coming with big-name consumer brands?

“What’s the difference between a Sony Music logo and a Microsoft logo? People are so branded out these days that as long as they get their hands on what they want, musically and creatively, they’re happy. Anyway, how long do these packages hang around once they’re on your iPod?”

While Loop’s New Zealand business rests on music marketing and sponsorship deals, a joint venture with New York-based music publisher Primary Wave could allow it to step into the international big league.

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Owning the copyright to music by the likes of Nirvana, Aerosmith and the MGM movie soundtrack back catalogue, Primary Wave is the gatekeeper when it comes to buying the rights to use those songs in movies, adverts or compilation albums.

The deal sees Loop become Primary Wave’s agent in New Zealand and Australia, while Loop’s artists get a leg-up in the US. So far there haven’t been any big sales—big-name artists cost a fortune to license.
“The budgets are out there,” says Tucker, “but you’re narrowing down who you can pitch to. Think of that Bluebird chips ad with the penguins and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk this Way’.”

Through Primary Wave, Loop is also getting to work on some interesting global projects, like an Earth, Wind & Fire remix album planned for next year.

One wall of Tucker’s shabby cinder-block office on Auckland’s New North Road is lined with CD samplers of Primary Wave music he’s constantly hustling with film producers and advertising executives. The latest is a Motown sampler.

Then there are Tucker’s pet projects, like the All Blacks The Music compilation album featuring a mix of indie and mainstream Kiwi artists that had so much promise but tanked last year alongside the national team. Will he repeat the exercise?

Too right. Only a few hundred albums sold in Britain and barely a hundred in Australia, but Tucker is confident an innovative new approach will make the next compilation a sure-fire success, whether the All Blacks win or lose. “It could be 15 covers, great New Zealand artists doing other great New Zealand artists. It could be Anika Moa doing a Split Enz tune.”

Though not averse to making money, Tucker’s track record nevertheless backs his claim that his driving aim is to “expose New Zealand music and culture to the world”.

“The first issue of Loop magazine in 1999 had Dallas Tamaira on the cover before Fat Freddy’s [Drop] even existed,” he says. “The CD we put on the front was the bomb and featured lots of people that went on to become today’s household names, like The Black Seeds, Trinity Roots, King Kapisi.”

It may be harder than ever to make a dollar in the music industry, but you get the feeling Tucker wouldn’t give it up, for love, nor money.

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