Local music label creators follow their passion to support the scene
Ah, the glamorous life of a record label mogul. Maybe David Geffen comes to mind, standing in front of his vast collection of unfathomably valuable modern art, or maybe it’s a photo of the billionaire adventurer Richard Branson, kitesurfing with a smiling, naked model clinging to his back.
But here in the Chattanooga area, record label head honchos instead may be seen manually dubbing a stack of cassettes after a shift at a day job, putting 7-inch singles into plastic sleeves or taking a load of packages to the post office, maybe with an infant strapped to his back.
There is a particularly biting slice of reality in a satirical column in The Onion with the headline, “Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.”
Tucker McGuinness, of the local label Do Ya Hear We which embodies the do-it-yourself punk spirit, said, “The biggest challenge for our label is trying to make the label self-sustaining while we all work our jobs and live our lives outside of the label.”
Those who run local labels are rewarded, but not with fame or fortune; it’s about following an almost compulsive passion for music. It’s fair to ask the question of whether or not record labels are even relevant today, with online distribution resources, including Bandcamp and CD Baby, or crowd-sourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
“If you’re creating something new, it is relevant, I believe,” said Clark Williams, leader of the band Big Kitty and Teaberry Records. “I think it’s easier to be relevant when the economic incentives are inconsequential, as they are with Teaberry.”
Working on a relatively small scale, it’s clear that local musicians value their creative freedoms, disconnected from commercial pressures. “I have trouble treating art like a product,” said Bobby Rayfield of the label/store Inherent Records, which has a brick-and-mortar presence in Collective Clothing on Frazier Ave. “If you’re trying to please someone else then you are most likely headed for disappointment.”
“I don’t honestly know if labels are that important or relevant anymore,” said Jerry Reed, who runs the cassette label Failed Recordings. “I’d like to think they are, but I know for a fact one is not needed today to get music out to people who want to hear it.”
Jonathan Susman, co-president of Gig City Productions, said, “Self-releasing music is easier, but the amount of noise that is being made in that space makes it extremely difficult for bands to stand out and be heard.”
That’s where labels can help—tackling the tasks of distribution and promotion, among others. “It doesn’t matter how good your releases might be if no one knows about them,” said John Schanley of the label Unsane Asylum, which started with Schanley’s devotion to the British punk band Annalise. “Unless your band or label has instant name recognition, it’s very hard to get noticed.”
Record labels can both shape and reflect a city’s personality. Memphis had Stax’s soul and Sun Records’ country and rockabilly. Think of the feminist riot grrl punk movement, and Portland and Olympia, Wash., come to mind with the labels Kill Rock Stars and K Records, respectively. How would one describe Chattanooga’s musical identity?
“Chattanooga has extremely diverse musical offerings,” said Stratton Tingle, executive director of SoundCorps, a new nonprofit focused on fostering Chattanooga’s music economy, and the musician behind Prophets & Kings.
Even on a single label, one can find a dizzying array of styles and genres.“Failed Recordings has released everything from noise to black metal, indie rock to power violence, sludge to doom hop,” said Reed.
“Most of our artists actually cross over to multiple genres,” said Rayfield, about the acts on Inherent Records.
“I think that our overall musical identity could be much more robust if more entrepreneurs were willing to wade into the record label arena,” said Tingle. “Chattanooga labels could easily be pushing jazz, experimental, R&B, indie rock, hip hop, soul, funk, rap, bluegrass, old-time, gospel/Christian and a host of other genres, but it requires a business plan and a whole lot of work.”
“I think when people try to overly label what Chattanooga’s ‘sound’ is, the more we end up squelching potential, organic growth,” said Susman. “See Seattle, Wash., pre-1991.”
While digital distribution has profoundly changed the music business, labels can cater to fans who favor physical media including vinyl and cassettes.“Because [Do Ya Hear We is] a vinyl-only label, we rely on people who appreciate vinyl as a music format,” said McGuinness. “There is a great love of the art and sound that goes into a vinyl record, and online resources will never replace that art.”
