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Feature Thu Jun 21 2007
It seems that when the music press talks about Chicago labels they tend only to focus on the same handful: Touch and Go, Alligator, Delmark, Thrill Jockey, etc. etc. But there are many labels in Chicago that are flourishing today, releasing all kinds of music that you may have never heard about. Gapers Block: Transmission sits down with two of them today.
Waterbug is the premier Chicago folk music label. Singer/songwriter Andrew Calhoun started the label in 1992 and it has grown ever since. Their catalog reads like a who’s who of acclaimed folk singers including records by Anais Mitchell, Bob Franke, Rachel Ries Rose Polenzani, Devon Sproule and Sara K. Fundamental Records has an even longer history of introducing and championing challenging, often experimental, indie rock. Their back catalog of recordings by Eugene Chadbourne, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Henry Rollins and Shiva Burlesque (Grant Lee Phillips) served as the bread and butter of college radio in the late '80s and early '90s. Andrew Calhoun from Waterbug and Tim White from Fundamental took some time out of their busy schedules to answer a couple of questions about being Chicago-based independent record labels.
Anais Mitchell (Waterbug)
Gapers Block: Since Gapers Block is a Chicago publication, can you give me an idea what it's like doing business in Chicago as an independent label (i.e. artwork, pressing plants, studios, venues, a&r)?
Waterbug: We use a company in Lake Zurich so I save on shipping, yoo hoo. Waterbug's an artists' cooperative, the artists deal with their own artwork and often use other pressing plants.
Fundamental Chicago is a great town to do business in! There are so many resources and great people here. That doesn't mean that we don't use outside vendors — we do. However, it's always a pleasant surprise to find out about another resource that is local. For example, I had to go down to SXSW in order to be introduced to producer Steve Shirk who is doing some amazing work in his Chicago studio. That's happened quite a bit. I think we tend to get isolated, even in the ever broadening expanse of the internet, and don't even realize who is right in front of our noses.
GB: Your labels are hard to pigeonhole stylistically. Is that something that is done consciously or do those involved just have wildly divergent tastes?
Waterbug: Waterbug is easy, the notion is quest, both in songwriting and in traditional music.
Fundamental It's a little of both, actually. We do love all types of music, however there is a connecting factor. All Fundamental artists are wildly amazing in their live shows. I think that's the defining feature of a great band. If the live show isn't engaging and takes us to another place, then I'm not even interested. Another SXSW reference: tons of bands, many of them suck live. That would never fly at Fundamental.
Butthole Surfers (Fundamental)
GB: To the man on the street releasing vinyl would be crazy, if not a simply impossible, idea. What are your plans for vinyl and who is buying these releases?
Waterbug: Rachel Ries is interested in vinyl. I been there, done that.
Fundamental We do vinyl releases if we perceive from the fans that there is a market for them. It's very limited, but totally based on listening to the fans. Most vinyl releases we've done in the past have always sold out because it gains momentum after the release is out.
GB: I expect both labels have fans overseas, especially given the music the labels release. How does a small label in Chicago reach those fans?
Waterbug: The web.
Fundamental Fundamental has partners/promoters in the UK, in Benelux, Germany, Australia and Japan. We've always gotten our releases over to Europe — that's kind of our defining claim to fame. From the Butthole Surfers to Henry Rollins to the Stanley Brothers and Vigilantes of Love — there has been a great love for unique American music — in fact, over the 23 yr history of the label, Fundamental has made more money in Europe than the U.S. But we're working hard to rectify that!
Eugene Chadbourne (Fundamental)
GB: What is your digital download plan, how has this been affected by the decline in retail if at all? Has the announcement by EMI to drop DRM and increase the quality of the digital files affected those plans?
Waterbug: We go through CDBaby who goes to everyone else. Downloads increase, cd sales decrease. I don't know about EMI.
Fundamental Our digital plan has been greatly motivated by the dismal decline in retail. I mourn the spirit of community lost in indie retail, but am not surprised about the reality of it. If you look historically at technology — wherever there is a change in technology, after the initial working out of the technology, then it's only a matter of time before the former goes away. Wax cylinders, vinyl records, 8 tracks, cassettes, Cds and now digital files. So what? As technology changes, so do the roles and relationships that the business side of music have to deal with the artists and the music. We have to change. We have to offer something that the artist cannot do by him or herself. It used to be in the industry that there was a pipeline from artist to label to critic to radio to retail to fan. That has blown up and now there are a million little niches all over the place. We need to be in as many niche areas as we can, but now more than ever, the label has to truly partner with the artist and the fans in order to get the music out. In fact, it makes me think of some ideas right now!
