NJ indie record label Mint 400’s Neil Sabatino: ‘Good songwriting and good music never go out of style’

“As long as we're growing, then I’m happy, and that’s what we’re about. I did this to put together a cool indie rock record label that puts out music I want to listen to.” 

Whether you realize it or not, a handful of the local bands we’ve featured on NJ Indy over the last year (Alpha Rabbit, The Clydes, Fake Pockets, to name a few) share one thing in common: they’re signed by Mint 400 Records, an indie label based in Hawthorne, New Jersey.

But like those upstart, unique bands, the label itself is the result of a DIY work ethic, a good ear for indie music and, maybe more than anything, a commitment to finding and promoting the best of the local(-ish) indie music scene.

Neil Sabatino launched Mint 400 out of his garage back in 2007. He was in a band, Fairmont, which had bounced around labels, but eventually found themselves seven albums in, with control of their records but no label to handle distribution. Sabatino says he found a distributor who suggested that, with so many records, they’d just consider him a record label. 

Now, remember: This was right before streaming services took off, when distribution (both digital (iTunes and the like) and physical music had to go through gatekeepers. But Sabatino liked the idea and so did his cousin, who also had a band, and asked Sabatino if he could distribute their music. 

And so, a record label was born. Sabatino says he got the name from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the iconic movie/book, which spun out of a classic 23,000-word Hunter S. Thompson piece of gonzo journalism on the Mint 400 race in the Nevada desert—“I needed something quickly,” Sabatino says. “I saw Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and I loved the way it looked in script.”

You could say, objectively, that starting a record label to release your band’s music is bold, which, of course, fortune favors. As fate would have it, the distributor with which Mint 400 worked changed hands a couple times until it became The Orchard, owned by Sony. Fortuitous for Sabatino’s label, especially in an industry that has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. 

With all that as background, it’s fair to say Sabatino has a unique vantage point on the tectonic shifts in music publishing and distribution over the years.

“We used to make a lot more money because we were making $1 a song that we sold, as opposed to a fraction of a penny for every song that’s listened to,” Sabatino says. “We were able to do much more, but the exposure was less. You’d be able to sell $1,000 pretty easily. … Now, you reach millions of people easily through streaming services but you’re making so much less money.” 

But that exposure leads to new avenues of revenue for bands—over 150—on the Mint 400 label. They have a wider audience than they would’ve back in the old days, to which they can sell merch, concert tickets, music and more. Plus, Sabatino has a wide enough frame of reference to see the benefits to the music listener, even if it is at the expense of a more streamlined revenue feed for the artists.

“I like technology a lot. I love Spotify even though I know a lot of bands say it’s the devil because they’re paying all of us shit. [But] as an actual resource, I don’t have to go digging through my record collection to go and listen to something I want to listen to,” Sabatino says. “For fans, it’s great and more accessible than it ever was.” 

And for bands: “Back in the day, you could do a summer tour and maybe interact with 1,000 people. Now, 1,000 people an hour could find out about your band. It’s two different animals.” 

The benefits of the current music landscape also help the artist play better shows, Sabatino says. For instance, a promoter or venue can gauge interest in a band with a quick visit to social media, or check out the number of listens on Spotify. And bands themselves (and Mint 400) can easily tell fans when and where a show is happening.

That has ripple effects. When bands play better shows, they’re exposed to bigger audiences. And after COVID, Sabatino says, venues are willing to pay more for those bands than the measly amounts some were paying in the past.

Now, all of that may sound like the (relative) rich getting richer, but that’s sort of the beauty of what Sabatino and Mint 400 do. He’s constantly scouring social media, checking out shows, getting feedback from other bands, etc. to find great bands without a label. He works with good indie radio stations to get the label’s music on terrestrial airwaves, and then also to a worldwide, tapped-in audience, as many decent stations have a streaming presence online.  

In those ways, Mint 400 elevates good bands out of the musical morass that streaming services and social media have created by making it so easy to publish music.

