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Issue:
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Photo By Laura Roberts
Local Labels

Crapshoot: Louisville Labels Bet Against the Odds

Thomas Edison had only the best of intentions when he invented his phonograph, or "talking machine," in the 1870s; but the invention, which recorded sounds onto tin cylinders, inevitably led to recorded music. As a result, the earliest record labels, like Edison, Victor and Columbia, began issuing discs in the early1900s.

By the late 1950s, labels were beginning to jump on board with rock and pop music, which of course changed the landscape tremendously. It was Decca Records that released "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets, which is credited as being the first rock record to top the charts.

Decca was formed in the U.K. in the 1930s, when jazz and classical were the main sellers in music; it would later turn down a band called the Beatles, but another label stepped up EMI dedicated a producer whose resume included mostly classical music and comedy to the young upstarts, and together they made pop music history.

As rock exploded, labels were there to serve as puppet masters and to reap most of the rewards from record sales. But the digital age has changed the way music is distributed, making major labels and their business model somewhat antiquated.

Are record labels a dying breed? Many think so. It's true that major labels still dominate the commercial music industry, but the advent of the Internet has made DIY an increasingly feasible way to promote one's music, and successfully so. Good music will find its way to the ears of those searching for that music in this digital age without necessarily needing a label to facilitate that union. And much of the time, that music can be found free of charge.

The key question is how many people are truly looking for that particular sound/style/etc., and will they pay for it when they find it? This makes it financially risky for a smaller label to take a chance on a new band with a unusual sound if it means investing money into the band.

But the believers the artists and enthusiasts who form and run indie labels continue to press forward. Louisville has no shortage of labels, even with the passing of high-profile players such as Initial Records and Label X.

One of the clear differences between a major label and an indie label is the motivation behind it. A national or international label that represents established, top-selling artists is clearly in it to make money. But there is a greater altruistic component attached to a small label; many of these specialize in a certain genre of music or in a region or type of delivery vehicle (such as vinyl or digital downloads).

"The business has just changed so much," Leslie Stewart, a former DJ for WFPK and longtime promoter/enthusiast of Louisville music, said. "People don't need labels to get their music out there. I think that labels as a general rule are dinosaurs, and they don't make sense for either the artists or the people who own the label."

She noted, of course, that a traditional label is a company that fronts a band money to record and/or promote its music. But that money has to be paid back in sales.

"A label deal is essentially a loan," Stewart said. "This is what people don't understand. They think the money is going to come pouring in and every thing is going to be gravy … but the main value you get in a national label is the promotion. With a local label you usually don't even have that."

Stewart has long been associated with ear X-tacy Records, the label founded by John Timmons by way of his successful music store. It was and continues to be an altruistic vehicle designed to help out local artists with promotion. Releases are sporadic, the most recent being a 2009 album of original material by Mickey Clark, a Louisville native who boasts a long career in folk and country music.

Often, releases on such small labels may be the only way an artist can get his or her songs "released" and distributed. For the deserving artist, a hard-working small label can be a true friend and marketing partner.

On the other side of the coin, if U2 records a new album, and it is vapid, over-produced trash (and it's U2, so odds are it will be), Interscope is still going to release it because it will sell.

Obviously, it's not a gamble to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on promotion and product for an act like that; this is primarily what separates the major label from the indie. The former is out to make money, period, and the latter is rolling the dice while also fulfilling an altruistic goal and providing its artists with a leg up.

LABELS IN LOUISVILLE

Louisville has a number of labels, even in the wake of Initial and Label X. Initial was, for many years, a key purveyor of hardcore rock, a genre of music in which Louisville boasts a long legacy, and it specialized in mail orders.

Label X, co-founded by producer Todd Smith, emerged later in the game to market bands like Peter Searcy, the Muckrakers, Digby and Code Red to varying degrees of success, gaining national distribution through larger label partner, Toucan Cove.

So what's left in the wake of those notable players on the Louisville scene? Quite a lot, actually, and each one has its own spin a component that is increasingly important, even necessary, to sustain.

