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One Release at a Time: The Rise of Local Micro-Labels
Posted May 20, 2013 by Rob Peoni
WRITTEN BY
Rob Peoni
ON
May 20, 2013
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More and more musicians are pressing independent releases these days. They're forking over their own cash to fund albums that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. This is not news. What is news, however, is that many of these artists and entrepreneurs are beginning to put names on the entities behind those independent releases, leaving the door open for future endeavors. Over the last six months, at least four independent labels (we'll call them "micro-labels" for lack of a better term) have sprouted up in the Indianapolis area.

* * *

It's a warm, overcast spring evening in the "Smoker's Lounge" behind The Melody Inn. I'm there to meetLaura K. Balke and her fianc Jon Autry to discuss their decision to found Usonian Recording Division. The pair have just returned from a month-long tour alongside Fort Wayne's The Dead Records, who split billing on Usonian's debut 7" vinyl release. The homecoming show at The Mel is doubling as an album release party. Despite the arduous journey of house shows, dimly lit barrooms and shared floors for bedding, the duo is energetic and talkative, excited at the prospect of one more opportunity to play with their friends.

"The end of a tour is always bittersweet," Balke said. "We had a day off yesterday when we got back to Indiana, and [Jon and I] were already missing our boys! I think we were all happy to have an extra send-off tonight."

Autry and Balke are anxious to get Usonian off the ground, push the 7" and begin discussions on subsequent releases. But with a wedding to plan this summer, they know it will need to take a back seat for a couple of months. Autry has been wrestling a lot with the logistics of the archival role that any record label is forced to play.

"You kind of turn into this library of sorts," he said. "I keep thinking of Tom Hazelmeyer who founded this well-respected noise rock label called Amphetamine Reptile. He stopped putting out new records, but still had this catalog to keep alive as best he could. Then a few years ago, they started doing the occasional 7" again. It's kind of like being in the mob. You never really get out, you know?"

Autry and Balke plan to experiment with creating different pieces of art around music, even digital releases. Both acknowledged that much of the experience of buying a record revolves around providing the fan with something tangible. That doesn't necessarily have to mean vinyl, CD or cassette.

The couple draws from radically different musical backgrounds.Autry's solo material consists of experimental pop with a heavy electronic bent, while Balke's works within a more traditional rock format. Unsurprisingly, the two have no intention of limiting Usonian in terms of genre or style of music.

"When I think back on our pre-internet consumption of music, we didn't have access to this flood of music recommendations," Autry said. "When you discovered a new artist that you liked, it wasn't like you could hit the "Similar Artists" feature on Spotify. You had to rely on the taste of whomever was curating that record label, and follow them on whatever trip they might be on. That's the kind of relationship we're trying to create with Usonian's audience."

* * *


It's Friday at LUNA Music. Chris and Dan are behind the counter processing the arrival of next week's batch of releases. It's just about the worst conceivable time I could pick to talk with these two about the founding of their record label Warm Ratio. The label's debut release was theself-titled, full-length from local, high school rockers Winslow. It's a guitar-heavy LP, informed by Malkmus and Weezer, that marinates on the anxiety and insecurity of adolescence.

"They were just local buddies who always came into the shop," Chris said. "They've been coming here since they were like 14 or 15 and we just really dig what they do. We wanted to kind of give them a leg up, you know?"

Warm Ratio has plans for a release featuring Chris and his LUNA co-worker David Moose Adamson set for later this summer. The two also play together in Adamson's solo project-turned full band DMA. The new material will be released under the moniker TUFFBLADES, and Chris describes it as similar toChicago footwork "kinda weird, sped-up house music with goofy samples."

Though Warm Ratio chose a pair of local projects for its initial releases, the label has plans to extend its reach beyond Hoosier borders. Regardless of whether the music is local, a new release on an Indy label often provides work beyond the pressing plant, record store and label itself. Warm Ratio enlisted local artist and former LUNA employee Nat Russell to design the artwork for Winslow's LP, and Usonian tapped Casey Roberts. Like Usonian, Warm Ratio doesn't have any plans to pigeonhole its brand inside a single genre.

