Indie record labels are Memphis' musical DNA.
Memphis’ musical history is an essential part of our civic identity. From a business standpoint, that musical heritage is the product of independent record labels. Sun, Stax, Hi, Shangri-La, and Goner are or were independent record labels, which means that they do not own their distribution operations.
Following World War II, there were shortages of vinyl, and the major record labels — Decca, Columbia, and RCA — abandoned niche formats like country and the “race” market, yet another record industry euphemism for African-American consumers. This left a void in a large market. People gotta dance, so independent labels such as Atlantic, Specialty, Chess, and Sun began to spring up. These labels developed artists in a more personal way that fostered idiosyncratic sounds and regional styles.
“It’s almost like there was a seven-year cycle. Little labels would pop up and then the majors would gobble up all the independents and everything would be back in the hands of the majors,” says Jud Phillips, managing partner of PhillipsMemphis. His father was Sun master promoter Jud Phillips, Sam Phillips’ brother, who died in 1992. The younger Phillips continues to manage copyright catalogs for licensing in film and television.
During different eras in Memphis, Sun, Stax, and Hi changed the soundscape of American culture, challenging the racist norms of society with grooves so infectious you had to be a hard-boiled hater not to get over yourself and dance.
But much has changed. The major labels’ strategic fumble in the face of digital file sharing and online services like iTunes has severely reduced their importance today. Memphians continue making music on the independent model. To quote present-day impresario Greg Roberson:
“We decided to do it like everyone else in Memphis has done it, in the wildcat, renegade, freak way.” More on that guy later.
Wrestling With the Big Boys
There was a period when the indie label had a troublesome but co-dependent relationship with the majors. The majors controlled the retail space and distribution, effectively determining what music got sold. For example, you can point to Atlantic’s (itself a very large independent) pulling out of Stax in the early 1970s as ushering in the label’s financial demise.
One Memphian who wrestled with the difficulties of running an indie label under the shadow of a major is Sherman Willmott, now the curator of Memphis’ other cultural gift to the world, wrestling. While Willmott’s ring-themed film Memphis Heat and book Sputnik, Masked Men, & Midgets: The Early Days of Memphis Wrestling take up his time these days, Willmott founded Shangri-La Records in the late 1980s. He found success with the Grifters, a local band whose rambling, electrified inebriation seduced labels of all sizes. After holding out for longer than most, the Grifters signed to Sub Pop (a division of Warner) in the mid 1990s.
“It was a good deal for the band,” Willmott says. “It allowed them to keep working and make two more records.” But the deal was tough on Shangri-La as a label. In the days before the iTunes store, Spotify, and the general ubiquity of music, a label’s output had to compete for shelf space in major retail stores like Tower Records.
“We had three [Grifters] records out. They had their own ‘Grifters’ cards in the racks at Tower in New York and Chicago.” Securing that space involved years of hard work, but when the Grifters signed to a major, Willmott found himself competing against his own act for rack space.
“The stores can only handle so many copies. So if you bought one of our records at a larger store, our record got replaced with a Sub Pop release. So people weren’t buying our records. We took a big hit. It’s the same as with anything in a grocery store, salsa or whatever. You can be as slim, nimble, and independent as possible. But when it’s man-to-man or major-to-independent, with all that marketing muscle, the independent always loses.”
Sub Pop, like many majors encountering the Faberge-egg-like sensibilities of great bands, made a series of bad decisions and did not renew the band’s contract. However, the band’s increased profile meant that more unsigned musicians were hearing about Shangri-La. This led to later Shangri-la releases like the Strapping Field Hands. Willmott continues to release albums under Shangri-La Projects, including local super group Antenna Shoes. But his calling is wrestling and we are all thankful for this new success.
Scaling the mountain
Another intrepid Memphis independent label is Goner. Founded by Eric Friedl in the early 1990s, the imprint has become a touchstone for the garage-derived modern punk sensibility. Wedded to a specialty record store in 2004, Goner’s label is a taste arbiter on the national scene and hosts a yearly music festival.
“We started bedroom style,” Friedl says, recalling his early days courting obscure bands such as Japan’s Guitar Wolf. It wasn’t always easy and still isn’t.
“We have sold very few copies of some releases,” he admits.
The main difference between Goner’s experience and that of Shangri-La and the Grifters is scale. The majors operate on a mass market with budgets for recording, marketing, and tour support.
“Sub Pop was so much bigger. There was so much more potential. It’s an act selling 5,000 copies versus 20,000,” Friedl says, comparing sales figures for a small-label group with a major label’s sales expectations for a new artist. Goner operates on a niche basis, with vinyl records accounting for 50 percent of sales.
“If the band is on the road and has a core audience, we can sell 1,000,” Friedl says. “If they stick to it, it can go up from there.” Surviving on the smaller scale requires discipline and integration.
“You have to budget accordingly,” Friedl says. Goner combines its own niche-oriented retail store with the label in a synergistic brand partnership.
