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The more the major record labels consolidate, the more mainstream culture narrows, driving music fans to search for alternatives. Paradoxically, when huge corporations dominate entertainment, independent labels tend to flourish, at least artistically. In Seattle, this indie resurgence has been under way for a couple of years. Gone are the days when the city's record labels began and ended with Sub Pop, C/Z, and PopLlama. A whole new crop of local musicians and music fans has plunged into the turbulent waters of commerce, putting out records by themselves and their friends. Who will sink and who will swim? We talk to three local labels in the fast lane and 11 others to look out for. Plus, we run down the list of a dozen more small but worthy indies—and of course, no discussion of Seattle labels would be complete without checking in with the godfathers at Sub Pop.
Owners: Nasir Rasheed, Alex Calderwood, Jared Harler
Best known for: Releases from hippie-soul band Strange Voices, trip-hop duo Dragonfly, and hip-hop-inspired High Fidelity
Recent releases: 12-inch from Tripoli
Future releases: A commercial reissue of the compilation Limitless Luxury, Volume 1, originally distributed only to attendees at a Swedish design exhibition
Four years ago at Re-bar, Nasir Rasheed had a brainstorm. The Seattle DJ and promoter was part of the club's weekly acid-jazz/hip-hop night, Mocambo, a favorite among musicians and DJs. "There were a lot of people coming to this night, giving me these tapes," he recalls. "And they were fantastic. I thought they should be known outside of the Northwest."
So, in time-honored DIY fashion, he maxed out his credit cards to start Sweet Mother Recordings, an ambassador from Seattle to dance floors around the world. After enlisting his friends, local club promoters Jared Harler and Alex Calderwood, Rasheed released the 12-inch "On the Rocks," which he had recorded with Ben Saunders under the name Sharkskin. This debut record attracted one very important fan, Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, whose enthusiasm led Sub Pop to distribute the fledgling label's first CD, a compilation of Seattle acts called Free Activation Series No. 1.
Though the two labels' business association was brief, Rasheed professes gratitude to the older company for both its monetary support and the example it set. "Sub Pop was an inspiration in the way they started—their visual identity, their aesthetic," he explains. Rasheed also admired Sub Pop's initial policy of carrying the banner for hometown artists. "My focus has been to develop the Northwest scene," he says. "There's a good, healthy, creative scene here that has a unique sound from the rest of the country and from Europe—a definite warmth and soul. There don't seem to be influences from San Francisco or LA, or even New York or London."
Paradoxically, for a label that focuses on local acts, Sweet Mother is probably best known outside of Seattle. "Fortunately or unfortunately, our reputation is bigger than the label itself," Rasheed admits.
In fact, Sweet Mother gets submissions from as far away as England and Sweden, thanks in part to a limited-edition compilation, Limitless Luxury, Volume 1, distributed exclusively at a Swedish design exhibition last summer sponsored by the ultratrendy magazine Wallpaper. The exhibit's theme was luxury, and the objects on display included a custom-made Saab and Prada's "ultimate" handbag: heady company for a small Seattle record label, but the compilation was so well received that a commercial version is in the works. It will differ slightly from the original release due to the logistics of licensing and publishing. ("Doing a compilation is like doing a Rubik's Cube," Rasheed quips. "Once you get one side together, the other side falls apart.")
The label's only full-time employee, Rasheed looks forward to the day when he can hire someone else to handle day-to-day marketing, promotion, and distribution chores. For now, since distributor Cargo went out of business—owing Sweet Mother "thousands of dollars"—Rasheed is busy exploring alternative distribution via Internet sales and through cross-promotions, including one with the Nordstrom clothing line Evergreen. Like most indie-label owners, he's willing to do almost anything to get the records in fans' hands. "Our artists make this amazing music, and I just think it's got to be heard," he enthuses. "That's what inspires me."
