Local Indie Labels Grapple With Fallout of Coronavirus

Albums have been put on indefinite hold and tours have been scuttled as San Francisco labels scramble to support artists and make money.

The album was supposed to be out April 10.  

“We had vinyl for a few months, but we were getting these books of her art and lyrics made to go along with the album,” says Arvel Hernandez. “That is now completely held up.”

Christ Mocked & The End of a Relationship by Oakland artist Grace Sings Sludge would have been Empty Cellar Records’ first release of the year. Now, they’re just hoping the album can be out sometime this summer.

Since 2009, Empty Cellar has played a modest but crucial role in one of the city’s most vital scenes: psychedelia. When John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees relocated his heavyweight Castle Face Records from the Mission to Pasadena in 2014, Empty Cellar took up the torch, along with the lease — they literally took over Dwyer’s former office.

In the years since, the one-man label has released music by many of the city’s major players in psych and indie rock, including Cool Ghouls, The Sandwitches, Sonny Smith, and The Cairo Gang.

Still, it is a small label.

“On a good year, we release maybe four albums,” Hernandez says. “On a slow year, maybe one.”

This year was supposed to be a big one. In addition to Grace Sings Sludge, Empty Cellar had three more releases lined up. So far, all four albums have been postponed, somewhat indefinitely. Most are now pinned with vague release dates like “out this Fall.” Some, like the new Cool Ghouls record, are hanging in limbo with all but one last piece ready to go.

“We’ve got the plates, and we’ve got lacquers to press the album, but the vinyl pressing won’t happen until the shelter order is lifted,” Hernandez says.

Record Technology Inc., Empty Cellar’s vinyl plant, is located in Camarillo, CA, a few miles east of Oxnard. As a non-essential business, they’ve stopped all pressings during the statewide shelter-in-place order. Further complicating matters for independent labels, there will be a long line of larger clients looking to have their orders printed once the plant is able to open again. In addition to working with Empty Cellar, RTI prints records for Sony, Warner Bros., and Capital.

“We’re just a small label and we don’t have the ability to be very nimble,” Hernandez says.

For Jessi Frick, owner of Father/Daughter records, it is exactly this ability that is most necessary right now.

“We have to be more agile,” Frick says. “Luckily, we’re not putting out records where they’re touring arenas and stuff and that’s gonna directly impact their marketing plans.” 

In the indie rock world, Father/Daughter Records is a minor powerhouse; they’ve released essential albums by numerous indie darlings, including Diet Cig, Vagabon, and Sir Babygirl.

In an average year, Frick says San Francisco-based Father/Daughter releases around five or six records. But while Empty Cellar has seen an entire year’s worth of releases thrown into chaos, Father/Daughter has remained largely unaffected by the pandemic.

The reason for that: sheer, blind luck.

“We’re switching distributors in the summertime, so we decided to lay low the first half of the year,” Frick says. “We didn’t want to be working on releases while we’re migrating stuff over to the new distributor, and it just so happened that it fell during this time period.”

With no physical releases planned until at least fall, Father/Daughter has largely dodged the bullet of orders stuck in production, closed distributors, and socially-distanced studios.

“We had a couple of digital things, but the recording was already done, so the quarantine wasn’t getting in the way of that. And because they were digital, we haven’t been impacted too much as far as physical retail goes — all the stores closing, the vinyl and CD manufacturers closing.”

But while Father/Daughter was fortuitously situated for the shelter-in-place order, the same can’t be said for the bands on the label, all of whom have had entire tour schedules vacated.

“I feel like we’re providing a lot more emotional support for artists,” Frick says. “So many have had tours canceled.”

Polyvinyl Records, which has kept a presence in San Francisco since label manager Seth Hubbard moved to the city in 2006, has focused almost all their recent efforts on this issue. With a huge roster of bands who normally rely on touring to survive, the label quickly started looking for alternate means of creating income. When Bandcamp waived all sales fees for a day this March, the label likewise waived their cut.

“We extended that until the end of March,” Hubbard says. “That was the first thing to try and help our bands. Then, just last week, we released a compilation where all money goes to the bands directly.”

Stay Home, the compilation in question, was released on April 8th. That week, it landed at No. 21 on Billboard’s “Compilation Albums.”

“We’re just trying to find ways to generate money for our bands in ways that aren’t typical. They’re going to need it, considering they won’t be able to tour for so long.”

Over at Fat Wreck Chords, one of the city’s biggest, and longest-running indie labels (SF-based thirteen years longer than Twitter), there is a gnawing sense that the pandemic’s shadow will cast over the industry for years to come.

“Being in a punk rock band is probably the worst profession to get back on track,” says Mike Burkett, aka Fat Mike, the label’s co-founder and co-owner (as well as the bass player and singer of NOFX). “Live music is where the money is. You put out records to get people to hear your music so they will go see you live. But even if you can have shows again, who’s going to want to go?”

It’s a serious question, one which haunts the entire indie music industry. While social-distancing orders may eventually be lifted, the fear of closely gathered crowds — to say nothing of a sweaty mosh pit — will likely persist.

“We’ve been so careful for so long,” Burkett says, “and what’s worse than a punk rock concert? People stage diving on you, throwing up, sweating. People are going to start going back to restaurants and some events. But a punk rock show? No.”

Yet, in an ironic twist, the anti-authoritarian punk veteran may be in one of the best positions to weather the storm. With a back catalog spanning three decades, and a yearly schedule of almost two dozen releases, Fat Wreck Chords is one of the biggest indies around.

“We don’t want to say, ‘Send your money to help this band,’ because it sounds like a sales pitch,” Fat Mike says. “So we’re just setting aside money for bands who really need it.”

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