People are seriously questioning whether record labels are necessary anymore. At a time when artists can market themselves directly to fans through the Internet, discussions are taking place across the music industry about the need for a third party holding the purse strings and distribution contacts.
Purely from a music consumer's perspective, though, I love record labels — or at least the independent ones. A good label acts as a consummate curator, getting you to pay attention to new acts because you appreciate the owner's taste. Put more simply: Quality indie labels sort through the crap so you don't have to.
For years, one of my favorite indie labels has been In the Red. The tiny Los Angeles–based operation grabs the raw, eccentric, rock-leaning acts from the basement and plants them under owner Larry Hardy's now recognizable moniker. He started the business in 1991 as a fan — of supercrude garage rockers the Gories, although that wasn't the first single he released — and has spent the following years anointing excellent new artists with his Midas touch. Despite the name, In the Red has now grown from Hardy's hobby to a profitable business. He says the label is currently his main source of income. Pretty impressive for a supposedly dying branch of the record industry.
Few of Hardy's bands have become household names, but if you've ever had a thing for what's been loosely tagged "progressive garage," he holds the keys to an underground kingdom of boozy, bloozy, artsy, droll, reatarded (in the case of Jay Reatard's countless outfits) variations of the genre.
When the press was going gaga for the "primitive rock 'n' roll" of the White Stripes and the Strokes in 2000, Hardy played host to even wilder bands that hadn't yet cracked the surface. His keenly dysfunctional family included Cheater Slicks, the Dirtbombs, the King Brothers, the Country Teasers, and other acts that were high on energy, attitude, and volume, but low on production values. From the way the media hungrily proclaimed a new indie-garage revolution back then, I was sure In the Red would blow up. Instead, the hype went dormant for almost a decade, although interest spread in certain bands. "I know the Dirtbombs sold a whole lot of records in England simply because they were from Detroit," Hardy says. He adds that he always figures the music he works with is too extreme to reach a mainstream crowd, but there have been surprises.
Now the tide is once again turning In the Red's way. Some of the bands he helped nurture — the Black Lips, Reatard, and King Khan, for example — are getting cherry-picked by bigger labels like Matador and Vice. As their fan bases grow, Hardy's back catalog gains popularity as well.
In the Red's current ace in the hole is Vivian Girls (who play the Independent on Friday, April 24), a trio that's getting massive blog attention nationwide. "I guess it makes it look as though my label picks winners every now and again," Hardy says of the band. The Vivian Girls — who mix girl group harmonies with washes of feedback — just recorded a new album Hardy is particularly excited about. "It does make me think I have an artist that could 'blow up,'" he says, before adding, "It's a great record whether it does or not."
As for whether bands need a label anymore, Hardy says there are some bills — for the recording, promotion, manufacturing, and airfare for the artists — that are still easier for a label to foot than the musicians. But he's candid in asking, "Who knows how much longer there will be a need for labels at all?" His bands, however, are big fans of their label patron. " I love his taste and enthusiasm for the music he likes," says Lars Finberg of Seattle's Intelligence. "He treats us as lovingly as his beautiful Chihuahua Penny."
For Hardy, In the Red's success is more about the characters he's befriended than hitting the Fortune 500 of record labels. "I've gotten to know a lot of really interesting people," he says, "From Andre Williams to Jay Reatard, my life is now full of an impressive cast thanks to doing this label."
The label's entourage continues to expand, too. In 2010, the label will release a record from one of my favorite new San Francisco acts, psych-pop band the Fresh & Onlys. Below is a list of select highlights from In the Red's recent releases.
Intelligence, Fake Surfers
One man's junky noise is another's post-punk treasure. The new release from Seattle band Intelligence is its best effort yet. Fake Surfers is all misfiring-circuitry rhythms, hail-on-a-tin-roof beats, space 'copter sound effects, and coarse melodies clamoring for your affection. This batch of anti-artificial Intelligence includes plenty of fun, nonsensical choruses: "I don't have time for squids." Hey, who does?
The Strange Boys, The Strange Boys' and Girls Club
It's always refreshing to hear a band that lives up to its name. This Austin act sounds pretty damn weird, thanks to group choruses where the guys howl like drunken campers, not to mention singer Ryan Sambol's bizarre, syrupy drawl. He mumbles and fumbles his words, stretching his vowels and pushing the consonants to the highest registers of his thin, freaky warble. The music owes a heavy debt to bluesy Texas psych, but when the amphetamine tempos kick back in, the boys are ready for the riot.
Davila 666, Davila 666
These Puerto Rican punks released their American debut just in time to make my 2008 best-of list. They are truly the Latin Black Lips, with coyote croons, an adolescent bite, and so many psych-punk sing-alongs you're hoarse by the end of their debut. If you don't speak Spanish, the lyrics are incomprehensible, but the language of '77 punk meets loopy garage rock is universal — and lots of fun.
Up next: Thee Oh Sees, Help
Hardy fell in love with The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In, the last album by our local kings of warped garage. Thee Oh Sees spin pop dizzy with heaps of reverb, white noise, and staccato vocals, a combo Hardy rightly calls amazing. He says he "jumped up and down" with excitement over releasing Help. You can grab a copy at one of the band's many shows (Wednesday, April 29, at El Rincon; Friday, May 1, at the de Young's happy hour; and Monday, May 4, at the Knockout, to name a few).