As part of the Imposition West Coast Tour, we met with several indie labels along the road to get a better grasp on their origins and inner workings. At an Oakland beer garden I sat down with Steve Rosborough of Moon Glyph, Jessi Frick of Father/Daughter, and Hunter Mack of Gold Robot. Each boutique label operates out of the Bay Area; Moon Glyph and Gold Robot in Oakland, Father/Daughter in San Francisco. Collectively, they've rewarded our record collections with cassettes and LPs from Monster Rally, Yalls, Flagland, Dead Luke, The New Lines, Mutual Benefit, and Pure Bathing Culture.
It's a tight-knit community in the Bay Area, one that grew more intimate after the Bay Area Record Festival or BARF, of which all three participated. Over pints and Tecate cans, we discussed the masochist mindset it takes to run a boutique label, indifference to Record Store Day, the illusion of professionalism and being perceived as a larger operation, and the realities of surviving as a creative business. Deep into our talks, around the time we discussed how they each embrace the arrival of demos, Jessi offered the aside thought, “I hope this brings us a lot of demos.”
Many of the labels we’ve interviewed seem to stem from a lack of representation and wanting to take on the responsibility of filling that void. Would you say in starting your respective labels that those impulses were similar?
Steve: I personally didn’t actually. It was just kind of a natural extension of everything I was doing, as a visual person and a huge fan of music. I kind of put two and two together. I just did it wherever I happened to be at the time. I didn’t see a lack in Minneapolis, where I started the label. There was already a bunch of people doing stuff.
Jessi: I’m a masochist. I like to destroy my life and the lives around me. I’m really terrible with money, so I figured I’d start a label.
Hunter: We all love to throw money away.
Jessi: I guess to a certain extent I knew of bands that wanted to self-release something and I knew it would be so much cooler if they had a label behind it. I’ve worked in music since I was 17, or I’ve been affiliated in some capacity.
I worked at a label straight out of high school called Fiddler Records, which was my best friend from high school. We had Dashboard Confessional and New Found Glory on our label. Then, I tour managed the bands on Fueled By Ramen for a few years – yeah, I was in that world. That’s why I didn’t go to college.
Riding that wave.
Hunter: Same thing for us. The first release on Gold Robot was Roman Ruins who was my friend who was playing in a shit ton of bands, but was making solo stuff that was literally getting recorded and sitting on his computer for years. I was angry at that. So, I said, ‘well, I actually want this on a record so I can play it,’ so I started the label to do that.
Some of the stuff has been, no one else will do it so I’ll do it. Now we’re at the point where people actually want to be on the label, which is interesting. Maybe we have the skill set to help somebody out.
From the beginning though it was, this is never gonna see the light of day so we might as well do it.
Has everyone here had that moment where it went from helping out your friends and bands you’re into, to that shift where people approach you because they want their record with your label’s logo pressed on it?
Steve: It took awhile. I started working at a record store, Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, shortly after I graduated which was right around the same time I started the label. Which was a really bad idea, mind you, getting a poorly paying job and then starting a business.
I think it took about 10 releases before I started noticing people within my region were noticing, interested, and liked the other people that were on the label. At that point I started to get more interest, and demos, and things of that nature. It happened pretty quickly because I focused on my immediate vicinity to begin with.
Jessi: Most of the emails I get are honestly from kids who make music on their computer. They kind of have no clue. I don’t think I’ve gotten to that point yet, to be honest. I think people hear about the name of the label after they hear about the artist. I don’t think I’ve made a stamp enough as far as branding the label.
Hunter: You’re on some pretty good email lists though. We both get the same demos.
Steve: You guys, get the same demos? Have you cross referenced that shit?
Hunter: I listen to every demo I get. I’ve got a really crazy and archaic system for archiving them.
Steve: Archaic? What are you talking about? Do you request they send you the DAT?
Hunter: I wrote a program that would archive all the emails and then pull out links for all the demos, so I can literally playlist it all no matter if it comes in as an mp3, or a Soundcloud, or a Bandcamp or whatever.
Steve: That sounds like the future, man. That doesn’t sound archaic.
Hunter: There’s like six of us who want it.
It took about 10 releases, about the same. Everything up to that point was either my friends or Will Oldham. I try to listen to enough stuff, so that even the kids who are making stuff on their computer get a listen. I got a soft spot for the bloop-blips.
Jessi: No, I do too. But am I going to make five-thousand dollars pressing your record, while you sit in your bedroom? Probably not.
Steve: I love tapes.
