Photo of
Photo By James Moses
Louisville Labels

Making & Selling Records In River City

By David Lilly
Photos Copr. 2003 by James Moses
Used by permission

While the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) draws headlines and hisses from music fans around the country, especially since the recent spate of lawsuits against music downloaders, thousands of smaller and much more artist-and-fan-friendly record labels labor on in the shadows. The RIAA represents all that is "major corporate" about the record industry, in particular with respect to harvesting the fans' dollars. The smaller labels want to make money, too, but a lot of them actually care more about the music, the artists making the music and the fans who buy it. That's certainly the case with the current batch of Louisville record labels, most of which were founded by one or two people with a powerful love of music and pockets deep enough to get a release out.

While musicians around town complain about a lack of places to play and the difficulties of getting the attention of the "record bidness," these independent labels just keep on recording and releasing records, providing their acts with product to sell and promote, publicity for same and a chance to move further on up the ladder.

The criteria for what constituted a "record label" for this story was somewhat loose but generally, to be considered, labels had to have more than one record released and by more than one act and had to be actively involved in promoting and selling its records. They also had to be able to be contacted, a criterion that eliminated more than one `label.'

We began with what is arguably the best-known of Louisville's labels: ear X-tacy.

www.ear X-tacy.com

John Timmons hardly needs an introduction, but ... he's a long-time Louisville resident, mentor, good friend of the music scene and the owner of the Ear X-tacy record store. Timmons got involved in the record label business when the Ear X-tacy label set sail in 1995 with the album, Outside of Everything, by then-hot local punk rockers Cherub Scourge. That's the lone Ear X-tacy title released on CD, cassette and vinyl.

Right now, Tim Krekel, writer of songs that have become hits for Kim Richey, Martina McBride, Delbert McClinton and many others, is the label's best-selling artist. Some thirty artists are currently represented on the label. You need study the catalogue only briefly to see that it includes music of various genres, including Americana, Blues, Folk, Jazz, New Age and others.

Not only have Ear X-tacy artists and their albums, such as Krekel's Underground, the Java Men's Orbituary and Dick Sisto's End of Time, received nationwide radio attention, but albums by Dan Gediman, Butch Rice, Krekel, Sisto and Cooler have received acclaim in major national publications.

In recognition of Timmons' contribution to the local music scene, upon the label's 30th release, Sisto's Duo Live, the Mayor's office declared January 18, 2002 as "Ear X-tacy Records Label Day."

And the X-tacy continues.

www.initialrecords.com

Punk label Initial Records owner Andy Rich moved the label to Louisville from Michigan in the early Nineties and set up shop in an a house on East Broadway, where much of the packaging and shipping of records was done by volunteers from the various acts on the label. The company moved out to Bluegrass Industrial Park in Jeffersontown in 1999 before winding back in Louisville on South Shelby Street, where the business is now operated by mostly paid staff. The label has become one of the most significant punk labels in the United States, signing bands from all over the country as well as Louisville and "moving product" by mail to every state in the Union as well as internationally.

Early in the business, Initial signed up several Louisville bands, including Falling Forward, Guilt and the Enkindels, among others. Falling Forward ultimately morphed into Elliott and got signed by the West Coast label Revelation Records. Guilt was formed from several members of Endpoint and released several well-received records, including 1991's Guilt, which ultimately wound up in the hands of MCA Records, and the 1995 masterwork, Bardstown Ugly Box.

>Asked about the staff at Initial Records Andy Rich explains, "I oversee everything." He claimed to try to do "as little real work as possible," but after playing cards all night, he spends a few hours at the office, later in the day, of course.

Traipsing along the list of those who make the Initial machine run smoothly, Rich mentioned Ryan Patterson as the A&R maestro, including handling graphics and preproduction for each Initial release. Rich used the metaphor that Patterson is "the fuel for the label's fire." Rich also says Patterson "is one of the most passionate people I know," that he "eats, breathes and sleeps music and loves his job." According to Rich, Patterson's primary gift to Initial is knowing how to take care of the label's bands, as Patterson has been a member of several indie bands on different indie labels and knows both sides of the business.

Ron Jasin designed and monitors Initial's web site and the Krazyfest site, www.krazyfest.com. That's about all I can say about Jasin without possibly involving Geraldo Rivera.

Next, says Rich, Mr. Kelley Cox does "special projects" and makes certain that Initial artists' record store bins are occupied and their CDs are available from distributors.

Moving along, mail order is handled by a laid-back guy named Jason Irvine. Irvine handles the potentially unnerving task of making friendly conversation with the kids that call the Initial office.

