Paul Noe of Disgraceland Records.
Robert Koons of The New Beat.
Having a DIY ethic is kind of like voting. Sure, everybody says they vote. And in the world of underground rock, musicians frequently boast a fervent aversion to big record labels and the machinations of the established show business hierarchy. Such enthusiastic disavowals are tenuous, however. Everyone claims a preference for playing on the B-Team (unless and until they get an invitation to join the big leagues, that is).
Touted as bastions of expressive freedom and aesthetic purity, indie labels are oftentimes just as dishonest, fickle and cutthroat as their big-business counterparts. In a sense the indie rock market is merely a smaller pond in which the same old amoral Darwinism still prevails. No matter where your station, show business stinks.
Alternate realities exist, however. Knoxville has a rich history of talented musicians who play for the sheer joy of it. So it follows that we’d also have a few hometown record labels to translate their performances into a more permanent form, i.e. a recording, right?
There are indeed labels, and they’re as various as the artists they represent. Some are less formal than others: Any kid can release a demo of his brother’s band on a CDR, leave some copies on consignment at friendly local record stores, and voila! A “label,” usually with an inane name like Fartknocker Records , is born.
Others are formal in conception but truly independent in spirit. There’s El Deth, with its long list of clientele that includes, among others, well-known indie bands like Skippy and the Bellbottoms, Matgo Primo, Obadiah, The Weekends, The Red Clevers and may gray. Whisk-Hutzel’s list is even longer, if a little more incestuous (there’s quite a bit of band-to-band crossover musician-wise), including Fistful of Crows, Lobster Lobster Lobster, The Damn Creeps and Dirty Knees. Both El Deth and Whisk-Hutzel function as much as creative collectives as they do record labels.
There are other record labels in Knoxville that could easily be singled out, because they all bring something new to the table, as they constantly reshape our indie frontier, usually for the better. We have Dinero Boyz Entertainment, Deal Wit It Records, Boiler Room Entertainment, and so on. Sometimes a record label is as much about self-promotion as it is about creative collaboration.
And then there are those labels noted for their longevity, breadth and consistency: Lynn Point, Disgraceland and The New Beat.
Knoxville’s longest-running record labels, Lynn Point and Disgraceland, both found their genesis in 1999. Each label delivers a stable of popular local scene veterans. Lynn Point artists include Dixie Dirt, Stewart Pack, the Westside Daredevils, The High Score, and Mic Harrison; while Disgraceland’s roster features Angel and The Lovemongers, John T. Baker, Nug Jug, John Paul Keith, and ubiquitous local wisecracker, Todd Steed.
And like the Knoxville music scene, cooperative interaction between Disgraceland and Lynn Point is inevitable. Several area musicians have appeared on releases for both labels, and each label links to its counterpart on their respective websites.
“Well, there is a lot of incest going on I guess,” says Disgraceland’s Paul Noe, a veteran of several area acts including Todd Steed’s Sons of Phere, The Nevers, and late, great Judybats. “We’re just friends—not dating, just friends. I guess we should be competitors, but we’re not.”
Sure, Disgraceland and Lynn Point are two labels whose primary motivation is to document the local scene. Both labels are impelled by creative drives, and the profit motive is not part of the equation. That said, running a label involves a lot of deal-making, organization, and, yes, financial considerations. So, on a small scale, the labels are subject to the whims of youth and the dreaded supply and demand factor. “Even if a record is in the store, there has to be demand,” says Lynn Point’s Jeff Bills, an alumnus of the fabled V-Roys.
While the digital age has certainly facilitated the production and transfer of music, it has also had a detrimental impact on what was once the standard unit of the record industry, the album. With digital downloads, music consumers are more likely to purchase individual songs, usually at a cost of 99 cents each. Digital downloading has put cover art on the endangered species list, and artists complain that single-song purchases have rendered the album an obsolete commodity.
“Personally, I love having the CD itself: artwork, photos, liner notes, everything,” says Bills. “It definitely plays into the whole experience for me. It [cover art] is the picture frame, or the bookbinding or what-have-you for the musical work. I know it’s now possible to have 10,000 songs on an iPod, and that’s great. But some romance is gone when with me when you just download a file onto your hard drive or digital player.”
