Michael Tolle: Behind the Making of a Record Label

Photo Cred: Sergio Lopez and Kelly Rashka

Photo Cred: Sergio Lopez and Kelly Rashka

Years and years of hard work later - full of passion, dedication and long hours - Michael Tolle is living his dream of being in the music industry and making it his full-time (truthfully over-time) career. Initially unsure of what exactly his involvement would be in music, specifically Hip Hop, he became the owner of the Tucson, AZ record label, Mello Music Group

With artists like Oddisee, Apollo Brown, Lando Chill and others, Michael envisions Mello Music Group "to stand for music above marketing, musicians above profit." This mover and shaker sits down with us and shares his insight on not only the making of a record label but also on artist self-doubt, sacrifice, choosing an artist to sign, and more!  

What inspired and/or influenced you to start a record label?

My initial inspirations were the BBE Beat Generation series (Pete Rock, Jazzy Jeff, Will.I.AM, Marley Marl, Dilla, King Brit, DJ Spinna, Madlib). That series opened my eyes to how putting the music I listened to into a collection could be. The CDs had this magnetic digipak closure, the vinyl was lush. Another big influence early on in the mental conception of Mello Music Group as an idea was the Rudy Van Gelder Collection of Blue Note records. The way they were presented at that time in my life made me realize what the label or grouping of records could do.  These were “pre-influences” before the label existed but that time period was when the mechanics of the label were in my mind.

As I was building the label my influences became my peers - Oddisee, Dudley Perkins, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Apollo Brown internally. Externally (still in our circle at that time) were specifically Fatbeats & Black Milk. Slightly further removed but still in my scope and sphere were Flying Lotus just before and during the Warp beginning. A bit further into things, I began hearing the Rawkus comparisons but never connected to them. By the time we were starting to lay our foundation I felt more affinity to Stones Throw and Rhymesayers.

Then suddenly, very late compared to everyone else, music just grabbed me and became everything to me.
— Michael Tolle

Was this always your dream growing up? Or was it something that developed through the journey towards a different career?

I never had any ambition in music. I never played any instruments seriously, or sang, or was involved in music in any way. My family wasn’t musical. Then suddenly, very late compared to everyone else, music just grabbed me and became everything to me. Maybe because it was foreign to me, so difficult, it was also so magical. I literally remember the person who stopped me and was like, “Yo, do you hear the beat? Follow it, you’re all off beat.” I learned to follow basslines, beats, individual instruments in songs from there. It took me forever to be able to distinguish which instruments were making which sounds. I remember learning that there were categories - percussion, strings, wind, etc… I was a late, late, late bloomer but it was the world to me once I fell into sound.  

My original focus and love was books, storytelling, and writing. My push and desire was to be a novelist and short story writer - something I’m still passionate about. I was and am of the Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Bharati Mukherjee school of things. A lot of my writing teachers - Dan Stolar, Jason Brown, Aurelie Sheehan - influenced my understanding of narrative, art, and the creative process. Dan Stolar was the first teacher to basically shut me down for being dead wrong, not talented and socially wrong. He did it so bluntly and with compassion and direction. He set me on a path of learning the craft by first studying the greats and those doing it at the level you are looking to reach next. He introduced and had me studying James Baldwin and in particular what I believe to be the greatest short story ever written - which also contains one of the best music scenes in literature ever - “Sonny’s Blues.” But while I was studying writing and sending poorly crafted stories off to journals and magazines, I was voraciously listening and learning music - in particular rap. It was more than a hobby, it was a full time obsession.

I remember the day I promised myself I would be in the music industry and that I would never quit until I learned enough and figured out how to make it my career.
— Michael Tolle

All the while I was paying bills since I was 14 and working twenty plus hours at grocery stores. At 16 I was working thirty plus hours, then managing retail shops since I was 17 and going to school.  So by the time I was mid-twenties I had nearly a decade of management experience, was pushing for a writing career and teaching, while making these Mello Mixes and obsessing over music. I was used to long hours, work, studying, and hobbies. Everything lined up somehow - the creative process, business/entrepreneurial drive, and music obsession.  

I remember the day I promised myself I would be in the music industry and that I would never quit until I learned enough and figured out how to make it my career. I wasn’t sure if I’d be a DJ, a rapper, or on the business side, but I even wrote it on a napkin that I would out last everyone else until I made it. I tucked that napkin in my little Sentry safe where I kept my photos and other momentos.  

