- What functions does an independent record label fulfills?
- How a record label gives visibility to a scene
- Music promotion, record sales and live performance
- Making a living doing experimental music
This is the second part of the interview I had with musician, composer, curator and record producer Rent Romus. For over 24 years he has been running Edgetone Records, one of the most representative record labels in the Bay Area creative music scene. Here he talks about the principles behind Edgetone Records, the obstacles his and other independent record labels encounter, the relationship between record sales and live performance, and the philosophy that has allowed him to do what he loves and to be happy and satisfied with his career.
[What functions does an independent record label fulfills?]
Diego Villaseñor: Could we talk about how different record labels can fit into an experimental music scene like the Bay Area’s?
Rent Romus: Well there are a lot of different models in the creative music scene. A lot of them are independent and run by artists. They usually develop out of a basic need to self-publish either because we can’t find anyone to pick up our music or distribute the music, or because we don’t fit within the normal construct of commercialism.
I think that that’s one of the major forces behind all independent record labels and that’s why the majority of the labels in the creative music scene, with a few exceptions such as Tzadik [John Zorn’s record label], are relatively small. There was a label called Elektra Nonesuch, which held musicians like Tom Waits (who’s actually an improviser), he’s part of our community he lives here [San Francisco Bay Area], I have records of him improvising out in the woods in the 70s. Elektra Nonesuch came along as an experiment with major distribution and world distribution to help musicians like Waits, Laurie Anderson, and Zorn (before he ever started Tzadik).
In general though. it’s just a vehicle, and an administrative process to make the music available to the general public as well as a documentation purposes too. It’s not like we’re going to make a whole bunch of money. Hell, if we’re lucky we don’t lose money on our label [laughs]. Which for the first ten years I did. But I’ve been able to just about break even since I changed the model up for Edgetone Records.
Also I think the one importance left in being on a label these days is you get to use the identity, which offers a certain amount of support and belonging, like that of a sub-community within the larger community. It also helps with radio play, and with promotion. Although things have changed in the last 15 years or so. Since the early millennia, the need for a label has become less and less important in my opinion. I see this as someone who supports a DIY mindset and actively encourage everyone just to press their own records and/or distribute their own music, especially because of all the services that are out there. So, “do we need labels anymore?” Probably not. From my perspective labels don’t really legitimize you anymore as a musician like the myth tells us. It’s more about what you do personally to get out there and make your music available.
Diego: So the main difference between, pressing your own records or being on a label is that the label will help you connect with other influencers around the world?
Rent: Usually labels have developed something of that, or at least the name itself carries some weight when you send the music out for reviews and to radio, or to film and another outlets. You have that name which likely has its own history. However, my label is probably a little more proactive than others but very much in line process wise. I would place Edgetone somewhere between a standard label and an independent DIY. When I pick up an album I’ll actually send it out on my end and do the promotions.
Diego: And does the selection of musicians imply a certain kind of added value? How do you select artists for your label? Does that also gives value to the label as whole?
Rent: That’s true, yeah. I mean, it depends on the label. My label is a bit more egalitarian in terms of offering a wide selection of music. Edgetone Records it’s not all about pure free improv, you know, I have a lot of jazz record on there, punk albums, free metal, even experimental hip-hop, which is pretty cool and stuff and few quirky odd retro indie, weird but definitely pop of yore. So I like to take a wide variety. It’s similar to how I book for series too, I pretty much apply my philosophy across the broad, what we talked about before: cross-pollination. The label kind of reflects it, it’s like a small version of the larger community in a sense.
Diego: How do you emphasize this cross-pollination between artists within your label?
Rent: Well, you know that’s an interesting question. Promotionally it’s rather difficult, but the one thing that glues all my catalogue together, is college radio, because most of college radio doesn’t care about genre as much as commercial radio or NPR. College radio is all over the place, similarly to Edgetone. I think college radio has played an integral and very important in giving legitimacy to what I’m trying to do at Edgetone.
On the other side cross-pollination also occurs inside the label, because the catalogue is very wide and has a pretty big spectrum of sounds, some musicians on the label, who are more proactive, have taken a look at the rest of the catalogue and discovered other musicians they didn’t know about and reached out musically. There is clear influence there, too, but I think most happens because of live curation which is still pretty much the life’s blood of what we’re doing here in this area. It’s that live interaction, community growth and development… involvement, things like that. The label is a vehicle, it’s a bucket that helps document what’s happening at the moment. And oddly enough I’ve recently realized we are coming up on our 25th year, next year, for the label.