Hunter: That’s the curse of being a vinyl only label.
Jessi: That’s where the internet kind of tricks people into thinking they’re at the same level as someone else because they have as many followers as this band. I’m just as popular as Beach House. It kind of warps your senses.
Steve: I definitely have emails where people assume I have a few people working for me. They have no clue what this actually is.
Do you guys have emails that request you pass their demo around the office?
Steve: Yeah, it’s like that. Like ‘I’m not sure if this the right email address or maybe you can get this to the right person’.
Hunter: It’s the only email address. The founder that’s me. You want the Admin? That’s me.
Was there ever an event in which you learned something about the business that caught you completely off guard?
Jessi: That’s why I’ve changed the agreements in my contract I have bands sign off on. I think some people assume that because you’re a small label you’re not running things in a professional way. Even if it’s like handshake deal, you need to trust each other and be upfront about things.
Hunter: It’s business when it comes down to it.
Jessi: Exactly. I’ve had a couple situations—thanks to my lawyer—I’ve gotten to learn new things. But even like having bands tour Europe for the first time or going to Australia, things that are happening in the rest of the world have me still learning and changing how I do it.
Hunter: There was no a-ha moment for me. Literally everyday something new happens. Whether it’s learning about licensing covers or how to properly negotiate tour contracts. The business is interesting. For labels of our size I can pretty confidently say we’re not rolling in the dough, so to speak, so it’s important for us to try to understand the industry so that we can leverage it and our artists can make a little bit of money. The most paltry amount is nice rather than losing and that’s our goal.
Jessi: Stay afloat.
What was a big idea you had but you weren’t able to do because you weren’t financially there yet?
Jessi: I had one yesterday.
Steve: All the time. I think anybody that’s ever sent me a demo that was too good to press on cassette. It happens super regularly. I love this music but I can only put out a few records a year unfortunately. I just want to do it justice. With cassettes there comes the perspective of maybe seriousness or permanence, and some things just deserve to be on vinyl. But it’s not anywhere near feasible.
Jessi: I would say the records in the way I want to do them. I think I’m convinced I should be working at Third Man Records because all the ideas I have, they’re the only people that could pull it off. Sometimes I wish I had funding from somebody or hit the Mega Millions…
Steve: Any patrons that [reading] this…
Jessi: Or any rich kids that want to be really cool and have a record label?
Hunter: Every release I do gets scaled back at some point. It all stems from the fact that the volume of tapes or records or CDs is not enough to justify some of the wacky ideas we have and that we want to do. If I’m doing runs of 5000, sure I can do die-cut jackets with glow in the dark stickers…
Jessi: If you know that 5000 units will be sold.
Hunter: Well, I’m not going to do 5000 unless I know.
Steve: 5000? You guys are insane. I came to the wrong meeting.
Hunter: In order to do some of the ideas we have they don’t become financially feasible unless you can move 5000 records. I’m currently working on a release of 500 that’s some of the most interesting and provocative music that I’ve ever put out on Gold Robot, but it’s gonna sell 500 physical copies. It won’t sell 1000 unless something crazy happens. I’m not cutting corners on any releases, I’m scaling back so it has the chance to become profitable, if we sell all of them, which is still a reach.
Jessi: Just blame it on the internet for why you can’t sell 500.
Hunter: No, it’s because we release esoteric, weird shit.
[Jessi and Hunter proceed to bring up Million Brazillions on Moon Glyph, stating Hunter’s son and Jessi’s cat both don’t know what to think of it. Reviews Steve assures them the band will love.]
Hunter: My 3 ⅓ year old is my first filter on all the music we get. He listens to all the test pressings.
Jessi, coming from a background of working at a label previously, starting yours… what were you thinking? Honestly.
No the serious question I was going for is you had experience in a larger label, saw the inner workings…
Jessi: It was not a larger label. Well, there were three of us.
Steve: The fact that there was more than one person makes it larger.
Hunter: 300 percent bigger?!
Jessi: What were we thinking starting labels? Is that your question?
Steve: That's a very reasonable question.
I was more curious about starting yours having had previous experience.
Jessi: It was my best friends. We had tons of fun. When I think about music that's what I think about. I don't have friends. My friends are work and work is friends and I like it like that. I tried to go back to school for other things and failed miserably because I know that's not my calling. I'm not even a musician. I can't play anything for shit, but being part of somebody's journey is really interesting. Starting a label was another way for me to invest support in bands that I really believed in. I'm crazy for starting a label.
Hunter: We're all crazy people.
