There is only Hard Times left for Absolutely Kosher.
Battered by the economic collapse and by titanic shifts within the music industry, the 13-year-old independent Berkeley record label that released albums from artists such as the Mountain Goats, the Wrens, Xiu Xiu, and Pinback's Rob Crow will stop releasing new music this fall, according to its founder and owner, Cory Brown.
Absolutely Kosher's final release will be the third album from Victoria, B.C., outfit Himalayan Bear, due out Oct. 11. The name of the album could serve as description for what has befallen its label: Hard Times.
"My resolve has been slowly chipped away to the point where I really am left with no choice here," Brown, 40, tells All Shook Down. "I'd love to continue, but I can't."
Founded in a San Francisco apartment in 1998, Absolutely Kosher rode the post-grunge revival of indie rock for nearly a decade and a half, and helped break some of the bands that defined the period. Brown is especially proud of records he put out by the Mountain Goats -- who now sit on the roster of fabled indie Merge -- and the Wrens, whose 2003 Absolutely Kosher release The Meadowlands won enormous praise from critics. (Ryan Schreiber, founder of a then-fledgling website called Pitchfork, gave the album a 9.5 score and a Best New Music rating.)
Over the years Absolutely Kosher also released a slew of records from many lesser-known bands, local and otherwise. Its very first release was from a San Francisco band called P.E.E. -- which, coupled with the label's Jewish name, confused some. ("People thought we might be a klezmer label or something," Brown says.)
In recent years, though, Absolutely Kosher seems to have fallen out of fashion. Brown isn't sure why. "We're out of vogue as far as labels go right now," he says. No matter how hard we try, no matter what publicists we work with, we just seem to be outside of people's focus."
It wasn't fashion that led to this latest move; it was finances. Brown says the decision to stop releasing new records was made so that he can focus on repaying debts the label owes. He's not ruling out the possibility that Absolutely Kosher will one day resume releasing new music -- and other labels, most notably the Berkeley indie-pop legend Slumberland, have taken time off new releases and returned.
Brown, though, can't see remaining competitive while a part-time project. He had to lay off Absolutely Kosher's sole full-time employee, Director of Marketing and Publicity Maren Wenzel, who began working at the label as an intern about five years ago. The decision wasn't easy. Brown himself worked full-time at the label for nearly nine years. Last year, he took a job at Ioda, the digital music marketing firm started by Noise Pop co-founder Kevin Arnold, to help supplement his income.
Even while using the label's revenue and much of his own salary to try to pay off Absolutely Kosher's debts, Brown couldn't make enough headway to keep putting out new music.
"We should've been celebrating the label's bar mitzvah this year, but it's not to be," he said in a statement on the label's website. "I wish I could tell you there's a grand plan, a new chapter waiting to be written, but the truth is, we've been struggling for years and the only thing on my plate right now is to eliminate our debts and rejuvenate my spirits."
He attributes the fate of Absolutely Kosher largely to two factors: Technology and the economy. The Internet killed off many of the music magazines that used to publicize developing bands. It also enabled widespread music piracy, which led to the decline of independent record stores and masses of casual record buyers.
While there are many music blogs out there spouting off about new music, Brown says their influence on buyers' taste is very different from the vast array of print magazines music fans once read. And of course even when people find something they like, they don't always -- or often -- pay for it.