Owners: Chris Takino, Rich Jensen
Best known for: Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Quasi
recent releases: The Pastels, the label compilation Up Next, the Dark Fantastic
Future Plans: Modest Mouse singles collection, new Quasi album, new Land of the Loops
When Chris Takino first heard a recording of Built to Spill's unreleased second album, There's Nothing Wrong with Love, the thought of starting a record label had never crossed his mind. But when he played the tape to Jonathan Poneman in hopes that the Sub Pop head would sign the band, Poneman instead fired off a suggestion. "He said, 'Why don't you put it out yourself?'" Takino recalls, sitting on one of the thrift-store couches that occupy a corner of the Up Records office, ironically located in the basement of a Capitol Hill apartment building.
Takino, whose previous experience included a stint as receptionist for the legendary Los Angeles punk label SST and a tour as a Sub Pop warehouse worker, suddenly was on his way to becoming an entrepreneur. He and partner Rich Jensen borrowed money from Sub Pop—which still helps with manufacturing and distribution—and issued the Built to Spill album and a few 7-inches by bands such as Butterfly Train and Violent Green. Five years later, Up Records is one of the most respected labels not only in the Northwest but the nation. Two of Up's most recent releases, Quasi's Featuring 'Birds' and Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West, garnered staggering critical acclaim; Spin deemed them two of the three "indie albums of the year."
A soft-spoken, shy—he refused to have his photo taken for this article—and yet opinionated man, Takino scoffs at the mention of Spin's accolades. "The whole indie band thing is kind of funny," he says. "And that people consider indie rock a category."
He may have a point: Built to Spill's follow-up to There's Nothing Wrong with Love surfaced on one of the world's largest record companies, Warner Bros., and Modest Mouse may soon sign to a major label. And though Up has certainly released its share of the type of melodic guitar rock that gets referred to as "indie," one of its most consistent sellers has been Land of the Loops, a Brooklyn act known for its playful, sample-based electronic pop.
Aside from Land of the Loops, the Scottish band the Pastels, and California's Duster, Takino primarily selects bands from the Pacific Northwest to fill out his stable. In the past two years, Up has had one of the most ambitious release schedules of any regional independent label, issuing records by Seattle's 764-HERO, Modest Mouse, Violent Green, Jana McCall, and Mike Johnson, Olympia's the Need, and Portland's Quasi. Takino estimates that if each of these sold an estimated 5,000 copies, the label would prosper. But he's found a way around these impossible odds. With Modest Mouse's surging popularity—the last full-length cleared the 30,000 mark in sales—and Quasi's 8,000 copies sold, Up had its most successful year in '98. Of course, Takino would like to surpass these numbers in '99, and he may have a chance with forthcoming records by Land of the Loops, Quasi, and Modest Mouse.
But the financial management is a sideline to the business of making records and helping bands achieve something other than getting one hit before they fade from the radar. Besides running the day-to-day operations, Takino has helped mix records and send packages—the sort of hands-on treatment from a label owner that you can't get from a major-label president.
"There are certain advantages to being on the Up label," Takino notes. "A lot of it has to do with the way you develop bands. I feel like we offer a place for bands to grow.
Tooth and Nail
Owners: Brandon Ebel, Bill Power, Michelle Power
Best known for: Signing MxPx, the world's most famous Christian punk rockers
Recent releases: Full-lengths from Danielson, Selfmindead, Extol, Ghoti Hook, Goodnight Star, and Seattle's Roadside Monument; the label compilation Moms Like Us Too, Vol. 1
Future releases: The Deluxtone Rockets, Dogwood, Ninety Pound Wuss, Stavesacre
From its modest beginnings six years ago in Brandon Ebel's Irvine, California, studio apartment to its current incarnation, Tooth and Nail Records is the Little Label That Could. With a roster of 21 acts (not including the 11 on Tooth and Nail's hardcore imprint, Solid State, or the three acts on Plastiqmusiq, the electronic division), Ebel and co-owners Bill Power and Michelle Power might just be the hardest-working label heads in Seattle.
The trio maintains a frenetic pace, pumping out two or three releases a month, running a record store and an online merchandise business that sells everything from records to key chains to posters, and hosting the first annual Tooth and Nail Winter Festival (with a dozen bands on the bill). Ebel and his partners seem to have all the bases covered—not surprising, considering Ebel's early fortitude as an employee at Frontline Records, where he would work any and every job available in order to learn all the facets of the label biz.