“They help each other out,” he says. “At the store, you sell a percentage of it straight through.”
Independents work closely with artists in their developmental stages. Goner’s biggest selling artist, Ty Segall, is an example.
“He’s kinda snowballing right now,” Friedl says.
Goner released three of Segall’s previous recordings, and his music started to gain attention. Segall’s latest release is on Drag City, a larger independent. Like Willmott with Shangri-La, Goner has used an artist’s subsequent success to its advantage. Ex-Cult’s self-titled seven-inch vinyl EP is Goner’s latest release. Ex-Cult is on tour with Ty Segall and is gaining traction in college radio.
As hard as independents work, the majors still have monstrous clout.
Rich Bengloff is president of the American Association of Independent Music, an industry group representing independent labels. He sees the cycle favoring the indies’ tendencies to specialize in niche and genre.
“Parity treatment in terms of promotional opportunities (which you can get if you work it) from services remains a problem,” Bengloff writes in an email exchange. “Radio access is still a huge problem. Offsetting this is, where before a blues show was maybe only accessible on late Sunday nights, now — via Pandora, Sirius, etc. — a brand like Alligator Records can get play whenever a consumer wants. Compensation-wise we also still fight for service parity, but that is improving.”
“The majors still have a role,” Phillips adds. “You can call them the financiers. They’re like a bank, where you can go when you need the big bucks.”
But the cycle seems to be on the independents’ pole for now. Bengloff adds:
“Pandora and Sirius — both of which report that 30 to 40 percent of their streams are indie. In the awards area, independents garnered 50 percent of the Grammy nominations and 34 of the awards. For the fourth consecutive year, an artist signed to an indie label also won Album of the Year.”
Licensing recordings for film and television is a revenue stream once spurned by prissy artists. But as label budgets and sales figures fall, producers and artists have flooded the market for soundtracks and jingles. Bengloff thinks licensing provides a competitive advantage for indie labels.
“For licensing, you need to clear both copyrights: the written composition and the sound performance,” Bengloff writes. “Indie labels often control both. In addition, clearances are obtained — without restrictions — much
more quickly. So ad agencies, film supervisors, games, etc., typically prefer to deal with indies (the music is also cooler).”
Creatively speaking, who needs to invest in a whole album when licensing and sales are all about the single?
“Artists need to be more single-oriented, to have a single that’s a lasting legacy,” Phillips says. “The consumers are putting their own music together. But you are starting to see more EPs.”
Memphis is home to several established independent labels that get the idea. Ardent Music recently released Star & Micey’s new EP I Can’t Wait (pictured, left). And Archer Records has a new release, Chasing the Ghost, by duo Amy LaVere and Shannon McNally.
Archer’s approach to its latest release is a perfect example. Archer Records is the label arm of a multiservice media company offering web development and a recording studio that produces soundtrack work for film and television. Working from this environment lets Archer’s artists focus on craft and performance.
Removing the onus of the album — not only writing a full album of songs, but rehearsing, and recording — allowed LaVere and McNally to cut a rehearsal session in the studio and mix the project in a matter of days. This got the duo back out on the road with a CD to sell. No giant budget was wasted. They did not miss a month of bookings. It’s a smarter way to balance the artist’s and label’s time and money.
“People forget that Elvis, when he died, was playing 200 concerts a year,” Phillips says.
“It seems like you shouldn’t have to work as hard as you used to,” Friedl says. “But it still makes a big difference.”
Which brings us back to Greg Roberson and his wildcatting.
Like Steve Cropper and Packy Axton, Roberson assembled three of the four core elements of Memphis indie success: a rhythm section, a mysterious place to record, and the manic obsession of musical visionaries.
“We developed this wrecking crew. It made sense that we go out and do it on our own.”
The fiercely independent Roberson partnered with brothers Jake and Toby Vest. The group backed other artists and released recordings under aliases, amassing three years of studio time before performing as Tiger High. That band released two records on their own Trashy Creatures label.
Roberson works incessantly, and the band’s first record, Myth is This, rose to number 67 on the CMJ Top 200, an influential college radio chart. The band’s second record, Catacombs After Party (pictured, right), is climbing that chart. Tiger High has attracted interest from major labels. Roberson is no novice, having worked in radio and playing in bands such as, notably, Reigning Sound.
“The deals were so bad,” Roberson says. “We never would have seen any money. Someone else would have spent the front end.”
With Trashy Creatures, they went it alone and secured distribution from Revolver. Trashy Creatures has released six records in so many months: two under the Tiger High name, two under aliases, and two releases by other acts. The label has plans for 10 releases in the new year.
Fierce determination is the fourth element in indie success. Tiger High knows who will respond to what they do, and Roberson keeps the iron hot in their niche market by using national PR firms and tons of hard work. All of that drive and ambition derive from his passion for music.
“We do it for ourselves,” Roberson says. “If you don’t like it? Next. We don’t care.”
Joe Boone is a freelance writer, audio engineer, and copy editor for the memphis flyer.