Jun 17, 2009, 05:49AM


The new label from Carrboro, NC is off and running, with three excellent full-length releases so far this year.

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The following audio was included in this article:
The following audio was included in this article:
The following audio was included in this article:

The Kingsbury Manx were finishing up their fifth LP last year and getting ready to send it to labels and endure, once again, the cycle of uncertainty, miscommunication, and frustration that so many bands expect when putting out their work. But keyboardist Paul Finn, drawing on his own experiences working at other labels and looking for an opportunity to release some of the great music in the band’s North Carolina scene, decided it was time to follow through on a longstanding goal, and he founded Odessa Records.

The fifth Manx record, Ascenseur Ouvert!, was the first Odessa release, and it was followed on May 12 by two debut LPs: Impossible ArmsRipped in No Time, and Pretzelvania by Americans in France. Odessa’s inaugural releases encompass gently-strummed sing-alongs, pounding Crazy Horse-style scuz-rock, and arty song suites, but they’re all unified by a certain restless energy and enthusiasm. All three groups are currently touring, and a 7” single from Spiderbags is on the way this summer.

The Kingsbury Manx, "Well, Whatever"

SPLICE TODAY: When did the initial idea for a record label occur to you? How long does it take, and what are the steps, to founding a record label from scratch?

PAUL FINN: The idea for starting a label has been with me for some time, years even. But for some reason at the end of 2008 was when I decided it was time.

Americans in France and Impossible Arms had finished their records, and I knew if I didn’t start a label right away, someone else would grab those records. So I hopped to it.

As far as what it takes and the steps—I am sure those are completely different for each label. But for me, I had spent a considerable part of my adult life working at record labels—Drag City first, and later Merge. So I had experience from that side and knew some of the general dos and don’ts. The label itself is still developing and that’s the thing – all labels I know of are constantly changing and growing so it’s always a work in progress.

ST: I know Kingsbury Manx has been on a few different labels throughout your career. How did your experiences with those companies inform your approach to Odessa? What lessons, good and bad, did you take from the Manx's experience?

PF: That’s a tough one. I know for the Manx, we’ve always just wanted transparency and to be understood for who we are. In this setup it’s almost impossible to miss that, since I’m in the band. If someone in the band has an idea about how to approach something or conversely, isn’t happy with how something is going, I’m right there. I’ll be at band practice, so there’s no delay or evasion.

Howard from Overcoat, [the label that] released the first three Manx records, was a friend of mine from before my Manx days. He’s helped me out a lot over the years, and I watched him develop his labels All City and Overcoat in the early days. I remember him playing the first Manx demo for me and being like “This is crazy, because these guys are completely unknown, but I’m going to sign them.”

So its fair to say without an Overcoat, there probably never would have been an Odessa. And to this day Howard is indispensable when it comes to advice and helping me out.

ST: It's a bizarre time in general for the music industry, as labels seem to lack a coherent opinion about the best release formats. Some are vinyl and digital only, while others, particularly the majors, are CD-focused while emphasizing ringtones and newer technology. Were you following any particular models with Odessa's release formats?

PF: I’m going to get pretty nerdy on this, but I can’t resist. There’s that line in Lord of The Rings where someone says to Frodo, “You don’t get to choose what times you are born in.” In the same way, would I prefer to start a label in the best economic climate? Of course! Do I have that option? No! We are in weird time, for sure, but Americans in France is a band happening right now, in the midst of this weird time, so there’s nothing to be done about but work your hardest and hope for the best.

I also think the only thing you can do in uncertain times is to keep creating art and see what happens. For myself, my preference is vinyl and I know a lot of people like that and those are mainly the people that I am catering to. At the same time, you have to offer CD and Digital as options, so I’m doing that as well, and I’ll just wait and see where that ends up.

