By Rob van Alstyne
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How do you start one of the most well-respected indie record labels in Minneapolis? By accident. In 1995, Kim Randall was doing promotion for local label Crackpot Records when she discovered the Texan roots-rock band Iodine. She had thought that Crackpot would sign them, but when the label closed up shop, she scheduled a meeting with Twin/Tone Records' Paul Stark, hoping to convince him to sign the band. Instead, Stark convinced Randall to launch her own label and distribute with Twin/Tone Record Group. "I was thinking, 'Okay, good. I can put out this record for them, and it's what they want, it's what they need, it's what they're expecting,'" says Randall. "And then the 'Oh, fuck. What did I just get myself into?' sunk in shortly after."
Three years later, it's a little clearer what Randall got herself into: As the owner and sole employee of No Alternative Records, whose mostly guitar-pop roster includes Love-Cars, Magnatone, and Dylan Hicks, she now runs one of the most prominent labels in the city. But with Twin/Tone's recent decision to restrict its operation to the Internet, No Alternative's CD stock has been left without an apparent distributor, and Randall must contend with yet another impediment in an industry already stacked against small players.
Sporting round eyeglasses and a head of dark brown hair, Randall, who is in her late 20s, comes off as both laid-back and exceptionally poised. She uses a warm tone of voice when she speaks and a firm, attentive gaze when she listens: To use a word burdened with associations in our wintry state, she seems nice. Small wonder, then, her quick ascent in a business where maintaining relationships is an oft-cited element of success.
As it turns out, indie-pop czarina wasn't always Randall's first career choice. A Madison, Wis., native, she started stage-managing theater productions at age 14, and moved to Minneapolis a few years later to study theater craft at the University of Minnesota. But when chronic exhaustion forced her to stop working behind the curtain, she began helping musician friends with their press kits and other business details. Although she never stage-managed a production again, Randall's work still requires her to attend to details, put out fires, and take charge of a situation when necessary.
This last became apparent to singer-songwriter Susan Sandberg, a friend of Randall's, during a break between sets at one of Sandberg's shows. Out of the blue, says Sandberg, "She looks at me and goes, 'Susan? You should go on now. And go to the bathroom. If the bathroom's full, use the men's bathroom and get back up here.'"
"I don't know," says Randall, "maybe this whole thing is just some mothering instinct gone awry." Which may help make sense of the fact that she currently draws no income from her label (she insists that reinvesting all the label's proceeds will one day increase its returns). It might also help explain her role in the studio, where she is far more likely to provide emotional support than offer opinions on mic placement. "More so than doing any sort of creative input," says Jason Orris, who has produced albums for her at his studio, the Terrarium, and whose band The Hot will be releasing an EP with No Alternative, "she just comes around and lets her artists know that she cares and she's really interested in what they're doing."
In the short term, that may have to be enough. When Twin/Tone's Paul Stark made the cyber-giddy decision last year to stop retailing CDs and to sell music over the label's Web site, it ended No Alternative's access to the Alternative Distribution Alliance through Twin/Tone. "Well, I know I wasn't consulted," says Randall matter-of-factly. "And I still intend on pressing CDs." Currently, she is surveying her options: Happy Apple's newest CD, Part of the Solutionproblem, was distributed through the combined efforts of Electric Fetus, which handled regional distribution; a specialty jazz distributor, which moved units into jazz-oriented shops nationwide; and No Alternative, which covers any store that falls between the cracks.
But if this development concerns Randall, she doesn't show it. When asked about how long she imagines herself running the label, she answers with the measured intensity of someone who has long since accepted a needy love affair with her work. "I don't see myself not doing this," she says. There are still small joys, after all. There are still bands to discover, expose, and, yes, to nurture. There is still the excitement, for example, of helping a musician see his music pressed onto an actual CD.
"You can see an artist's eyes light up when you say, 'They're back from the plant, here they are,'" Randall explains. "And they say, 'Oh, cool, let me see!' And they start poring over everything, and it's real to them."