[How a record label gives visibility to a scene]
Diego: I think it’s very interesting, this idea of having a kind of memory of the scene, which the label provides.
Rent: That’s true, it does serve that function, you’re right.
Diego: It’s interesting to have certain perspectives about how the music and the scene have evolved.
Rent: True, I never thought about it that way, but you can look at the years of releases and you can kind of see group development, musician development, you can hear it. Even myself, personally, the musicality and process of my own catalogue has shifted from pretty constructed swinging jazz to all free improv noise and then back to composition and then a little smattering of improv, so you kind of see that happening at a micro level. Certain bands have their heyday and then they fizzle out, others grow and change. Certain artists go solo and you can see how their styles develop. It’s definitely a document. I think labels in new and creative music are for the most part like libraries, or document hubs, where they give an image of the scene, of what’s happening at the moment and you can come and see that progression.
Diego: That’s really important, because if there were no labels there will be almost no memory.
Rent: Well there wouldn’t be as much memory. It would be word of mouth or it would be like, you know, something handed down from generation to generation. But because of the advent of CDs and digital music distribution, documentation has expanded exponentially and I think that helps in some ways people who are growing and who want to learn about, or understand what’s happening, or that know that they can play music outside the context of what they were programed to believe in. Because music education and the academia, whether or not I think it should catch up (which is another debate), still doesn’t really express what’s happening in the community in real time.
Diego: Yeah, I was just at a concert in San Francisco, an academic music concert, and I felt the same way as I feel in Mexico, there was no difference between the two places. But I haven’t felt the same way in all the other concerts of what can be properly called the scene here.
Rent: Yeah right, that’s actually a real issue that I have as well. What I think labels do is catalogue and give you an idea that there’s more out there than just one way of doing things, that’s the beauty.
[Music promotion, record sales and live performance]
Diego: What kind of strategy do you use to promote the music of your label? How do you breach the barrier of radio, to get to the people want to get to know the artists from your label?
Rent: I could say that for the most part radio and press support have become a bit more peripheral to the mass digital offerings these days in terms of how well and artist does. It’s an old way of thinking from days bygone: that promotional support like radio and press alone will be the one and only way to make you more visible. My sales are more linked to how proactive the artist is, so the most successful artists on my label are also the most prolific performers. There’s a direct link with live performance in terms of how successful the label sells the music and I know this because I can look at the numbers. Suppose you don’t have any music out now right, and let’s say you’ve been doing live performance, you are getting your name out there and people are knowing you, when you put your record out even if your performance level dropped you probably would be better off than somebody who didn’t perform at all and just put a record out.
I’ve seen this happen, I know this because of the three tops selling artists in my label, one is Thollem McDonas, pianist, he’s pretty brilliant, he’s been across the world including Mexico a few times actually. He’s worked with Carmina Escobar and runs a group called Estamos Ensemble, a cross section between Mexican and American performers and composers, he did that for about two years. Anyways, I digress; he had been perpetually performing, for seven years he was out there boom boom boom, I was sending out orders on a steady stream for most of that time. Another is Eric Smith, he’s a drummer and goes by the name of E. Doctor Smith, he is and has been very prolific going all the way back to his days working with Madonna. A lot of people around the world know his name. So when they see his music up on iTunes they say ‘oh I’m going to buy that’. It’s that name recognition created by literally going out and performing live that makes the promotion work.
Diego: How many performances per week or month would be ideal?
Rent: Well, for me the goal was always to play once a month… or else I’d go crazy.
[Making a living doing experimental music]
Diego: And is it possible for an artist to make a substantial income from performance and sales?
Rent: It’s really tough. I mean, a lot of musicians who are making their living in music are doing more than just free improvisation and/or creative music. They are probably teaching classes either privately or for institutions, or they are involved in some other genres of music, you know, like straight ahead jazz gigs, or they’re doing corporate R & B. On the other hand, there’s Thollem, who’s a good example for me as he insisted early on to doing his own music and making money out of it. And I know it was an extreme struggle. Because to do something like that you have to depend on the kindness of strangers to help you out at the beginning with places to stay, living hand to mouth. Still yet it’s very… it’s almost impossible at least in this county to make a living playing original music.
