Frank Gutch Jr: INDIE LABELS… The Phoenix Rising?

We have been standing by the rubble of the once mighty and proud music industry for some time now and while we all have theories as to what happened and why, it does not change what is, and that is a gutted and rotting carcass slowly feeding on itself.  Does Universal own everything yet?  The last time I looked, they were like vultures, awaiting the estate sales of EMI and whatever other labels were left (I lost track long ago, having tossed major labels to the curb along with their stable of “stars”) and trying to stem the bleeding results of their own ignorance.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I cannot get past the stupidity of their stance regarding digital sales (they didn’t like it and it took years for them to see what was right in front of their faces) and marketing.  They may have their pulse on the hits of today but that is only because they have the tools to create them.  And the deep pockets.

Well, the indies don’t have deep pockets.  What they have is a love of music and a camaraderie fed by mutual disgust at the way the major labels function (mixed with the occasional jealousy here and there).  It is all a matter of degrees, yes, but a larger percentage distrust and dislike the major than not and that says a lot about both the indies and the majors.  The pyramid has tipped, my friends.  The tail is now wagging the dog.  With all the talk of numbers, the indies have tipped the scales.  Or let us say that the business model has done it for them.

Depending upon how you look at it, it is the end or the beginning of great things.  The majors had a long run.  Whether it was great or not depends upon who you are (Springsteen and the many artists who are filing to get their music from beneath the thumb of the autocrats probably have mixed feelings).  Regardless, welcome to the new music industry paradigm.  For now (and, again, depending upon how you look at it) the little guys are in charge.

The truth is that most of what the indies produce is individually manufactured and distributed by artists themselves, but in case you haven’t noticed, small labels aren’t dead.  There are a number of labels and distributors struggling their way through the hard times and even planting roots as I type.  Let us look at a few to see if the Phoenix can indeed rise from the ashes.

GREEN MONKEY…..

That crazy Tom Dyer.  He was the main man behind Green Monkey back in the 80s when Seattle had this whole underground pop scene happening, ignored as it seemed to be by most of that city and beyond.  Dyer mined gold from that scene and built a label around it, coming up with more than a few beauties the present day world covets.  The most obvious was Green Pajamas who created a buzz with Kim the Waitress and then went on to a twenty-plus year career cranking out music worth hearing.  Then there were the oddities— The Life, The Walkabouts, Prudence Dredge, The Queen Annes, the Hitmen and others.  When Dyer decided to reactivate the label a few years ago, he put most of what he had accumulated on a cool 2-CD package titled It Crawled From the Basement and he was once again off and running.

Since the reactivation, he has teamed with  Green Pajamas for a few projects— the Red, Red Rose EP, The Complete Book of Hours (a re-release of a very early GP album-plus-extras and one you really have to hear to appreciate— it is outstanding!) and GP‘s latest, Green Pajama Country!  He has also released a couple of his own band’s albums— The Icons— plus albums by The Hitmen, Sigourney Reverb and a couple of pretty cool Christmas albums which they are plugging heavy right this moment.  The one they really want to sell is the new one, It Crawled Down the Chimney, the proceeds which they are donating to charity.  Check out their website to see and hear their magic and be sure to stream Chimney.  It’s a hoot.  And should you be at all impressed with what they are doing, I suggest returning to the site the first of each month at which time Dyer changes his streaming album of the month, not all Green Monkey but all Pac Northwest-related.

RED HOUSE…..

Red House has been around what seems like a few million years.  I remember them from very early Greg Brown releases which sold very well in the folk-oriented city of Seattle where I worked.  The label wasn’t all Brown and it started out mainly folk, but have they grown!  At a time most labels are cutting back or folding altogether, RH is hanging in and even thriving, if you can judge by their catalogue.  They still have their toes in folk, but the genre is not what it used to be and RH has changed with the times.  Quality?  You can bet on these guys.

Their artist list is as long as a Montana Highway— Ray Bonneville, Storyhill, The Wailin’ Jennys, Ruth Moody, Danny Schmidt, Meg Hutchinson, Lucy Kaplansky and yes, Ol’ Greg Brown himself (though Greg records for other labels as well).  That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the what they have to offer.  Somebody at RH must really know what they’re doing— or maybe they all do— because they make the argument that music is not dying, not even the business end of it.

BLOODSHOT…..

Bloodshot has been building for a number of years and they have the ears for it.  The first I ever heard of them was when I back-searched for an article I was doing on Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers who were then recording for Yep Roc.  I have been bloodshot since.  They score big points for giving my friend Eddie Spaghetti a home (God knows he’s been thrown out of enough homes, as it is) and their sampler this year is one of the highlights of not only the label but of the year.  I hope I remember to put the link to their free downloadable sampler album in the Notes section at the bottom because it’s a killer!  Features outstanding tracks by Ha Ha Tonka, The Bottle Rockets, Eddie Spaghetti, and others.  Also includes a track which knocks me out with the odd harmonies, Exene Cervenka‘s California/Arizona (I have no idea what the actual title is, but if you know the song, you know what it is).  Bloodshot‘s artist roster is as good as it gets in today’s rock and alt.country world.