SonaBLAST! is a label that formed in New York, but moved to Louisville and now has a number of Louisville acts on its roster, headlined by Ben Sollee. Gill Holland, who makes his living as a film producer, launched it because of a singer-songwriter named Mark Geary.

"I thought he was fabulous," Holland said. He went to a show after hearing Geary's music and "it turned out he was a bartender at my favorite bar in New York -- he had been serving me drinks for the last six months."

After the show, they talked, had a drink, and Geary asked Holland if he would like to help him put out a CD.

Holland: "I said, ‘Suuuure.'"

Holland read some books about the music industry, issued the release and the label grew from there. He moved to Louisville in summer 2005 and continued looking for artists he thought were talented but which also fit the niche he established early on with Geary: Finding artists that might be placeable in film soundtracks. It's his business, and it's something SonaBLAST! adds in value. Is it lucrative? Well, not usually. But the potential is there, and it doesn't undermine the love of the product.

"A lot of things you do at the beginning you do purely for love, and as you get more experience, you start learning more about the business side as well," Holland said. "At the beginning it's blind optimism and faith and sweat and hope."

But it's also about the avenues of promotion. The digital age has altered the landscape; Sollee tours relentlessly, and each show represents a chance to sell physical product in the form of CDs.

"The reality is that the only record that sells these days is at a live show," Holland said. "We have signed acts that don't tour, and there's only so much you can do with them."

Holland said SonaBLAST! recently signed an act called The Pass which plays 1980s-style beats with three keyboards and drums. He said the songs on the EP demo the band provided were so infectious that the Pass became the first band he signed without seeing them live first (he since has done that and says the band's live show is even better than he hoped). Whether the band is placeable or not remains to be seen, but Holland is a believer.

Brandon Skipworth is a co-founder of Louisville-based Noise Pollution. The label began because Skipworth's high school friend Nathan Smallwood and he shared an interest in early 1990s Louisville punk and indie rock. The label was officially launched in 1997 but is an offshoot of the duo's earlier label project known as Shaking Sheila Records.

The label represents current bands, but also has issued re-releases by groups like Evergreen, simply because it was an early-'90s favorite of Skipworth and Smallwood. But the label isn't a nostalgia company, so what it provides is an avenue for local indie acts to get their music heard, as well as a way for the proprietors to promote the music they love. They help finance production, provide distribution and work with the bands to promote the music.

Skipworth points out, though, that while the digital age has brought about more ways for a band to promote itself, it is eating itself on some level.

"It's sort of a double-edge sword, because music is so accessible now that it's more disposable to some people," he said. "There's not the urgency there used to be to run out and get that new record. Now you can just download it or wait to get a burned copy from your friend."

This is one more reason the small label is better served to find a niche.

"We just keep doing what we do and what we do now isn't terribly different than what we did when we first started," Skipworth said. "Any money that comes in just goes back into the label. We keep doing it because we love doing it. It's just fun."

Karate Body Records is another prime example of a niche label. Specializing in vinyl releases and digital distribution, Karate Body operates on a similar principle as most small labels as in, this isn't a way to get rich, but a way to follow a path, with the remote possibility to make money if the stars align.

Mat Herron and Joe Seidt started Karate Body in 2008, having found similar tastes in music and ways of seeing the music business. "We got to thinking that we know a lot of people who have records that were finished and were looking for people to put it out," Herron said. "That sort of dovetailed with the fact vinyl is and continues to be increasing in terms of format sales. That trend kind of coincided with idea we had to release limited edition vinyl releases."

For instance, Karate Body worked with SonaBLAST! to do a limited edition vinyl release of Ben Sollee's first album. It's a collectible of sorts, a limited-edition release aimed at existing fans. Ditto the most recent Louisville is for Lovers compilation.

"If we make some money in the end, so be it," Herron said. "But I don't think anybody right now who is starting a label like this is doing it to make money. Nobody's getting rich, quote unquote. Our goal is good, compelling releases presented in artistic ways and keeping things sonically amazing."

MONETIZING MUSIC?

