Gatekeepers are an important thing in this industry. All the way from the hyper-press to the managers and PR outlets behind them. You - the fan, concert attendee, vinyl collector, message board griper - you are the biggest gatekeeper of all. You hold the real power over who gets heard, how much they get heard and how much support can be put behind a band to move from the house show to the 300-cap venue to the direct support on a stadium tour. You have that almighty power, no matter what other "hype machine" out there tells you differently. It's your money, it's your tweets, it's your conversations among friends.
Then there's the middle man. The label. The person doing all the work to even get this "thing" out to the public. In 2012, some might say that a label may be obsolete. Who needs a bank loan, when you can ask the public for a pre-order of charity? Beyond the monetary value of what a label consumes and distributes lies a "home." A label is supposed to be a community. It's supposed to be a co-op for not necessarily a similar sound, but like-minded bands. For a bastardized term, a label is a company that believes your band can supply quality goods for the greater output; it overseas how well that product comes out. In an overly driven digital world both legal and illegal, pushing people to buy physical copies of anything is sometimes selling a ketchup popsicle to a lady in white gloves.
Tuesday, one of the finest labels to exist closed down production. Hydra Head owner Aaron Turner posted a long farewell on the label's blog stating that Hydra Head's demise was imminent and that it was time to shut down the operation, sell off all the physical stock, repay debt and call it a day. In a industry of consumerism such as this one, one can't blame Turner for his actions. He hasn't exactly shelled out the most accessible music over the years. Take Old Man Gloom's latest, and strongest release to date. It's an album heavier, more progressive and more experimental than most. There are times on NO where even I scratch my cranium, trying to find some understanding. But Hydra Head's catalog is one large crate of just that. From Botch's We Are the Romans, Coalesce's Revolution in Just Listening and Jesu's self-titled to early Piebald and Converge releases. Few got it at the time, but many yearn for it now. It all came from a label that believed in the music when it hit the ears for the first time.
Then there's Hydra Head's packaging as well. If you own a piece of Hydra Head vinyl, you know it's durable. The sleeves are made from tough stock. The artwork and layouts speak volumes about the record within. It's hard to listen to Pelican's Australasia and not think about that melt of yellow and orange background that floats on the cover. There is detail within the grooves of the record as well as the package which protects it. Before vinyl was this cool new resurgence (that's not a hip jab, I'm stoked so many people are into it!), a lot of labels put a great deal into the physical medium, and Hydra Head is one of those kings that did it for years before vinyl was the "it" thing again.
Along with Dischord, Touch and Go and Kill Rock Stars and the now defunct Level Plane, these labels seem like relics of the past more than contemporary contenders with the likes of many greats today bringing back not only tangible goodness, but a feeling of community among their rosters. Beyond that community, again, there is a sense of style and a mission statement. Whether it's the powerful force behind Sargent House's climbing success or the smaller labels such as Topshelf, No Sleep, and Run For Cover that started in a dorm room and are now moved into actual warehouses. There are still little guys like The Ghost is Clear and Flannel Gurl producing their own small worth of music they believe in. Then there's Third Man and Paper + Plastick, working on physical mediums no other have thought of yet.
To the people who say that the physical medium is dead, I say it's just beginning. To the people who say interesting music doesn't exist anymore, stop being stuck in the past. There is a platform for both to coexist. To people who say that labels can be bypassed, that's up for argument, but there is no concrete small case in my eyes. Though Hydra Head Industries and its subsidiaries are now a moment in time, it is certainly petrified and everlasting. Contemporary labels - and the ones you want to start - should take a look at the core of what Hydra Head turned itself into. If you're signing bands for them to be the "next big thing," then you might as well subsidize out to the majors and take the beaten path. In 2012, you just have to believe in the music you're putting out. Listeners will attach themselves to that. They will attach themselves to the work put into your product. They will spend the money on quality, and they will trade in and sell the bullshit later down the line.
I may have not liked everything Hydra Head put out. I don't like everything my favorite labels now put out, but there's an integrity behind them that keeps me coming back, at the very least, to see what it is they are offering. I know the bigger message here is to support your favorite labels and put money back into them so they can help out the bands you love so dearly. That's a given. Hydra Head, again, didn't boast the easiest roster to understand, but I'm offering advice to the other side in this. Not the consumers. This is a blueprint for the producers. You can put a ton of money into viral campaigns and advertisements. Like certain bands, it's time to stop thinking in the now, and thinking about longevity. Though we're talking about a now defunct label, 15 years and a hell of a resume that will certainly last well beyond this moment of grief. That's a definition of longevity some of us tend to forget: constant refelection after demise.
