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NW Noise: The Independent Spirit of the West

Why some Northwestern independent record labels may just survive the music industry flux


For years, the concept of the Wild West existed not only in the minds of people who lived outside of the United States, but even in the minds of our own countrymen and women who had never ventured west of the Mississippi River. At first, we Westerners didn't mind. We were still a somewhat undiscovered treasure and feared what too much exposure might do to the beautiful wilderness areas that span the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. When our neighbors out east would make joking inquiries as to whether we had real cowboys roaming our city streets, we would chuckle under our breaths and drawl, "Why, sure we do."

Over the last few decades, however, we Westerners have joined the ranks of the initiated. Starbucks now multiply like bacteria in a petri dish and ground-breaking ceremonies for a new Wal-Mart are a weekly occurrence. The Northwest is home to some of the biggest names in everything—Microsoft, for example—and, in Boise alone, we count famous actors, singers, politicians and more as our friends and neighbors. But the drive that brought new American settlers across the Continental Divide still lives on. Even as we embrace the changes in everything from fashion to health care to technology, we cling to our pioneering spirit. The proliferation of thriving Northwestern independent record labels in an industry that has faced a major metamorphosis is the proof in the pudding.

The music-industry paradigm has shifted. How music is produced, how it's paid for and how it's put in the hands of listeners is much different than it was even 10 years ago. That holds as true for independent record labels as it does for major labels.

But many of the indies have succeeded where the monied megaliths have failed due in part to their sense of how business is changing and in part to holding dear to what made them unique in the first place: cutting-edge acts, fairer shares of profits and a rabid focus on personal service.

A handful of these trailblazers in the Northwest have successfully weathered the changing music climate, including two labels that have thrived for over a decade, one hitting its stride and one just getting off the ground.

Barsuk Records

Seattle's Barsuk (pronounced bar-SOOK) Records is a good example of this spirit, as an indie label featuring indie acts. Christopher Possanza and Josh Rosenfeld, members of the band This Busy Monster started Barsuk (named for Possanza's beloved dog) as a way to release their own music. Rosenfeld—who said though the company doesn't really have titles, president would do and who one employee said is referred to as Head Honcho—spoke on his way into the office one morning about how Barsuk has continued to be an important part of the Northwest indie label record market.

"The way we think about it, this is kind of our 10-year anniversary actually. It was sort of a hobby-slash-not-even-really-a-hobby starting in the mid 1990s," Rosenfeld said. Barsuk put out some vinyl 7-inch singles. But in 1998, they started putting out CDs for the first time. Their first release was a record by This Busy Monster.

"Shortly after that release," Rosenfeld said, "we put out the first Death Cab [for Cutie] record which, I always joke, is a really good first signing. If you're ever going to start your own record label, I recommend you sign Death Cab for Cutie."

That band became one of the cornerstones of American indie music, representing a genre that saw a steady rise in popularity on the heels of the grunge music movement. The band was a staple at music festivals and they surged up the Billboard charts. Though the band left Barsuk for Atlantic in 2004, tracks from their 2003 Transatlanticism could be heard on popular TV shows like The O.C. and HBO's Six Feet Under and films like Lost in Translation. The rights to licensing alone must have had the folks at Barsuk patting each other on the back.

"We started to get rolling and started having success either right at the end of the Golden Era of record labels or at the beginning of the end" Rosenfeld laughed.

Rosenfeld said a lot of things happened between 1998 and 2002 making it, in some ways, the perfect time to be starting that project.

"It was entirely started because of circumstance," he said. "We were in a band, we made a record, nobody else wanted to put it out so we figured out how to press CDs ourselves and decided to make it look like it was on a real record label and named it after Christopher's dog. Now we're stuck with a name that a lot of people mispronounce all the time."

They're also stuck with a successful record label that, regardless of the often-mispronounced name, has made a name for itself. "It's turned into a real business. I think it's the story of how a lot of indie labels start," Rosenfeld said.

Death Cab's success played a large part in Barsuk becoming an indie name with a lot of weight behind it. But no man—or band—is an island. Barsuk had to have more bands like Death Cab to offer listeners to keep them buying Barsuk records, so they had to have something to offer bands to get them on board. The carrot on the stick? Personal service.

In 1998, Barsuk was just Rosenfeld and Possanza working part-time and weekends figuring out to press CDs and get them in distribution.

"We didn't do any kind of marketing, promotions or publicity," he said. "We didn't know how to run a record label at all ... but we provided a service those early bands found useful." He said they learned how to run a label through making plenty of mistakes—and fixing them—but also with the help of a lot of "super nice people." In particular, Megan Jasper vice president of Sub Pop Records, who was very generous with her time, and the late Chris Takino, founder of UP Records (who signed early Modest Mouse and Built to Spill) who was significant in shaping the "creative concept" behind Barsuk.

Rosenfeld said he thinks of his record label as a service business.