“I usually know within 10 seconds of a song if I’m interested in a band or if I’m gonna put an offer out,” Sabatino says. “I think we’re looking for well-written songs that are sonically pleasing … as long as it has a unique voice that speaks to me, when I hear the vocals on the track. Songwriting that is unique to that artist. That’s kind of what I look for.

“Good songwriting and good music never go out of style.”

Sabatino adds that he looks for “prolific bands that are self-starters and self-sufficient.” Many of the bands on the Mint 400 label record themselves or go to indie producers. The advent of home recording tools has both made it possible for bands to record great-sounding albums without booking thousands of dollars worth of recording time. Mint 400 will, however, work with sound professionals to produce, mix or master albums, and Sabatino has a small home studio when all else fails.

El Valerie is a good example of the benefits of Mint 400’s approach. When she first came to the label, she had a record, which she recorded on GarageBand using the standard Mac input mic. But the songs were good, and so Sabatino worked with her to get that album to a good state and then gave her some basic tools—using the Logic recording software and a preamp—for her next album. 

“There was a gigantic leap in the quality, and she charted on the national radio charts, which was cool because she recorded in her bedroom and didn’t lose the charm,” Sabatino says. 

Valerie’s success was a bit of a surprise to Sabatino, considering the fidelity of the first release, but then again, he says guessing which bands, albums or tracks are going to take off is a fool’s errand. There are just too many variables—what time of year it is, what’s going on in the world, whether a track is picked up by a TV show or film (which is a boon for the artist) or not, on and on.

“There’s no rhyme or reason why something happens,” Sabatino says. “A lot of our artists are just really cool people that I like a lot and hang out with. That comes out in their music and comes out in their shows. That helps, and our more successful bands have these great personalities that come out.”

Many of the artists on the Mint 400 label are located in the Northeast—that just makes it easy to coordinate video shoots, hook bands up with recording spaces and shows, and more. It also is self-fulfilling; the more local bands Mint 400 works with, the more those bands will recommend other artists or play shows with bands that are a fit for Mint 400. And, not for nothing, when something’s good but not quite a fit for the sensibilities of Mint 400, Sabatino is willing to figure out a space for them—he recently started a jazz subsidiary to bring in artists of that genre.

To showcase bands on the label, Mint 400 helps coordinate shows for artists and holds the occasional highlight show with bands from the label (and some not on it). He’s found more than a few venues in NJ and nearby that understand the value Mint 400 brings to the scene—Asbury Hotel (Asbury Park), Pet Shop (Jersey City), Prototype 237 (Paterson), Stosh’s (Fair Lawn) and John & Peter’s (New Hope, PA), to name a few.

“We’ve gone with the places that are the most supportive,” Sabatino says. “In North Jersey, we gave up on a lot of the clubs that wanted to charge $10 or $15 for a show with mostly local bands and places that then wanted to take a gigantic cut of that and not give any to the bands. We didn’t need them. We have our own PAs, and we can do shows wherever we want to.”

Sabatino doesn’t depend on Mint 400 for a paycheck, so the label is one big labor of love. That doesn’t mean, though, that he’s not actively trying to grow the label and the artists on it.

“I don’t have to worry about signing things that are gonna put money in my pocket,” Sabatino says. “I’m not worried about putting something out on vinyl so I can pay my mortgage. I think labels do it that way and that’s why labels get in trouble.”

And through the years, Sabatino says he’s learned “a lot about doing things the wrong way.”

“We’re doing it the right way and trying to develop artists and have them get bigger with each release. So whether they continue with Mint 400 or go on to a bigger label, we’re always trying to see growth. As long as we’re growing, then I’m happy. That’s what we’re about.

“I did this to put together a cool indie rock record label that puts out music I want to listen to.” 

For more on Mint 400, go here. Upcoming releases include Tom Barrett’s You Are and You Always Have Been, which comes out on Sept. 9 (there’ll be a show at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City that night, as well.) And Yawn Mower’s first full-length album, To Each Their Own Coat, drops on Sept. 30.