Interview: Matthew Young on winding up his Song, By Toad record label

Ten years after he set up innovative Edinburgh record label Song, by Toad, Matthew Young is calling it a day. But not before sitting down with Fiona Shepherd to look back at some of the albums he's released and some of the bands he's supported

Matthew Young at work PIC: Andy Catlin
Matthew Young at work PIC: Andy Catlin

Mere weeks ago, ambitious plans to mark the 10th birthday of Edinburgh-based independent record label Song, By Toad were full steam ahead, bringing together a host of artists who have drawn on the label’s support over the past decade for a series of gigs at locations around the country. But proud celebrations were downsized at a stroke to a fond farewell when label boss Matthew Young abruptly decided to step back from his musical baby to concentrate on his own family, becoming a full- time stay-at-home dad to his two adopted children.

There has been no official announcement but such is Young’s catalysing presence that news spread fast among those who have been touched by his drive and enthusiasm, so he agreed to talk to The Scotsman about his sudden but sincere decision. When we meet at a café on Leith Walk, it’s clear he is still processing what it all means.

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“The decision to pack it in was very sudden, but the decision to start it up was quite haphazard as well,” he says, “and now we’ve come to this point where we have to be done it’s almost equally disorientating.

“I know it’s a cliché but Song, By Toad was really a family. I had an intense, personal commitment to everybody we worked with. But you only have so much emotional energy and at this moment in time I need 100 per cent of it for family stuff really. It’s quite weird – I’ve just sacked myself from my own job.”

All the planned anniversary gigs have been pulled, apart from next week’s show at Leith Depot, just a couple of blocks from where we are sitting. With a bittersweet symmetry, this is the venue where Young put on the Song, By Toad launch gig in 2008. Back then it was still the notorious Meridian Bar, “which looked like a cross-Channel ferry in the 1980s and was apparently the most dangerous pub in Edinburgh. I had no idea…”

Young had moved to Edinburgh only a few years earlier, arriving in time to launch his Song, by Toad blog – which kept tabs on an exciting groundswell of bands and musicians energising the local scene, including Broken Records, Withered Hand and Young’s first signing, Meursault.

“That first wave of bands dragged the label into existence. I knew nothing about the music industry at all, and getting pulled into this underground DIY scene was absolutely amazing. Before I knew it, I had something on my hands that I didn’t totally have control of but was this wild and exciting ride.”

Young cast his net further afield, releasing albums by Sparrow and the Workshop from Glasgow and Yorkshire-born, Korea-based singer/songwriter David Thomas Broughton. There was never a particular music policy in place but the Song, By Toad catalogue stands as a colourful snapshot of the grassroots scene in Edinburgh over the past decade.

“Everyone talks about how bad the Edinburgh music scene is and it really isn’t,” says Young. “We constantly do ourselves down, people aren’t expecting it to be any good round here so you end up with this self-fulfilling prophecy of people don’t think of it as that kind of town. If you’ve just finished school and you’re really into music, you don’t move to Edinburgh, do you? So you maybe have to dig a little bit deeper – but once you look, it is there.”

For example, Young first saw Emily Scott performing at an open mic night not long after he arrived in Edinburgh. Ten years later, he released her band Modern Studies’ debut album, Swell to Great, which was longlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year Award. Meursault’s I

Will Kill Again and Siobhan Wilson’s There Are No Saints made it to the shortlist in 2017 and 2018, ensuring Song, By Toad goes out on a creative high.

“Maybe the whole world didn’t sit up and take notice but who cares, here is a brilliant thing which exists because of our enthusiasm and determination,” says Young. “We had a way of doing business which was based around love and support and friendship and loyalty. We never looked at anyone and said ‘How many records are you going to sell?’ We said ‘Do we like it? Do we like you?’ and I’m proud of that.

“I’ve got a little shelf in my record collection full of our releases and I don’t play them as often as I should, but once the dust has settled a bit

I’m going to go back to playing them all the time, thinking ‘We made that’.”

Young concedes that he may not turn his back on music permanently, “but I am for now. I’ve got no idea what the future holds.

“In a year’s time maybe I’ll be a crotchety old bastard swearing at my kids for listening to rubbish music and they will be rolling their eyes saying ‘Come on, Dad, you used to not quite be almost famous in a tiny corner of Scotland, no-one cares’. There’s not much of a grand plan – not that there ever was.”