"We invest, obviously, in artists. We invest cash, but the bottom line is that we are providing a service. You need to support good art, if you want to allow that pop music is good art," he said. "I am inclined to allow that."

Rosenfeld said there is definitely a different philosophical and aesthetic outlook that comes from the culture in the Pacific Northwest. That impacts how the music business functions here.

But, he said, it is possible to make too much of regional differences.

"New York, L.A., Nashville [and even Toronto] businesses are characterized in their fullest by kind of being big-money, smooth-operator, business-suit type of operators." The perception of the Northwest is one of a chill, laid-back lifestyle. Rosenfeld said that isn't true. "We work really, really hard. I'm a terrible workaholic," he said.

Rosenfeld said the "whole flannel shirt thing" that Seattle became famous for is a good metaphor for what he's talking about. "Right now, hilariously, I'm wearing a flannel shirt," he said.

Light in the Attic Records

Josh Wright, co-founder of Seattle-based label Light In The Attic Records is another Northwest music industry frontiersman who has spent the better part of the last decade pushing new music onto the scene. LITA also has a game plan that makes them unique among their contemporaries: to re-issue albums by old obscure acts.

LITA has carved out a niche for itself by becoming musical archeologists. They bring in new unsigned acts, but they also uncover old, influential psychedelic, funk, R&B and soul acts from the decades of free-love and disco, brush them off, polish them up and put them back out into the world.

LITA's beginnings are as grassroots-based as Barsuk's. Wright said that he and his partner, Matt Sullivan, started together putting on concerts. They were gaining momentum as show producers. They produced shows by bands like Interpol and their business quickly gained a reputation in the Emerald City. But they had always planned to put out records. Wright's deliberate, deep voice makes him sound like a laid-back, music-scene guy but he's one for whom a busy 16-hour work day is the norm. Wright explained that he and Sullivan were given their opportunity to follow their plan with a reissue of a record by The Dead Poets, a band that has been referred to as "godfathers of the worldwide spoken-word movement."

Re-issuing an album by a band whose music was born as a response to the Vietnam War wasn't exactly a sure bet. But for LITA, it was the right one. Wright says he loves soul, funk and psychedelic music. He has a passion for the old stuff. But while growing up, he had a dream of having a big name on his own record label. That's why they put out current artists as well.

"It's a good mix between the two," he said. LITA is putting old albums into the hands of people who wouldn't have known of the music's existence otherwise, and occasionally someone who did know the music rediscovers it and something more. Betty Davis, an artist on the label, hadn't done any interviews in about 15 years until she did one for LITA recently.

LITA records have a serious cool factor with albums by classic acts like Davis and the late Karen Dalton and new acts like The Black Angels and The Blakes. But is "cool" enough to draw musicians to their label? Here, Wright echoes Rosenfeld: It's about service. "We're very hands-on. Distribution, retail, PR, everything is done in-house," he said.

"We distribute directly to over 200 of the top independent record stores, we have a bigger distributor that can allow us to get into chain markets, and we have a good digital distributor."

He quickly added, "Other labels do that [too], but we don't sign so many bands, so we can put a lot of focus [on] and ideas into these groups. With the retail relationships we have, we're able to get nice exposure and positioning in the stores." He cites a good working relationship with Boise's Record Exchange as an example.

"Those [relationships] have to take place in order to get attention for a group," Wright said.

Kill Rock Stars

Maggie Vail is vice president and a 14-year veteran of Kill Rock Stars, which has offices in Olympia, Wash., and Portland, Ore. KRS was started in 1991 during the heyday of grunge by Slim Moon. He gave the company its name from a painting he did on which he wrote the phrase "Kill Rock Stars." The colorful, abstract piece hung behind Vail's desk for years. Like Barsuk and LITA, KRS also has a unique approach to business. The label's mission includes a tradition of being "queer-positive, feminist and artist-friendly." The label is one of the few female-run indie labels in the country.

Vail is a soft-spoken, quick-witted woman with a terrific sense of humor who spoke from her Portland office. She's extremely well-informed, breaking stride only once to apologize when her dog started barking in the background.

Levi Poppke and Byl Kravetz, co-owners of 1332 Records - FRANCIS DELAPENA

Vail said the Internet has had a mixed effect on indie record labels.

"You don't have to spend so much money pressing vinyl 7-inches and that's the only possible income you can make," she said. Digital sales have become a significant part of their income. Newer artists sell almost 50 percent digitally.

"When you're selling that much digitally, you don't have to make physical copies so there's definitely money to be made," Vail said. But there's a rub. More-established artists, she said, sell about 20 percent digitally but see better CD sales. According to industry research she's read, 48 percent of teenagers didn't buy a single CD last year.

Vail wasn't at all surprised.