Rich adds, "We also hire several independent companies on a regular basis," like Invisible Youth, Warm Fuzzy, Parasol, AAM and The Syndicate, "to do publicity and radio."

Bands interested in Initial releasing their recordings must meet two qualifications. Rich says, "They need to rock and be willing to tour." A band that can't tour must be exceptionally prolific so they offer much more music than a touring act. Elaborating on that point, Rich notes, "We have no set guidelines for what kinds of bands we would or wouldn't sign." If Initial likes the band and its music, that's what counts. Rich adds, "If it sounds good to me then I like it. I try to judge everything I hear based on its own merits and not preconceived notions."

Initial Records also stages the annual three-day Krazy Fest event, featuring established and newer bands. It was - initially - fueled by Rich's creative fire. After attending music festivals in other states, he thought he "could do just as well as anybody else and that it would be really fun...I knew a few big bands and decided to give it a try." The event attracts fans from all over the U.S. and Canada as well as from non-North American countries.

The Initial gang is all for their bands being successful enough to earn a living playing music.

Are there any small, inexpensive thrills to running this label? Rich says he still gets excited upon seeing an Initial sticker on a car or someone wearing a shirt of a band that belongs to the Initial label and, last but not least, seeing the label's releases in record stores, ready to be purchased and enjoyed.

www.labelx.moonfruit.com

If "Label X" sounds mysterious or like something you don't want to mess with, Todd Smith can ease your worries. According to him, after many months, a small forest of paper and tons of emails, the staff could not unanimously agree on any single name. Hence, Smith said, on their internal documents, "We would always put Label X, meaning when we find a name, this is where it will go." At one point, Smith revealed, someone suggested, "It's on all our paperwork, let's just call it Label X and everybody agreed."

What is Label X about, anyway? Smith explained, "To me, there's plenty of great bands here, but we don't have the music industry infrastructure; the support structure of people that promote and work with the artists - the producers, the managers, the attorneys and the publishers...the infrastructure that it takes. That...is in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. Label X is an attempt to begin to build that here so local talent doesn't have to all go away." Referring to Detroit and Motown, Smith knows it can be done, adding, "It all starts with a great band and we think we have some great bands."

Originally, Smith ran MIXworks; which was basically just him as producer in the recording studio. Once that was established, with Digby and The Muckrakers, he said, "It evolved into making sense to start a new company with these other partners and have MIXworks stand alone as a production entity, so Label X was born after the team was solidified."

Who comprises Label X? According to Smith, "Jeffrey Smith is the marketing and publicity guy; Patsy Sermersheim's job is radio promotion; and Kevin Janes manages the street teams and other nontraditional promotions...setting up message boards, file sharing and that kind of stuff that gets the word out and doesn't cost a lot of money." The newest member is business manager and attorney, Jim Reskin.

In childhood, Todd Smith explored the possibilities of tape recorders. Boyhood experiments led to knowledge, which led to getting paid to record musician friends and evolved into being able to work with more sophisticated equipment. Believe it or not, playing, recording and producing music are the only "jobs" Smith has had.

Is Label X interested in recruiting bands? Smith replied, "Not right now...this is something I don't understand about a lot of indie labels. They have scores of bands signed...it takes so much effort and time, blood, sweat and tears and money to break a band. I mean we're sweating our asses off trying to break our three bands." He adds that the Label X staff would love to eventually expand, which of course requires "more money, more people and more resources or it wouldn't be fair" to keep other bands hanging with contracts and the label unable to serve them properly.

Asked about control of the artistic product, Smith insisted, "We sign the bands we sign because we love what they do and believe it's good, so why change it? I want to make them the best version of them that they can be."

As far as distribution, they're weighing offers from distributors and keeping a sharp eye on Amazon.com. Label X has an all-encompassing view of taking care of their artists. It's a forward-thinking and patient company that intends to be around for the long haul.

www.landmarkrecordings.com

Before you run off to Arkansas, Jeremy Irvin wants you to know that his record label has an "ing" on the end to distinguish it from Landmark Records in Little Rock. He started his label as Landmark Records in November 1999, changing it two months later to Landmark Recordings upon learning of the Arkansas label.

As Irvin tells it, "The band I play in, Second Story Man, did a recording with Kevin Ratterman, of Elliot. We were planning to put out a split EP with The Helgeson Story (R.I.P.), but couldn't find a label to back us."

Irvin thought of starting his own record label. He continued, "I figured the first release was already finished, aside from manufacturing and distributing the CD." Brandon Skipworth, of Noise Pollution, helped him get started and shrink-wrapped some of the finished products.