Thank you Hydra Head. I'd play you that crappy Sarah Mclachlan song, but it never got pressed. Maybe one last thing to look into before you shut your production down for good…
[ed. note: the views expressed in this editorial are my own and do reflect the views of the entire staff of Absolutepunk.net]
A little over a year ago, the staff got together and ran a feature on our favorite labels. It was the end of 2010, and for some of us, it was like it was 2000 again. In the past ten years, labels have changed. It's not uncommon that they do. Dim Mak used to be a premiere post-hardcore label, releasing some of the best around before slowly evolving into a more electronic based outlet. While Vagrant still contains a varied roster, we've since seen the change in masthead and its star performers shift from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to more of an indie-vibe. As a whole, Vagrant still releases top notch music - just to a different demographic, or really, a demographic that has since evolved with them. Then there are two big ones: Victory and Drive-Thru. We all know the former has seen better days from most of us, but the latter has sort of lived in seclusion for the past couple of years. Following a string of what I deem to be not so savvy choices, Drive-Thru just sort of disappeared for the most part for many of us. No longer was I scanning their e-store or stoked to see who they signed next. In fact, I just sort of grew out of it really. Besides the horror stories I hear from the label's alumni - the ones we cherished when the label was at its peak and crowding our CD collections (remember those?). I think the downward spiral to Drive-Thru's eventual curtain was its lack of community and substance towards its end - something they held strong for many of us so many years prior.
2010 became a very exciting time for music again. I think a lot of us that were excited ten years ago about our scene, which we slowly watched evolve into seven circles of hell and mounds of sub-standard product, were finally getting that feeling back. Music aside, I think we were getting excited about labels again. We were getting excited because many of us felt a sense of community growing. I saw that all too well at last year's South By Southwest. I think, for the most part, we began to put our trust back into certain labels to lead us to another promised land, instead of roaming the desert for 5+ years blind and bitter to a lot of what surrounded us. More importantly, labels were now working closer together. They were and are now becoming independent subdivisions of a bigger community - a true independent state. Community is very important. If a label welcomes a band into their home, I - especially as a music fan - want to know that the said label in turn is genuine in their actions of bringing a band on as an equal among the rest of their friends. You can continue to have a strong community of different sounding bands as well. The best labels have done it for years - Epitaph being the biggest one off the top of my head.
This brings me to something that has bothered me this past year. I've talked quite often about the cycle of music and trends. I think the worst thing a label can do is follow any sort of trend or band as a cash cow, whether to fund another band or adjust to the demands of others. I'm not saying that a label doesn't have a right to reinvent themselves and grow-up and still release quality music they believe in. That's one of the main reasons I brought up Vagrant as an example earlier. I just think that any label pumping money into a band for the wrong reasons is not only doing a disservice to music fans, but also to the band as well. What happens when the public's trends shift? Who do you back then? I understand labels need to stay afloat - but at what cost? Integrity may not be the right word, but it's the first word that continues to come to mind.
Still, a community of anything is only as strong as the people that make it up. A label can give you all the support in the world: money for recording, money for touring, distribution on a large enough scale that your music can get out to millions and have a chance of survival like a 1,000+ other bands that "want to make it," and the twenty-five that generally do. A label can only do so much, and on a bastardized scale, it's just a brand, a sticker, a fucking "label" that sits on the back of a CD booklet or vinyl jacket. It's what is in the grooves, what I download or even stream that I even care about in the end. There was a long discussion via e-mail with the staff the other day about how we felt about Kickstarter. Not to get off topic, but my final verdict was that I simply didn't care where the product came from (albeit money laundry and drug trafficking I will not endorse), I just cared that the final project was worth my time.
One of my newer favorite bands signed with a label I've been less than stoked on for the past couple of years. Ironically, a label that probably makes ad money off me every time I show a warehouse shot music video for a cheap laugh to one of my friends. That band asked me how I felt about them signing with said label. I simply told them that I didn't care in the end. I only had a high expectation that they would make another fantastic record; that they shouldn't focus on "who" they're signed with, but more of putting out a quality product to their fans and the general public alike. Majors aside, my industry knowledge tells me that most labels give quite the creative freedom for their artists and generally won't shelve, but will back their investments' product. There I go bastardizing terms again. For see, a label's primary job should be backing their friends, their family, their community for all the right reasons. Labels should believe in their bands not as an investment, but as a fan wanting to show the world this awesome thing they can't stop listening to. Most labels were created by fans wanting to share something special. I'm not saying the majors don't have fans within their walls, but some of us see the difference between a marketing tool and a genuine music connoisseur.