"I can see across the board that artists that appeal to a younger audience don't sell as much," she said. "They might get tons of press but sell a tiny amount." Even though the newer groups are selling a higher percentage digitally, 50 percent of a tiny amount doesn't add up to much.

People trying to save money, she said, just won't buy CDs. Why would they when they can get their music for free? Vail said a larger, more important argument is in play: There's been a devaluing of music and the artists who create it.

She, like Rosenfeld and Wright, believes that, yes, starting a record label now is a viable decision. Barsuk, LITA and KRS are thriving labels, so maybe it's easier for them to feel confident that a new label could also survive. It comes down to one very important factor. Vail said, "If you're doing something you love and documenting something that other people aren't, you can be as successful as you want." But it won't happen overnight.

"Don't rely on it completely for your source of income for a little while," Vail laughed. But the opportunities are there. Independent labels are able to break artists in a way that they couldn't before.

"Look at Arcade Fire on Merge or The Shins on Sub Pop," Vail said. "Those are massive artists that are selling hundreds of thousands of copies in their first week, which didn't happen before even when people were buying a lot of records. It means the playing field has been leveled a little. It's amazing when you think about how much Arcade Fire must be making on Merge. If they were on a major label, they might be making 17 percent, maybe less."

Indie labels are able to offer their acts a bigger percent of the profits but it's often on the back end.

"We can't offer a giant advance. We can help out with little things like setting up a tour at [their] home or getting a van for touring but we can't give [bands] a giant check. But we do have bands that only sell 7,000 to 9,000 copies of their albums and live in major U.S. cities and don't have to have day jobs. That's our point."

KRS also doesn't force their artists into Prince- or Madonna-esque multi-record contracts (Deerhoof, who has been with the label 11 years, has put out nine records on a contract-by-contract basis). But Vail is a savvy businesswoman. She said they would make a multi-record deal with a band "who might be looking past us," she laughed, "and who we really want to work with."

Although Vail obviously extols the benefits working with an indie label would have for a band, she honestly doesn't see what major labels have to offer acts nowadays. They certainly don't have the appeal they used to and they just don't know how to deal with what's going on in the current state of the industry. She said that's evident when major labels approach problems like illegal downloading by suing single moms.

"That is just ridiculously the wrong answer," Vail said. "Who had that meeting where they sat down and said, 'This is what we must do?' It freaks me out."

Though indie labels offer acts more in the way of service, there's no denying the draw of money. Even the most principled musicians often give in to the temptation of a bigger bank account for the same amount of work. But, indie label enthusiasts say service does play a large part in a band's happiness. Vail said KRS did have an act that left for a larger indie label but, before long, asked to come back. Indie labels are not inherently more virtuous than big labels.

"It's all about your business model. It's all about how you treat your artists and how you pay your artists," Vail said.

Success may also come from understanding your environment. The majority of bands KRS has worked with have been from the Northwest, their most successful from Portland. And, like in the label's early days, the bands they represent can't be easily lumped into the same genre. It's not a homogenous sound they're trying to express.

"It's more of an ethos," Vail said.

1332 Records

In Boise, Byl Kravetz and Levi Poppke just crossed the threshold of label ownership. In January, they purchased the established Boise-based label 1332 Records, carrying on what previous owner Chris Cavoretto had in mind when he started 1332 about three years ago: to provide a vehicle for bands they believe deserve to be heard. Kravetz and Poppke not only continue to put out records by local punk, metal and hardcore bands, they still run 1332 Records' Punk Mondays at The Bouquet, a showcase for those same bands and more, which just celebrated a two-year anniversary.

Like in Barsuk's early years, 1332 is a part-time venture for Kravetz and Poppke, but one they spend plenty of time on.

"We put a lot of hours into it," Poppke said.

Both men are well-known in the Boise hardcore/punk/metal scene both as musicians and as music fans (Poppke said he sees several shows a week).

Kravetz stands nearly 7-feet tall— taking his Mohawk into account—and Poppke's mutton chops rival Elvis' at his peak. They don't look like business owners, but are perfect examples of Vail's assertion that much of a business' success is predicated on the desire its owners have for it to be successful.

Kravetz and Poppke said they wouldn't necessarily discount a pop act that wanted to be on the 1332 label, but that's not the kind of music they themselves listen to, like, or, more importantly, know much about. They know the music—and the musicians—they represent, and that familiarity is a big factor in how successful they see their label being, or becoming. And both Kravetz and Poppke understand taking the current state of the music industry into account. They put a great deal of energy into merchandising, an important part of the new business model.

"I spend a lot of weekends making T-shirts," Kravetz said. They also keep their merchandise price points low, which means they have to sell more, but it's a practice people who see 1332's bands appreciate.

For now, 1332 seems to be in a comfortable place. Kravetz and Poppke don't spend much of their time promoting the label, but so far, that doesn't seem to be a problem. They're both firm believers that "A good CD," Kravetz said, "will sell itself."