(It's Not) Rocket Science

How do you run a successful indie record label in the year 2012? Ask as many scenesters, hipsters, music business “professionals” as you want; the answer you will hear most often, frequently punctuated by bitter laughter, is “You can’t.”

Ironically, I heard the same thing 25 years ago when – against all odds and defying common sense – I decided to start a record label.  Even more ironically, today’s naysayers will typically point to the 80s and 90s as some sort of golden age when anyone capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time could cobble together some shoestring operation that would quickly grow from selling 7″s out of your disheveled bedroom into a multi-million dollar monolith that could be flogged off to one of the major labels for an even bigger fortune as soon one of your “underground” artists broke through into mainstream success.

The fact that this actually did happen on occasion does nothing to diminish the reality that then, as now, most indie label owners never saw their pride and joy develop into more than an expensive hobby.  It was a rare (and usually naive) individual who went into the business expecting to make money.  If in 1987 you’d asked what sort of financial future I envisioned for Lookout Records, I would have said I was hoping, if things went very well indeed, not to lose too much money.  Breaking even or coming out slightly ahead was about as wild as my dreams dared to get.

Nowadays people get annoyed when I tell them that, especially since when doing so I’m usually trying to demonstrate that it can be dangerous and self-defeating to assume you know what is or isn’t possible.  “Yeah, it’s easy for you to talk,” I’m told.  “You happened to luck out by starting your label right when everybody was having to re-buy their entire music collection on CD and before digital downloads came along and all but destroyed the retail music business.”

That does, in retrospect, look extremely lucky, but more to the point, I think, is the fact that in 1987 I had no way of knowing any of this was going to happen.  I didn’t get involved in CDs until the beginning of the 90s (they weren’t “punk,” you know), and as for the digital revolution, well, when an early adopter tried to explain how this whole “internet” thing worked, I was left hopelessly befuddled.  “Okay,” I kept asking him, “you hook up two computers so they can talk to each other? But what’s the point? What would a computer have to talk about?”

Still think it was a lot easier to bumble one’s way to success back in those days?  You’re possibly right.  When I get interviewed, one of the inevitable questions is, “Do you ever think about starting another record label?”  My answer is always a resounding NO.  Not just because the last one nearly drove me off the deep end, but also because I too would be intimidated by the seemingly bleak outlook facing the music business today.

But does that mean it can’t or shouldn’t be attempted?  Quite the contrary.  If I were 30 or 40 years younger, there’s every chance I’d be launching some sort of indie music venture, and tackling it with every bit as much enthusiasm, idealism and naiveté as I did the last time around.  I can’t guarantee I’d be successful, but I’d give it a pretty good go.

“Aha!” you say. “You’re chickening out because you’re old and you’ve lost your passion.” Maybe that’s a little true, but it’s more a case of wanting to do other things now, like writing, and seeing the world.  Besides, and perhaps most importantly, there are others who’ve taken up the challenge, others who are every bit as idealistic and motivated, and probably a lot smarter than I was when I first got the idea I could somehow run a record label.  They’re doing all the things I would be trying to do if I were still in the business, signing the same bands, treating them openly and honestly, injecting a much-needed note of innovation and integrity into an industry that has seldom been noted for either.

I hesitate to start naming names, not because there aren’t many that deserve to be named, but because I would inevitably miss so many more.  That being said, I do want to give shout-outs to a couple of my favorite indie labels.  One is It’s Alive Records in Orange County.  Though the majority of their output comes in the form of vinyl records that I can’t even play because I don’t have a record player (I’m getting one soon, which will be nice, though I’m endlessly chagrined about having given away my 1970s Technics turntable a few years back on the assumption I wouldn’t be needing it anymore), they’re a source of endless inspiration, both for their honorable business practices and their sheer love of the same sort of music I myself love most.

Then there’s New Jersey’s Don Giovanni Records.  Full disclosure: Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski, the guys who run it, are friends of mine, and I’d be inclined to support any enterprise of theirs, music-related or not.  But having watched their label grow for a few years now, I’m continually impressed by the way they’ve combined a well-run business with an artist-centered attitude, and in the process demonstrated that despite shifting formats, fragmenting markets, and wholesale disillusionment, it’s still possible, by following the same fundamental principles that have always underpinned a successful record label, to thrive and prosper.

