The long, intertwined roots of one of the world’s most successful independent metal labels can be traced back to a dorm room in a military boarding school two decades ago.
Ash Avildsen, the future head of Los Angeles-based Sumerian Records, was 11 years old and entering the seventh grade when his parents enrolled him in military academy, where he became a boyish-looking bull’s-eye for the arrows of older cadets.
“I hadn’t even hit puberty yet,” Avildsen recalls. “You definitely get fucked with when you have a high voice and a bald johnson.”
Avildsen had two things going for him back then to gain some respect: his skill at arcade games — “I would beat everyone’s ass in Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter” — and his diverse array of CDs.
“I would always get complimented on my collection, and people would want to come and borrow CDs and make dubs and stuff,” he recalls. “It was my music collection that really made the older classmates stop fucking with me and want to be my friend. That always stuck with me.”
In return, Avildsen always stuck with music, playing in bands good enough to land record deals, touring the world in cramped vans and later parlaying his experiences into becoming a successful booking agent. In 2006, he started his own label, Sumerian Records, beginning with two acts: progressive death-metal futurists The Faceless and positive-minded, melodic hardcore ragers Stick to Your Guns.
Initially, Avildsen ran Sumerian out of his one-bedroom apartment in Venice Beach. His mom helped him do mail order.
Ten years later, Sumerian’s ascendance from those hand-to-mouth origins has been remarkable. Most notably, the label broke one of metalcore’s biggest acts, once-debauched Brits Asking Alexandria, who’ve notched three straight albums in the Billboard Top 10. They remain signed to Sumerian to this day; the label released their latest album, The Black, in March.
Sumerian also has positioned itself at the vanguard of a new wave of progressive metal with strong-selling bands such as Animals as Leaders, Periphery and Born of Osiris. In recent years, the label has begun to branch out, signing Crosses, the moody side project of Deftones frontman Chino Moreno, as well as rising dubstep antagonist Borgore and rapper Ice-T’s reactivated thrash troupe Body Count.
Sumerian accomplished all this during what was arguably the most challenging time to build a label, with the music industry struggling to adapt to the digital age and evaporating CD sales. But rather than stubbornly trying to counter these winds of change, Avildsen and partner Jeff Cohen shrewdly used the Internet to their advantage, focusing on building brand identity in a number of once-novel ways that have since become commonplace.
“As far as spreading art and ideas, it’s the most powerful tool in the word,” Avildsen says of the web.
“They’ve been quick to react to all the changes that are happening in the music industry,” says Javier Reyes, guitarist for Animals as Leaders. “When Animals first started, YouTube wasn’t as popular, Facebook wasn’t as popular. I think Sumerian has been quick to capitalize on all those new avenues, realizing that the industry is changing and it’s about constantly having to innovate and think of new ways of reaching [your] audience and promoting to it.”
To call Sumerian's resources limited, especially in the early days, would be an understatement. When George Vallee, then a publicist for renowned L.A.-based indie label Century Media, left that company to join Sumerian in 2010, he found the label’s office on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks so small that there was no place for him to work. So he co-opted a supply closet.
“It was literally where the toilet paper was kept and all that stuff,” Vallee chuckles. “But it was awesome, man.” (The label has since moved to a larger space in the Hollywood Hills.)
Avildsen, who was just 24 when he started Sumerian, had a keen ear for fresh sounds in the extreme-metal underground.
“Sumerian has always been a label that took chances with bands,” Reyes says. “A lot of the bands that they’ve signed were the first of their kind in some regards — The Faceless, Born of Osiris, Veil of Maya. They were bands that were starting what I believe to be a new era of metal.”
It also wasn’t lost on the groups that Avildsen was trying to sign that he came from the same place that they did. “I was in a band," Avildsen says. “I lived in a van. I’m not just a suit.”
For musicians expected to slog it out on the road much of the year in order to build a following, this meant a lot. “Earlier on in the history of Sumerian, the people who helped build it were pretty much all touring musicians at one point,” Reyes notes. “We’ve dealt with people who haven’t had any touring experience, and there’s a huge disconnect between what happens in the office, to them, versus what’s actually happening on the road. Sumerian having a staff that was pretty experienced in touring made a big difference. A lot of times, there were no questions asked. ‘What help do you need? We’ll take care of it.’”
