So, you wanna be a rock star. Well, join the club. Who doesn’t want to get caught up in the performing, the drugs and the mirrored ceilings in Cher’s old tour bus? Alas, not everybody gets to deal with the glitter that is crystal meth and ticket sales – and thankfully for them, not everybody likes the mainstream record industry’s sounds.
There is an answer for those unready or unwilling to feed the belly of Casey Kasem’s Weekly American Top 40: Go indie. Now, I know what you’re saying: “Isn’t that that emo punk shit?” Come, young grasshopper, and learn from the local masters.
Joe Woodard heads Household Ink Records, an adult contemporary label, which started with his band Headless Household in 1987. “Adult contemporary,” is too simplistic a definition for Woodard’s label, its bands, or its audience. Genesis West’s production of the fairy tale-esque “Turnip Family Secrets” uses Headless Household while Nate Birkley plays jazz. Woodard refers to flapping, Flapping- a band on Household Ink – as “Beatles … ish,” with extra emphasis on the ish.
“That’s the toughest question, and probably why we haven’t gone farther. I think we sort of appeal to a minority segment of the music fans in virtually any community. … I’m not sure how they find us,” he said.
Steve Aoki runs Dim Mak Records, which started as a side project in 1996 when a friend’s band wanted to cut a record while Aoki was a sophomore at UCSB. From there it grew, but Dim Mak still runs out of Aoki’s home in Isla Vista. The label boasts an eclectic range of artists from Pretty Girls Make Graves to The Kills.
“It’s really diverse. That’s one thing I really like about this label. … I definitely don’t want to get pigeonholed into one genre. I just put out anything that I really like. … I’m always looking for original sounding, unique sounding stuff that’s pushing the envelope,” he said.
Kent McClard, head of Ebullition Records, tells a story similar to Aoki’s. Ebullition started in 1990 while McClard was at UCSB, when he released a record by a UCSB band called Downcast. While Ebullition has expanded since 1990, McClard actively chose to deal with a specific niche market.
“All we deal with is hardcore punk rock stuff. Very underground. I’ve got no aspirations to get mainstream or to be popular or to get a big head. That’s the farthest thing from my interests. Generally, the kinds of bands we deal with are kind of obscure and they don’t care about being anything but obscure,” he said, though many have heard of Born Against, and Econochrist – even Bikini Kill has a release on Ebullition.
Each of these labels has a distinct, driving aesthetic, which sets them apart from other record labels.
Woodard says that Household Ink strives to be a “regional, eclectic label.”
“We really want to sort of represent things out of this area that are maybe off the beaten path,” he said.
Similarly, Dim Mak strives to be pro-independent but its aesthetic has much to do with Aoki’s own rants and political perspectives, including his “Hearts and Minds” series, which features an insert in each new vinyl release celebrating someone who has inspired him. Past inserts include Audre Lord and Angela Davis.
“Since punk and hardcore and indie and the underground in that sense has been a white male thing … people of color and women have created their own spaces to make music that’s different and it’s actually better. … It’s their space and I really want to support that more than anything else,” he said.
Ebullition is adamant about supporting the underground music scene, and McClard differentiates the label from others by noting that it’s “primarily a distribution for other small record labels, not really a record label itself.”
“I wanted to do something to support the underground. … That’s why it kinda turned into a distribution. … We distribute kids’ labels – they’re runnin’ their labels out of their bedrooms, he said.”
Kids running labels out of their bedrooms? That phenomenon may be related to how Household Ink, Dim Mak and Ebullition have been able to publicize and maintain their visions: the internet.
“I got a P.O. Box and a fictitious business license back in ’87 and that made us a label. … Then the internet happened and it was a whole new world. … I mean, we could start a whole new label tonight and get feedback tomorrow,” Woodard said.
Aoki also acknowledges how easy the internet has made things, but senses something of a problem. “10 of the 15 hours a day that I work on Dim Mak … is on the computer. Booking tours is through e-mail. … I do a lot of the design, a lot of the artwork … everything deals with computers. The computer, unfortunately, has become an extension of my head. When I get brain cancer when I’m older, I’ll be laughing about this,” he said.
McClard sees the disadvantages with computers – namely, credit cards. “Most of the stuff we carry has some kind of political content and I think it’d be kinda cheap to have these multi-million dollar, national corporations making money every time we sell this stuff. … We do a lot of stuff with e-mail and we have a web page … but since we can’t do credit card sales, it’s limited what we can do over the internet,” he said.
So why go with one of these labels? McClard thinks it depends on a band’s goals. “If their goal is just to put out something and get it available locally so that people that like them can hear it … then a small label works really well,” he said.
Woodard sees artistic freedom being the ultimate boon for indie labels. “There’s that beauty of just coming up with a creative idea that has no particular home or marketable hook … and you can just follow your heart,” he said.
Aoki, however, puts this in terms even UCSB students can understand: “Never sell your band just to put yourself on a label that you like. If the label you like demands things that you don’t want, tell ’em to fuck off.”