FROGVILLE…..

Speaking of oddballs, you seldom get odder than Frogville which lives in the wilds of New Mexico, of all places.  Ever hear of Furnace Mountain?  Well, the bass player for that band somehow ended up on the New Mexico desert or whatever they have out there and sonofagun if Frogville didn’t talk her out of an album.  That’s evidently the way they work.  You want eclectic and out of the ordinary, they have it:  ThaMuseMeant, Hundred Year Flood, Boris & the Salt Licks, and Nathan Moore.  Something tells me they cleaned out their catalogue not long ago because I seem to recollect a lot more albums.  Might be worth it for you to check the label out and then try to find some of their out of print stock.  Sadistic bastards that they are, they list 25 albums and every one has a “sold out” icon.  Why, I oughtta…

BLUE CORN…..

Wouldn’t even know about these guys except that Rita Hosking sent a note which said that she had been approached about doing a song on a concept album titled Dark River.  The songs are public domain, Civil War-era songs and are performed by a wide variety of artists including Hosking, Slaid Cleaves, Erin Ivey, Eliza Gilkyson, Rick Brotherton and others.  I sampled the tracks and it is very cool.

What I also found, though, was a handful of artists’ albums I had no idea even existed.  I was turned on to Ruthie Foster, a lady who lives and breathes R&B.  I found a Caroline Herring album I was unaware of (I’m a big fan), and there was The Austin Lounge Lizards and Gurf Morlix and Sarah Borges and others.  Man, how do they slip things like this past us?  It is a question I ask myself all the time.  These artists have fans and I’ll bet only the most persistent ones have the Blue Corn albums.  Or maybe I should get out of my cave and do a little searching of my own now and then.

YEP ROC…..

Yep.  Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers turned me on to Yep Roc Records.  Passively.  I had been assigned to do an interview with the band and needed the label to set up the lines of communication.  That was a few years ago and I am still visiting the site.  These guys are the milder end of Bloodshot in that their artists are maybe a bit more varied and come from a wider range of places.  They give you Sloan, Dave Alvin, Fountains of Wayne, Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock and The Reverend Horton Heat, to name only a few.  And depth?  Their past artists’ listing alone is as big as some of the smaller majors’.  Cool stuff, too.  The aforementioned Shack Shakers, Dolorean, Kristin Hersh, Chris Stamey, etc.  Man, it’s a blast just digging through the older titles.  Know something else?  I collect Oskar Blues Samplers.  See, this really cool brewery in Longmont, Colorado started brewing and canning ale a number of years ago and they would promote new batches by slipping a sampler CD into each case.  Some were samplers, some were by individual artists (Supersuckers and Yonder Mountain, to name a few).  Yep.  Yep Rock helped.  Not on all, but on more than one.

LOCAL 638…..

Let’s talk small.  My buddy Howie sent me a link to a video awhile ago— six months to a year now, I guess.  It was a Rusty Willoughby vid and Howie was surprised I’d never heard of the guy.  I hadn’t, but was I impressed!  It was a Local 638 product (or Local 638-related, at the least) and the video knocked me out!  (Watch it here)  I dove into the rest of the 638 stuff (there isn’t that much) and was thinking, why don’t people support the small guys when they put out quality stuff?  Mark my words, the names associated with this label will be well-known not far into the future— Maggie Bjorklund, Rachel Flotard, Barb Antonio, and Barrett Martin.  Not to mention Willoughby his own self.

WILDCAT…..

You don’t get more eclectic than Joe Phillips at Wildcat Recordings.  Here is a guy who lived and worked in NYC during the Bleeker & MacDougall days of folk.  He performed and recorded a number of artists, some for ESP-Disk, and has held the history of those days close to his heart.  When the opportunity came around to revitalize some of that music, Joe hopped on it.  He somehow got his hands on original tapes from sessions from the 60s and 70s and began cleaning them up and digitizing them. These are not museum pieces, my friends.  These are history.

Joe also locked onto recordings by Randy Burns, one of my favorite folk-rockers from the old days, and Carolyne Mas, who has graciously consented to let Joe do his work on her recordings.  Tons of artists, mostly folk, have found their way through Joe’s studio.  Ever hear of Bop Tweedie?  I hadn’t either until Joe pointed him out to me.  Cool name.  Interesting music, too.

ITSABOUTMUSIC.COM…..

This is music from the heart— Dean Sciarra‘s heart.  This guy has been a nut for music as long as I have, has taken it personally and hates the majors as much as do I.  He opened up a site to promote classic rockers and called it itsaboutmusic.com because to him, that was what it was about.  He made deals with artists the likes of Unicorn and Sand and Space Opera and The Buckinghams and made their music available through his site.  You want older Michael Stanley?  Here’s where you go.  Nektar?  He’s got ’em.

