LABELMATES: Label Heads Talk With Outsider Music Press
September 21, 2010 Leave a comment
On September 22nd, Holocene will host its annual Labelmates event. The night will feature a handful of Northwest record labels including Marriage Records, Kill Rock Stars, K Records, Gnar/UHU Tapes, High Scores and Records, Eggy Tapes, Tender Loving Empire, Bladen County Records, Jealous Butcher, Community Library, Slender Means Society, Boomarmnation, and more!
In addition there will be local DJs spinning their favorite tunes as well as a special performance by Parenthetical Girls who will release their vinyl 12″, The Past, Imperfect. The event is free to the public from 9pm until 11pm and is a great opportunity to celebrate and discover local music.
Outsider Music Press was lucky enough to chat with a few of the featured label’s head managers to discuss the nitty gritty of what is is like to operate an independent label. Many are at different stages in operating their record labels. Their rosters all differ tremendously. Some gave their life stories to accompany their experience running a label. Some were more sparse with their words of wisdom. Here are their stories, unedited, unrestrained…
How did your label get started?
Joe Bowden (Bladen County Records): Bladen County Records was started by Matt Brown and Myself who I met in ‘03 at the lease signing of a house we’d end up rooming in for 6 years together along with recording engineer Mike Anzalone, David Sullivan of Red Fang and Stephen Weingarten who recently won $96,000 on jeopardy. Matt and I were new transplants to Portland both in 01. We ended up playing music in the basement and later formed Montauk Ghost, which was our first release. It was an incredible music culture in that house. We threw tons of band parties at least 50 bands had played over the years including the Minders, the Swords Project, Portugal The Man, The Builders and the Butchers, Y la Bamba, it goes on and on. There’s a great band party video of an old band called Konami Defense System on youtube. We ended up actually putting out a bootleg record for Anders Parker of a particularly magical show at that house. There were often bands in tour sleeping on the floor, like The Court and Spark and Bishop Allen and the Oranges band. It was such great Petri dish like atmosphere and I was eager to learn the music business while creating some direction from my life. Matt had tons of experience touring and playing in the Comas and Ashley stove which was on Merge. He was a part of that indie rock scene of North Carolina. (Bladen County is actually the county in NC that Matt was born in) Really with all that was going on it just grew naturally from that house. After we put out our own record, friends of ours like Kurt Hagardorn started asking us to put out their records. At that point The Builders and The Butchers were forming and some of them being old friends of mine from Anchorage we naturally ended up putting our records for them which sort of forced us to get organized. From there we just sort of kept growing…
Zac Pennington (Slender Means Society): Slender Means Society began some years ago as a monthly performance gala in Seattle, Washington. When I moved to Portland I decided to take the name with me, using some money from an insurance settlement to release SMS000, the first album by Parenthetical Girls, on vinyl. It was, unsurprisingly, a financial disaster.
Paul Dickow (Community Library) : Around 2003 or so I had an idea to do a label called Community Library but no real way to get it off the ground. It became a DJ night instead, where my partner David Chandler (who taught me how to DJ, actually) would do themed DJ sets, host bands, show movies, etc. The idea was to have lots of music together that was unalike in terms of genre but perhaps linked through theme or process or something else. Around 2005 we started it as a label through a UK music distributor as a “P&D label” (they manufactured our stuff, we curated the releases, they were the exclusive distributor). That happened partially on the strength of our notoriety as music producers of DJ records and experimental music and from being in bands. Ultimately, we ended up leaving the distributor-based relationship and becoming 100% independent. That’s where we are today. Sometimes I still daydream that we can do another very intentional DJ night like that but I don’t really know if/when that will happen. For now, we are doing first Thursdays at Ground Kontrol and each DJing part of the night but there’s not really a formal structure to it at all. Regardless, DJing seems essential to the label’s core approach and so does the constant interest in mixing up genres together that don’t normally belong together.
Raf (Eggy Records): I started the label because it felt like the most natural thing to do. There are a handful of great small labels in Portland but no real pillar of the community and I think there are a lot of us working to try to fill that void. It’s also nice to keep Portland in the bigger discussion of fringe music; to be importing interesting music from other places and exporting the best of the local crop. The decision to do tapes was natural — a lot of the music I made had come out on tape and it seemed to me that the interesting, challenging music coming out was more and more coming out on tapes. They occupy a [limited] space for sure, in the margins of music culture, and I think their strengths and weakness come directly out being the scrawled, penciled-in notes running alongside the official history. There’s the danger of being completely ignored or not being taken seriously but the pleasure of being totally free with no pressure to conform to a sound or have wide appeal. There’s a lot of exciting music but also very little critical discourse.
Similar to how clothing labels have a particular “look” do you feel your label roster encompasses a specific “sound”, feeling, genre, etc? Why or why not?