I remember when I first started working at Drag City, doing inventory, and noticing very clearly where the cassette format ended—for Drag City, the Palace record Viva Last Blues. But that was 1994 or thereabouts—that wasn’t that long ago! I remember Dan [Koretzky], the Drag City owner, being like “We were so glad when we could lose a format and just settle on CD and LP.” And here we are again, and its looking like CD is about to be the cassette and Digital is the CD. But who knows? I think that CD had a longer run of popularity than cassette ever did, and there’s going to be people – it’s in their routine to buy CDs and listen to music that way, and the only thing that’s going to change that is if the availability disappears.

So right now, my focus is LP, with CD & Digital. As things change, I’ll react. One thing I won't move away from regardless is LP, unless all the plants close, or they become so expensive it’s an impossibility for anyone smaller. Which I really hope never happens.

Ringtones—I have no interest in them whatsoever. I remember back in the days I was in Spiderbags, someone at a label who was interested in the band said “Blah blah blah and oh yeah—ringtones.” And I knew the second I heard that phrase uttered that this person was completely full of shit. And it has proven true.

ST: Your first three artists all take very different approaches to their sound, but they're all generally identifiable as rock bands. Is this something you think about? Are there any hopes for Odessa to branch out to different genres and sounds?

PF: In my next three releases, two of them are a little more out there and away from the rock sound and the third is straight up rock. I love rock and roll and the various subgenres contained therein, so that will always be my focus, but I’m open to anything. I don’t foresee releasing too much jazz, classical, or hip-hop but who knows? Never say never. I was at a bar last night and the bartender was playing a soul/R&B demo that a local guy had given him—he had recorded himself at home. Ands the bartender, Lee, said, “This should be the next Odessa release.” I laughed at first because it was so different then anything I have done. But the more I listened to it, I liked it and thought to myself, he’s right—it doesn’t matter the genre, if it’s good that’s what counts.

Impossible Arms, "Gonna Move"

ST: What are your plans for making the label grow? Are you focused on attracting more artists, or on getting the existing artists' names out there? What's the business plan, exactly, for a startup like this?

PF: There is already so much good music that I have access to that I would like to release. But I have to be realistic as well and let the label grow organically. It’s not cheap to run a label and the returns are uncertain, so I’m going to proceed with caution in the sense that I‘m not going to release three records a month every month, at least not at first.

Its also important that the handful of artists I’m working with get their fair shake, and when a label has too many artists on the roster—well every time each one is getting a little less, right? I think there’s a happy medium. Right now I’m flying by the seat of my pants to some degree.

I have already had about three records come my way via friends or friends of friends, ones that I have absolutely loved, but have to say ‘No” to just out of sheer practicality. The business plan is that it’s not, at the end of the day, about business, it’s about music. That is the thing that theorists in the industry always seem to forget about. Regardless of formats changes, the economy, any of it, I know that people will still keep making music, and people will still keep wanting it one way or another.

To me, the artwork of the record is inseparable from the music contained therein—but I know that’s considered a kind of old fogey sentiment. So we appease both sides and see how it works out. I will say I’m not as interested in selling files as I am LPs. It seems kind of boring to just sell files.

My main plan has been to keep costs down as long as it’s not sacrificing quality. That’s a technique I definitely saw put in practice at the places I’ve worked. I’d like to think that I spend money on the things that count and ignore the things that don’t. I try to be as realistic as possible with the bands I work with, but encouraging at the same time. If I can keep my overhead low, then it may just work out. I’d love to have a place to work out of right now. The little apartment I share with my wife is getting a bit overrun and difficult to work in. But at this point to start renting a place adds overhead I can’t afford. So I’ll keep working out of here as long as it’s possible. It seems minor, but those are the places where it can get out of hand, and that’s just one example of many—the whole do-more-with-less attitude.

I read a really cool quote in Tape Op where one of the recording engineers said, “I don’t do this to make money, I make money to do this.” I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly and if one day down the line, I actually make any money I will be able to actually to quote that sentiment and mean it.

