It’s difficult to have a discussion about underground extreme metal without mentioning Transcending Obscurity Records. Joining the ranks of labels like Dark Descent, Blood Harvest, and I, Voidhanger as one of the most prolific purveyors of underground metal madness on the planet, the label has very quickly become a go-to for fans of the grungiest, filthiest, and most unique sounds in the genre, and for good reason. Depravity, Sadistik Forest, Gaerea, Arkheth, and De Profundis are just a few of the bands that have released quality work on the label during the first half of the year, with more on the way. A quick peek into the label’s 2018 album sampler provides ample evidence of Transcending Obscurity’s quality line-up of bands from across the extreme metal spectrum.
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But label reputations aren’t built overnight. It takes time, dedication, and a titanic amount of effort to maintain and grow a business model like this. That’s where Kunal Choksi comes in. The master and commander of TOR, Kunal took the time to correspond with me from his home in India regarding the history of the label, the challenges of running a metal label in his home country, and where he sees TOR moving in the near future. Outside of being the man behind one of the hottest underground labels in metal, he’s also on the short-list of best dudes in the business. Read our conversation below!
Tell us about yourself. Transcending Obscurity is fast becoming a well-known label in the metal underground, but who is the man behind the curtain?
Firstly, thank you so much for this interview and for taking such a keen interest in my little label. I’m Kunal Choksi, born and raised in India of all places, from where I’m still running the label. Metallica’s Master of Puppets got me into metal when I was studying mechanical engineering and I was hooked on it ever since. It was what I was looking for all my life. I was irresistibly drawn to it – it was music that filled the void in my soul and gave me a purpose. Since then I tried to gather much knowledge about it which eventually led to the formation of a webzine in 2005 called Diabolical Conquest. Transcending Obscurity is essentially a continuation of the same, but with a name change. The crux of the entity has always been promoting deserving bands, whether it was through the webzine, the short-lived PR company, or the current record label. I think the name encapsulates it all perfectly. I’m grateful to be able to help bands albeit in a limited way i.e. to the best of my abilities.
What inspired you to run a label, especially in an area of the world that isn’t particularly known for its metal?
It was when a band from Australia which I loved called The Dead asked me if I could help them find a label for them, that I decided to think about it. After having reviewed their complete discography and even conducting an interview with them, I saw that there was still a need that was unfulfilled and if no one else was interested in working with that obscure band, I thought I should give it a shot myself. I took the leap and figured things out along the way.
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On the topic of India, how would you describe the metal scene there?
The scene is akin to that of any other Asian country – there’s potential but the motivation isn’t there. Most bands are content with just playing live and as soon as the members graduate and find a job or get married, they lose all interest in it. Tours are rare and the scene isn’t as developed. I did my bit of course by starting sub-labels and put out close to 50 albums until I decided it was time to focus on the main label.
What are the most challenging aspects of running a record label?
I think promotion is the key. I get sleepless nights if I’m not able to do it to my satisfaction. My label is small, based in India and most of my bands don’t tour. I’m dependent on online promotion and word of mouth almost entirely to spread the word. Of late I have been focusing on our presentation and packaging and that’s been very time-consuming. Timely delivery and execution is another area that needs constant personal attention. So yeah, all in all, it’s very demanding and also challenging to do a thorough job all around.
You have a fairly stacked roster of great metal acts on the label. How do you go about signing bands? What methods do you use to make decisions regarding which bands to bring onto the label?
I think my experience of a decade and a half as an editor/writer has helped me pick bands better and of several genres rather than one or two. But what most people don’t realize is that you don’t always get to work with the bands you like. There are bigger labels and sadly, bands wanting to stick to labels from their country and continent than give me a chance – even if I can tangibly show them the work I’ve done for my bands all along.
I guess bands work with me because they find good references. At least that’s how I got Master on the label. And I prefer being available and accessible. I don’t ever want to be big enough to not be able to reply to their emails or messages. Yes, it’s tiring, but I prefer this hands-on approach than keeping them in the dark and stubbornly do things my way. I believe I’ve signed too many bands but it’s always better to sign them earlier on so you can nurture them and help them grow bigger with each album.
How has the ascendancy of digital album sales and streaming impacted your business? How does a small metal label stay profitable or break even in this new world of digital music consumption?
