By Conor Hooley
Who would run a record label in these times? From a business standpoint, it defies logic. Anyone with even a vague understanding of the music industry knows that it has been locked into a state of perpetual decline. Less people are buying music than ever, and things have never looked bleaker than in 2011.
And yet, a myriad of independent labels are keeping their heads above water – thriving, even, in some cases. Fort Collins has its fair share of “indies,” which seems interesting for a city that doesn’t even have a proper record store (and no, the likes of Wal-Mart and Best Buy most certainly do not count). Then again, the people who run these labels are obsessed with music, and got into it for everything but their bank accounts.
“I don’t really like working on random projects for people,” said Chad Golda, creator of upstart Fort Collins label Writing Records. The eleven-month-old imprint label has released two of Golda’s solo projects, and is geared toward song-based instrumental music. “If I’m going to record someone’s music, I have to really like the project. That’s what made me want to start a label – I can find an artist, produce their work and sort of put my hands into it, which is what I like.”
“I think a huge part of it is that I am a control freak, so I wanted a hand in every facet of getting my music and my friends’ music out into the world,” said Matthew Sage, who runs Patient Sounds, which releases punk, indie and ambient music both in digital and cassette formats. “I take a lot of my ethical inspiration from the punk dudes, namely Ian Mackaye, who ran their labels so they could f*** up the system from the inside. That is art to me. There are no absurd amounts of money to be found running a tape label, and anyone who says as much is a liar or a drug-dealer.”
Patient Sounds has gained an impressive amount of notoriety for selling its music in, of all things, cassette format (releases are also available as free digital downloads on the label’s website). The idea seems a bit absurd – who was using tapes in 2001, let alone 2011? And yet, somehow, anachronistic and out-of-touch as it may seem, it’s working. The label now has 14 releases to its name, has backed artists on tours and was even the subject of an NPR piece in October of 2010.
“Pretty epic for a little blogspot label,” said Sage.
On top of that, Patient Sounds has broken even financially – a fact that might not make the pages of Forbes, but is certainly a lot better than the good folks at major labels are doing these days.
To begin the year, Billboard saw its “record” for lowest-selling #1 album broken not once, not twice, but three times – in the span of four weeks – eventually reaching a nadir with the paltry 40,000 sales of Amos Lee’s Mission Bell. Perspective: A decade before the release of Lee’s new album, The Beatles’ first greatest hits compilation was midway through an eight week run at the top of the charts, averaging half a million albums sold every seven days. Jennifer Lopez’s J. Lo would follow it, moving over 272,000 copies in its debut.
Majors may be floundering, but indies everywhere are now responding to the challenge of selling physical (i.e. non-digital) units in innovative ways. These days, selling music means more than just selling, well, music. Labels and artists are going the extra mile to add personal touches that will hopefully add a unique sense of value to the product. And, as these local labels are showing us, that means a whole lot more than just an insert with some liner notes.
Golda took a unique visual design to Writing Records’ releases, implementing a sparse, hand-drawn, black-and-white style for the label’s artwork. He plans for all releases to follow that template, hoping to create a uniform image Writing Records that is visually distinctive and easily identifiable:
“It’s unique,” said Golda. “This is my thing, not someone else’s layout of something I did.”
For Sage’s Patient Sounds, it of course has been a tale of the tape(s). Sage credits his choice of format to his affection for cassettes, which he prefers to CDs and MP3s, as well as the cost effective process of physically producing tapes. And, knowingly or not, Patient Sounds’ relative success typifies the new way of thinking for indie labels. And it’s hardly the strangest example.
While Patient Sounds offering cassettes might seem quirky enough, compared to other approaches it’s downright conventional. For instance, ever-eccentric indie pop stars The Flaming Lips self-released new material on a USB drive earlier this year. It just so happens that the flash drive came packaged inside the center of a life-sized candy gummy skull. Fans literally had to eat through the skull to get to the music. The band plans to continue releasing music accompanied by bizarre, highly distinct items. Lead singer Wayne Coyne recently claimed they were considering another gummy-embedded USB release – this time using a fetus instead of a skull.
But what of those indies who don’t already have the established fan base of The Flaming Lips, or even the meager means of producing a unique physical product like Patient Sounds? Many such artists and labels have turned to offering some, if not all, of their catalogue for free, hoping that the giveaways help them gain notoriety. Pretty Lights is one example, self-releasing their entire discography free of charge on their website, prettylightsmusic.com.
Golda has adopted such a model for Writing Records, essentially taking the crawl-before-you-walk approach. Everything released on his label is available at no charge through its website writingrecords.com.
“You might as well give [your music] out to everybody,” admitted Golda. “If nobody knows who you are, they’re not going to buy your music. It’s better if people can find it and hear it accessibly and then get to the next thing.”
Golda does sell CDs of the label’s music at shows, but knows that there is still a ways to go before he can start making money off of it. He’s also hoping to use the label as a multimedia platform that extends beyond music, and is currently planning to publish a volume of his poetry under the Writing Records imprint.
“It’s in the early stages now,” said Golda. “The way I look at it is that a label is a venue for artists’ music first and foremost, but it can also become their own publishing company for something else.”
Whatever their labels become, both Golda and Sage are content with the experience, and, even in these financially-troubled times for the music industry, both are content to release material as long as they possibly can.
“My long term plans are to be able to keep the ship balanced enough to keep sailing as far as we can on the wind we can get,” said Sage.
Find out more about Patient Sounds at patientsounds.blogspot.com. Learn more about Writing Records at writingrecords.com. Also, check out “The Black Mountain Ramble,” a monthly performance for Writing Records artists and friends at Wild Boar Coffee (1510 S. College Ave.) every third Tuesday of the month.