Recently, Dean grabbed hold of a band called JD Malone & The Experts and has been promoting them heavily.  Because he loves them.  That’s the kind of guy he is.  Remember when music used to be like this?  I didn’t think so.

These small labels and distributors give me hope.  They are planting seeds as I write.  Hopefully, those seeds will take.  I would love to see a record industry (did I just say “record”— man, I’m flashin’ back) wherein business and artistry could thrive together.  Perhaps this is a chance to start over.  The music business the way it is supposed to be.  It could happen.  In a way, it is happening right now.  All we have to do is pay attention.

Notes…..  The name of the game these days is downloading and the keyword for me is free.  Bloodshot Records has placed their 2011 Fall Sampler on Noisetrade.com as a free download and it’s a killer, if you like your music on the alt. or brash side.  Some excellent tracks from their huge lists of artists including Maggie Bjorklund, Exene Cervenka, Ha Ha Tonka, The Bottle Rockets and Ryan Adams, among others.  Also includes a track by Eddie Spaghetti, the laziest sonofabitch I ever worked with, though he always got his work done in fine fashion.  Never knew how he pulled it off, though.  Good on you, Eddie!…..  It’s Christmas season according to Courage My Love who gave us this little video from last year.  These kids are pretty cool.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pRaUhP2Vh4…..

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Say can be contacted: dbawis@rogers.com. Please use it to ask questions,  tell us what you’d like to read about, send links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”

 


One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: INDIE LABELS… The Phoenix Rising?”

  1. It’s a fabulous article Frank. Perhaps you could start your own label “Fn’G” the alternative to the majors. What’s left of the music industry has become indeed a monopoly. Barry Weiss left SONY with the keys to the kingdom, and Universal welcomed him with open arms. Currently, as of Dec. 6th 2011 (yesterday), SOCAN has been asked to make statement at Superior Court Canada (Billboard) with regards to the use of Intellectual Properties on providers such as Rogers, Bell, etc. This has been on the table for 14 years, as WIPO the World Intellectual Property Organization spoke directly to the Canadian Interests through CIPO, SOCAN and SAC. These organizations sat on their fences, and did nothing. When ever an artist made allegations of Infringement the overwhelming response by the governing bodies was “we do not get involved in Copyright Protection”. It has become obvious that the only motivating factor here is the potential of lost revenues for the Government through taxation of the Corporate use of IP. To wave the banner (as SOCAN has) Paul Spurgeon, and Associate General Counsel Anne Godbout, ” we’re hear now, and we care” is at best Protectionism of the life line to these organizations. Without legitimate revenues to claim their portion, these people can’t justify their existence.

    The biggest issue for artists in my opinion is not whether they get signed or not, but how do they make a living while being affiliated to a label. Regardless if major or minor player in the industry, the dollar value at the end of a legitimate sale of a song is now pennies. Added to that fact, of digitized music, the regulating of P2p has become a strain on the entire industry to the point of artists giving away their music with the hopes that fans will “maybe, hopefully, possibly” purchase a bit of merchandise. The overheads are large, studio time is still very costly, and publishing deals tie up the freedom of the artist, to the point where major or minor, you can still be shelved. The minor labels still have the major record industry business model, they’re just Rebels within, and trying to rebrand, or resell the fact that “we’re here for ya, and you know we care” only goes so far, and can’t put food on the table for the artist and his or her family!

    What to do, what to do………? My observation of a major player known as SONY. Their 52 week stock trading value is less than half, coming in around $16 to $17.80 per share. The writing is on the wall, in this regards. Wall St. has failed the Government, Banks and ultimately the people. The people, while pointing fingers at the Corporations have yet to witness the resistance by the Corporation(s). With all the illegal sharing of Intellectual Properties, either music or film, operating systems, programs etc……the question becomes “which came first”! The people have justified why they don’t want to pay for music, as a way of giving the finger to the Corporation, in fact what it did was take the Grease out of the Wheel, meaning much less revenues to pay the bills for all involved in the facade of the music industry.

    My advice, if your an artist that truly believes that you are valued by either major or minor business model, search your dream out, and stop at nothing. The ratio of Wayne Gretzky’s in the music industry vs. water boys is mostly in favour of water boys. Just remember how Adam Sandler was treated in Water Boy. Seek out your own venue, buy the recording equipment, own your own rights, seek out sync rights for film. Create your own gigs, own the door, every little community wants to see live music still. If a major deal or minor is offered, start by asking how much Publishing Advance you’ll be offered as the signed artist. These offers will sort themselves out fairly quickly when it comes to actual monies put up front. Agree to one CD, with an additional option (CD) if the label proves it’s self in successfully generating dollars in your pocket(s). You can’t feed your family “Star Dust”, and promises are very difficult to stuff into envelopes to pay for your rent or mortgages. Stay close to your fan base, make it localized within travel times you can handle, and keep a day job, that will pay your bills. Everything else in Shark infested waters, are just waiting to prey on your dreams.

    mdean707@hotmail.com

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