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Bedroom Confidential: New Crop of Boutique Record Labels in Town 

Corporate counterparts may want to study this model

Wednesday, Dec 5 2007
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Post-Present Medium

But stranger things have happened. One year ago, Dean Spunt, one half of the Smell breakout band No Age, probably never thought that his snarling, thrashing punk duo would ever appear in the genteel, white-tablecloth pages of The New Yorker. But with the sanitized mass-marketization of the old zine culture, a few strong reviews can break a band out of the niche it has previously been confined to. While that might not translate into blockbuster sales, it can yield bigger and better touring opportunities, which lead to more merch and records sold, which leads to labels becoming full-time jobs that can overwhelm anyone, let alone full-time musicians.

Still, in its half-dozen-year existence, Spunt’s Post-Present Medium (www.postpresentmedium.com) has managed to release records from nearly every Smell staple, including Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda, Soddam Inssein and, of course, No Age. With his recent success, Spunt could be ideally poised to turn Post-Present into a next-gen version of Epitaph or Merge (founded by members of Bad Religion and Superchunk, respectively). But despite being approached by several large-scale distributors, Spunt blanches at the idea of taking it beyond limited vinyl pressings and iTunes distribution.

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“I have no problem with people doing what they want to do. I’d probably make a lot more money or wouldn’t have to spend as much time. But, for me, it takes the fun out of it being organic,” Spunt says. “It’s an awesome time to be making music. People getting stuff for free over the Internet is awesome. It’s weird for a guy running a record label to say that, but if someone wants your music and puts it on their iPod, they learn your songs and hopefully become fans.”

I Am Sound

In contrast to Spunt, the strategy behind I Am Sound Records is predicated on the belief that people will be willing to fork over money for legal online music. A partnership between Paul Tao and Niki Roberton, a British ex–music video director and talent scout, I Am Sound is a year-and-a-half-old outgrowth of the producer/engineer management firm World’s End. Since it was a digital label from its inception, the online-savvy Tao would seem to be the ideal partner for the seasoned Roberton, with her extensive contacts in the London music scene.

“The major labels are becoming like museums. They’re making CDs just for the sake of it, and it’s hard to stop,” Roberton said. “The industry’s evolving, management companies are becoming more important, and many are starting small indies. I’m hoping we’ll broaden out of our digital home to become something like Vice, handling management for bands and helping to map out their futures.”

Her partner, the 22-year-old Tao, had already been in the online music world since he was old enough to drive, first as an editor at Absolute Punk (www.absolutepunk.net) and concurrently as a blogger at his own site, Hate Something Beautiful (www.hatesomethingbeautiful.com).

“I loved the idea of I Am Sound being a digital label. My familiarity with the Internet music world really helped me be aware of how to approach people and provided a lot more insight into the way things work,” says Tao. “Considering bloggers deal with mostly unsigned bands in the first place, I think a lot of successful blogs will try to start labels.”

Thus far, I Am Sound has stuck to EPs and digital singles from mainly electronica-infused British bands. But the label is expanding, releasing a single from the local MySpace Records–signed band Nico Vega. Though their budget still remains infinitesimal compared to the bigger indies, being backed by a management company has enabled I Am Sound to shoot music videos, hire an outside PR firm and put on a CMJ showcase, things that have helped its most recent release, an EP from the London-based Black Ghosts, earn praise from the likes of Spin and Pitchfork.

JaxArt

Ashley Jex also knows PR. It’s what she’s done for a living since she was a teenager, first working in online media for Capitol Records, now for the Santa Monica–based Suretone Records, the Geffen/Interscope-affiliated home of the Cure, Weezer and Angles & Airwaves. But that’s just her day job. By night, she promotes half a dozen monthly rock shows; runs a popular MP3 blog, Rock Insider (www.rockinsider.com); spins as part of a DJ duo, Hell Ya!; and, most recently, launched her own label, JaxArt.

Though JaxArt (www.jaxart.net/) has released only one record, a 7-inch from local indie rockers the Valley Arena, it already has a distribution deal with the New York–based Eschatone, with a digital EP and a 7-inch from Eastside shoegazers the Mezzanine Owls slated to drop in February.

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