My advice to any band out there is to strive for that signature and be a part of whatever community you always dreamed to be a part of since you decided to get out the garage and into your mom's minivan to show the world you're the next notch in punk rock's growing timeline. As long as you contribute something meaningful within that community, it'll only provoke others around you to one-up you and do better. Ideas will feed off other ideas, and you'll begin to see this creative, unspoken challenge amongst your peers. That's when the most exciting times in music have happened. That's when Brian Wilson went insane. That's when Refused wrote a defining record. That's what is happening presently. If both bands and labels work with the aforementioned ethics, we won't see two to three years of substance and integrity and then a seven year drop off, just to cycle again. We may, just maybe, could see a solid decade of music. Something that hasn't been done for some time.
So, last week Native rolled into town with PJ Bond and that's where the discussions started. As a) an Austin resident and b) someone who has frequented many shows and regular venues of this great city, I'm already getting the South by Southwest buzz. Sorry, I get to be the guy who gets to know, but I will keep my mouth shut to the public about the upcoming day and night showcases I've heard about so far.
Just in the last week, my excitement is beginning to swell, and possibly going to my head. So I sit hear. Just breathe. I keep calm. There has been much discussion amongst my good friends about what South by Southwest will bring to the table this year, but one thing we all agreed upon is the next wave of bands. In 2011, 2001 is on its way to happening again. It's something, if you read anything I write about (read: we get it, you hate most of Rise Records' line-up), I've been standing on a digital soapbox for some time now telling you all that it's been ten years. Like most frequent cycles, especially in that of music, we've come full circle. Hearing about the number of bands coming and not coming to this year's week long event of music, networks and free booze - where we're going, we don't need no stinkin' badges.
There are a lot of showcases I'm excited about for a reason other than the great acts. I'm excited to see how many kids will pile into some of these smaller venues as opposed to the big rooms. I'm curious to see if some of these kids are looking for more substance in the art than is piled across their faces and hair styles. There are certain bands gaining momentum out of house shows and clubs and into larger venues - headline tours are foreseen in the near future. These bands are growing alongside other bands. They're touring together. Most importantly - they're feeding off each other.
Thankfully for an enthusiast as myself, I need something to keep me guessing, to keep me excited. There are numerous times in my field where I've said, "Yeah, that was good," but really meant, "Meh, it wasn't bad, but it didn't strike a match under my senses." Maybe because it either sounded similar, or there was a lack skill or passion holding it back from inspiring a cartoon light bulb above my head. Last year, there were many light bulbs. This year looks poised to create even more. I hear these bands talk about one another. They talk about other bands' skills. They talk about their anticipation of hearing each bands' upcoming albums, and not as colleges and friends sharing a bill, but fans of their respective music. It happened with labels and rosters like Dischord and BYO and Level Plane. Sure, those labels don't have the turnaround they once did, but think about how many bands they ended up influencing. A lot of those labels are these new labels. A lot of those bands are these new bands.
Much like my banter on intellectual property, ideas need to fight and feed off each other to progress. Jazz musicians ripped each other off and made it the point. They were breeding new ideas from tired old ones. Big question: How long will this new generation boil, and how long til it settles into another round of conformity?
For now, things look promising. Today I received the new Former Thieves album, The Language That We Speak, in my inbox. I haven't put it down all day. It has sidetracked me from writing reviews I was working on earlier in the afternoon. It's made me think about the first time I heard something heavy and thought-provoking like Botch or Norma Jean or Fear Before the March of Flames. It's an album that grabs the listener, and in a way, sets a bar among many hardcore bands right now.
La Dispute, Touche Amore and Defeater are up to bat later this year. Match that to new releases from Thursday and Glassjaw, more brewing from the Midwest and Long Island scene (Tidal Arms and Lights Resolve especially), and there are pockets of musicians everywhere feeding off each other. Though there is usually much complaining of your favorite bands hitting it big, I'm so tired of the muck, that I hope Former Thieves' single, whichever they choose, is the top play on Headbanger's Ball - if MTV even still shows that...
After one month, 2011 has proven itself to be a brute force of a year. I'm 24, but I feel like I'm 16 again. I hope all those that are now 16, they finally realize what real punk music is.