GB: Your label’s aren’t prototypically Chicago; the signings are from all over the US. What's your take on the Chicago scene?
Waterbug: I don't have one. For the folk scene, it used to be a vital urban club scene, and now it is more of a concert series in the suburbs scene. Either way, if you work continually, you can subsist. That doesn't change.
Fundamental Fundamental has been in a few places - hence the lack of focus! My take on the Chicago scene is that it's not really defined by the press as a scene — but it's a legitimate place for great indie music. I think sometimes that we like to define things so that we feel comfortable in saying we understand something, but a musical scene just happens where there are committed talented people making engaging music. One thing I am truly sad about, however, is the lack of many venues that are open to taking a risk on developing talent. I think economics many times forces venues to really take the low road musically. However, quality rises to the top. Great music is easy to find in Chicago, just like great beer! Other than Chicago blues, however, I don't think there's a certain Chicago sound or scene.
Devon Sproule (Waterbug)
GB: This one is just for Fundamental. You have a long, storied but interrupted history. What happened to cause a break in that timeline? When was the label brought back to life, and what future plans do you have for the back catalog?
Fundamental What happened was that the original founder, Richard Jordan, decided to go back to grad school and get a Doctorate in Irish History at LSU of all places. So in the late '90s — the releases petered out to a few here and there. I owned the Wildwood Agency — a management and booking company with multiple staff for 10 years — and the common thread was the Twin Cities' Urban Hillbilly Quartet which was still on Fundamental and booked by us. Being in the music industry is in my blood — I was a college DJ, festival promoter, producer, booking agent and manager — and a former artist. Richard and I started talking in 2000, and with Fundamental's rich history, I felt that it would be great to pump it up again. Plus in 2001, the booking industry was awful post-9/11. So it was very motivating to get going. Our first batch of releases came out in 2004 after many months planning and strategizing.
For the back catalog, we've been contacting most of the artists and discussing things with them. We're going to do a box set of the Colorblind James Experience — John Peel of BBC radio was a huge fan of theirs. We've got some material from Material (Bill Laswell) and a ton of other things. We're working on digitizing a number of back catalog releases. We also work with other labels like Broadmoor (the Autumn Defense, Healthy White Baby) and Backburner (Vic Chesnutt, Jack Logan) on getting their digital stuff out and about.
GB: This is for Waterbug. How does being based in Chicago affect the label since the most vibrant folk scene is typically seen to be in New England or maybe NYC?
Waterbug: There are opportunities in Chicago, and Rich Warren's Midnight Special is a very influential, and nationally syndicated radio show that's been extremely supportive, also we have the Folk Show on WNUR and George Brown on WDCB. It ain't bad here. We could use a good urban club.
Rachel Ries (Waterbug)
GB: What's your next project or the project your most excited about? Have you got any Chicago based artists waiting in the wings?
Waterbug: I'm working on a project of African-American secular and religious folksongs, rare songs mostly from out of print books, am looking for funding and starting to rehearse musicians for it. And practicing with my daughter Casey, who is a hell of a singer, for a duo project. The other next Chicago person, will be, I hope, a new one from Rachel Ries, whose songs do as much for my soul as any music there is. I'm not looking to add artists for the next long time, I imagine Devon Sproule's release will take off and keep me busy here.
Fundamental We're excited because we're not going to putting out 12 records this year like we did last year!! LOL. We're talking with an amazing songwriter named AJ Roach. We're putting together a children's label of good music, because it's really lacking out there. There are a couple of great artists we're going to be working with this year. In the Chicago area, we're putting out the next O'Neal and Wean record — love those guys stuff! And we're seriously considering The Record Low, who Steve Shirk turned us onto. Our young A&R spies loved them at the Metro a week ago and we'll be out at the Empty Bottle to see them. We're actually trying to turn inward on Chicago more — and the midwest to cultivate and develop local artists.