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Minnesota indie record labels survive, thrive in 2016

Dig in boys: Peter Mielech and Tom Loftus of Modern Radio Record Label

Dig in boys: Peter Mielech and Tom Loftus of Modern Radio Record Label

Ian Smith, owner of indie-rock record label 25 Diamonds, once received the following advice: If you don't constantly think about quitting your record label, you're doing something wrong.

On the bad days, he says that's exactly what he thinks about.

"I could be like, 'I'm done, I have broken teeth and don't own a home and don't have health insurance and it's too fuckin' risky and scary,'" Smith explains. "Then you could catch me the next day and I could be like, 'Nope, I got hit up with a big project I'm incredibly excited to do and I'm right back in the game.'"

Running an independent record label in 2016 may seem like a masochistic pursuit. Sales of physical albums and digital downloads continue to tumble, and many artists criticize music-streaming services for paying out tiny royalties.

In the face of all that, though, Twin Cities' Modern Radio Record Label, which was started by Tom Loftus, is still set to loudly ring in its 16th anniversary Friday at the 7th St. Entry and Saturday at the Turf Club. And other local labels continue to sprout from the depths of the Minneapolis underground, hopeful in their infantile stages.

Two years ago Ryan Wurst, the creator of Always Human Tapes, was completing his master's degree at the University of Minnesota while preparing for the new label's first showcase. Back then, everything was in a state of organized chaos — stacks of tapes strewn across concrete floors, surrounded by gigantic, looming electronic devices. The label was entirely self-funded, with Wurst responsible for the whole production and distribution process.

Now co-run by fellow electronic music maestros Peter Lansky and Josh Bestgen, Always Human Tapes maintains its grassroots model, but it's no longer "in the hole" financially, Wurst reports. Wurst still makes, cuts, and duplicates each tape alone in his bedroom. It's a labor of love and it's paying off, with orders coming in from around the globe and an ever-growing roster of artists.

"I could have not predicted anything with the label," he says. "And I think there was one point where I was like, 'I don't know, should I just stop?'" Wurst recalls. For him, that nagging question of whether it's worth it keeps answering itself. "It's about continuing to put out tapes and good music, really, in the end," he says. That persistence has afforded him the ability to be even pickier about what to release. The label might even be expanding into vinyl territory.

"Tom [Loftus] has the same mentality," Wurst says, remembering an early meeting where Loftus revealed, "There's no money. This is the stuff we wanna put out."

Loftus, who co-owns Modern Radio with Peter Mielech, thinks back on 16 years of passion, struggle, and rock 'n' roll as he digs through boxes of old concert fliers.

"Those moments [where it's] like why am I fucking doing this? Something answers," he says, grinning. "Putting art and music and things in the world is challenging but it's offering some sort of solution. You're creating an artifact that can be like someone's shield or point of pride, and inspiration that holds a value that is not monetary."

The dots are connecting themselves. At the heart of the matter is the music itself, and the ability to have control over how it gets put into the world, financial rewards be damned.

"If we want to do something, we can just figure out how to do it," says Eric Foss, the man behind Secret Stash Records. The label started out doing reissues, licensing the rights to old, lost, or implausibly forgotten soul, funk, and R&B records. After releasing a compilation called Twin Cities Funk & Soul in 2012, Foss was inspired to begin recording and releasing new music as well.

"If you want something done right, do it yourself," Foss says — a common thread tying all of these labels together neatly. "No one can sell your records like you can."

These days, Secret Stash finds itself in a comfortable position given the resurgence of funk and soul music in the Twin Cities. The tiny label roster proudly boasts artists Sonny Knight & the Lakers, along with Afrobeat standouts Black Market Brass.

"The job of the label is to be a filter," Foss muses. "And if you put your cup underneath the filter and you like the taste of what comes out the other end, you'll keep coming back to that filter."

Foss says his fingerprints are all over everything Secret Stash releases. He says the label is less interested in buzz bands and more focused on connecting with people on personal and musical levels to create something that's "really neat and special" — another commonality among local indie labels.

"I want bands that I personally would listen to myself," says Ibrahim Al Said of Forward Records, another locally based label now operating on an international level. "I don't want a trendy label. I want a label that shows my taste or James' taste," he insists, referring to Forward's co-owner James Muschinski. Said once referred to the eclectic label as a "hobby gone wild," and lately it's become quite the formidable beast.

"Since the influx of vinyl collecting has gone so high, we've actually changed the shipping rate market in general," Said says, "and it's gone up 110 percent since I started. People are buying music; they're just buying it in a different way."

Forward Records shares a similar mentality with Secret Stash, despite the vast difference in musical taste. Said is quick to point out the robust collector's market to which Forward caters, noting the premium it places on special-edition pressings and other hard-to-find artifacts.

Business is moving rapidly for the upstart label. In years past, Forward would release one album each winter. This year four are in the works, and Said hopes to soon hold a showcase featuring locals Animal Lover, Scaphe, and Wisconsin hardcore punk band Tenement.

As established labels continue to grow, new ones continue to emerge — like Mind Rider, a brand-new label birthed by Nona Marie Invie (Dark Dark Dark, RONiiA) and Fletcher Barnhill. Like their predecessors, the operation is self-funded and run from home.

"We're interested in learning more aspects about the music industry," Invie says. "It's nice to be taking baby steps to get more people interested in the work that I'm interested in."

So, is running an indie label in 2016 worth all of the pain? Through the sleepless nights, ever-growing email inboxes, pennies scraped to make an idea a reality, sometimes it can feel like a hopeless endeavor. In a city like Minneapolis, however, music is more than a business: It's a community.

"Independent labels can and will survive on their own without the need of major publications or money," Smith of 25 Diamonds reinforces. "Because they always have, and always will."

Smith doesn't seem to mind that his label office is actually the closet of his apartment.

"People who are committed to art and creativity and expression are people who run labels," he says proudly. "Punks do. Artists do. Creative-heads do. People who don't particularly give a shit if they make a ton off what they believe in or their art form or their expression. That's who does a label in 2016." 

Modern Radio Sweet Sixteen
With: Sicbay, STNNNG, Fury Things, B.O.Y.F. on Friday; Vampire Hands, Hollow Boys, the Chambermaids, Oaks on Saturday. 
When/Where: 8 p.m. 7th St. Entry (Fri., Jan. 29) & Turf Club (Sat., Jan. 30).
Tickets: $10; more info here.