Eric Mast started his own record label because his car broke down. And because he lived in Portland, where he could live cheaply. That's the simplified version of the story behind the 1998 launch of Mast's label, Audio Dregs.
Mast, a.k.a. E*Rock, was on his way to performing his first DJ gig at a going-away party for a member of his rock band when his maroon 1992 Ford Taurus fired its last piston. That led to his epiphany. "I realized
that you don't need a car in Portland," Mast says, "so I saved up the money I'd otherwise have spent on gas, car insurance and upkeep to release a 7-inch by my brother."
Now his brother, E*Vax, is recording with Björk, and E*Rock is still releasing albums on Audio Dregs, a label David Byrne recently named as one of his favorites. Mast's accomplishments are remarkable, but his story-that combination of pluck and opportunity-is a common one here, according to interviews with owners of 20 of the more than 60 independent record labels that call Portland home.
Why do labels grow here? Owners credit some of the standard attributes of the city's creative culture-cheap rent, a pool of talented artists, individualized printing presses and cool independent record shops. And it's also homebase for Allegro/Nail, one of the country's top five indie distributors, representing releases by more than 100 small record labels.
"Portland has more of everything than other towns of a similar size-the whole 'more per capita' aspect; more restaurants, movie theatres, independent record stores, strip clubs, breweries and indie labels," says Chris Scofield of the Strange Attractors label, who works at Allegro as a day job.
The majority of Portland's labels are "mom and pop"-sized businesses, employing up to five people while generating modest cash flow. The exception, of course, is the local swingster-lounge band Pink Martini, whose Heinz Records label has sold 140,000 of Hang on Little Tomato, the band's second self-released album-a staggering number in the world of independents, where cracking five digits for a single release is considered a success.
Two of Portland's most invigorating labels (Jyrk and Temporary REsidence) may have split town in the past year, while at the same period more people with established record labels have moved in (Aesthetics, Dirtnap, Arena Rock). In addition, new businesses pop up almost weekly (Mississippi, Community Library, Piecemeal, WK Lab). To get an idea of why and how these labels exist, WW chose 10 very different, but like-minded, Portland labels and gave them the once over.
proprietor: Ken Dyber
day job: Sports referee, film student
roster size: 17
cds sold last year: 20,000
downloads sold last year: 3,000
released music by: Hood, L'Altra, Pulseprogramming, Eternals
Dyber started his label after acting as music director for his college radio station in the mid-'90s in Chicago. "I was drawn to the creative freedom the indies gave their artists and the challenging music they consistently released," Dyber says. The 31-year-old moved to Portland two years ago, bringing his taste for punk and hardcore with him. "I carry on that DIY spirit with Aesthetics," he says, "even though the music does not equate or interest most punk/hardcore kids. The spirit is certainly there." (aesthetics-usa.com)
proprietor: Greg Glover
day job: Radio host (Alternative Mornings, 94.7 FM)
roster size: 13-15
cds sold last year: 20,000
origin of label name: A tribute to Glover's mom, who took him to rock shows-like Alice Cooper, Kiss and Ted Nugent-when he was a kid growing up in the 1970s
released music by: The Kingdom, Calla, Superdrag, Harvey Danger
Glover started Arena Rock a decade ago "with my waiter's salary along with my partner's money from his bubblegum-factory job." He had published a fanzine (The Bottom Forty) during college. "I'd read that Slash Records went from a magazine to a label, so I thought, 'Why not?'" He's signed more Portland artists to the label's roster (Talkdemonic, Swords, Wroom, the Kingdom) since moving here from New York last year. (arenarockrecordingco.com)
proprietor: Eric Mast
day job: Freelance designer and animator, record-store clerk
roster size: 19
cds and lps sold last year: 7,200
downloads sold last year: 6,500
employ anyone full or part-time? "I wish."
released music by: Lullatone, F.S. Blumm, Ratatat, E*Rock
Mast, who also records as E*Rock, says he has a love for music that squiggles in and out of genres, matching experimental electronics with pretty sounds. Audio Dregs has done well selling MP3s via pay sites such as eMusic and iTunes. For the first time in years, the label is getting ready to release music by Portland bands, such as Copy and the Plants, Mast says. (audiodregs.com)
proprietors: Heather Billington, Chris McBeth
day job: Label owner
roster size: 45
cds & lps sold last year: 18,000
origin of label name: Studied molecular genetics at UT-Austin before starting the label.