One of the reasons Zach and Joe work so well with their artists is because they’re artists themselves: both have been in a variety of bands, perhaps none so notable as the much-loved but slightly star-crossed For Science.  Known originally as Skynet (a reference to some science fiction show or movie that everybody except me is familiar with, and which I could quickly look up if I didn’t want to maintain the illusion that I’m immune to popular culture), they dropped that name for fear of lawsuits, left science fiction behind, and went for straight-up science.

They were playing around New York quite a bit around the time I moved here, but I must admit I didn’t really “get” them.  Most of my friends were fans, some ravingly so, but every time I saw them it seemed as though one or more members would be drunk and/or otherwise impaired, and onstage chaos would ensue.  I remember once asking in all seriousness, “Why doesn’t somebody get those drunk guys off stage so the band can play?” not realizing that they were the band.

“Yeah, sometimes they’re a mess when they play live,” my friends would tell me, “but you have to hear their records.”  Which I never did, because, as you’ll remember, I didn’t have a record player.  Then one day a new lean, mean and sober version of For Science rolled into an afternoon show at the Cake Shop and I was not only amazed, but grudgingly had to admit, “Yeah, I guess maybe they’re not so bad after all.”  Shortly after that, the band imploded, thanks to a member’s LSD freakout (who does that in the 21st century?) and other murky circumstances that don’t need to be delved into here.

End of story, until quite recently, when a) I got a digital copy of two For Science albums; and b) it was rather abruptly announced that For Science were reuniting and would be playing the annual Don Giovanni showcase next weekend in Brooklyn (I say “rather abruptly” because I was somehow under the impression that certain members were never going to speak to each other again; once again, I was proved to be wrong, wrong, wrong). And the other news is that I’ve now listened to the digital albums a couple times and, whoa, my friends weren’t lying.  This band really is good.  Really, really good.  And though they’ll be sharing the stage with such luminaries as Screaming Females and Laura Stevenson and the Cans, chances are that For Science will end up stealing the show, either through the sheer exuberance of their fans welcoming them back to life, or because… well, who really knows what could happen?  It’s not the kind of band you’d want to make predictions about.

One prediction, however, that is a safe bet: you won’t want to miss this.  Last I heard, tickets weren’t sold out yet, but probably will be soon.

6 thoughts on “(It's Not) Rocket Science

  • Chelsea

    I love(d) that band so much that I wanted to be in it! Unfortunately, I ruined their (last? I can’t remember) insub set. I’m so lucky to have done background on some recorded tracks, but I should have let them alone on stage! I LOVE that they’re back in business, but hate that it’s 3000 miles away.

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  • Anoushiravan

    Independent record label in 2012? Starting at a grass roots level? And make a living at it? Can’t be done. Thanks to the remarkable ease and efficiency with which copyright infringement and distribution of pirated files is enabled by the Internet, the price of music, and all intellectual property for that matter, is soon to reach a new price point called “zero.”

    Even a raging success like the song “Chocolate Rain” with 78 *million* views on Youtube, can’t make much more money than what an indie label would have made on an album selling 78 *thousand* copies a 15-20 years ago.

    You may as well go into the beeper and pager business.

    • Larry Livermore

      If you say so.

      Doesn’t change the fact that some indie labels are in fact making money in 2012, Don Giovanni among them.

      Yes, it’s harder than it used to be, and yes, some of the things that used to work don’t anymore, but if someone is sufficiently innovative and adaptable, they will find a way. It’s not, as I said, rocket science.

  • Anoushiravan

    Well, let me rephrase. You can “make money.” But how much? It won’t really be enough money to get anywhere. And you’ll have to be several orders of magnitude more successful than in the past to even get to that point.

    That said, I do know of some indie labels nowadays working on an entirely new model. What they’re doing is paying for artists to record an album, and paying for production of a couple videos for singles to put on Youtube (videos are much cheaper nowadays, great ones can be made for a couple thousand dollars). In exchange the label gets a piece of the artist’s live performance income for a certain period of time. Revenues derived from actual music sales via iTunes or other MP3 retailer downloads are kind of written off as gravy income if and when it comes. The name of the game is becoming live performance revenue.

    Even with that though, it is still a less profitable enterprise than before. Until intellectual property rights are properly enforced, this will continue to be the case.

  • I’ve found only two things to hold back some I’ve known to make an attempt: Music quality and location. It’s quite a challenge to find decent musicians that are willing to stick together for more than a year or two before disbanding if even they wan’t to take music seriously at all.


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