Faster Than Sound: Austin Imprint Keeled Scales Partners With Polyvinyl Records
New joint office expands the local label landscape
Over the past year, Keeled Scales label owner Tony Presley trekked to the post office almost daily to fill the growing Austin imprint's webstore orders. When he began chatting with prominent independent outlet Polyvinyl Records, co-founder Matt Lunsford inquired, "If we took shipping off your plate, how many hours would that free up weekly?" Presley guessed around 15.
In a new partnership, Polyvinyl handles customer orders for the 7-year-old endeavor, with Presley maintaining creative control.
"Fulfillment is the big piece," he says. "We also have a weekly strategy call. It's all advice I can take or leave, but I really value their 25 years of experience. They're a staff of around 25 people, whereas here it's just me, making it up as I go along."
Polyvinyl will eventually take over tasks including accounting and artist royalty payments, allowing Presley to do what he does best: find new ears and opportunities for his bespoke roster of artists across the folk, pop, and indie rock spectrum. Polyvinyl purchased a 25% stake in Keeled Scales, joining Presley and KS staffer Bri Aab in shared ownership. In 2018, similar Polyvinyl investment helped grow Brooklyn label Double Double Whammy.
The deal follows an unexpectedly big pandemic year for Presley and Aab. Profits doubled last year, fueled by physical sales and Bandcamp's revenue-sharing Fridays. Keeled Scales kicked off 2021 with five LP releases, including Texan catalogue leads Buck Meek, guitarist of Big Thief, wistful Austin pop group Sun June, and eclectic Spicewood-raised artist Katy Kirby.
The new partnership also yields a small joint office, nestled in a far East Austin business park. Polyvinyl Art Director Janelle Abad and Project Manager Natalie Dávila, both former Texans, relocated from the label headquarters in Champaign, Ill. Polyvinyl also counts hubs in San Francisco and New York.
"With the intention of partnering with local folks, Tony and I started kicking ideas around," says Dávila from her new desk. "The Austin office is a big part of Polyvinyl's growth, with a 'rising tide raises all boats' perspective. Another big part is that Janelle and I are both on the A&R team, and obviously Austin's a much bigger touring market than Champaign."
Polyvinyl already struck one local connection in signing Alexalone, rock project of Alex Peterson (Hovvdy, Lomelda) – also announced late last month. Abad explains: "Both big news [items] fit that week, so we were like, 'Let's just make it Texas as hell.' That's part of what we hope to do: mesh the conversations between industry and local music."
Austin Chronicle: How did you decide on this partnership?
Tony Presley: [The label] would eventually get to where we want to be on our own, but maybe that takes 10 years. With help from Polyvinyl, we can get there much sooner. I want to be able to scale up alongside our artists. At a certain point, small labels are doing the A&R work for bigger indie and major labels, and I don't want our artists to move on because we can't keep up with them. The Sun June [release of Somewhere in collaboration with Run for Cover Records] was a wakeup call, and that was a best case scenario.
AC: How has your venture – often called a folk label early on – evolved?
TP: I'm very conscious that we shouldn't be pigeonholed as folk. I don't want indie rock bands to be like, "Why would we work with you?" If everyone sounded like Buck Meek or Will Johnson, from a commercial standpoint, we would be competing with ourselves. Having a diverse roster of folks, who are like-minded in their philosophy and how they go about their artwork and carry themselves, is more important than sounding similar. The goal for anyone who starts a label is to build up enough trust with a listener that they're going to take a chance on something.
AC: How did Austin impact Keeled Scales' musical philosophy?
TP: It's hard to find your community within the Austin scene because it's so massive, with little bubbles. When Punctum Records was still active at the Studium space, they were doing what [KS] wanted to be doing – putting very authentic songwriters together like Julia Lucille, RF Shannon, and Jess Williamson.
These consistent spaces that popped up, like [Dripping Springs' annual] Chill Phases, Tyler Andere with Father/Daughter Records and Portals, and Neil Lord with Future Museums, all feel really connected to the [KS] community. The through line is people who are really sincere and passionate, but approachable. There's not this ego. People are going to roll up their sleeves and play a show with anyone whose music they like. The music business hasn't stood in the way of collaborating.
AC: Do you see untapped potential for labels here in Austin?
TP: I do. It's frustrating that any time an Austin band gets really big, they sign with a label outside of Texas. What does it mean that the city brands itself as the Live Music Capital? We have 200 bars that pay bands to play, but there's no infrastructure. For an artist to have a successful career, live music is one of a few healthy revenue channels, like physical sales, digital revenue, sync, and publishing.
It's heartbreaking to see amazing Austin bands never tour, or record an amazing album and just put it on Bandcamp. Having great music is one piece of the puzzle. A huge part is having people on your side to help spread the word. I would love to see more labels and industry grow here.
AC: Your advice to a new label?
TP: Really plan each release, get as micro as possible, and talk to artists before you sign them, to make sure your goals are aligned. It's not a cookie cutter situation. You're probably not going to make any money in the first five years, and if you are, you should probably be passing it on to the artists anyway. But if you can keep plugging away, there's a longer road ahead of you.
Austin Center for Events loosened rules for special events, like festivals. Organizers applying for permits won't have to require proof of vaccination and "can anticipate changes to the social distancing and masking requirements." Development Services Director Denise Lucas called the revision "a signal that we are able to return to normal. We are ready for events to come back safely so we can all support our local event organizers, vendors, artists and musicians."
Hotel Vegas brings live music back tonight. Lord Friday the 13th kicks off free patio shows, Thursdays through June. Ticketed gigs begin June 12 with Dregs, Pleasure Venom, and A Giant Dog, whose lead singer Sabrina Ellis posted: "When I think of what a real live show should feel like, I think of sweaty summer nights on the Vegas patio."