Unless a local label can sign U2, the model still remains suspect it's a great vehicle for a labor of love, but a terrible business model.

Todd Smith was a founder and driving force behind Label X; the label started in 2003 and closed its doors in 2008 even after several successes. Smith, an accomplished producer, noted that one of Peter Searcy's songs not only found great success on adult contemporary radio, but landed on an Oprah spot and was on a promo for an NBC series and yet it didn't yield sales.

"We're talking radio push, press push, NBC promos and Oprah all hitting at same time, which is what you try to get to happen," Smith said. "And the sales needle barely even moved. It was after that I had to sit back and face reality we saw a spike, but it died down quickly, and 10 years ago it would have been all we needed.

"It's just the landscape and the market. I had to sit back and have those what-the-fuck conversations with myself. If it wasn't going to go after that then I needed to take a long, hard look at the situation and decide, do we keep slugging it out or is there something wrong with the revenue model and the landscape?"

Smith concluded: "I had to put the label down like you shoot a horse. I don't think you can sell records anymore. I think you have to say music is free, at least for now, so you have to figure out what can you sell other than music."

To that end, Smith and some partners are renovating the old Butchertown Pub into a production studio set up for video and audio, with the intent to monetize media based on software that Smith and his partners are developing. Smith believes looking ahead is the only way to figure out how to sell music.

"My daughter is 8 years old, and when she wants to hear music she goes to YouTube," he said. "She can watch whatever video she wants for whatever song she likes. I think that's a profound sign of the times."

THE LABELS

Here is an overview of labels currently operating in Louisville:

Adept Recordings

www.adeptrecordings.com

Established in 1987, Adept "waves the DIY flag," according to its MySpace profile. Bands of the past included Crappy Nightmareville, Mudflap, the Belgian Waffles! and its offshoot Suspected Terrorists; currently promoting Sick City Four.

Auxiliary Records

www.theauxblog.blogspot.com

Small, punk/indie label. Currently promoting Coliseum; recently issued a re-release of the Young Widows' Settle Down City, according to the blog site.

Brightskull Records

www.brightskull.com/

Specializes in punk, much like the downtown venue Skull Alley, with which the label is associated. Recently released a split seven-inch for Mountain Asleep and Antilles, and previously released a CD for the band One Small Step.

Dunkenstein Music

www.myspace.com/dunkensteinmusic

Released titles by the Olympia Three and the Arcade Schedule; currently working on a compilation featuring current Louisville bands covering defunct Louisville bands.

Ear X-tacy Records

www.earx-tacy.com

Has releases projects by Louisville artists since 1995. Includes titles by Cooler, Tim Krekel, Mickey Clark, Heidi Howe, Butch Rice and many more.

Karate Body Records

www.karatebodyrecords.com

Specializes in vinyl and digital releases. Released titles by Metroschifter, Ben Sollee and John King's Louisville is For Lovers series, among others.

Louisville Lip Records

www.myspace.com/louisvilleliprecords

A label started by Shawn Severs after his departure from Noise Pollution; specializes in vintage recordings of Louisville acts such as Sean Garrison & the 5 Finger Discount, while also putting out current releases by FOOR and Rude Weirdo (featuring the late Tony Bailey, of Crain, Papa M and more).

Noise Pollution

www.louisvillenoise.com

Focuses on Louisville's punk community, primarily from years gone by. Also released titles by local bands such as Minnow, The Teeth, Second Story Man, Straight A's, Brett Ralph's Kentucky Chrome Review and Metroschifter.

One Horse Records

www.vestadvertising.com

Officially a small part of Vest Advertising, Marketing & Public Relations, One Horse is new to the scene, recently releasing Farm Fresh by an Indiana couple billed as the Howards Offers recording and in-house production options.

SonaBLAST! Records

www.sonablast.com

Features Irish singer-songwriter Mark Geary, whose 2004 release >Ghosts turned Gold and received critical acclaim in Ireland and the USA. Owned by Holland and partner Matt Parker, the label also has released titles by Sollee, the Old Ceremony, the Lucky Pineapples, and more.

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