ST: Are there any labels, past or present, that you'd like to emulate for whatever reason? Your website mentions Odessa has “a focus on (but not limited to) the thriving music scene of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro/Durham area of North Carolina.” Any other labels you can think of that focused on a specific scene while still engaging a wider audience? Maybe the early Sub Pop?
PF: There are probably a lot, but off the top of my head; Touch and Go, Drag City, Merge for their business practices and having an identity that is unique to each label.
Dischord in some way influenced the idea of focusing on the region, same with early Sub Pop as you mentioned. I liked that Sub Pop initially focused on the Seattle scene, and then started to branch out not only in a national/international way but in the kinds of bands they started to sign. They continue to grow, and I think that is key to a label staying interesting.
I've mentioned this before, but the greater Chapel Hill/Durham area is fertile with bands and music—and good ones at that. But I don't want to limit myself to any self-imposed rules, like “the band has to be from here.” The bottom line is whether I like the music and think it fits with what I am doing.

Americans in France, "Mkele Mbebe"
ST: With media outlets all in flux, where does a startup label like yours look for advertising possibilities? Are you putting ads on the bigger sites, or just trying for a word-of-mouth viral thing from the beginning?

PF: I haven't done a lot of advertising, and don't have a lot of plans to engage in that way. I have done some, in magazines that I have an affinity for: Big Takeover, Magnet and Galactic Zoo Dossier. I would say I am mostly relying on word of mouth.
I'm just trying to use my gut instincts and try and put content out there. It may take some time, but that's okay. I've never been one to think it was worth it to take out an expensive ad. At the same time, the magazines I like, I want to support them because feel like we're in it together. I've been turned on to plenty of good music by those venues.
At the end of the day, I feel like advertising is about creating an awareness and giving some information, but its usually aimed at the people who may have already heard something.
I remember reading about the Monkees movie Head, and about how the ad campaign was super bizarre. They ran these short commercials that were just a close-up of some guy's head and the soundtrack was a collage of sounds and someone saying "Head" over and over. The ads never mentioned the Monkees and gave no information whatsoever. Of course, the movie tanked. But I still love that idea—someone chose to do something interesting, and in the short term it failed miserably! I'd like to think I might have it in me to fail like that, because I think artistically it was a great success! That kind of influenced my t-shirt design for the label. It is just the logo, with no info, no website, etc. A bunch of the people I work with at the restaurant bought them from me - probably out of sympathy. I like the idea of a disparate group of people walking around town wearing these shirts and after a point people probably thinking, "What is that?” I could have easily written "records" on it and it would have made all the difference, but I like the mystery and hope other people appreciate that too.
Here's another tangent regarding word of mouth. When I was in college, I had a philosophy professor I really looked up to. “He expanded my mind, man.” I wanted to give something back so I made him this cassette mix of all this early Drag City stuff—this is 1992, 1993, and well before I worked there. It had Royal Trux and Smog and some other crazy obscure stuff on there. I used to mail-order it directly from the label and felt like it was my little secret and that was fun. So I gave the tape to my professor and he had zero interest—“I only listen to classical and jazz, rock and roll is for teenagers” kind of attitude. It crushed me, because I was thinking “No, this stuff is great, it's art and nobody knows about it—I’m trying to turn you on to the underground.” But he wasn't having it. I ended up giving the tape to an older guy I worked the night shift stocking shelves at Toys R Us with as a thank you for rides home at 6 in the morning. He loved it, and he ended up really getting into a different kind of music than he would otherwise be exposed to. If that sort of stuff happens with the artists I'm putting out records by, I'll feel like we've accomplished something. Music is supposed to be fun, and I think it’s really easy to get bogged down by the “industry” side of it.

Stream music and learn more about Odessa at their website.

  • Great interview with some interesting nitty-gritty detail about small labels. With musicians like these around, plus others like Bowerbirds and Lost in the Trees, plus Merge, creme de la creme of indie labels --- seems like a pretty solid music community in the general Research Triangle area. Makes me feel better about moving there in a few months!

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