TummyTouch Music Group: A Creative Convergence of Music and Business

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DUMBO, BROOKLYN: Have you heard the tale of Two Tims?

DUMBO -- and the world beyond -- is Tim Lee's oyster.

One Tim is a studio addict, whose creative biorythms are pulsating 24/7. The other Tim is a multitasking businessman, whose musical passions made him an unplanned parent of a busy record label, publisher, synch licensing agency, management firm, and production music house.

It’s a pressure-packed plethora of responsibilities, which conspire to keep him out of that beloved studio for long stretches.

The Tim of which we speak here is Tim (Love) Lee, the co-founder of Brooklyn’s Tummy Touch Music Group, a multinational indie concern that sprung up around his considerable skills in experimental synthesis and dub remixing. But the fact is that many of us are Two Tims as well – far more diversified in our revenue streams than we ever expected, to the point that time for musical creation must be fiercely protected.

“We’re doing a little bit of everything,” says Lee, a U.K. native whose English accent is a calming complement to the gear-and-vinyl packed studio he occupies. “Which is kind of what you have to do right now, because the income streams are way down. Between everything we do we get by, because the different areas all support each other — we would find it very difficult if we only did one thing.”

Originally launched in 1994, Tummy Touch Records is at the core of all that came to be the Tummy Touch Music Group, which currently employs eight people between its New York City and London offices. At first the label was simply a vehicle to release records by Lee, who started playing Hammond organ for the ‘80s hitmakers Katrina & The Waves, then made his mark as a DJ and tastemaker in the early UK Acid House scene.

Today, the Tummy Touch Records roster is populated with some highly respected indie artists who appreciate where Lee is coming from, including Groove Armada, Skylab, Tara Busch, and The Phenomenal Handclap Band (who’s 2012 release Form & Control is a must-listen). For those groups, and the dozens of other artists whose commerce touches Tummy Touch in some way, the diversity of this NYC/London-based company is a necessity for the way music businesses must work in 2012.

As with many music companies that have bridged the pre-Internet age with the present, the Tummy Touch label was launched with an uncomplicated aim. “We started doing all of this because we love music, and we wanted people to hear it,” says Lee. “It’s difficult these days to make money with a label — we put in a lot of man hours, and many of our businesses have a better income ratio. But we can’t help ourselves really – once it’s in your blood to be looking out for new music, meeting new bands, and wanting to support them, it’s difficult to stop doing that.”

To minimize the financial overhead that comes with fully supporting a new record, Lee and his partners have settled into a two-year cycle where they have one year of multiple record releases, followed by a year of less release activity. “The years we release less, the label makes more money,” Lee notes. “That’s because releasing a record is expensive: putting the band on the road, paying for PR, and producing merchandise has significant costs.

“We’ll be busy this year, but quieter next year on the release front. But we’re always signing new bands to the publishing company — we’re always making deals, even if we’re not making as many records.”

A look at the Tummy Touch Records roster, along with the Touch Tones publishing arm whose roster includes songs performed by Josh Ritter, We Are Augustines, Grace Jones and Killing Joke doesn’t immediately reveal a common thread – and there’s a reason for that. “It’s overused, but the word ‘eclectic’ is best for describing what we do,” explains Lee. “We cast the net wide as far as the influences go.

Form & Control -- the 2012 release from Phenomenal Handclap Band -- came out on the Tummy Touch Records label.

“When you add the publishing company into the picture, we can cast that net even wider than we do with the label, because we’re not putting the Tummy Touch label name on it. We’ve published Killing Joke and UK hip hop acts like Foreign Beggars, for example – we would never put out records like that, but we can sign it to Touch Tones, simply because we like it.”

Synch Licensing: The Ups and Downs

Tummy Touch learned the importance of appealing to music supervisors early on, an instinct which has allowed them to get synch licenses in films and TV for The Coen Brothers’ movie Burn After Reading, “Sex & The City,” “The OC,” “Nip/Tuck,” “The Mighty Boosh,” Mr. Bean, The Fast & The Furious, as well as for top brands including VW, Cadillac, Hewlett Packard, Amex, Gordon’s Gin, Baileys and more.

But synch licensing, which once brought in very good revenue for the relative few who spoke the language of music supervisors, has become significantly more competitive. “Unfortunately, the licensing income has dropped, which is a reflection of the overall economy,” Lee says frankly. “There’s a lot more competition. If you don’t want to do a deal on a track for $5000, plenty of other people will that day. It’s been a race to the bottoms with the fees — although it’s leveled out, insomuch as there’s a level below which you go, you won’t get good music. It’s not quite as lucrative as it used to be, but there’s always something to be had in the licensing realm.”

According to Lee, it’s the licensing sector where the biggest benefits of being an international company – spanning multiple time zones – reveal themselves. “In these days of instant gratification, we can get back to people almost around the clock,” points out Lee. “My partner in the UK Matt Smith gets up really early and I stay up late, and additionally, if there’s a holiday in the UK, it’s usually not a day off in the US, or vice versa. So we’re literally available 24/7. When it comes to licensing music, music supervisors are working all the time and they want an answer, so that’s a real advantage.”

How Digital Streaming is Affecting the Bottom Line

As an indie label founded in ye olde days of physical media, Tummy Touch’s particular experience provides an informative window on the impact of digital streaming platforms. “Digital continues to grow for us,” says Lee. “There are a lot more income streams now. It used to be that record labels just sold records, CDs or cassettes. You pressed up the records, got them do the distributor, then got one check back from them each month.

“Now there’s downloads, digital rights, streaming, and licensing, and we’ll get 50 smaller checks in a month. So there’s growth in the number of income streams. The amount of money you earn from each of them goes down, but the breadth gets wider. At the end of the day, there’s been a general increase in the places that Tummy Touch can find income.”

Like a lot of rights holders, Tummy Touch is watching Spotify closely to see how it will impact their bottom line, if at all. “We have seen the income going up,” Lee says. “It’s not much money right now, but it is increasing rapidly: The first month it was something like $2, and then it went to $20. So if it keeps doing that, I’m quite happy.

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