Maintaining the World's Most Expensive Record Collections

Austin's Small Label Scene

by Tim Stegall

From the moment Sam Phillips determined that what his bank account could stand would be the discovery of a Caucasian capable of the musical fire of an Afri- can-American, the small, independent record company has been the backbone of rock & roll. Sure, majors had more resources and could more efficiently disseminate the teenage news (as Phillips discovered when he couldn't keep stores stocked with Jerry Lee's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"), but what they couldn't provide was a nurturing environment in which an artist could grow and develop a version of that news. And no matter how picked-over indie label rosters become in the majors' vulture-like feeding frenzies, the indie remains rock's spine.

As a music community, Austin's housed its share of small labels. During the Eighties, Rabid Cat gained a reputation for sharing thrash demons the Offenders as well as the angular arthouse aggression of Scratch Acid with the punk universe. Meanwhile, Jungle issued some fine, off-center roots howlings from the likes of Evan Johns & the H-Bombs, amongst others.

There was a label drought in Austin as the Eighties dissolved into the Nineties. King Coffey's decision to parlay some of his Butthole Surfers money into giving art-grind bands like Crust and Ed Hall a home via his Trance Syndicate label seemed to catalyze a number of similar-minded decisions amongst some enterprising souls with a love of music and some surplus cash. The stories of thriving local indies like Rise or Unclean hardly need reiterating (see accompanying story for update). But what about even smaller labels?

For instance, Bob Coleman's Over and Out is almost as old as Trance, and has released a handful of interesting records, including stuff by ST-37 and what is possibly the last great record the Pocket FishRmen made, the "I Don't Wanna Be Crazy" 7-inch. Turkey Baster Records and Little Deputy Records are responsible for a clutch of fine punk releases, including (in the latter's case) Gomez's great, Danzig-baiting debut LP. Existential Vacuum has been filling a number of long-unnecessary gaps in Texas pogo punk collections, seeking out, finding, and making available archival material from the Hugh Beaumont Experience, the Nervebreakers, and the Huns. Local poster artist Lindsay Kuhn's been rechanneling some of his profits into his No Lie operation, with flagship releases including the latest Fuck Emos LP plus the upcoming second LP from Jesus Christ Superfly. Jeff Smith's Only Boy Records straddles the same punk and roots-trash fences as his bands (The Hickoids, Wounded Turkey), offering his own Gay Sportscasters, an Evan Johns live album, Big Drag's debut CD, and Smith's cockeyed small-town rocktrash tribute to David Bowie, the Only Bowie compilation.

So, what possesses someone to start a record company? It varies from case to case. Usually, a friend of a band sees his pals struggling unsuccessfully to scratch the itch to make a record, and finds himself volunteering to issue the slab himself. Undone's Christian Caperton was a Sound Exchange employee caught up in the excitement of co-workers Craig Koon and Roger Morgan launching their respective Rise and Unclean imprints, and inaugurated Undone with johnboy's initial 45, "Calyx." The Continental Club's Steve Wertheimer used the Naughty Ones as an excuse to initiate Continental Records. Jeff Cole and his Doolittle Records are the exception to this template: although his label would eventually make available the first Prescott Curlywolf album as well as Hamell on Trial's excellent debut CD, he began the label as an excuse to exercise production and engineering skills for which he could not find a demand.

"Nobody knew the bands I'd worked with or played in back in Boston," says the cropped, bespectacled New Mexico native Cole of his early days in Austin, which came right after his getting a degree in Music Production and Engineering at Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1989. "At that point, I just wanted to be an engineer, basically. I came down and tried to do demos for bands, and they didn't really have the money or the time to do it right. If they're putting up the money, it's hard for me to look at 'em and say, `Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Do it my way.' So, I just decided to start the label on a whim. I put an ad in the Chronicle in '91 that just said, `Bands, singer-songwriters worth recording, let me hear you.'" Meredith Louise Miller was among the respondents, leading to her debut CD, Bob, also Doolittle's first release.