“I’d say one of the few things that keeps any label relevant now is vinyl,” said Schanley. “A CD only costs about $2 to produce, but a 7-inch is $3 at the cheapest and that’s only if you have a very large amount pressed! When you see bands selling a 7-inch for $5 there’s usually only about a 50-cent profit margin.”
“As an artist, it’s a little scary at times to see how small the revenues from streaming services are,” said Williams, whose Teaberry Records has vinyl and cassette releases plus streaming options. “I love Spotify as a music listener. But I may not bother putting future releases on there.”
“You have to stay on top of what’s moving,” said Nick Nichols, who is the Chattanooga representative of This Is American Music, a Southern label which grew out of a music blog. “Yes, streaming is controversial, but it’s also not going anywhere. It’s easy to feel like the current digital state of things has somewhat watered things down, but I think that makes musical community all the more important.”
“Either adapt or die and get out of the way,” said Reed.
When discussing his favorite labels, Schanley mentioned the defunct London label Rugger Bugger and its founder Sean Forbes, who offered this advice to people who wanted to start labels: “Don’t.”
It’s common to see labels being started by musicians initially releasing their own material before branching out with other artists, and they are often caught in a dilemma: Should they devote their time and resources to the label, at the expense of personal artistic development? “The more artists have time to cultivate their sound, and really hone their skills, then I think it would be better for both the labels and the artists,” said Susman.
“Too easily artists can say, ‘Well, I’m an artist, not an accountant/lawyer, so I’ll trust that someone else will handle it or is better equipped to,’” said Nichols. “If music is to be your life and career, I think you benefit from treating it as such.”
“I have learned to take the business aspect seriously,” said Williams. “So my business plan is simple—and the plan is to keep it simple and cheap.”
“A label can be that element of assistance that allows the artist to focus with less distraction and equally showcase their work to the public,” said Rayfield. “The label and artists are a family unit.”
“[Record labels] have the potential to create atmospheres conducive to collaboration among acts on their rosters,” said Susman.
No matter how seemingly strange and obscure a record might be, it will have an audience, although it may be a small one; finding that audience—not just having the audience find the artist—is one part of taking music distribution to the next level.
“Generally it’s about building good relationships with people,” said Schanley. “If you’re a label, try to book some shows too. Same thing goes for the bands. It’s necessary to have connections in more than just your home town if you want to get anywhere.”
“When you step back and look at the big picture, you realize, and this is true no matter what business you’re in, that you’re nothing without the people around you,” said Nichols. “We try to support our friends whether they’re musicians, radio hosts, bloggers, or pickle-makers, and they do the same for us.”
“Currently, many Chattanooga intermediate-level artists lack the professional connections to make all of their dreams come true,” said Tingle. “SoundCorps hopes to build connections for Chattanooga music industry professionals because the establishment of more record label connections in Chattanooga will be an overall boon to Chattanooga’s music scene as we continue to gain recognition as one of the best cities in which to live, work and play.”
On the question of whether or not record labels are relevant today, it’s perhaps useful to take a moment to consider what one’s definition of success is. For Chattanooga labels, it means cultivating friendships with those with similar tastes and interests and sharing the joys of discovery—even if it’s just on nights and weekends.
Current And Upcoming Releases On Local Labels
- Do Ya Hear We (doyahearwe.com): Ol Scratch/Onetimers 7-inch single
- Failed Recordings (failedrecordings.storenvy.com): Rurnt/Burnhand split tape, ETFU East Tenn. noise compilation
- Inherent Records (inherentrecords.com): Bee and Flower (NYC/Berlin) reissue, Battle Path (Murfreesboro)
- Teaberry Records (teaberryrecords.net): King Stag (Knoxville), Cornelia Overton (Knoxville), Johni Acorn (Shepherdstown, W.Va.)
- This Is American Music (thisisamericanmusic.com): Black Cross, Black Shield by The Bohannons, Science from an Easy Chair by Have Gun, Will Travel (Tampa)
- Unsane Asylum (unsaneasylum.com): Annalise (Exeter, U.K.)