Pop, punk, ska (and hybrids of all three)—and now hardcore and electronic music—can be found in the Tooth and Nail catalog. "We don't have just one sound," Ebel explains. "We sign what we like. Our best-selling bands are punk, hardcore, and ska."
Though Tooth and Nail suffered a bit of a loss when its best-known act, MxPx, left for A&M Records, it continued its furious schedule. And now that A&M has been folded into Interscope Records, MxPx has returned home with a new release, Let It Happen, joining such T&N favorites as from Ninety Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument, and Stretch Armstrong.
Tooth and Nail's most notable achievement can't be explained by sheer hard work or wide-ranging musical tastes: It's the only record label on the planet that makes Christianity cool. Tooth and Nail bands don't necessarily preach, but they do rock with a more positive message than the gloom and doom pervading most of the underground. For example, the lyrics on You Are Obsolete by electro-pop band House of Wires contain not a single mention of God or scripture, though the first thank-you in the liner notes goes to God.
Sometimes, Tooth and Nail's message is more direct, however; on the label's Web site, a call for demos for the Solid State imprint requests, "Cussers, drug users, and Satan lovers need not apply." "Believe it or not, we have more opposition in the Christian market than the general market," Ebel says. "A lot of people in the Christian market don't understand what we're doing. The labels are baffled by us. We kind of turned that market upside down because we have put out genres of music that have never been put out in that market, and we've done well."
Owners: Mr. Supreme, Strath Shepard
Best known for: Sharpshooters' Buck the Saw; the best DJ names (Sureshot, Kutfather, Supreme, the Con Men) in town; and of course, the phat beats
Recent releases: Walkman Rotation, a compilation mixed by J-Rocc of the Beat Junkies, Eclipse "World Premier" 12-inch, and Jake One with Kutfather "No Introduction" 12-inch
Future releases: Da Grassroots, Passage Through Time
The lone hip-hop label in a rockist city, Conception Records fights an uphill battle. "When I talk to somebody on the phone about hip-hop and Seattle, they definitely have preconceived notions of where we're coming from—we all drink lattes and wear flannel and listen to grunge," says co-owner and label manager Strath Shepard.
Conception's origins go back to 1993, when local musicians Supreme and Sureshot (actually Danny Clavesilla and Shane Hunt) became widely known for the jazzy, inventive hip-hop they made under the name Sharpshooters. The duo's debut EP, Buck the Saw, hit the nail on the head during the height of acid-jazz fervor. After strong response from fans and critics alike, Clavesilla and Hunt set about producing more music, including the import-only "Massacre" 12-inch single, another Sharpshooters record, Choked Up, and the recent compilation Walkman Rotation. Hunt decided to leave the label last year to devote more time to his love of reggae music.
Nowadays, you can't say the word hip-hop in Seattle without mentioning Conception or one of its main players, including DJ Kutfather and Jake One. At one point, the label was picked up for distribution by Sub Pop, but the two labels amiably ended their business relationship last year. "It was good for both of us," Shepard says. "There was an article in The Rocket that made it bitter, but it wasn't bitter at all. They needed to pare down their roster a little bit, and we needed to be independent again in order to sell some records."
As befits a label that focuses on underground hip-hop, Conception sticks to the genre's vinyl roots. "With hip-hop, if you miss out on the 12-inch, you're missing out on everything," Shepard explains. "[Conception] is by and for DJs. Everything we do will always come out on vinyl."
These 12-inch slabs of wax prove that Seattle's hip-hop prowess doesn't stop with Sir Mix-A-Lot. "Seattle will become known as a hip-hop city as people around the world become less and less concerned with where the artist is from," Shepard says. "We could concentrate on trying to get huge like Puffy, but I'm not going to try and do that—I'd rather just see if we can do it in the underworld."
Owner: Brian Bauer
Best known for: Red Stars Theory's But Sleep Came Slowly, Harry Dean Stanton 7-inch
recent releases: Bare Minimum and Sick Bees full-lengths
future releases: Welcome and Sick Bees full-lengths
Though he doesn't aggressively market Rx Remedy, owner Brian Bauer has served a significant role in Seattle's music community. Beginning with a 1995 full-length by local band Welcome, his label has issued a trickle of records that have helped keep artful rock on the scene's radar. But because his company lacks the high profile of larger rivals like Sub Pop or Up, it hasn't been a smooth ride for Bauer.
