by Veronika Kalmar
St. Martin’s Griffin
So I figure, I’ll quit my day job and start an indie label, releasing the material of my many friends who are musicians struggling to disseminate their music to a larger audience. Sounds noble, and perhaps simple, right? Well, according to Veronika Kalmar’s comprehensive and edifying (read: reality checking) Label Launch: A Guide to Independent Record Recording, Promotion and Distribution (St. Martin’s Griffin) it requires a bit more than good intentions. It is a sobering, yet insightful, treatise attesting that the notion of DIY is pretty damn convoluted. And, it certainly ain’t as glamorous as it seems. As Vanessa Veselka, owner of Yeah It Rocks records, puts it: “I come at it with the idea that I’m going to lose every cent. An average release for me is $5,000. The question I ask is, ‘Do I like this band or like the record enough to lose $5,000 that I have to earn waiting tables?'”
Yet, this book is by no means intended to stifle what Kalmar perceives as “not a career, [but] a calling.” She writes to “help new label owners and owners of growing indies avoid common traps and to educate all individuals involved in indie music on the various aspects of the biz.” As potential owners of indie labels, we have an almost divine calling to challenge the schlock being promulgated by the mainstream. Commercial exploitation has long been music’s nemesis, sucking the creative viability of the form in the name of capitalism and jettisoning the deflated product as soon as it no longer promises a high yielding return. In the eyes of the industry, music is an investment which will hopefully pay back tenfold: Sign on the dotted-line and you immediately become a product. Underground subcultures have long been susceptible to this perverse ritual. It happened with punk in the late 1970s, with Nirvana and grunge in the early-1990s, with Green Day a few years later. The list can go on for pages. Point is, indie music is an affront to such avariciousness and lack of creativity implied by the notion of capitalism. We have an obligation to keep music fresh, and give voice to those who tend to be ignored. Label Launch offers a fine blueprint — nay, a battle plan: “Indie labels exist to expose music that might not otherwise be heard, and there is no shame in losing a few smackers to further that cause.” Amen, sister.
Kalmar begins with a cursory history of the indie label. While Johnny Rotten once implied that had it not been for The Sex Pistols, the indie label may have never seen the light of day, she posits that the roots are quite a bit deeper; about thirty years deeper, to be exact. Early indies mentioned include the obvious: Sun, Atlantic, Motown, Chess, Rough Trade, Stiff, Epitaph, Alternative Tentacles and Sub Pop (a subsequent chapter is dedicated to these guys). While this chapter is not meant to be a comprehensive history, there are a few egregious omissions. Missing are Dischord, perhaps the most tenacious indie label of the past two decades, and Simple Machines, whose owner Jenny Toomey published a how-to manual for putting out your own record (Mechanic’s Guide) several years back. Yet, Kalmar’s point is merely to trace a more involved lineage of which most are unaware, re-presenting the image of the indie label owner as something more than a thick plastic framed glasses and tight T-shirt wearing geek.
What ensues is an erudite (the author has conferred with numerous experts in music, law and accounting fields) presentation of the most nuanced grit involved in operating a successful indie. Beginning with the turbid intricacies of small business and music law, and moving onto issues of recording, distributing and promoting your end product, Kalmar trudges through every last onerous detail with confidence and clarity. Along the way, she pauses to elaborate on the more vexatious topics such as copyright law, artist and repertoire, labor law and touring. Throughout, Kalmar is aware the reader is not likely to have an extensive background in business or law, and thus writes accordingly. It is this book’s appeal to the sensibilities of neophyte record execs that allows for it to be so edifying. As Kalmar thins the “opaque haze” that enshrouds the indie industry, she introduces practical applications of her knowledge, such as an exhaustive “Sample Business Plan for a Start-up Indie.” In addition, a comprehensive appendix provides an index of pertinent small business organizations, government agencies, publications (ink19.com included), radio stations, licensing agencies, and the like. It is all well researched and up to date.
Starting an indie is hard work, but it is not impossible. While it requires more than a sense for good music, the lack of a degree in business administration does not preclude success in such an endeavor. Label Launch offers a judicious perspective that is simultaneously encouraging and cautionary. By no means is Kalmar’s book authoritative, as the author herself seems uncomfortable with such responsibility. Instead, it is a springboard of sorts, that shares one person’s experience in the indie world, and offers numerous resources from which to build. Label Launch is an essential read for anyone considering starting an indie and quietly challenging the decaying structure of capitalism.