All three of you are kind of mining the weirder side of music and like you said it can be masochistic. But what about that weird music has you completely ignoring your better judgment to maybe put out a safer record?
Steve: I did that twice last year. The Lord Dog Bird and Million Brazilians LPs were pretty esoteric and not for everybody, but I just believed in them and need to put them on vinyl. I took a chance, you know.
Jessi: The best part of running your own record label is you don’t have to ask anybody. You just fucking do it.
Hunter: If the music hits you in the gut, you release it.
Jessi: If it reminds you of something you did when you were six years old and brought back a memory you can’t shake then you do it.
Hunter: Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn’t. With Seamonster, one of the artists on my label, he does really interesting stuff, really art project-y types of songs that not a lot of people embrace and I love it. So I’ll release it. For as long as he makes it, I’ll release it. Monster Rally. No one was releasing his shit, so I released it and it was weird, but it’s done well. Some win, some haven’t yet found the right following.
Steve: You just don’t know. You don’t know what fucking narrative is going to reach the writers. It’s somewhat arbitrary at times. The upside is they never disappear. It might make its money back eventually I think it will. Obviously that’s not great for the short term but I get to do stuff that I believe in.
Jessi: Luckily a lot of my bands have moved on to other labels. I mean, it’s not lucky for me, but it’s helped them in terms of growing.
You guys are the first person to believe in them and it can launch from there.
Steve: Yeah, I’ve pushed my artists on to other labels before because yes, there’s a limit to what I’m capable of doing for them. I do want the best for them, I just have limits.
Hunter: I’d love for all my artists to sign with someone better than me.
Steve: Not better.. richer.
What perks come with running your label out of the Bay Area?
Jessi: I think the culture here is smaller. So in that sense, coming from New York, it’s kind of nice because I feel like I know people, whereas in New York it takes you five years for them to take you seriously. I think there’s a whole sub-culture of people here trying make the Bay Area music scene important. I enjoy that.
Hunter: The area is going through a lot of changes right now. Change often times breeds interesting music because people are looking to express themselves against the ways in which they feel hampered by culture at large. There’s a lot of interesting music coming out of this area. There’s just creative people too, whether it’s website design or artists, you can’t go a block without meeting someone who’s doing something interesting. It’s inspiring. You just meet really rad folks.
What about Record Store Day are any of you doing anything?
Steve: Nope. I think if I did something for Record Store Day it would just get drowned out by Flaming Lips, Neil Young, whatever. It just seems not worth my while.
Hunter: I'm leveraging Jessi to see if it works. So if it works I'm following in her foot steps.
Jessi: I hope stores buy my record, otherwise I'm kind of fucked because I can't sell them anywhere else. So buy my record.
Steve: What do you mean you can't sell them anywhere else?
Jessi: Technically it's made for Record Store Day. It's already accepted so if they don't buy them then… [makes sad trombone sound]
Steve: Wow. That's fucking weak.
Jessi: Yeah, it's my first Record Store Day record. It's a comp of cover songs that are originally performed by ficitious bands. We have somebody doing Eddie & The Cruisers, somebody doing The Wonders from That Thing You Do.
Steve: Spinal Tap?
Jessi: No. It was on the list, but nobody picked it. Dr. Teeth from the Muppets. Potty Mouth is on it. Sadie from Speedy Ortiz did one. Radiator Hospital did one. Bent Shapes did a song from Daria. And it's called Faux-Real on bright mustard colored vinyl.
Steve: That's a great concept.
When you started what was the climate like to have a boutique label? And then four years later to now, what’s it like?
Hunter: I think it’s more accepted now and a little more democratized. I remember telling my wife back when we were dating that I was going to start a record label that releases vinyl records and she said I was fucking crazy. She’d never heard of anybody doing such a thing. I did it anyway.
I think now it’s a little bit easier. Then it was a little weird. I didn’t even know what format you had to give to a person who would make a record. I knew none of that, so it was a very, very steep learning curve for me. I still don’t know half of what I should. Whether or not the public is receptive to a boutique label, it took a long time for me to learn enough for the public to even consider me.
Jessi: I feel like I started my label around the time a lot of bloggers were trying to start labels. It was like the cool thing to put out 7”s.
Steve: Oh, god. Yeah. I loved they chose 7”s, the least viable format possible.
Hunter: Exactly. How many of those failed?
Steve: The worst possible idea. Fucking two songs?
Jessi: And it’s almost of the same price to press a 12”.
