The days of Palm steaks and strawberry cocaine in stretch limos may be long gone, replaced by Chicken Little pessimism and piracy lawsuits lacking any hope of putting Pandora back in her deluxe, collector’s edition, remastered box. But don’t believe the naysayers: The label system is far from dead. If anything, the iPod/MySpace/Last FM/Oink sugar rush has whetted the public’s appetite for consuming music anytime and anywhere, in the process bringing a sweeping sense of parity to the business.
While the major-label juggernaut certainly won’t cede the lion’s share of SoundScans anytime soon, bands like the Shins and the Arcade Fire no longer need to leave Sub Pop or Merge to make the Billboard Top 10. Thanks to the Great Equalizers — blogs, Pitchfork and the increasing ease of digital commerce — the do-it-yourself indies of the ’90s have matured into respected midmajors. Locally, independent outfits like Dim Mak, Danger Bird, Eeenie Meenie, Stones Throw and Drive-Thru have became players, with Dangerbird even transforming the Silversun Pickups from Silver Lake house band into 200,000-selling rock-radio regulars. A few miles away, Steve Aoki’s Hollywood-based Dim Mak Records has recast the blueprint for an entire generation of indies, unifying the hirsute, leggings-clad masses under a singular branded aesthetic, building a miniempire across the worlds of fashion, nightlife and music.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the food chain, a funny thing happened on the way to the industry’s obsolescence. Galvanized by the increasingly flattened playing field, a new generation of DIY-minded bedroom labels has emerged, many spun off from popular blogs and all aided by the same technology the majors are convinced is the spawn of Satan (and Shawn Fanning). Chastened by the overreach and bloat of the majors, while conscious of the limitations inherent in the piracy-ravaged landscape, L.A.’s latest label heads don’t harbor Geffen-size dreams of moguldom. Instead, they’ve created lifestyle businesses with modest goals: sharing the music that they love with the rest of the world — and, it is hoped, breaking even.
Justin Gage’s Autumn Tone Records would probably win Most Likely to Succeed in ?L.A.’s latest class of bedroom startups. After all, nowadays success isn’t as much about controlling the means of production as it is about controlling the means of promotion. And more than any of his peers, Gage has one of the most powerful platforms around, with an extremely popular MP3 blog, An Aquarium Drunkard (www.aquariumdrunkard.com), getting 120,000-plus monthly hits; weekly Sirius and Little Radio shows; a viable career as a rock promoter (recent dates included Dr. Dog and Thurston Moore); and a book deal with Country Man Press to pen a travelogue about the Delta-blues trail. Barely 2 years old, Autumn Tone has just three releases under its belt, but Gage has big plans for the coming year, with LPs from the noir-folk outfit Travel by Sea, buzzed-about Silver Lake/Echo Park rockers Le Switch, and a yet-unidentified band that Gage only claims he’s “very excited about.”
Though he’s lost the Georgian twang in his half dozen years in Los Angeles, in conversation Gage retains his Southern affability, displaying a laid-back, self-effacing charm that belies his ever-increasing status.
“I always saw myself doing something within music but knew I didn’t want a job at a label or PR company. I always wanted to do it in a more independent-minded way,” Gage says. “Running the label puts my money where my mouth is. Autumn Tone’s like the minor leagues; I’m hoping that if our albums do well, Le Switch can go on to another label or Travel by Sea can cut something with Secretly Canadian. I’m looking at it right now as an incubator for artists.”
But more than just having a prominent soapbox, Gage has built a brand based on being one of the most trusted ears on the Internet, in the process gathering an extensive array of contacts.
“I’d hope that the 4,000 or so people that check the site every day would want to buy our stuff,” says Gage. “It also helps that I know all the right people to send the disc to, so the Web site doesn’t have to spend money on an outside PR company. It wouldn’t surprise me if more blogs did this sort of thing. I know the Catbird Seat [www.catbirdseat.org] has already done it. I think the kind of people who would start a blog would be the same sort of people who would start a label.”
But back when Gage and the Catbird Seat were just a gleam in their motherboards' eye, there was the Hollywood-based Buddyhead (www.buddyhead.com), founded by Aaron North (the current lead guitarist for Nine Inch Nails) and Travis Keller in 1998. A blog well before the ’04 presidential election turned the phrase “the blogosphere” into the most irritating noun since “Y2K,” Buddyhead instantly made a name for itself, thanks to Keller’s scathing wit and outlandish stunts, including publishing Courtney Love’s real phone number and breaking into Fred Durst’s office to swipe two of his trademark red caps and auction them on eBay (with the proceeds donated to a rape victims’ charity).