Diego: John Zorn would be a case of that?
Rent: Yeah, but you also have to look at it in a historical context. So someone like Zorn started out at a time when there were possibly more opportunities that are not around any longer. In any case each time period has a set of different opportunities and different challenges. The experiment of Elektra Nonesuch may have had a positive effect on the success he and others now enjoy.
Diego: So the experiment somehow worked because it had a positive effect on this musicians?
Rent: Well strangely enough it worked for the individual, but the label from my understanding was considered a failure by the mainstream music industry. They did not sell the “millions of copies” [Laughs].
Diego: Yeah, well it worked from our perspective, not from theirs.
Rent: Exactly. From our perspective those guys are monsters of music, they are legends, they are immense.
Diego: Maybe there’s a possibility to do what Elektra Nonsuch was doing, but in a widespread communitarian way.
Rent: Well and there are some labels in the realm. Like I said Tzadik is probably sustainable. You can actually be a free improviser in other parts of the world and do a lot better than here. I am supposing, and again, I don’t have complete verification in that. It seems to me that there is a lot more appreciation for creative arts in general, in other parts of the world, than we have here.
Diego: Could you mention which spots?
Rent: Well my understanding is that Western Europe is well off comparatively speaking. I can’t speak for South America, Central America or Asia. But I would think that any culture that values itself would do well. For instance South Korea, there the Government officially acknowledges the value of artists, I mean for real. There was this movie made by an Australian drummer [Emma Franz]. It’s called Intangible Asset No. 82. And intangible assets are actually people who are creative; in this case the Intangible Asset No. 82 was a Korean Shaman singer who this drummer was out looking for. The whole movie is about him meeting and working with the singer. It is great to see that a democratic elected Government looks at performing artists and its own people as intangible assets for the culture. Whereas here it is not about that; it’s about how much money you got. “Artist! What the hell is that? Why don’t you get a job?” It’s true you know.
Diego: That’s a hobby.
Rent: “You’re playing instrument? How quaint? Look at that.”…I always get that “Hey you still play music?”, “Ah, am I still breathing?” Yah but that’s how they devalue you in the States as a performing artist. It’s like a hobby.
Diego: Only if you’re a super star, but then you get a major label to support you, but then that’s is not really about the music but rather about the aura that surrounds you.
Rent: Right, yeah, it’s not about art at all, it’s all an illusion. But that’s okay, you know, when I was young I believed that I could be a young lion of Jazz. Like all these players who were coming up and they were being called out by the mainstream press and stuff. I was very frustrated to find out that I couldn’t do that. No matter what I did it just didn’t seemed to matter to anybody right, at least, on the industry side. “No one knows me, ahh”, so you get disillusioned and like depressed, and you find a day job just to pay the bills and you’re scrapping through but then… but in my case, at some point I realized that it’s not me, it’s the system. Because if I wanted to go do Duke Ellenton tributes, and play like Monk or Charlie Parker, if I wanted to do that, I could probably eek out a living as a Jazz musician. So if I pretended to be someone else… but I realize that I have to do what’s good for me, what’s feel good and what’s feel right, and if that means I got to work a day job and be happy I’d rather do that any day. I’ve decided just on a personal level that I wanted to be comfortable, meaning that I can put out a record whenever I want, which I kind of got to that point, it’s taken me a while but that goal is real and I can put on a show. So I am pretty happy. And I love to revel in the success of others too, that’s the beautiful part. I’m no longer playing in the jazz world that was always like, you know “oh, I don’t like that person because they’re successful”; none of that.
That’s why I love the creative music scene, because there’s not a lot of money in it; we’re not striving for that, so we tend to be more community based. There’s more of an opportunity to play with each other, and support each other, and be happy for each other, for whatever successes each one of us brings to the table. When I see press for another one of our community members I’m like “yeah!” and I want to share that, I want to tell people about it “check out so and so, they got those articles in the newspaper”, because it helps all of us. When a good review comes out, I want to share that, and the other musician’s work too. I’ll post it on my Facebook page, because reciprocal altruism exists, where I do something nice for you and maybe or maybe not, down the line, you might just do something nice for me, and we support each other that way. Is not expected because then it wouldn’t be altruistic, but at least that’s the general idea you do a good deed for others, they might in turn do good for you. So that’s why I really like the music community and keep this label running.