Indie Labels Tap Old Formats
An increasing number of small independent record labels are surviving based on a new alternative Do-It-Yourself culture, which has a genuine love for old analog formats. Traditionally, these labels are underdogs, thriving in areas that the over-manned and over-funded major labels ignore. They tend to specialize in locally played musical genres, even though self-produced bedroom-pop seems to be the flavor of choice.
In fact, for many young listeners, vintage synths, fuzzy guitars, and large amounts of reverb are becoming synonymous with the word ‘indie’. In this context, names like Bridgetown Records, Bathetic Records, and Lefse Records mean a lot.
Bridgetown Records, for instance, was created in 2008. This small DIY label out of La Puenta, California has since had forty releases. Surprisingly, most of these were done on High Bias Type II chrome cassette tapes. This vintage sound and format is exactly what attracts fans of bands like Cloud Nothings. Their Turning On album sold out three editions since its December 2009 release.
By April 2010, Cloud Nothings’ album had inspired a beautiful blue cloud-themed vinyl re-press from another such indie, Spearkertree Records. Each song’s twisting guitar lines and undeniably catchy melodies are washed in reverb but are not something that DIY fans want to hear on hi-fi studio monitors; rather, they would prefer tape and vinyl played on cheap old speakers from a past era.
Amy Spencer’s book, DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture, points out that “the DIY movement is about using anything you can get your hands on to shape your own cultural entity, i.e. your own version of whatever you think is missing in mainstream culture. You can produce your own zine, record an album, or publish your own book. The enduring appeal of this movement is that anyone can be an artist or creator. The point is to get involved.” Customers, it seems, feel connected with that particular culture when buying in analog format. They also feel as though they are doing their part in supporting the artist.
A Special Listening Experience
Given their attachment to the product they trade, sellers of this niche market view piracy with mixed emotions. For some, like Matt Halverson of Lefse Records, a four-person business that releases music on vinyl and CD (while managing bands and doing PR for other labels), piracy still gets people to a show, and the promotion can be good for sales.
However, Cody Watson of Bathetic Records’ Cody disagrees:
“[When] people feel that they can get the mp3 version on the net, there is no reason to buy the cassette or vinyl. It is understandable to a point, especially when you’re doing runs of only 100 copies of a tape. At the same time, we put out physical releases for a reason. There’s something special about holding that little chunk of plastic with that insert. We’re not [completely] against the mp3 bootleg; it’s just that Jon and I do have to put a lot of work into each and every release, so it’s nice to see a reward…Once a release is sold out, though, we usually have no problem with supplying the mp3s for the people that missed out or just want it on their iPod. [Sometimes], we’ve even given away entire releases in digital format on which we had our won physical stocks. Why? Because, the most important thing, ultimately, is that the music gets heard. That’s why we’re doing this in the first place.”
Greenspon of Bridgetown Records maintains that customers that download do not experience the full effect of the music. “The problem with downloads is [that] in the long run, most of the people that like the music don’t end up picking up a physical copy–and bedroom labels are very dependent on people that support physical releases in order to continue putting them out.”
Revenues for these labels are still very small. In October, analog sales of cassettes at Bathetic totaled about $1,000, for a net profit of $400. This earning was reinvested, and the company seems to do more than break even; its owners believe that profits will continue to be healthy.
It is important to note as well that retail outlets are aware of a growing interest in vinyl and cassettes. Urban Outfitters, for example, cater to a demographic of young adults aged 18 to 30 who follow this DIY culture, and now sell vinyl music alongside clothing and other merchandise. The growing appeal of lo-fi rock bands has helped. Grizzly Bear’s 2009 album Veckatimest sold 33,000 units in 2009, and apparently helped make vinyl DIY releases popular.
Labels like, Bridgetown, Bathetic, and Lefse are in the meantime keeping these analog formats alive. In so doing, they are tapping a market that is becoming far less standardized, not just by genre but by recording medium.
By Dean Miller