Usually, much like Sam Phillips and Sun, small labels are reflective of their owner and his tastes. Jeff Cole jokes that Doolittle is his "record collection, the most expensive one in the world." This hasn't resulted in a cohesive Doolittle aesthetic as with the other labels here - not much shared ground between Miller or Ed Hamell or recent signing Slobberbone and their Denton-based rural version off the Replacements, is there? Wertheimer sees Continental Records as an extension of the club, to the point of the label's installing an ADAT recording set-up at the Continental Club for an upcoming series of quarterly live compilations showcasing its favored genres (i.e., rockabilly, lounge, country, etc.). Undone's noteworthy for the arthouse clang of Glorium, Swine King's disturbo punkisms, and Jack O'Fire's skewed garage muscle-flexing, acts cohesive only in their non-standard nature even for their chosen styles.

"I'm finding out," muses Undone's Caperton, "that you can't put out purely what your taste is, especially when your tastes are as eclectic as mine. You'd probably lose money. I'm finding out that the garage rock-rooted music will sell a little bit better than the other stuff, mainly because the people who buy it are more inclined to go out and get their hands dirty in looking for releases and writing mail-order places or whatever." Which means there'll surely be a rush on record stores the moment the next Undone release - a 10-inch with ex-Jack O'Fire harmonica abuser Walter Daniels collaborating with Memphis junk rockers the Oblivians and Jeff Evans (of '68 Comback/Gibson Brothers fame) - is unleashed.

Finances are always precarious in the world of small labels. Jeff Cole was waiting tables on weekends to fund Doolittle before finding some investors. Wertheimer has a partner in Continental Records named Jack Hazzard, and has kept the label a separate financial entity from the Continental Club. Caperton was socking much of his Sound Exchange paycheck initially into Undone before Jack O'Fire's strong sales helped make the label somewhat self-sufficient. This means there's not much in the way of amenities: Promotion is minimal, and things like tour support are practically non-existent. Which is why low overhead is a necessity.

"We did give the Naughty Ones some tour support," says Wertheimer. "But basically, Continental is me and Jack and an assistant who runs the office. We can't afford hiring someone to work radio or the press or anything." This is the main reason for the decision to keep Continental's roster (basically, the Naughty Ones and 8 1/2 Souvenirs) small, to concentrate on those two artists and the compilation series, knowing the club and its reputation will sell records as much as anything.

Cole, however, keeps Doolittle small precisely so that some of those amenities can be provided. He talks of one music biz pro chastising him, insisting he needed to sign 10 bands, throw them against the wall, and see which ones stick. He'd rather allow a small roster breathing room, and have money available for tour support and the like. "It's like a dad situation," he smiles. "`You need money? Here.' That was one of the cool things about Slobberbone. They weren't so much concerned about the royalty rate. They wanted to know, `What can you do to get us on the road?' Great. They're willing to work."

While both Wertheimer and Cole feel whatever mystique Austin holds has been a selling point with their labels, Caperton thinks Undone's locale can be as much a hindrance as a help, simply because of the distance from distributors. "There's many cases where labels have to show up at distributors' offices after the 60- or 90-day terms have passed and they don't get paid. They want to know where the money is, and they end up walking away with armloads of product as compensation. It's just not as easy to sit on the distributors when you work out of Austin."

Caperton, for one, plans a relocation once he finishes his computer science degree at UT. Although he once considered Undone a local label, as Caperton puts it, "Undone goes wherever I go." Already, with Walter Daniels working with Memphis-based collaborators, he's seeing Undone's Austin identity blurring. Jeff Cole is comfortable remaining in Austin, but he does have a vision for Doolittle that extends beyond the city limits. ("I'm already looking at acts in Chicago and other towns, and Slobberbone's from Denton.") Wertheimer feels Continental's reliance on the club's talent will keep the label a local one, "even though touring acts do come through." However, Continental Records very nearly worked with non-locals Useless Playboys before their recent demise, and some Useless Playboys material is in the can, ready to be issued posthumously. But as Wertheimer jokes, "Hard as it is to sell a band that doesn't tour, how do you sell a band that doesn't exist?!"

And so it goes. Before there were small labels, there were small labels. And somewhere before that, there were probably small labels. And if this clutch of small labels passes on, whether through death or relocation, other small labels will likely open in their stead. As long as rock & roll bands form and rock & roll songs are written and sung, there'll be a need to record 'em, and a need for a means to get 'em recorded and distributed. As long as those needs exist, small labels will exist to fill those needs. Amen. n

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