"We don't really have a specific direction right now," Dan said. "We're still one release in, so we don't know exactly where we want to go. We just know that we want to put out stuff that we dig, and our tastes are all over the place."

* * *


It's late Friday morning, and Derek Vorndran strolls into Monon Coffee Co. in Broad Ripple toting an armful of music that doesn't exist yet. In his hands are the test pressings for the next three releases from Vorndran's new record label In Store Recordings. He has taken the day off from his day job to pick up and hand-number the artwork for a new 7" vinyl release from Judson Claiborne. Vorndran's relationship with Claiborne and fellow In Store Recordings artistsThe Kickback grew out of his concert promotions business through The-InStore.com.

"It was just the logical next step," Vorndran said a few weeks earlier at The Melody Inn. "I started with the website, moved on to booking shows, and now I'm focused on getting this label off the ground. My dream is to make a living [in music] and these days that means hitting every segment of the market."

In Store Recordings' first release was Songs From an Empty Shore, a solo, acoustic album by Indianapolis singer-songwriter Caleb McCoach. Bleak and brutally honest, McCoach crafts poetry out of heartbreak on a release that, for this author's money, is the best acoustic album of 2013. McCoach has since expanded to a full band, and Vorndran intends to release a follow-up in the not too distant future.

"Right now we just want to get the acoustic tracks circulating, and get Caleb in front of some audiences outside of Indy," he said.

Vorndran is working on setting dates for a mini-tour showcasing the artists on his label. Scheduling the tour is complicated by Claiborne's current location in Washington state. The rest of In Store Recordings' roster resides in the Midwest, with The Kickback in Chicago and McCoach in Indy.

Vorndran credits established Indianapolis imprint Joyful Noise Recordings as the model and inspiration for his label. He's thankful that JNR's owner/curator Karl Hofstetter has made himself available for consultation while Vorndran attempts to navigate the choppy waters of his label launch.

"They just really have their stuff together," Vorndran said. "From branding, to packaging, to marketing their artists. I can't say enough how much I appreciate somebody like Karl's willingness to let a guy like me pick their brain. It's really been invaluable."

* * *

As is likely evident, much of these entrepreneurial endeavors are unfolding in an exploratory, learn-as-you-go fashion. Most of the labels are operating under handshake agreements with the artists on their roster. In the interest of perspective, I tappedFamily Vineyard owner/curator Eric Weddle to offer some words of wisdom for those just starting out. Weddle was one of the original co-founders of Bloomington label Secretly Canadian, before moving to Lafayette to launch Family Vineyard. He moved the label to Indianapolis earlier this spring to accommodate a day job with the Indianapolis Star.

I asked Weddle whether he thought it important for these upstart imprints to create their identity around a specific genre or style of music.

"Not at all," he said. "A label should have a keen aesthetic though, one that links the release in some way and gives listeners a sense of what to expect next. Family Vineyard was probably seen as a focused 'avant garde' label when it began in 1999 but I've released music regardless of any genre label that I believe is singular. The artists truly have a feverish vision or come from my other love -- obscure Indiana music. The label's first release was from the members ofMX-80 and the next release, the 87th, is a LP reissue of Richmond's Hoi' Polloi."

While Weddle argues formal contracts may not be necessary, he said it's important that all parties involved have clear expectations set prior to any release.

"No matter what, the label should be very clear about what they are providing and also what they expect from the artist. You should at least write out how much money you are spending on the release, how many free copies the artist receives, how any profit will be divvied, and what time period the label has rights to produce/distribute the music - those are just basic issues with releasing records. As digital distribution is now ubiquitous, you also need to decide if the label will be the one handling that or if the band can post them on Bandcamp or even an MFT Page. These may seem like small issues but if everyone starts out on the same page, it will leave less room for headache in the future."

Weddle offered a few final pieces of advice for these budding micro-labels:

"Only release music you truly love. Never set out to release a record on the cheap by cutting corners. Never send off a master to be cut without talking to the engineer over the phone and discussing what is expected. Don't listen to a test pressing on a run down hi-fi and beat-up stylus."

Only time will tell which of these start-ups will survive and continue to release music in the long-term. No one I spoke with had any delusions of easy roads to prosperity. They all appeared content amplifying the music they love.

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