Maggie Vail (Kill Rock Stars): Kill Rock Stars has always been pretty eclectic – there’s never been one particular sound I would say there’s always been several different ones that people have attributed to us. Slim, who signed the majority of bands until 2005 or so, loves honestly all kinds of music. I think maybe our identity has been wrapped up more in our attitude towards how we treat our bands and how we market things. We are pretty fiercely independent. And to me that means treating your artists fairly, paying them, accounting to them, having them be a part of every decision in terms of how they are marketed, etc.
Zac Pennington (Slender Means Society): Over the years and with very few exceptions, the releases on Slender Means Society have largely been the music of friends and familiars. Due to time and fiscal concerns, this has mostly been reduced to occasional releases by my own group, Parenthetical Girls. So yes, there is arguably a “sound” now—and that sound is a terrible sound.
Raf (Eggy Records): You could take about three quarters of the tapes I’ve released and they would all sit pretty well together in the pop/outsider-pop zone but the label has gone into some sludgy, weirdo territory before and one of the new tapes is definitely coming out of the noise community. And the next batch of releases will continue to keep the sound wide. I would say that in this era of micro-labels, Eggy ends up on the eclectic end of the spectrum and has a “sound” only loosely. When I first got involved with tape culture it was through being in a pop band on Not Not Fun, a label which at the time tended towards the extremes of noisy, wigged-out sounds. So it really appealed to me that the medium — the fact that the music was on a cassette tape — could act as the through-line connecting very diverse music.
Paul Dickow (Community Library): I feel we absolutely do NOT represent a certain genre or ‘sound.’ All of our artists are from different genres, ranging from avant-soul-jazz to techno to noise etc. They are all linked by their approach to their work. There’s always a characteristic with our artists that I like to call a “productive problem,” that is that they may desire to land themselves in a certain genre but either by way of curiosity, isolation, circumstance or intention, they are also sort of at odds with that genre and deconstructing it. There’s a push-pull these artists have between really being in the sound and recombining it with something else altogether. It’s in that gray area, where it isn’t one genre or another but somewhere in between where originality takes place. So we look for people that reside there.
Joe Bowden (Bladen County Records): We don’t really have a particular sound, I mean our two most successful records sales-wise couldn’t be more different and there’s plenty in between. We’ll put out whatever we fall in love with really. We almost put out an opera record once. What is this life after all?
What are some of the artists on your label? How do you find them?
Joe Bowden (Bladen County Records): We run our label in terms of projects. The projects were currency working is a rock/soul band from Sweden called Moneybrother, an indie rock band from NC called Birds of Avalon and we just launched a management wing of BCR with our first project is Portland local Nick Jaina.
Maggie Vail (Kill Rock Stars): We find our bands all different ways – word of mouth, at shows, demos, etc
Zac Pennington (Slender Means Society): We’ve released records by Xiu Xiu, Grouper, Final Fantasy, The Blow, Lucky Dragons, The Dead Science, PWRFL POWER, Idol Fodder, etc. These people are friends who also happen to make incredible music.
Raf (Eggy Records): In terms of Portland bands: Orca Team, Mattress and soon Sad Horse — those are all groups that make great recordings and are relatively productive. In terms of other groups, it’s a mix of finding interesting people, curating and people who find me. Melbourne, Australia has a killer scene right now in terms of straight-forward, energetic rock music, stuff with a really great feel to it — Eddy Current is kind of the flagship band for that sound. So I was really keen on that sound and that scene and got in touch with a relatively new mostly-girl band called the School of Radiant Living – so that tape should be coming up soon. Awesome band. But in the latest batch there’s a fellow from Brooklyn and a fellow from Italy and both of them got in touch with me initially. So it’s a mix. The easiest is when you meet people and can just say, “Hey, let’s do a tape.”