With a January 2000 release as Landmark Recordings' LMR MILE 01, Irvin recalled, "The first release, titled Stories, included two songs by Second Story Man and two songs by The Helgeson Story."

Irvin states he began the label with the knowledge he probably wouldn't make any money, but he wanted to keep the label functioning enough to afford more releases. He added, "I wanted to give my band and our friends' bands a chance to have something out there, a chance to be recognized doing something worthwhile."

While Irvin has encountered some disappointment and frustrations in running Landmark Recordings, so far he has put out ten releases. The roster includes Second Story Man, Your Black Star, Blue Goat War and Elephant Micah, as well as having released material by some bands now in the indie graveyard.

Irvin emphasizes his need to get out of debt before releasing any other records and he hopes "that the bands can move on to better things, bigger labels and maybe bring some of their fans back to the first releases on Landmark Recordings."

Irvin noted that Your Black Star and Elephant Micah are now actually on other labels. With a ray of hope, he also states he plans to continue with his label when it is more economically feasible for him to do so.

www.louipimps.com

In the mid 90's Andrew Aebersold (also known as Radianation) was peddling his first full-length album, Megalomania. The few leads on labels were somewhat loose fits so, as Aebersold put it, "I decided to release the album on my own. He created a label he called Swerve Records and commenced to sell the album to everybody he knew and hawking it on the IUS campus and at raves. The word made its way to another label named Swerve, which tapped on Aebersold's shoulder about it. Research clarified that his label needed a different name. He claims, "I'm not sure why, but LOUiPiMPS just came to mind almost immediately and I've used it as the official name from that day (early 1997) forward."

"Once I set up the official web site," he continued, "other bands started contacting me on how to release their own albums. I started working with them to help out, using my resources and contacts. A loose cooperative was formed and continued to grow." Then a web developer by day, he adds that the site gave people the impression "that we were a well-established company. LOUiPiMPS eventually became that company through years of `smart' work."

At the drawing board, Aebersold made plans to, among other things, acquire distribution, produce a compilation album showcasing new talent, build a large website community for music lovers and expand the business into a full time career rather than just a hobby. Those things have come to fruition. Aebersold says, "We have complete national and partial international distribution, we've expanded the catalog from underground electronica to include rock and comedy and we've successfully produced a professional quality music video."

What artists can you expect to find at the LOUiPiPIMPS website? Look for acts like Electrostatic (big beat/ electronica), Lunasect (rock), Radianation (europop/breaks), Breastfed (techno/experimental drum and bass) and Saidux (tech-house). Outside the realm of music, look for the guy who used to get out of bed on the morning of winter's first snow, run to the front door of his family's warm and cozy house, bang on the door and say, "you know the deal...let me in!" Emo Philips (comedy). Not content with that lineup, Aebersold says they also represent talented DJ's such as Biggs, Jason Shelton and Jon Owens.

Behind the scenes, Aebersold confesses, "Running a record label seems like a glamorous job, but it's a lot of work. I've spent countless hours doing tasks I would never consider doing for anybody else." He also believes that's true for nearly any business owner, but adds, "A lot of people overlook this when they think of being a record label owner." On the other hand, he continued, "I love looking for new talent and constantly thinking of new ways to promote bands, or new sounds that might be next month's big thing." On the darker side of green, Aebersold revealed, "Money is always an issue. Working with distributors is a pain because of the cash cycle and return policies. It's difficult to explain to bands why it takes a while to pay for albums sold or that maybe they should change a song or take a slightly different approach to something. I try to let them maintain their artistic freedom, but this is a business and everyone benefits from the work when we work as a team."

Aebersold revealed, "LOUiPiMPS is being purchased by my new company, MEDIAura. Once that is done, I'll begin to slowly introduce new sub-labels that will begin working with other genres, including a variety of local bands."

Unlike my "real" job (and probably yours), in this kind of work, the LOUiPiMPS owner says, "there is never a boring day."

analogdog@yahoo.com

Scott Mullins has the Blues and plenty of it. As he explained, "I started the Rollin' and Tumblin' label in about 1990 to release an LP called The Louisville Blues Compilation. My idea was to document the Louisville blues Scene of the late '80s. It included tracks from Henry and The Noisemakers, Foree Wells and the Walnut Street Blues Band and others who have since passed away."