Despite releasing critically acclaimed albums by Red Stars Theory and Sick Bees, and an out-of-left-field 7-inch by fringe actor Harry Dean Stanton (of Paris, Texas fame), Rx Remedy has yet to become a self-supporting enterprise. "With anything else, if you work really hard you can usually see results," Bauer says. "With this, you may not."
The lack of immediate financial gratification stings, and it's forced Bauer to do some soul searching about how much effort he'd like to put into what he deems a "hobby." But because he appreciates his friends' music, he's decided to devote himself anew to Rx Remedy, and he's scheduled new albums for release in '99 by Welcome, which recently reformed after a breakup, and by the aggressive duo Sick Bees. Hopefully, they'll have the right prescription to take this label up a notch.
Best known for: Techno 12-inches from Masa, Perkowitz, Screwtop, and other Seattle producers
recent release: 12-inches from Cityboy, Perkowitz, and Tom Chasteen
Future releases: 12-inches from Joshua (San Francisco) and Troy (Texas), as well as more from Screwtop and Masa
1200 Music's releases cater to a specialized market: fans of minimalist techno. Yet within that genre, 1200 has gained a national reputation.
Seattle DJ Masa jokes that he started his own label so that he could tell his mother he'd made a record. The first release from 1200 was, in fact, one of Masa's own 12-inches, "time/airbubble," in 1996. Since then, his formula has resembled that of many tiny electronic-music labels: Press vinyl only, in amounts as small as 100 copies.
Though the official 1200 Music information sheet claims that the label "is but one cog in a vast money-laundering machine, serving organized crime syndicates and large corporations alike with an attention to customer satisfaction unmatched in the industry," more likely, 1200 benefits from its specialized distribution. Each 12-inch of "forward-thinking, open-minded techno" is channeled through a record distributor that caters to DJs and vinyl junkies.
Many 1200 Music artists are from Seattle, but Masa says that the label has connected him with like-minded producers from around the world. "Some of them are old friends, some of them are new friends," he says. "But we all have one thing in common—we are crazy about music."
Owners: Steven Nereo, Jovita Carpenter
Best known for: Sukpatch, cassette releases of early Lois and Creeper Lagoon
recent releases: Volume All*Star, Buckminster Fuzeboard, Sientific American 12-inch
future releases: Sientific American compilation of 12-inches, DJ Dynamite D
Most Slabco artists have their roots in Colorado, a state known for mushroom-fueled jam bands and organic bluegrass outfits. But the members of Volume All*Star, Land of the Loops, Sukpatch, and Buckminster Fuzeboard, most of whom met in college before scattering to Seattle and elsewhere, don't use guitars or banjos, and they've probably never attended a Phish concert.
Indie-rock fans during their college days, these musicians didn't even mimic what they'd heard on their Pavement and Superchunk 7-inches. Instead, they experimented with samplers and synthesizers, attaching beats to snippets of weird fare they'd taped from TV shows.
In 1990, Steven Nereo decided to begin issuing some of his friends' offbeat electronic musings on cassette, and he started Slabco. The tape-only label grew gradually, in part because he could only dub four cassettes at a time on his stereo. But with interest in Land of the Loops and Sukpatch increasing, and with Steven itching to strike out on his own after working for Up Records, he became inspired to expand into CDs. "I decided to try and make it happen," he says.
The first releases on disc were from his own project, Volume All*Star, and from Sukpatch, a duo that had relocated to Minnesota. The records etched out Slabco's sound, a compendium of quirky beats and amusing sampled dialogue that colors the work of all of the label's artists. Where most electronic acts focus on the gloomy or the ecstatic, Team Slabco finds a likable middle ground. "It seems like a lot of people get into it because there's a lot of cheap electronic equipment out there," he says of the genre. "But there's not a lot of style."