released music by: Nurse with Wound, Coil, Current 93
Beta-lactam was started five years ago, McBeth says, "as a hobby to release limited vinyl art objects before dental school," and inspired in part by the boundary-pushing Soleilmoon label. But after McBeth quit school, the label became a full-time job for him, and part time for three others. "We're interested in issuing psych, jazz, doom, electronic, pop, black metal, fluxus, sound art, dark, field recordings, drone, indie rock, synth, whatever," he says. "We hate the term 'experimental,' as it tends to scare people away from a release because they think of guys sitting around beating on sheet metal and playing a broken Casio." Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. (blrrecords.com)
proprietor: Hank Failing
day job: Manager of Old Town Music
roster size: 84 bands (on two double CDs)
number of cds sold last year: 2,500
favorite label: Portland-based Lucky Madison ("The folks involved are really positive people who want to make music coming from their hearts.")
origin of label name: "It's my last name."
released music by: Nudge, Charmparticles, Foghorn Stringband
Established last year, the label's concept is a straightforward as its name. Failing makes $7 two-disc comps that are displayed next to the cash register at Stumptown Coffee and local record stores. The first one, simply titled A Compilation of Portland Music Volume 1, was a fundraiser for Rock the Vote. A second volume was released a few months ago, and Failing is currently accepting submissions for a third (deadline: July 31). Even in the download age, two discs for less than a movie ticket is a pretty rad deal. (failingrecords.com)
proprietor: Chad Crouch
day job: Visual artist, real-estate investor/home renovator
roster size: 6-8
cds sold last year: 6,500
downloads sold last year: 21,000
origin of label name: "I thought it looked nice with the logo."
released music by: Decemberists, Hutch & Kathy, Norfolk & Western
Crouch started Hush as "sort of a grunge backlash" in the '90s-"I had a vision for a quieter rock fad." He says the label, which recently celebrated its 50th release, has been part of the growth of a Portland scene, "but not in a planned way; it's not like there is a board meeting where we have scene planning summits." (hushrecords.com)
proprietors: Curtis and Laurel Knapp, Adrian Orange
day jobs: Label management
roster size: 23-ish
number of units sold last year: ".0058 million"
origin of label name: "Proto-Indo-European"
released music by: Thanksgiving, Y.A.C.H.T., Watery Graves
"We started because Thanksgiving [with Orange] needed records made, and no labels we knew could do it at the time," says Curtis Knapp. "Handmade packaging keeps music valuable outside the digital realm. Downloadable music has affected our label by asking us to do something more interesting than a CD and jewel-case packaging, to give the objects a value greater than the sound by itself." The label hasn't attracted mass critical attention-yet. "One time we sent out 200 records for review and only three people reviewed it," Curtis says. "Oh no, wait! That was every time! Ouch." (marriagerecs.com)
proprietor: Eric Isaacson
day job: Proprietor of Mississippi Records record shop
roster size: 13
released music by: Spooky Dance Band, Duck Duck Grey Duck, Geechie Wiley
Mississippi doesn't plan to release any digital media: cassette and vinyl only, except for 50 copies of a "yoga instructional workout CD." The label was begun "by default," Isaacson says, because he wanted to release music by his friends as well as reissues, "things I think are beautiful." The label's archival releases are of a high order: ethereal gospel-blues pioneer Washington Phillips plus two well-curated collections of "pre-Depression, post-electric 78 RPM recordings."
proprietor: Steve Schroeder
day job: Label manager
roster size: 9 or 10
cds sold last year: 4,000
origin of label name: "I always loved geography and maps as a young dude," Schroeder says. "Instead of catalog numbers, all the States Rights releases are attributed a state (or other geographical item)."
released music by: Bobby Birdman, Dirty Projectors, White Rainbow, The Blow
"I knew I wanted to start a label from my time in college at Lewis & Clark, being around friends there making music like Wolf Colonel, who would make these amazing inspired cassettes (12 in two years)," Schroeder says. "I worked a crummy job at a cell phone call center doing overtime and took a random stab at it-and today, things are going out of print and selling out!" Unlike most indies, Schroeder isn't interested in a distribution deal, as he likes sending orders by mail so that he knows what happens to each CD. (statesrightsrecords.com)
proprietor: Chris Scofield
day job: Label manager for Allegro/Nail distribution
roster size: 22
number of cds sold last year: 10,000
released music by: Six Organs of Admittance, Steffen Basho-Junghans, Kinski
Inspired by his radio show on an Olympia station, as well as working at K Records, "I got a Visa card," Scofield says, "and that's how it began." Scofield defines the label's genre of music as "free folk/new psych/space rock." He says that downloads-either passed on by fans or from the label's website-are the most effective ways to get music to the people. "The audience I cater to [are] true music fans who want to own the artifact anyway," he says. (strange-attractors.com)
Disclosure note: Writer Mike McGonigal is assembling a benefit compilation for William Temple House to be released on the Marriage record label this winter.