I also remember the day I swore to never work for anyone else ever again. I figured if I was valuable enough for people to pay me to manage their businesses, and they still had money left over, then I was capable of figuring out my own business. After finishing my writing degree I didn’t want to teach and work under the yoke of a system, so I started my own company essentially tutoring but I always insisted it was an educational school. I started charging ten dollars an hour to teach advanced writing and literature to students and quickly (1-2 years) built a reputation and clientele to where I was booked sixty plus hours a week and charging $35-40 an hour. I taught international students who were here with parents on sabbatical (or with companies) who wanted advanced language education for the children.

At the same time, I was spending every dime on building the record label - living off almost nothing and buying beats. I spent thirty to forty hours on music and worked sixty to seventy hours teaching. I slept three to four hours a night, seven days a week for a solid four years. I remember being made fun of for dark circles under my eyes and being called raccoon face because I hadn’t slept in so long. But I never felt tired. I stayed awake at all hours because music was wonder. I woke up early because I was loving the stories, literature, writing and students I was working with and was making money. It all made sense to me.

I bought entire beats tapes full of beats from Oddisee (my favorite was his ‘06 collection made in Australia). I bought ten Black Milk beats, bought features, paid for albums worth of material to be made by Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dudley Perkins. I paid painters and illustrators to create designs and paintings. I didn’t know how the music business worked but I wanted to work with those people and support what they did. This was 2006, 2007, 2008. Then in December of 2008, Oddisee and I put out the official first Mello Music Group album Oddisee “101.”  Gene Pendon painted the cover (he was part of HVW8 and did all the old And1 Mixtape covers back in the day). That was the official launch.

We have to believe that money follows devotion to the thing itself and that those who follow money forget the thing that provides all.
— Michael Tolle

Why the name Mello Music?

Originally I was making these mixtapes of local Tucson artists and indie national level artists.  They were full of people like Isaiah, Roch, DJ Illite, Mescaline, Nate Williams, and others like DJ Romes, People Under The Stairs, Afu-Ra, Masta Ace, and so on. I ended up taking my name, Mike Tolle, and creating an anagram, Mello Kite - sort of like a mello message. I put out these mixes called “Mello Kite Mixes.” These were burned CDs with little covers I put together. I put a lot of effort into them and even tried doing a mixtape subscription service idea back in ‘04, ‘05, ‘06. So Mello Kite became just Mello with time. Then when the label formed it was Mello Music Group.  

How would you describe your label and what it stands for?

Our original “about us” statement still stands. It was a reworking of some James Baldwin and Taoism, combined with my own thoughts. This is the original description of the label:

“Like Lao Tzu in Hip Hop, Mello Music Group provides music for the soul, from the heart of American culture, opening the realm of the intelligent Hip Hop experience through melodic evocations, beats that corroborate the truth, and voices that roar above the rising void and impose order on the terrible and triumphant moments of everyday life. Mello Music Group. Sounds Beautiful Like The Truth.”

With time I’ve learned I also want the label to stand for music above marketing, musicians above profit. It’s important that we make the music and culture that we want to live within and not just do “what works” or makes money. We have to believe that money follows devotion to the thing itself and that those who follow money forget the thing that provides all.

A lot of our best artists sold near nothing on their first albums - even ones considered classic with time.
— Michael Tolle

What would you say has been the biggest risk and/or biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

The biggest sacrifice I ever made was giving up every moment of friendship and social life for nearly a decade to follow this dream and manifest this vision I had. I literally poured every dime (without regard for return) into it for five years before considering making money back. I let a lot of friendships I still love and miss go because I gave every breathing moment to the label. I also sacrificed some health for a decade. I gained maybe 75 pounds from never sleeping and eating late, working late, doing nothing but work and music. I really was ready to give my entire being to this thing I loved. I wanted to be great at one thing in this lifetime.

It wasn’t until maybe 2013-2014 that I started to take some time back for myself and my family, my friends and the world around me. I still find all my joy in working and family. My work and family and life are all one thing that doesn’t stop.  

