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).
The Web site spawned Buddyhead Records in 2000 and has been extant ever since, no mean feat considering the perennially cash-strapped nature of startups. Sticking to punk and hard rock, the label has pressed two dozen records, including out-of-print eBay-coveted efforts from At the Drive-In, the Dillinger Escape Plan and 400 Blows.
“We just try and be as honest as we can be and do as much cool shit as we can,” explains Keller. “The label evolved as an extension of the spirit that was on the Web site, to actually release music that we thought deserved attention and that nobody else would touch. We didn’t really plan on starting it, it just kind of happened. The rock gods willed it.”
In recent months, the Buddyhead blog has been sporadically updated, with North touring nonstop with NIN and Keller, “doing whatever it is [he] does,” but with a sleek redesign, daily updates and a steady release schedule, Keller plans on a busy 2008.
I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll
If the dudes at Buddyhead are the Reds-huffing, Budweiser-swilling, cool older brothers of the L.A. blog world, I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll records is their precocious younger sibling. A former intern at Buddyhead, Jon “Matzvah” Weinberg, founder of I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll, shares his former bosses’ unflinching honesty and anti-industry stance. In fact, at just 20, Weinberg could be the poster boy for the waste and decadence that characterized the broken system, with a label literally founded on Capitol Records’ dime.
“I was getting paid $500 a month to do A&R, and when the industry went downhill, my boss got fired. Thanks to a glitch in the system, I ended up getting paid my salary for doing nothing,” boasts Weinberg. “I figured I could either take the money and get stoned or I could put out some records that I loved. I chose the latter.”
Though Weinberg received a good deal of help from friends, he confesses that inexperience caused his first, recently released effort to go well over budget. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the finished product — a handmade, limited-edition 12-inch split from Darker My Love and Moccasin, featuring gorgeous artwork, primal psychedelic chaos, and a sense of lysergic abandon that screams. Turn this shit up — loud.
Weinberg also blogs (http://sofreshsocold.blogspot.com) but prefers to keep the blog separate from his other sidelines, which include plans for an extremely limited series of cassette mixtapes featuring Atlanta rapper Killer Mike. As for I Hate Rock ’n’ Roll, he’s in talks to put out a 7-inch from San Francisco drone-rockers Wooden Shjips, one of the most promising bands bubbling in the West Coast underground.
“It’s not about building a huge label or making a bazillion dollars. It’s about putting out the art you’re excited about. That’s what gets me through the day,” Weinberg says. “It’s the raddest feeling to watch someone get excited about what you’re doing and want to buy a record.”
Cali Dewitt, the head of Echo Park–based Teenage Teardrops Records, was one of the friends who helped Weinberg get things off the ground. Dewitt is an ex-Geffen employee imbued with the sort of cynicism that only veterans of the major-label system could possess, but his goals for Teenage Teardrops are diametrically opposed to those of his former employers.
“It’s a great time to be a label like us, but it’s awful to be a major. I love that they had to sell the Capitol building, sucks that they’re going to make it condos,” the heavily tattooed 34-year-old says. “They truly don’t know what to do, and they’ve been the fat cats for so long. When I was younger, working at Geffen, it struck me as an awful place to be a musician. They’d be all psyched about records, and the sales wouldn’t be good, and then three days into the campaign, you’d never hear about the record again.”
Founded less than two years ago, Teenage Teardrops (http://teenageteardrops.com) also began as a blog, but soon evolved into one of the central hubs of the downtown punk-rock haven the Smell. Pressing 7-inches from the likes of No Age, the Sads, and No Age’s tour mates, the New York City–based Soiled Mattress & the Springs, Dewitt’s label/Web site might be young, but his underground roots date back to Jabberjaw, the Smell’s legendary precursor that operated in the late ’80s in the Pico-Crenshaw area.
“I don’t have a strategy. My rule is to just work with people that I’d be honored to work with. That’s it. I’d be happy working the job that I have and being able to make cool stuff on the side,” says Dewitt. “I want releases that I’m proud of. After all, how big can you get putting out weird books and vinyl?”
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.
“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.
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.
“Having worked at labels, you see what to do and what not to do. I wanted to help bands get their foot in the door and create something to be proud of. The strategy is simple: Spend less, keep everything in-house, and create multiple revenue streams from different sources. You have to do it with yourself,” Jex says. “Everyone’s buzzword is ‘indie’ or starting a ‘digital music company.’ Records are merely one piece of the pie. Labels today serve as branding tools.”
More than anything else, the ascent of Internet piracy exposed the terminal weaknesses in the major labels’ brands. Having long since eroded any sort of buyer loyalty they might have once had, labels were forced to spend fortunes on promotion and artist development with nearly every release. When people no longer wanted to pay $16.99 for increasingly worthless CDs often containing shoddy packaging and three or four good songs, labels were caught with their Armani slacks down. The indie labels that all along had been forced by necessity to build strong, respected reputations instantly began to bridge the gap.
But the secret to survival in this weird, jangled, piracy-ravaged world isn’t cynical attempts to build a “brand.” Even Steve Aoki, despite his moneyed pedigree and a brand-building ability so strong that one might reasonably speculate he once received a Gray’s Hipster Almanac from a DeLorean-aided time-traveling old man named Biff, started the same way as everyone else, in a dingy apartment stacked with crates of records, struggling to break even, doing it for the love.
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“You have to do it because you love the music,” Aoki says. “You have to want to make the bands that you sign as big as possible, not because of the money, but because this is the music that you’ve chosen to share with the world, this is the music that you want people to hear.”
Yet despite the smothering dust storm of Internet hype, despite the fact that a generation of teenagers will grow up thinking that it’s their Al Gore–given right to get free music, no matter how much piracy threatens to doom the major-label record industry, everything always reverts back to the source: the music itself.
With 15 years spent in the industry, including several spent running his own independent label, Mike Caren, the executive vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records, takes the long view. While he’s not certain this is any better or worse of a time to be an independent label, Caren is little surprised that an increasingly Internet-savvy generation of label heads has lunged out of the miasma of the Web.
“Great music is always going to win. A lot of indies don’t have great music, a lot do. It’s a game of batting averages and connecting with people. Before there were blogs, there were fanzines, and before there were MP3s and MySpace pages, there were mixtapes and 7-inches. It’s all just reinvention,” says Caren. “People with good taste that are ahead of the curve will always want to introduce new music. It’s a very entrepreneurial generation. When they see an opportunity, they’re going to go for it.”