From 2013 to 2017, I ran a community-focused, not-for-profit record label in Austin, TX. In that period, Punctum Records published over 30 albums on a panopoly of formats from brilliant artists, held events all across the US, and shipped records around the world. It was successful, in that sense, but ultimately unsustainable.
The determining factor, as you might expect, was financial. Building economic scaffolding around emotional and intellectual labor is tenuous, at best, and certainly impossible to forecast. We made it work until we couldn’t.
That being said, having gained the experience and understanding of ways to build such an organization over those years, here’s what I learned — and some miscelaneous insights.
First, I recently cited some disdain for NPR’s new music promotion efforts. Having thought about it more, here’s why: you don’t champion a song, you champion a scene. When NPR Music plays a single lesser-known song suddenly regularly, they’re hoping to earworm it into our brains so that we suddenly find the melody comfortable or familiar and associate that sensation with musical taste. It might just work, but it gives the artist and the music community that the artist came up in very short shrift.
It’s the equivalent of extracting a single good sentence from a great book and exclaiming, “This is literature!” How can we appreciate this vivisection without its context? Music makes people change their hair, get new wardrobes, pierce their septums — not because the melody is catchy but because it represents a way of life that someone might identify with and embrace wholeheartedly. Music listeners deserve to have a true introduction into an oeuvre so that they can latch on to a song the way we did as kids: as a marker of our identity. Glumping everything from the last 25 years with a similar time signature together under the same genre misses the point.
Second, physical formats are critical and impossible. When I founded Punctum Records, I dove headfirst into vinyl, convinced that it was the only physical manifestation of music that truly represented the value of the sounds within it. I’m less convinced of that today. Vinyl is too expensive for a small organization to produce — period. This investment limits the amount of albums a label can release in a given year and then we find ourselves back in the first problem. I am heartbroken to admit it, and we did a lot of good producing vinyl at the same time, but vinyl is prohibitive and exclusive. Not to mention that the vinyl manufacturing process takes so long that most artists are understandably long past the project by the time the discs arrive from the plant and minimum manufacturing orders are too high for a small organization to warehouse such large and heavy materials.
At the other end of the spectrum, streaming releases can be shared with millions of people days after the album is recorded. You can save quite a bit of money. With Drag City, one of the more notable streaming hold outs, finally relenting and placing their catalogue on Spotify, we have entered a period where streaming music is a requirement. The landscape of streaming is still emergent and there remain key questions: How might a particular piece of music stand out in that enormous ocean of sound? How might we provide the necessarily supplemental pieces — the context, again — within the constraints of the format? How might we enable a human connection when mitigated between screens?
This takes us back to physical formats. While we must have everything online, we should never deny the moment in which an artist hands a new fan an object that will play a collection of songs after a live show in exchange for a few dollars. If music is to stave off this turn toward quantification, it must remain tactile and emotional and durable. Music must be something we find in an old box a few years later, dust it off and tell our partner the story of buying said object. It should be something we give to all senses. I don’t know what that format is — though I personally like cassettes if only we had the right devices on which to play them — but something analogue must exist outside of the digital world if we want to continue to claim that these songs have weight.
Finally, I believe that the most critical thing a record label can do is empower a community. Ideally, the label is a central node, a gathering space, for many people to come together and help one another. If the label tries to do too much without the regular input from its community, the center cannot hold. The organization cannot be represented by a single personality, band, or event. Like the music it produces, a label is a complex intertwined story of enmeshed narratives that holds together a plethora of perspectives in difference and coherence. This is probably true of any successful community-serving organization, but a label having music be a core seems a particularly apt place for people to act in concert.
PS: There’s more to explore on this subject — and more of my own expriences that I haven’t quite mined or reflected upon sufficiently to express here — so here’s to hoping that this is something I continue to write about from time to time.