Rollin' and Tumblin' has given numerous artists their first (and in some cases, only) chance to record their music. About Rollin' and Tumblin's contribution to the holiday season, Mullins added, "Santa is a Bluesman, Volumes 1-4 included performances from nearly eighty bands or artists from the area, which provides a pretty good overview of the Louisville blues scene of the early to mid '90s."

Mullins has recorded nationally known blues artists including Billy Branch, Sam Myers, Duke Robillard, Lefty Dizz and Eddie Kirkland. He has also manned the control room for local and regional artists including the Kelly Richey Band, Big Al and the Heavyweights, Lamont Gillispie and 100 Proof Blues, Rusty Spoon Blues Band, Tanita Gaines, Shannon Lawson, Bodeco and Robbie Bartlett, among others.

According to Mullins, the positive aspects include, "the fact that I enjoy working in the studio producing recording sessions. I also like finding worthy talent and working with them in the studio to get a good final product." What about Rollin' and Tumblin' gives Mullins the blues? He said, "The same struggle that most independent labels have - financial."

Odes to Significant Others

Two other labels important in Louisville music history are Jamey Aebersold's Play-A-Long and the influential Slamdek.

Aebersold is an educator, teaching anyone interested in learning about Jazz. Play-A-Long Records began when a student asked for a tape to play along with. Aebersold nixed the tape, but made a record for the student. As it turned out, that was Volume 1 of the Play-A-Long series and the beginning of 100-plus volumes, including accompanying books. The Play-A-Long records are recorded in Aebersold's basement studio and Steve Good is the engineer and mixer. There's plenty more to learn about Aebersold and Play-A-Long. A good place to find it is www.jajazz.com.

In 1986, the Slamdek label unknowingly began paving a path to guide others. As the story goes, with a little help from three friends, Scott Richter and his band, Pink Aftershock, released a cassette album. The Slamdek name, Richter recalls, "combined the first letters of each of our names." When that band broke up, Richter continued, "Using the Slamdek name, I eventually released cassettes by other local groups. Interest grew and it expanded into a `real' record label and branched out into records and CDs."

In nine years, Richter explained, "Slamdek released nearly 50 records by Louisville artists and in its advertising, promoted Louisville pride and community involvement." According to Richter, "Slamdek sponsored a weekly live radio broadcast called "Sell Out Louisville Style," a high school girls' field hockey team (Slamdek Rockers), the two-day Louisville Summer Music Festival and published a 126-page daily planner recounting 15 years of local scene history." Many people were involved in the promotion and operation of the label and the distribution end. Richter continued, "Over the years, many people who later started their own labels have told me that Slamdek was an inspiration that sparked their involvement."

Slamdek participated in beginning a dialogue between Louisville's independent music community and city government, via the Mayor's office, which helped to lay groundwork for today's environment of public facilities, funding and city-sponsored events being more accessible to local youth.

Slamdek launched many rock, punk and guitar-based bands, including Crain, Rodan, Endpoint, Jawbox, Metroschifter and Sunspring. Of the pros and cons of owning/running a label, Richter said, "The biggest cons are that it's a terrible way to make money and...people wanting you to listen to crap all the time gets really old really fast." On the upside, he countered, "Slamdek was an unconventional label and invested a lot more in the lifestyle of the people who bought the records than other labels do." Elaborating on that, he continued, "We created a brand identity for the label that involved catalogs picturing nice-looking people using the products and wearing the bands' shirts. We used clean, bold graphics and nice imagery...in contrast to the gritty, dirty look of other independent labels of the time."

Available at the Slamdek website (operated by K Composite Media www.kcomposite.com, Richter's current work interest),, www.slamdek.com are downloadable recordings from the label's bands.

Curious about Kentuckiana music history? The 220-page Slamdek A to Z, written by Scott Richter, with contributions from some 30 others, is available at Ear X-tacy and www.initialrecords.com, where Richter worked from 1996-99. The book includes 250-plus photos and illustrations and a 21-song CD sampler of the label's output.

Louisville's Own, written by Bill and Brenda Woods, covers Louisville area recorded popular music from 1953 to 1983. It is no longer in print, however, but copies occasionally surface in yard sales and thrift stores.

Note that this story doesn't cover the many Louisville acts signed to other independent labels, including the various children acts of Rodan on Quarterstick/Touch `n' Go/Southern Records and the group of punk/metal bands that wound up on the Huntington Beach, California label Revelation Records. The label that is handling the various recordings of the Louisville Orchestra, Santa Fe Music Group, also was not included due to its location in the Southwest.

Research for this story was unusual because there were several people to contact instead of just one or two. To everyone who pointed me in the right direction or provided information, thank you.