Romance or no, Lynn Point does offer some download-only releases. In fact, all of the albums by Lynn Point artist Stewart Pack are available for free on the label’s website. “As of now all of his music is free, along with the artwork which you can download as well for each album,” says Bills. “Downloads are much more cost efficient. Stewart doesn’t have to worry about the cost of having a lot of CDs made. So even though he doesn’t charge for his music, he’s not going into the hole in a situation where it might be difficult to recoup those [pressing and printing] costs.
“It’s easy these days to take for granted how revolutionary the digital downloading of music really is,” Bills continues. “Now all you need is a website or a MySpace account and people can have access to your music anywhere in the world. MySpace accounts are almost like mini labels in and of themselves, with the music, press kit, and tour info all in one place.”
Straddling the cusp between traditional distribution methods and the download-only paradigm, Lynn Point is working both formats, adjusting to the needs and desires of individual artists on its roster. Disgraceland, however, is taking a rash step and going whole hog with the digital-only approach.
Going out of business sale: Everything must go! That’s the headline on the redesigned Disgraceland website. Worry not; Disgraceland isn’t really going out of business. They’re just restructuring. The label is selling off its stock of hard copy CDs at “big, fat, hairy savings,” evolving from a record label into a locally based, interactive music community with albums available to download.
Noe explains, “I got together with Todd [Steed] and Eric Nowinski—we’re pretty much the guys who do Disgraceland—and we decided to go download-only and be more of an open, active, community-type site as opposed to a record label. The idea is to make it more interactive and to cut down on the amount of work we have to put into it.”
The third prong of Knoxville’s indie label triad, The New Beat, is something of a specialty, boutique label that has existed for roughly five years, promoting a group of bands that might be classified as post-hardcore or emo. Unlike the other labels, which are essentially cooperatives or collectives, The New Beat is a one-man operation with a complete, in-house facility located in a bungalow in South Knoxville.
New Beat figurehead Robert Koons is perhaps the odd man out in Knoxville’s indie label milieu. Not for locals only, the label features a roster of bands from both Knoxville—including My Lost Cause, Cold Hands, The Bloodiest Night of My Life, and Past Mistakes—and across the country, including lone Wolf and Cub, The Moviehouse Arcade, and Adios. Interestingly, the bulk of The New Beat’s sales are made elsewhere. Koons records most of the label’s releases in his basement studio, selling the CDs in artful, meticulously crafted packages assembled in his shop. True to form, Koons helms the graphic design of the albums.
“I fine-tuned it so I can do things so that I can break even easier,” says Koons. “After I lost my ass on the first few releases, which were printed and packaged at a pressing plant, I started just ordering raw CDs on a spindle. I do all the printing here in town, and I do the cutting, some of it by hand. I assemble and shrink-wrap them myself. So I just make the CDs as they’re needed. The different thing about my label is doing everything by hand. Even the digipacks are hand-cut.”
Former drummer of several popular area emo and punk bands, Koons has replaced the nomadic musician’s lifestyle with the quieter avocation of running the label. “Doing a label is just like being in a band without dragging your gear all over town,” says Koons. “Of course, playing live is more fun—and a big hassle. I don’t think there’s any ego gratification to be had running a label. Nobody knows who I am.”
Operating as a national entity is tricky business, and Koons has experienced the predictable roller coaster ride of finding trustworthy independent distributors. At present, The New Beat is carried by InterPunk and DownloadPunk, two online vendors of hard-copy CDs. Koons also recently linked with the California-based Capri Products, who distribute the CDs in Japanese stores where they have sold quite well.
While all three labels are quite different and uniquely faceted, the frustration of running a small business is a running thread in the experiences of Bills, Noe and Koons. And as to the future of music distribution, the three agree that adapting to the buying patterns of the music market is a crux issue, especially with regard to packaging, or lack thereof.
“Cover art kind of lost its bite when LPs went away,” says Noe. “Older guys like us are gonna remember album art, but I don’t know if any of these new kids even know what cover art is.” Disgraceland and Lynn Point have both evolved to meet the digital download challenge, but Koons plans to steadfastly issue hard copies only.
“I like hard copies and I don’t buy downloaded music,” says Koons. “Cover art is kind of a collector’s thing, but I’m just one of those people, a collector. It means a lot more to me to have the entire package. I just like to have something physical that I can touch. For me, the packaging makes the music seem more real, as opposed to just having it on a computer or MP3 player. I think there’s more of a creative process with the covers. And just burning the music on a CDR, for some reason that just doesn’t seem nearly as valid.”