Ultimately, though, what made Sumerian work was far more than just Avildsen being able to relate to the bands he was signing.
It began with establishing a strong brand name, a modernization of the business model pioneered by indie-metal labels like Earache, Roadrunner, Century Media and Relapse in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Back then, in the pre-Internet age, discovering new music that existed on an underground level could be a challenge, because there were few media outlets catering to extreme metal. Label identity became crucial; a trusted label’s insignia on the back of a cassette or CD was an important seal of approval that would lead fans to take chances on new bands they’d never heard before.
Avildsen learned this firsthand when he started promoting shows back in the day in the D.C. area, where he’s from originally. As an example, he cites venerable hardcore and metal label Victory Records, which would later become Sumerian’s first distributor.
“When I would book a band — this was before MySpace and social media — even if they were unknown, by having the Victory label on the flier, I knew that at least some kids were going to come and check out the show, that the local bands would be excited to play with them and that it really meant something. That was always very powerful to me.”
Beyond the music, Avildsen focused on finding new ways to tap into metal’s communal spirit, that feeling of inclusiveness, of being a part of something that most people didn’t get. Nowhere is this strategy more visible than on the label's bustling, heavily populated YouTube channel.
“Their YouTube content was hands down way ahead of everybody else,” says Vallee, who left Sumerian and returned to Century Media in 2014. “We churned around videos — whether it was an instructional play-through, a lyric video, a behind-the-scenes video. Now it’s commonplace, but I think we were one step ahead.”
Another crucial aspect of Sumerian’s success was its vertically integrated structure, with a management arm, overseen by Shawn Keith, and, perhaps most significant, a booking agency. By taking advantage of Avildsen’s skill at booking bands, Sumerian was able to keep its acts on the road constantly. Often they toured together or on Avildsen-assembled package bills such as Summer Slaughter or this month's 10-year anniversary tour, with the bands building up label identity and their fan bases simultaneously.
“In some ways, it’s easier to get a record deal than a good booking agent,” Avildsen says, “and you’ve got to be on tour to build your career, especially if you’re not a pop artist or someone on the radio. That played a very integral part in the machine of being able to build these bands up.”
Sumerian’s growth was slow and steady at first, but everything changed with Asking Alexandria’s breakout 2011 album, the aptly titled Reckless & Relentless, a hedonistic, hard rock–infused game changer that was Sumerian’s first top 10 hit.
“I remember the first day I met them,” Vallee recalls of Asking Alexandria. “They’re like, ‘George, we’re going to be the biggest rock band in the world. We’re the hardest partiers, we’ll do this, we’ll do that.’ And man, they lived it. The world needed a dangerous band, and these kids didn’t give a fuck. They lived everything they said and backed it up tenfold.”
Fueled by exploding sales, Sumerian underwent a pronounced period of growth and began experimenting with recruiting established bands to the label. “We spent a lot of money signing older acts,” Avildsen says. “It was a very exciting, turbulent, capricious time in our evolution. We expanded our staff and our roster, really diversified the label.”
Among those veteran bands that Sumerian signed were heavy hitters such as Dillinger Escape Plan, Circa Survive and Body Count. The latter really goosed Sumerian’s profile thanks to frontman Ice-T's celebrity, which led to a round of appearances on the late-night talk show circuit.
“We did Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson in the same week,” Vallee says. “It was a whirlwind.”
All of this has made Sumerian ripe for a substantial payout for Avildsen and company, but he insists that he won’t sell Sumerian to a corporate parent, as plenty of other notable punk and metal labels (Century Media, Fearless, Vagrant and Rise) have done in recent years.
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“A lot of labels have taken checks from major companies,” Avildsen says. “I understand why they have, and I’m in no way passing judgment. But I would never be able to look any of my artists in the face and say, ‘Sorry, I took a check. I’ll be around three years and then you’re going to have to start talking to a guy who doesn’t know a single word to one of your songs, who you’ve never had a drink with. But best of luck, dude.’ Sumerian will always be independently owned and operated, for as long as I’m doing this.”
Or, to put it another way: “I’m not going to fuckin’ sell out.”