Inspired by the resilience of a record and the warm sound of analog, people are still carving their music onto vinyl.
“Records are forever,” says Jesse McSwain, who runs Family Night, an Asheville-based label. “I prefer the sound of records, and the size of records. The artwork is cooler to me, seems more permanent.”
Local enthusiasts aren’t the only ones feeling the love. Even as CD sales plummet, vinyl sales have risen: Nielson Soundscan, which provides information for Billboard, charted 1.88 million vinyl albums sold last year, an 89 percent rise since 2007. Those numbers would likely rise if the count included used records and sales at stores not registered with the company.
Most of the local releases he sells are on vinyl, says Joel Hutcheson, owner of Lexington Avenue’s Static Age Records.
“Many people come in looking for a local artist, or a local label that they have heard about elsewhere,” Hutcheson says. “There are so many people that come in specifically asking about local music. They are not even interested in looking for anything else.”
The last thing you need is a closet-full of records
Asheville has a number of smaller record labels, aiming to preserve and share music that doesn’t necessarily fit in the mainstream—they’re not in it for the money.
“More it’s a labor of love,” McSwain says. His focus with Family Night is to create and maintain a legitimate small-scale label. “It would be great if I could see somebody whose record I put out make some money off their music somehow. The only way it can happen is if it’s out there, so people can hear.”
Asheville has a thriving vinyl community—made up of one-time producers, and those who put out multiple releases and distribute.
Distribution is key. “The last thing you need is a closet-full of records. It happens to so many record labels with so many different releases. And I’m cool with having records for a long time, but it’s not like I want to be 60 and still have 100 records from something I put out last year,” explains JD Collette, who runs the label Humdinger.
Collette also distributes records he gets from other labels and individuals and custom-makes his own boxes for shipping.
Being a label means gaining name recognition, partially from the reputation of the bands. Then the record label speaks for itself, which helps sell records. “Packaging is important in order to be taken seriously, if you only have one release and you want to ‘brand yourself,’ as they call it,” says Hutcheson, who also has a label, Angura Sound. “Generally to be taken seriously, a label needs to have at least five releases to get serious distribution … But, I’ll give anybody a chance, especially if they’re selling them on consignment.”
Kakistocracy, Tony Wain and the Payne, and beyond
For many, starting a small label is initially a way to put out their own personal music projects. Small labels also look for a band with a willingness to tour—that gets records out to different areas and selling the records on tour helps the band pay for gas, maybe even food.
Both Collette and McSwain say they take a band’s willingness to travel for out of town shows into consideration when deciding if they want to put out a recording, because so many people are exposed to music via a live show, that is just makes sense.
There are exceptions, though, for acts that are studio-bound. Both Humdinger and Family Night release the efforts of north-Georgia-wildman singersongwriter Peter Stubb, who makes few trips out of town but has developed a national following through the tapes he puts out, which are written and recorded mostly in his room.
These labels are getting attention here and abroad. “[Humdinger] has definitely gotten some international attention. I’ve sold and done trades to three other continents so far,” Collette says, citing Asia, Europe and Australia. He credits part of the European interest to the band Kakistocracy touring Europe for more than two months in 2006.
Kakistocracy has been around since ‘97 and is an example of a band that tours extensively. Collette put out their recent 7-inches because they hadn’t released since ‘04. “That band evolved a lot, but the releases were so sporadic,” he says.
As far as what style music gets released on these labels, “It’s all going to be weird stuff I guess. I don’t really want to be pigeonholed … I always want it to be different. My musical tastes are pretty wide-ranging, so the label should reflect that,” says McSwain.
Those running the label release music that interests them, and especially with these aforementioned local labels, that can reflect a broad spectrum of sound. For example, Family Night has music varying from honky-tonk party country (Tony Wain and the Payne) to the metal-punk-orchestrated freak-out of Electric Damn.
Put it all together
Putting out a small release (500 to 1,000 copies) is a DIY effort. Bands usually put money toward the record and help make the covers. Enter Asheville’s Hand-Cranked Letterpress.
“Usually with musicians, they’re pretty creative people,” says Lance Wille, who co-owns the letterpress. “I’ll try and talk them into doing some of the work, doing a linoleum cut, or possibly even printing it, coming up with their own paper, anything we can figure out, because I really want to encourage bands to do it.” (In addition to printing, Wille also plays drums with garage rockers The Reigning Sound and country roots locals Cary Fridley and Down South.)
Wille, a life-long vinyl-lover, explains that because of their disposability and impermanence, “CDs I kind of go out of my way to avoid, even though I love music. As far as the printing, there’s something in it for me with vinyl; as far as the reward, I get another single for my collection.”
Let’s get digital
Still, not everyone’s moving toward vinyl. Electronic music, a genre with wax roots, in some ways is moving away from analog and going digital. Now turntables can run off computers, and producers can add a crackling effect to a track to similar analog.
Back in the day, electronic music, (composed mostly of drum and bass and house DJs), was released on vinyl only, said Andy Askew, one of the five co-operators of Skew Records. “That was it … They had vinyl and they were going to release that album on vinyl so it could be spun at a party or at the club.”
Skew Records has no plans to release on vinyl. “Even the DJs are playing off of the computer basically, they may have two turntables up there, but the turntables aren’t playing the actual records most of the time,” Skew says. Sales of turntables with USB cables are on the rise; so is rewiring older players to include the technology, says an October 2007 article in WIRED.
“The people who are buying vinyl these days just really have to be into vinyl,” Askew says. “Because everybody’s got an iPod, everybody’s got a computer … As opposed to you put a record on, it plays one side, and you turn it over and it plays the other side, it’s very ancient compared to current times.”
Still, lots of people crave that warm analog sound. Mike McBride of Skew says he still has a stack of vinyl for sampling. And for creating digitally, “There are plug-ins that will give [a track] more of tube or warm sound, along with the crackle,” McBride says.
Many vinyl enthusiasts think it’s impossible to completely translate an analog recording. Even more sound is lost in CD quality through compression. As Wille explains, “I think that they underestimate the subtlety of human hearing.”
For more information on Humdinger records visit their website www.humdingerrecords.com
[Liz Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]