The reality of running an independent music label typically does not coincide with the financial stability afforded a normal small business. It's a labor of love that doesn't compute well with the Internal Revenue Service. Just ask Brian Sampson, sole owner and operator of Western Vinyl Records, who was audited April 2006.
"I've been claiming some pretty negative losses these past few years," claims Sampson. "They didn't understand how I could possibly be surviving. It was a draining process. I was going to give them CDs, but they didn't want them."
The sad irony is that in that same time frame, Western Vinyl has blossomed into one of the best and most consistently impressive ambient labels in the world, a metropolis of architectural sound structures waiting to be discovered. In the past year alone, the label released Slow Six's Private Times in Public Places, a brooding and beautiful three-part suite of classical minimalism; Julie Sokolow's intensely intimate Something About Violins; and Shuta Hasunuma's OK Bamboo, which plants peaceful piano structures atop a backdrop of sampled and scrambled field recordings and electronic pulses. Whereas most Austin indies focus on local acts, Western Vinyl traffics in music most often outside these city limits.
Then there's Western Vinyl's ingenious Portrait Series, in which an artist writes music to accompany, or from the perspective of, a selected image, an idea Sampson first proposed to entice revered folkie Will Oldham. More recent entries include Goldmund's Two Point Discrimination, a personal disquisition expressed through 11 sparse piano pieces, and Robert Lippok's hypnotic portrayal of digital dystopia, Robot.
"It might have been advantageous to change the name of the label at some point," Sampson posits. "I've grown away from the type of music Western Vinyl originally released."
Sampson formed the imprint in 1998 with Ryan Murphy to release their lo-fi indie rock projects as Win Foster and Havergal, respectively. Albums by Songs: Ohia, Knife in the Water, Windsor for the Derby, Early Day Miners, Tren Brothers, and Dirty Projectors followed soon after, while Murphy slowly withdrew to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Like labelmate James Angelos, who transitioned from Smog-type songwriter Burd Early to Et Ret, layering and looping violins and guitars, Sampson has recently undergone a musical metamorphosis. His ethereal, acoustic-based instrumentals, released as Bexar Bexar, are regularly featured on both the Showtime and National Public Radio version of Ira Glass' series, This American Life; have been featured on numerous soundtracks; and are distributed in the UK by Own Records.
"I don't think of myself as a musician," admits Sampson. "I'm exploring textures and tones instead of melodies, trying to find moments that work while avoiding anything overly sentimental. The hardest part of what I do is finding time to record. I have to be in a completely different mindset, and it's hard sometimes to wind down and switch gears."
Sampson is currently working on a new Bexar Bexar album and plans to release Rivers Arm by local instrumental outfit Balmorhea along with a portrait from Japanese experimental musician Tetuzi Akiyama early next year.
"The only real goal for the future is to continue to grow organically," Sampson concludes, "and hopefully in the process, the label will become self-sufficient financially."
Kingpin: Brian Sampson
Number of releases: 47
Notable releases: Bonnie "Blue" Billy, Little Boy Blue; Dirty Projectors, The Getty Address; Bexar Bexar, Tropism
New & upcoming: Shuta Hasunuma, OK Bamboo; Slow Six, Private Times in Public Places; Goldmund, Two Point Discrimination; Madagascar, Goodbye East, Goodbye West
Average print run: 3,000
Distribution: Secretly Canadian