Musicians spearheading record labels is a story nearly as old as the industry itself: Johnny Mercer penned songs like “Jeepers Creepers” and “Autumn Leaves” before and after founding Capitol Records in 1942. Tijuana Brass leader Herb Alpert is the A of A&M Records. Ian MacKaye not only boasts Minor Threat and Fugazi membership, he also co-founded in 1980 perhaps the world’s most successful punk label, Dischord Records.
Ostensibly, musicians love music and their friends who make it, so it’s a logical extension for them to sometimes make releasing it their life’s work, especially if their own careers emptying spit valves or spitting polemics seem permanently peaked or perpetually promising.
But now more than ever, popular musicians seem able to foster their own labels, injecting an air of freshness into a business that seems stifled by its own models (hustle-and-bustle A&R, quick turnaround on riches, disposable artistry) and threatened by the new ones (namely, the Internet and rise of the indies). The mainstream record industry is funny these days, a predictable beast whose self-proclaimed hot new trends are signed as the waves they rode in on are collapsing. Atlantic Records signed Death Cab for Cutie years too late, and every bad dance-punk band became a potential bidding point post Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.”
“I’m certainly not going to do the typical A&R stuff like trowel the clubs of South By Southwest [the annual music and film festival in Austin, Texas] or something for new bands,” says Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore.
Moore has run the Ecstatic Peace label since 1981, the same year he started Sonic Youth, which plays Missoula Thursday, June 29. Ecstatic Peace has seldom been more than a one-man operation, a self-proclaimed vanity label of esoteric, experimental music, stocks of which consistently overwhelmed his basement and closets. Its first releases were a spoken-word cassette by Lydia Lunch and Michael Gira and a live noise collage by Sonic Youth, then known as Sonic Death. Since then, the label has existed, according to promotional material, “in wicked spurts whipping out vinyl, ferrous oxide tape and nefarious passing-phase digital media by a wild list of living music men and wimmen.”
“So much music comes through here, and I hear so much, and some of it I really like. But it has so much more commercial potential than I’ve ever been able to give it,” says Moore, who, in 2002, presented his dream of an expanded label to Andrew Kesin, a friend intrigued with web design and business planning. “I’d love to present some of it in a way so that it’s competitive in the marketplace.”
With Sonic Youth manager John Silva and Universal Records general manager Andrew Kronfeld, Kesin and Moore developed a plan to do exactly that and retain near-complete label autonomy from corporate oversight. Moore plans to continue releasing challenging, subterranean music by bands like New York noise extremists Mouthus or Missoula improvisational rockers Poor School (see below) through the same small, independent distributors that have handled Ecstatic Peace for two decades. More accessible releases will be handled through Fontana Distribution, a Universal subsidiary.
The real victory for Ecstatic Peace, though, is its deal to release records Moore believes have broad commercial appeal through Universal’s main distribution wing. Ecstatic Peace and Universal will split the cost of promotional onslaughts, and Moore says there’s no set quota of releases for any given year.
Nashville-based Be Your Own Pet, which Moore calls “arty and trashy with a distinct garage energy,” is the arrangement’s trial run. The band had been at the center of a major label tug-of-war for months; Moore had been a fan since ordering the band’s single off of its website. He originally considered releasing a BYOP 7-inch until he heard the band had prior commitments with Britain’s Rough Trade Records and XL Recordings.
“I’m not interested in putting out a record by people that have something like that going on already,” Moore says. “I’m interested in putting out a band’s record if they don’t have anything like that.”
By the time Moore sat down with Universal to discuss Ecstatic Peace’s first major-label outing, competitors had quit pursuing BYOP. When Moore found out the band was still available, he rekindled the relationship and coaxed the deal.
“I told them, ‘If you guys want to do it, I think doing it with us is a good idea. We’re the only label that sort of knows you in any kind of real way,’” Moore says. BYOP’s eponymous album was released June 6.
Moore insists that Ecstatic Peace is an outcropping of the idea that the mainstream cannot make it without the underground. With his label’s competitive new setup, he’s ensured the underground will remain well represented.
Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth play the University Theatre in support of their new release, Rather Ripped, on Thursday, June 29, at 8 PM. Awesome Color opens. $25.
Poor School gets extra cred with Ecstatic Peace release
by Skylar Browning
John Niekrasz saved the voice-mail message for well over a month, just so he could go back and listen to it to confirm the news was really true. The message was from Niekrasz’s Poor School bandmate Bryan Ramirez, a gregarious but generally chill cat who was screaming, Niekrasz remembers, “like a 10-year-old boy.” The news: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore wanted to release an album by Poor School on his Ecstatic Peace label.
“I didn’t understand what it meant at first,” says Niekrasz, drummer for the local experimental noise trio. “But now, I think it’s a door…I mean, you have to look at it this way: we’re a band that’s never even played outside of this town, and now we’re having something released by Ecstatic Peace. That’s pretty strange. It’s a door to, who knows, maybe to something bigger.”
Poor School’s relationship with Moore’s label is a good example of how Ecstatic Peace operates. In March, Ramirez traveled to No Fun Fest, an annual three-day noise extravaganza held in Brooklyn (see “Bringing the Noise,” March 2, 2006). He was there to perform with another local band currently on hiatus, Ex-Cocaine, and to distribute the fruits of his own DIY label, Killertree Records, including three Poor School CD-Rs. Ramirez put a few bundles aside to hand to some of the better-connected attendees, such as Moore, who was already familiar with Killertree after having purchased an Ex-Cocaine record online. Two weeks after No Fun Fest, Moore e-mailed Ramirez about Poor School and his particular interest in one of the CD-Rs, The Holy Master, a three-track, 40-minute improvisational session recorded in Niekrasz’s basement.
“It’s all very informal,” says Ramirez. “No handshakes, no contracts, no nothing. All I did was send him a [digitally remastered] copy of it and provided artwork [for the cover]. It was all handled over a couple e-mails.”
The Holy Master is loosely scheduled for release on Ecstatic Peace in the fall. The album features Ramirez on guitar, Niekrasz on drums and Nathan Hoyme on saxophone.
“I don’t know how to put it into terms,” says Ramirez. “Pardon the pun, but I was ecstatic. I was blown away. It’s one of those nice surprises, you know? Ecstatic Peace has its fingers in so many pies that it’s just going to widen our exposure and get our stuff out there. Maybe small-time labels will notice us, maybe [we’ll be included on] compilations. Just being on Ecstatic Peace, there are people who buy just about everything off of that label. They know, or they can trust, someone like Thurston’s taste.”