To be fair my wife probably sacrificed more living through this with me first as a girlfriend, then my wife, and now the mother of our children. How she endured endless work and every dime going to music I don’t know, but she stood by me and helped make this dream what it is today.  She did all the graphic design for years. She listened with me. She brought me coffee. She gave advice. She was a sounding board to everything. She went years seeing me come to bed at four a.m. and get up at eight a.m., seven days a week. I skipped holidays and vacations for a long time. I don’t think we left our neighborhood, let alone Tucson, for the first four to five years of starting Mello Music Group. I remember it was a conscious decision we talked about for work a few years back when we said I was going to start traveling every month to expand things conceptually. Now I travel a lot for work and again my family sacrifices and supports. I like to go to cities solo and visit all the record stores, the manufacturers, the venues and clubs, and see local music. I just sit in the back alone and take it in, study, listen, and go back to a hotel and work.  

But there is so much payoff, so much joy now too. After doing what I love non-stop, I now have the ability to do what I want on a level I never dreamed of seeing. I feel fortunate and guilty at the same time for enjoying lavish things from time to time. But I don’t know moderation. I can’t work nine months non-stop if I can’t then take a month off and go live on an island for a while to reboot before the next season or year starts. I take time now to enjoy but I find the harder I work, and the longer I keep it in overdrive, the less social life I allow myself. Then the better the trip to nowhere feels, the more I enjoy jungles, oceans, trees, my wife and my kids. The more I savor a pizza and beer and conversation with friends. I was able to bring my mother in law and my mom to Kauai for Mother’s Day with my family a couple years ago and those are the kinds of things I could have never dreamed of five years ago. That’s the kind of gift all the Mello supporters and fans have given me.

If you feel comfortable sharing, could you tell us one of your biggest “failures” and how you overcame it?

The biggest recent failure I’ve had is learning the retail store fulfillment side of this business. I’m talking about the direct orders that customers make from our web store. I personally have no desire or time to ship packages all day or stock a storeroom. So, we use a fulfillment service to do that for us. They pull the orders and product and ship them. But inventory can be off, or orders can get messed up, things can get backordered and nobody tells you. Vinyl can sell out and take three to six months to come back in stock. So you think everything is fine until an irate customer who paid all the money they had to get their favorite artist’s album has been emailing your company and it’s been going to the company spam folder, or it simply got missed in the 500 emails a day you get, and they never got their product three, four, five months later.  

They have to file a dispute with Paypal, or something along those lines. Now the experience has ruined the music, the company and everything in their eyes. I hate that. I hate that all the music and love we pour into everything and all the hours I work can be ruined in one online order if we mess it up and don’t fix it properly and promptly. And we haven’t been that great at it. That is the one aspect of the business that has happened way too much for me to be okay with it. We aren’t in a position to get a warehouse of our own and stock people and a manager just to handle the records we sell directly (most of our sales are through our distributor and retail). So for now it is the system we have. We have our records stored with a warehouse and company that fulfills a number of different labels music sales. But every time we mess an order up, or fail a customer, I feel a knife twisting because that shouldn't’ happen but it does way too often. You do 500 orders a week and mess five up, it’s a small percentage until you realize twenty people a month, 240 people a year are incredibly pissed to the point of not wanting to buy from you again. That’s the worst. It seems so simple to ship stuff or to reply to emails but so much gets lost because of systems I’m still trying to improve. It bothers me to no end but we will get that system worked out perfectly before I’m done.  

You know you are musically dope when the people around you are musically dope.
— Michael Tolle
Photo Cred: Sergio Lopez and Kelly Rashka

Photo Cred: Sergio Lopez and Kelly Rashka

What has been something about the record label business that totally surprised you?

How many musicians self-sabotage and really aren’t mentally ready to succeed even when they’re musically sound. It’s incredible but very, very common for an artist to get what they want and then near release day sabotage themselves by disappearing, going on rants, not doing promotion, basically throwing a wrench in the machinery at the most critical time - anything that will give them an excuse to point to for why their record failed with fans or with sales. Often times, they literally go into depression right before a release. They don’t want to face it and would subconsciously prefer to have an excuse than to actually try and fail. It’s disturbing how many people do that. I’ve learned to spot it coming on and try to intervene. It’s a sort of artist anxiety attack. Nobody thinks it’s them, but a lot of artists face it.

