This is a Recording

Local labels are redefining the way to make music

Hudak's "Don't Worry About Anything, I'll Talk to You Tomorrow," the label's biggest seller to date at 600 copies, is a prototypical Alluvial release. It's an answering-machine message left by the artist's mother before her death, extended to CD length and manipulated in various bizarre ways.

Weinke is careful to point out that Hudak and Anderson weren't collaborators, just next-door installation-art neighbors. "Still," he muses of this avant-garde icon, "I wonder what she thought."

 

"People want something they can hold in their hands": Innova Recordings' Chris Strouth with the merchandise
Richard Fleischman
"People want something they can hold in their hands": Innova Recordings' Chris Strouth with the merchandise

Treehouse Records is as much a community center as it is a retail facility. Flyers for local shows get prominent window space. Handmade "roommate wanted" and "band dude wanted" signs line the doorframe just inside the entrance. Much of the magazine rack is taken up by locally generated publications. The other racks, CD and vinyl, display a wealth of material by local artists.

It's a classic independent record store. And the guy behind the counter, Dan Cote, who with his short hair, chin beard, band T-shirt, and jeans, brings to mind a younger, thinner, slightly more Amish-looking Frank Black, is a classic indie dude, right down to the label he runs---Heart of a Champion (hometown.aol.com/ heartchamp/home.html). In the three years of its existence, Heart of a Champion has built a discography laden with the work of locals like Sean Na Na, Lucky Jeremy, Lifter Puller, the Hidden Chord, Arm, and the Hawaii Show--and just as heavily laden with vinyl.

Prominently displayed in the vinyl racks at Treehouse is an LP by one non-local: Snakebite, the latest release by Los Angeles native Eleni Mandell. It's hard not to wonder why Mandell is still on an indie. She writes songs that are a cross between Cole Porter and Tom Waits, sings like a less frenetic PJ Harvey, and is quite easy on the eyes.

"Eleni Mandell is my absolute favorite artist right now," Cote proclaims. "And if I had the option, I'd put out both CD and LP. But she's already got a deal with Space Baby. They're bigger and they've been around longer. So I'm happy to do this."

Such dual-label, dual-format releases are not uncommon these days, and occasionally even cross indie/major lines. Take Sonic Youth's latest, Murray Street. The CD is on Geffen; the vinyl is on SY drummer Steve Shelly's Smells Like Records label. Indie or major, though, the bigger label always gets the CD release.

Heart of a Champion relies heavily on two distributors--San Francisco's Revolver, a true pillar of the industry, and the newer Choke in Chicago. Because many of his artists tour regularly, Cote also sells a lot of records by proxy on the road. He attributes the success of his biggest-selling 7-inch to date, a Sean Na Na/Lucky Jeremy split that has moved 600 copies, to the fact that Sean Na Na tours nine months a year.

Despite its vinyl-intensive nature, the label is not a total stranger to the digital world. In fact, one Heart of a Champion release, the visually enhanced CD by the Hawaii Show (a.k.a. performance artist Steve Barone), is closing in on DVD territory with its numerous videos. And, as Cote sees it, the label could pursue such projects further. "Steve and I have thrown the idea of DVD around. We haven't come to any kind of agreement yet, but it's definitely something I'd consider."

Cote, who has yet to show a profit, is less optimistic about the future of his favorite format, the 7-inch single. "I'm not in this for the money, but the 7-inch is becoming a sinkhole. Distributors don't want to carry them. Because of the setup costs, it costs just about as much to make a 7-inch single as it does to make a full-length CD. And, obviously, you can't charge nearly as much. You need to press a thousand to stand any chance of breaking even, and your chances of selling that many are slim to none. I'm afraid the 7-inch is on its way to becoming a novelty format."

 

Clint Simonson looks like a spy, even in a T-shirt and jeans. Something about his high-cheekboned, heavy-lidded visage just screams (or rather, whispers) intrigue. In reality, Simonson, who runs the LP-only DeStijl label, acts more like a cross between a detective, a musicologist, and a skip tracer than anything even vaguely resembling a spook. Much of the time, he tracks down the artists he wants to release, no matter how obscure they are or how long it takes to find them. Sooner or later, a DeStijl release comes out, in an edition of 250 to 1,000. And, almost without fail, the release sells out shortly thereafter. (Last year, DeStijl sold 2,500 records or thereabouts.)

Somewhere along the line, vinyl--much like rock--missed its funeral. (It's as if the cassette leapt in front of vinyl and said: "No, Lord! Take me instead!") The format bottomed out in 1993, then slowly started rising, thanks to unlikely champions such as Pearl Jam, who insisted on releasing vinyl alongside CDs.

The DJ culture revolution of the mid-Nineties gave the format a major kick in the keister. By 1999, turntables were outselling guitars. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (the majors' lobbying and PR tentacle), vinyl sales in 2001 were up from 2000--if only .1 percent--from .5 percent of total market share to .6 percent. (By comparison, DVDs rose from .8 percent to 1.1 percent.) But that doesn't even factor in indies, who deal in the bulk of vinyl releases. Or collectibles. Even a cursory glance at eBay or Gemm.com reveals that collectible vinyl is doing very well indeed.

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