Paul Dickow (Community Library): Our artists have mostly come from our friend group or via friends of friends! We’ve never really “signed” someone off a totally unsolicited demo, I don’t think; there’s always a deeper connection. I guess that gives credence to the saying “you have to know someone” to get somewhere, but I think in our case it was mostly coincidence. Strategy – That’s me! Solenoid – That’s David! He also goes by the names DJ Brokenwindow and Mr Pharmacist. Nudge – That’s a band I’ve been a regular auxiliary member of for some years! Brian Foote who leads the band is currently based in LA and is an old friend and constant collaborator. On the 12″ we released Honey Owens from Valet and Miracles Club is on it too. She is also a super old friend and collaborator. Though we don’t all do this band together any more on a regular basis these guys kind of form some of my oldest Portland family and I suppose we’re always one band or another, together, regardless what the name of the project is. Sawako – Sawako Kato and I have traded music and played shows together off and on for about 10 years now. I think she sent a CDR to my old PO box around that time and we have just been trading music and playing shows together ever since. Her love for sounds and her appreciation for correspondence and exploration and conceptual projects is wonderful. Eats Tapes – Former Portland noise-techno duo, old and dear friends now based in San Francisco. One of them used to be a housemate of mine in a huge crowded North Portland punk house, around ’99-’00, and later by strange coincidence she linked up with a guy who turned out to be the son of some longtime landlords I had at a different residence. That was a weird coincidence, and they founded this kickass band together, too. Evolutionary Jass Band – I’ve known members of this group, and had collaborated with several of them, since at least the late 1990s. I must have first heard them in 2001? At a live show? One of my all time favorite Portland bands! I had always dreamed of adding them to the lineup and it was a huge honor to release their first album. Reanimator – I was roommates with these guys in the aforementioned huge, crowded punk house back in ’99-’00 and they relocated to various places, mainly New Orleans. We were out of touch for a few years but the day before Hurricane
Katrina I had a dream about one of them. It was really weird. They narrowly escaped the hurricane with the master tapes from the Reanimator sessions and most of their earthly belongings. I tracked them down and we all thought it definitely was crazy luck and coincidence, and decided to release the music even though it was already 5+ years old. The band actually re-formed on the strength of their comlib music, and we toured and they are hopefully about to do a new album with us. Jefrey Leighton Brown – Jef was bandleader of the Evolutionary Jass Band. He offhandedly mentioned his solo music which I think he was giving away copies of to people who came into his amp repair shop. We immediately fell in love with his solo music. Truly from the heart and very much aligned w/ the EJB music we had already released. Project Perfect – Andy and Charlie from PP had been in Fontanelle with me and they did this truly original album. Some of the most original music I think has ever come from Portland and absolutely unclassifiable. It was quietly “released” by a Portland arts collective that, while I respect their intentions, really didn’t know what they were doing. We re-released it later on to wider acclaim! I suppose it would have slipped into Portland’s musical fossil bed of almost-never-released music, otherwise. There are too many bands from here that were true originators and just never got documented, or remembered in the culture. DJ C & MC Zulu – DJ C – I can’t remember how he came to us. Maybe through the Shockout label that both of us released on? He just sent in some songs…I think! Jake (DJ C) found MC Zulu on Myspace. Both o these guys totally blew up so I feel super honored we did their first tracks together on the label. Christmas Decorations – this band came to us through a shared affiliation with the Kranky label. Their ComLib CD is one of my favorites by the band. Again, they were friends by extension and just fit naturally with our efforts. Rolan Vega – Similarly, I had been getting really addictive mp3s of Rolan’s music through Chicago friends through Portland friends. I went out of my way to track down this guy and get his songs onto a CD. He has since gone on to focus on a live band and some film projects. Units – Our friend Damian Ramsay, who died at age 27 a few years ago, had been a historian of “synth punk” bands from the 1970s and 1980s. He had maintained contact with many old bands and collected their rare recordings. A friend played me one of the Units early singles and I was intrigued; David and I knew Damian had gotten in touch with the band and written about them and compiled a private archive of their released, out of print, and unreleased music. Basically everything, and he was organized about it. Coincidentally, I was on my way to Brooklyn that week and got in touch with the ex band members…and it worked out! In spite of their bad experiences being burned by major labels they were willing to work with us – what an honor, a lot of labels had approached them and been turned down, and sketchy labels even tried to snatch the project from us while we were working on it. This was our first reissue and I really feel like the project honors the spirit of the band and has created a lasting document for them at a ‘real people’ price.To this day though, it makes me sad that Damian did not live to see the final product. Atole – Atole have been longtime Portland music community people and Manny who is the singer, and I used to do a dance DJ night at the bar Crush, and later also at Holocene. We didn’t really discover these guys, just moved quickly to get a single out for them!
Any advice to people who are starting their own label?
Maggie Vail (Kill Rock Stars): You have nothing without your artists, treat them fairly and with respect – it’s harder than ever these days to do both of our jobs and make a living. Best of luck!
Raf (Eggy Records): Small ambitions, small rewards.
Joe Bowden (Bladen County Records): 1. Encourage your bands to make the best record they can, not only because it’s a part of their life, but because great records find their way out 2. Don’t put out records for bands that don’t tour, they can do that themselves and most likely achieve the same result. 3. Love it. 4. Use contracts.
Paul Dickow (Community Library): “Good” music is not good enough. If the music isn’t somehow a commentary, improvement, or innovation in style, culture, genre, or politics, then it probably isn’t worth releasing. There are too many cooks in the kitchen, so don’t go into it just because you love music. Make sure you have something to offer that pushes the culture forward. And be organized and honest to your bands. When we were an exclusive label we were beholden to a distributor and they did not pay us and we had no way of verifying their books- as a consequence accountability to the bands was a huge issue. Stay 100% independent so that you can always be transparent, accountable, and responsible to your artists.
Zac Pennington (Slender Means Society): Invest in real estate. Not the band.