I try to tell artists it’s for sure they are going to fail. Nothing works the first two, three, four times. We are just practicing so we can learn how to do it better next time. I believe that too. The myth of the overnight success is bullshit. The best put out great records to start and got ignored. A lot of our best artists sold near nothing on their first albums - even ones considered classic with time. I’m talking a few hundred records total. What it’s about is building 150% of your fan base each time out and growing. You are building a career in music for a lifetime, not trying to win the lottery or get drafted to the NBA for a four year run.

Never lean too heavily on anyone else, never be too needy, but always stay working with good people.
— Michael Tolle

What advice would you give to an artist wanting to get signed? Like how do you personally go about selecting an artist for Mello Music?

An artist who wants to get signed needs to be musically sound - don’t trust your friends, family, or instinct. You know you are musically dope when the people around you are musically dope. I don’t mean you think they are - I mean you ain’t sold a single record but you’re kicking it with Earl, Open Mike, Quelle, Oddisee, Yassin, Erykah, Kool Keith, or any other legit master of the craft and they are simply down with you because you all are musicians and good people. A lot of guys I know not on the label sell 200, 300, 400 copies and are making classic material, trying to book a few shows themselves here and there and they kick it with every legend you grew up idolizing. They are friends and peers. That doesn’t mean they are gonna get free verses or hooked up with a deal. They aren’t starstruck. They are vets who haven’t even started yet. That’s when you're ready for a deal.  

Add to that level of talent, knowing how to put high quality videos together, knowing how to put graphic design for packaging and art together, being able to get quality press shots and album descriptions made. Being able to book a tour yourself. When we signed Lando Chill he was putting great videos together with Malcolm Critcher & Symeon Platts, he was doing shows with his band, he was getting cover stories in the Tucson Weekly, he was pressing his own cds and lathe cuts. He was a microcosm of a label already. We just assisted what he was already doing.  We just joined resources to help each other. He had it all, we simply worked with him to accelerate and magnify. And he let us be a part of the beauty he is crafting.

Also, create market ready projects (mastered album, art, photos, bio) then DON'T release it. Take three to four months to shop it to people, to talk with people. DON'T put out singles, DON'T announce the project. The pros make projects and sit on 'em until they find a home and a proper campaign. I've heard full albums from legends, indie stars, locals, anyone from Pete Rock, Phife to Lif or Blacastan, and plenty of others that have never seen the light of day and may never come out. Pros develop projects and then work behind the scenes for the right situation for a project. If it doesn't happen they don't throw it on soundcloud or tune core. They hold it in the vault.

Don’t waste [the work] on anything less than love.
— Michael Tolle

What are your thoughts on artists wanting to stay independent because of the fear of being taken advantage of, being jaded or changed by a record label?

Everybody needs a team. Call it a label, or your family, or whatever, but you can’t do this without directors, photographers, graphic designers, sound engineers, artists, distributors, radio people, djs, producers, emcees, singers, pr people, marketing, advertisers, agreements, paperwork, taxes, accounting, and the whole nine yards. You are going to need people to do it with you. If you end up with your mom, a friend, and one employee - fine - but that’s your label. If you end up with Obama’s campaign managers, a seven person legal team, Apple Music, and your family’s money backing you - that’s your “indie label.”  Majors like Atlantic, Universal, etc. are one type of animal. Indies like Mello, Mass Appeal, Rhymesayers are another species. Then there’s Macklemore and Chance style labels that are different types of collectives. When Chance tried to get permission to post the Apollo Brown produced song on his first album that he calls a mixtape on Spotify, he had six lawyers cc’d on the email asking for us to sign a gratis agreement. That’s not a label by definition, but that’s your people, so they helped along with a whole team of other people. The definitions are being blurred. It’s the same as people saying albums are mixtapes, and so forth - changing names for what is serving the same function. So I don’t care what you call it, you need good people in your corner. They are literally your “company” - the people you keep around you.  Never lean too heavily on anyone else, never be too needy, but always stay working with good people.

If you could go back and give yourself pointers when you first were starting the label, what would you say?

I’d keep my mouth shut because I would never have endured what I did if I knew it was coming. I’d keep my mouth shut because that journey ‘till today was everything I ever loved. It was tears, and loneliness, and joy, and doubt, and ecstasy and it was my life. I would never try to change a minute of it. If I had to say one thing, I’d remind myself to keep loving the work because that’s all you have is your toil. Don’t waste it on anything less than love. I love the last line of Voltaire’s classic: “Cela est bien dit,” répondit Candide, “mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.”