Owner: Stone Gossard
Best known for: The owner's membership in Pearl Jam; signing the only band on the planet who play wearing chicken suits (Critters Buggin)
Recent releases: Hi Fi Killers, Jamaica; Queens of the Stone Age's self-titled debut; Eureka Farm, Analog
Future releases: Records from PONGA, featuring Skerik and Wayne Horvitz, and Calm Down Juanita, featuring Gossard and Ty Willman (exGreen Apple Quick Step)
The brainchild of Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and former Satchel member Regan Hagar, Loosegroove focuses on the underbelly of Seattle's music scene—a diverse group of musicians who might otherwise fall through the city's hardened cracks. Though it tends to favor the more jam-based side of rock and jazz, the label knows no musical bounds; without reaching for a specific "sound," Gossard has gambled on twangy singer-songwriter Elaine Summers, classic-rock revivalists Queens of the Stone Age, and one of his first signees, the now-defunct hip-hop act Prose and Concepts. In 1996, Loosegroove produced the first all-Seattle hip hop compilation, 14 Fathoms Deep, which despite inconsistent quality, brought to a larger audience up-and-comers such as DJ Vitamin D.
"The difference between us and most of the other labels up here is we're sort of eclectic. Most of the others are niche-driven," Loosegroove manager Kim Robbins observes. "All we're missing is a country artist and maybe a classical piece," he adds with a laugh.
Loosegroove has also done good deeds for others—co-hosting a benefit for JAMPAC and supporting indie CDs by unsigned local artists like j.r. (whose special-edition, seven-song record vision of the fool ii—featuring Loosegroove artists Matt Chamberlain, Mike Dillon, and Brad Houser—is sold on the label's Web site).
"The whole music scene here is tight-knit," says Robbins. "j.r., Skerik from Critters Buggin, Hi Fi Killers—all those people network, so they kind of know each other."
Upcoming records from Summers and Critters Buggin will build on Loosegroove's previous success with these artists. Over the next year, however, the label will release some CDs only regionally to build a strong audience before taking the artist to a national level. The Bellingham group Eureka Farm is the first of these experiments. "It comes down to what we like and the potential," Robbins explains. "We're trying a different form of attack. There's just so many records that come out every year, it's easy for them to get lost."
Though Loosegroove may be set apart by Gossard's name recognition, it has the same concerns as any other indie. "It's a record label," Robbins points out. "At the end of the day we have to make money—or break even."
Owners: Lance Paine, Nabil Ayers, Jason Sutherland
Best known for: Micro Mini; promoting Northwest pop
Recent releases: The Tycoons, Is It Christmas Yet? EP; Severna Park, 316 EP; Micro Mini, Get in the Go Go Cage
Future releases: Self-titled EP from Alien Crime Syndicate
Nabil Ayers, the drummer for Alien Crime Syndicate and the now-inactive Micro Mini, talks a mile a minute while he's handling customers at Sonic Boom, the record store he co-owns with another former Micro Mini member, Jason Hughes. Only a person with Ayers' energy could juggle a record store, a band, and a record label; as the co-owner of the label Collective Fruit, he somehow manages to find time for all of his endeavors, musical or otherwise.
Releasing melodic, catchy records by Super Deluxe, Micro Mini, Severna Park, and Lucky Me, Collective Fruit has quietly gained a reputation as the Northwest's "pop label," though that was never Ayers' intention. "We haven't really tried to be [a pop label], but that's pretty much what we are," he says. "I think a lot of indie labels are pretty niche-oriented—if you buy something from Up or Matador, you have pretty good idea of what it's going to be. I don't think that would be true at all for us. We also have the Zeke single," offers Ayers with a laugh. "That gives the punk-rock edge."
The label's outlook is casual, he explains. "We just wanted to put out stuff that we liked by people we knew." Bands aren't "signed" and some come and go in the space of a few months. For example, the Tycoons, who just released a successful EP, are now broken up. Unlike many other start-ups that have glossy goals, Collective Fruit's ambitions are quite modest, says Ayers: "We just want to sell enough of this one to pay for the next one."