Steve: In the era of streaming? I was very surprised some of those actually worked. How they sold 500 or even 1000 of those things. Shocked.
Jessi: I still have all of mine. So if anyone wants to buy some…
Hunter: 7” records don’t make money.
Jessi: I still feel like I have to prove myself as a sustainable label that’s not going anywhere. It’s also me and my dad, so people assume he’s giving me money to run the label. No. We’re doing this together and it’s a joint venture.
Now it’s actually 80 percent me and 20 percent him. He helped me in the beginning. He also agreed on the music we put out. I didn’t release anything he didn’t approve.
I’d say your dad has some rad taste then.
Jessi: Yeah, he’s got pretty good taste. But, I don’t think the culture has changed too much. The Internet makes it really easy to be disposable, whereas when you have a label you need to think long term.
Hunter: Fostering. What a concept.
Jessi: Exactly. There’s a lot of artist development that goes into it.
Hunter: Artist development and fostering. that’s really the role of a lot of these labels is to keep it moving. Give the artists enough room to grow and learn. They’re like us. They’re growing and learning and making new stuff. If you can give them a chance and some space, maybe they’ll take a few chances and be better for it. If somebody gives you a chance and you’re able to execute your vision, that’s the best place for you to be. If I can say to my artists ‘you know what, do what you think is best and what speaks to you’ I want to make that happen. That’s the point of the whole thing. I think that’s what makes the most interesting music.
Jessi: It’s supporting a vision. There’s so many labels that will try to step in and micromanage what they are doing as musicians. I guess, working with a producer, someone who knows what they’re doing in that field and the artist feels comfortable with can be good, but when you step in and tell them what they should be doing with their art, it’s not really a label’s job.
Maybe give a suggestion here and there, but don’t tell them what to do outright. Helping create relevancy, getting momentum going, that’s our job.
Hunter: There’s a lot of battles you have to fight as a label to help the artist along. The ultimate goal is to give them a platform to do what speaks to them.
Steve, what about cassette culture… Moon Glyph was kind of ahead of the curve in that regard.
Steve: It’s hard for me to say that about myself.
People were doing it, you weren’t alone. But, how did it feel to see expand around you?
Steve: I never really perceived it as being ahead of the curve. Looking back on it though, I guess it did grow since then. I don’t know. It made sense to me.
Hunter: Did you look at it as I can make 50 of this: if I do it on CD it’s X amount, if I make it on tape it’s Y amount, if I make it on vinyl it’s fucking Z times 1000?
Steve: CDs were relatively comparable, the only difference was quantity. A lot of places required 300 to be pressed. Cassettes just made sense with the music I wanted to put out and the scope of the artist. I started the label initially just to put out some of my own shitty music.
Hunter: It’s not shitty. I’ve listened to all of it.
Steve: Start at MG3. I pretty much denounce one and two.
As it expanded around you what was it like for you?
Steve: It was mostly exciting. I was being viewed as a viable thing and it wasn’t scoffed at or laughed at for being this dumb thing that nobody wants or hipster bullshit or whatever. Maybe the perception is still kind of liked that, but it has changed dramatically. Especially for people who really pay attention to music because they know a lot of really fantastic artists who put their music out on cassette. It doesn’t mean they’re not as good, it’s just a medium.
I think the biggest shift has been the perception that this is not necessarily lesser than any other medium. It still has a ways to go, but it has progressed.
Hunter: Here’s a random theory. My wife says this is totally incorrect but I’ll throw it out there. My theory is the new wave of cassettes came about because kids of a certain age were interested in different music, but they were also driving hand-me-down cars that still had cassette players. So the adoption of a new wave of cassette making came from the fact that kids like you and me were driving around in cars only with cassette players and if my friends’ music was on cassette it would be easy.
Jessi: I think that’s kinda true.
Steve: That’s kind of the nostalgia argument, which I’m very hesitant of.
Hunter: Well, it’s nostalgia, but it’s also a functional argument. Literally, I want a cassette because that’s what stays in my vehicle.
Jessi: When you say nostalgia you say it with kind of a negative edge on it.
Steve: I do. Yeah.
Jessi: Maybe they are just envious of the culture back then and trying to re-create it. So I see nostalgia as a good thing.
Steve: I don’t mean it’s intrinsically bad. I just think [cassettes] get set aside because of nostalgia.
Jessi: Like it’s Jnco jeans.
Steve: They treat it as less legitimate. But I think we’re talking more populist listeners as opposed to kids who are into underground cultures. Those kids are fine, they don’t even question it.