While I don’t mind digital sales in the least, I loathe streaming services. It’s simple – bands get what $0.001 of every 1000 streams? I mean, are you kidding me? What am I supposed to pay my underground bands? Pennies? It’s a travesty. People argue that bands get exposure but please, that argument is done and dusted. I can’t promise recording studios “exposure” or acclaimed artists that. People want something that sounds pristine and which looks stunning and criticize when it’s subpar but they should realize that such things aren’t free when professionals are involved. It’s a contradiction if they can demand all of that by just not supporting the artist the right way. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a norm, simply because of ease of convenience. I wish more people would consciously realize that when subscribing to such services. Only a fraction of them would actively buy an album after that. Honestly, because of such reasons, these days only physical sales keep the wheels turning. That and platforms like Bandcamp, which are a boon to both labels and artists as they can set their own prices for their products and music. I wish the same logic can be applied to streaming platforms but that’s just wishful thinking. Perhaps there’ll be a day when bands themselves boycott such services because it’s more beneficial to the platform than it is to them.
Marketing is obviously a big deal for a record label, especially one that houses bands from so many different countries. How do you approach this aspect of your business?
I simply do it myself. As you know, I used to run a PR company of my own before this and nowadays I just do all the promotional work on my own. In fact, I shut down my PR company just so that I could focus completely on my bands, which probably explains the better reception of my 2018 releases. When I started the label, surely I was approached by these professional PR companies but the matter of fact is, I couldn’t afford them then, and I couldn’t afford them now. Plus I like doing things myself and I think I’ve become somewhat adept at it by now. I guess it’s what I do best. I write my own descriptions, create my own templates and send out press releases the way I want. I make sure to be personally involved when dealing with writers and I like that, honestly. They’re my friends by now. I can’t change their opinion but that’s never the agenda. If they like it then great, otherwise I’ll have to wait to put out something that they do, hopefully. I’m just honoured that they deign to cover my small releases at all, and if they like it, it’s like a cherry on top.
With obviously limited resources, the majority of physical product creation must be challenging and require a lot of DIY work. How do you approach this aspect of the work?
Oh, definitely. I’ve had to work immensely hard to set standards for my products, being well aware of the negative connotation being from India would have on my quality. Right from the paper to the kind of packaging for a simple CD, I believe I’ve improved tremendously. We’re now making 8-panel digipaks with 20-page booklets (for instance for Gaerea) and everyone’s amazed with the quality. I personally approve of every sample before every product goes into production. What’s painstaking however is the box set and deciding/preparing the individual contents for it. Each box set has to be special and should either have a different finish, artwork or embossing. So that requires constant R&D at my end. We’ve started making LP box sets too, and that’s our latest challenge, even though we get LPs made from the Czech Republic for quality reasons. Recently, we literally procured extra thick cotton and stitched them on our own as per the international Gildan sizing just so that it would be convenient for everyone around the world. It comes with a Transcending Obscurity branding and we’re very proud of it. Of course, high quality means high cost too, no matter where you come from, but I would like for it to be encompassed in our label’s mission statement, simply because as a customer, I know I would enjoy it.
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If you had one piece of advice to impart to anyone wanting to start their own label, what would it be?
I would say to start off realistically, with small quantities and working only with very, very good bands. And always promote hard. I think it definitely makes sense to have a good PR company to back you up if you can’t do it yourself. It also helps to be completely transparent and accountable to the bands, as they should know you’re doing your best for them and their career is in safe hands.
2018 has been a huge year for Transcending Obscurity Records. What does the near future hold for the label? Where would you like to see TOR go in the next few years?
I’m nervously preparing for my biggest band’s release – Master’s upcoming full length titled Vindictive Miscreant. I need this to do well mate. Everyone will be watching and it is what could change my fortunes so to speak, especially when working with other bands of the same league. I have a chance to prove myself and I’m going to do my best. I may not have learned everything that I need to, but I’ll be putting to use everything that I can muster for this one. As for the future, I can only hope that I become significant enough to actually be able to live up to our name i.e. to be big enough to effectively transcend obscurity and truly help small bands emerge. The pressure is on me to make sure that continues to happen and that I can do more for them all.