Owner: Terry Farrell
Best known for: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio; motto "Pace Makes the Race"
recent releases: Phelps' 3, United Schach Corporation EP
Future releases: Juno's full-length debut (co-release with Washington DC's DeSoto), new full-lengths by Phelps and Bluebird
"It's a fan-based label," Terry Farrell says of his PacifiCo Recordings. "I'm working with people who I think are making important records." This has included only two artists to date—Joel R.L. Phelps' Downer Trio and the United Schach Corporation—but Farrell plans on expanding his output in 1999.
Fresh from a trip to Los Angeles, where he'd traveled to work on a deal with the band Bluebird, Farrell says he'll release as many as four full-lengths in the months ahead, plus a few 7-inches, including one by the promising New York garage outfit Les Savy Fav. The CDs in the pipeline include one by Seattle's Juno, another by Phelps, and a debut album by the side project of Red Stars Theory and 764-HERO member James Bertram, the confusingly named Pennsy's Electric Workhorses Songs.
It's an ambitious schedule for a label as untested as PacifiCo, but Farrell says he's up to the task. For one thing, he's no music-biz newcomer. After cutting his teeth as a DJ at Tulane's college radio station, Farrell became a production manager at C/Z. In 1994, he broke away and co-founded El Recordo, the Seattle label that released albums by Silkworm and its departed singer/guitarist, Phelps. After splitting with his partners, Farrell started the new endeavor himself.
He's pleased with his accomplishments so far, even if they've remained on a small scale. "PacifiCo isn't exactly overflowing with cash," he says. "So it's made me more creative than some better-endowed labels."
My Own Planet Recordings
Owners: Michele Van Valey, Chris Peterson
Best known for: Records by the Giraffes, Clodhopper
recent releases: The Delusions' I Hope It Dies on a Sunny Day, Citizens' Utilities' Sunbreak
Future releases: Marc Olsen's didn't ever . . . hasn't since, due out in spring
It may sound like a lost scene from Singles, but My Own Planet Recordings really was conceived in a U District coffee shop. Michele Van Valey, a former Will Records employee, and Chris Peterson, who owns the University Way fixture Allegro Espresso Bar, decided to form the label as a conduit to bring ex-Sage guitarist/vocalist Marc Olsen's records to the world. Van Valey had already followed the usual route of trying to get Olsen signed, and she was fed up.
"After months of sending tapes to record labels, we decided, 'Fuck this, we're gonna do it ourselves,'" she says. My Own Planet released Olsen's tuneful Tunnel Songs in 1997, but the label didn't stop there. A Bebop & Destruction record followed, and not far behind was a full-length by the first postPresidents of the USA project from Chris Ballew, the Giraffes.
The label's next three releases would make it one of Seattle's most accomplished in '98. Red's Recovery Room, the first disc from the artful alt-country band Clodhopper, became a minor regional hit, and the song "Cafe Jolie" snagged a regular spot on KCMU's rotation. Citizens' Utilities, the twang-tinged pop band that released two underrated albums on the New York label Mute, resurfaced on My Own Planet with Sunbreak. Then upstarts the Delusions reeled off a power-pop gem in I Hope It Dies on a Sunny Day, which helped the band nab an opening slot on Built to Spill's upcoming four-month tour.
Still dizzy from the success, Van Valey says she's concentrating on Olsen's forthcoming second album, which she thinks is so strong that it will establish him as one of the Northwest's best-known singer/songwriters. "We've been building up to this for two years," she says. "We're really excited about it."
Founder: Skip Williamson
Best known for: Soundtracks for indie films like Dream with the Fishes and Buffalo 66
recent releases: David Baerwald's Hurlyburly soundtrack, Six Ways to Sunday soundtrack
Future Plans: Soundtrack to Arlington Road, scored by Angelo Badalamenti, debut full-lengths from Seattle bands the Souvenirs and New American Shame
The past decade has seen an explosion in the production of both movie soundtracks and indie/low-budget films. Local label Will Records has benefited from both phenomena. Formed by Skip Williamson in 1993 to release the first album from Sage, Will also put out records by Joey Altruda, Grandaddy, and the Seattle band Lucky Me (which featured Williamson's brother Rob on bass).
Though these records earned Will artistic points, Williamson encountered an obstacle typical of owners of tiny record labels: the inability to translate critical acclaim into sales. So, in a paradoxical move, he relinquished control of his labe