By Harrison Kadwit
Published: April 18, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Edited: April 20, 2014 at 7:20 p.m.

We recently traveled to an old church in Olympia, Wash. where we met with musician and producer Calvin Johnson in the headquarters of K Records, a label which he co-founded and now owns. Since K Records inception in 1982, Calvin has upheld his label’s motto to explode the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre. He records his own material in K's very own Dub Narcotic Studio (see: Beat Happening, The Hive Dwellers, The Sons of The Soil) and has produced the rank of Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Beck, Atlas Sound, The Microphones, and even that one dude Kurt Cobain.

For those of you familiar with Seattle's Sub Pop Records—home to Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Metz, Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and many more—you may know that the label began as a fanzine in 1979. The publication dedicated itself to decentralizing media through covering independent recordings of the north-western and mid-western United States. Calvin was there at the advent of Sub Pop and stepped up to help co-founder Bruce Pavitt operate what would later morph into one of the world's most renowned independent record labels. (Help yourself to archived samples of the fanzine here: Krecs.com/subpop.)

In this interview we discuss a wide number of topics with Calvin, including the miracle of the world-wide web, K’s business model (or lack thereof), a useful book he read about the music industry, and why we should bomb malls.

I read a Stylus interview where someone asked you about the history of K Records and you said no one cares. K stands for knowledge, so don’t you think it’s important to know the label’s history because it shapes the labels character?

Excellent. I’ll accept that. Some people (often in interviews) just ask a question because it seems like they should. Not that it matters to them, they only think they should ask it. Sometimes, if they ask that question, they’re not really paying attention to the answer. To me what matters is what we’re doing right now, I don’t care what we were doing 30 years ago.

What’s your take on punk today?

There are some good punk bands here in Olympia, one named Hysterics.

How about that band Gag?

I haven’t heard them a whole lot but I have their flexi disc.

What do you mean by flexi disc?

They have a record out on Perennial Records that’s a flexi disc, as opposed to a phonograph. It’s a piece of plastic. It’s similar to most phonograph records but much thinner.

Why didn’t they rise to prominence?

Not very durable and difficult to market. They’re mostly used for promotional purposes. A magazine might include a flexi disc because it’s lightweight and easy to package. A lot of magazines in the 1980’s and 90’s had them and would include a bonus song.

Do you think good lyrics sell records?

I’ve never paid attention to lyrics. Sometimes I sing along but I don’t mind if the words don’t make sense, it’s more fun that way. It makes more possibilities because you think, “How could this make sense?” I never read the lyrics if they’re available.

You talked with Ian Svenonius on his show for Vice, Soft Focus, and mentioned your affinity for the 45" record as a listening format. Artists would put their all into one or two songs, and that appealed to you particularly with K.

It still does, it’s the main way I consume music. It suits my lifestyle, like a bite-sized chunk. It’s powerful and digestible.

What is your lifestyle?

Man of action—I put on a record and listen to it then I’m on to the next. I don’t have time to sit around and listen to a 78 minute CD.

Do you enjoy that the Internet lends access to a large amount of music?

It’s very cool that people have these tools of communication and it certainly has opened a floodgate of creative expression.

How about K’s business model?

Hmm. Well, it’s more like an art project, for better or worse.

You’ve talked about SST Records and how you admired the number of albums they put out but then thought: quantity versus quality.

There’s lots of different ways to go about things. They had the opportunity to release many records and they did. Whether all those records were good or even worth releasing, that’s beside the point: they exist. People, who might appreciate them, have an opportunity to do so. Take a label like Folkways, they put out thousands of records and never advertised or promoted any of the releases. That’s what K has done. We make it available to those who may or may not be interested. In terms of being a record label, it’s only been a game; I’ve never had an interest in running a business. Some people are good at that, as an art form, but it’s not my forte.

Is there someone at K who focuses on marketing?

I should say it’s not our forte.

Corporations that own large record labels are also involved in the manufacturing of military weapons.

What do you think about someone like Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and his label, Merge Records?

He’s awesome. There’s a guy who has his head pulled out of his ass, he knows what he’s doing.

Do you know what you’re doing?

I’m pretty good at faking it.

When he started Merge with his band-mate Laura Ballance, their priority was to document music. They now market their releases to create excitement. How do people get interested if there isn’t the means for them to hear about a release?

There’s always the luck of the draw, you just never know. Let’s say you’re a kid in New Hampshire; you don’t have a record store in your city but somebody’s passing through. They have a CD in their satchel and while they stop in at a cafe for coffee, it falls out onto the sidewalk. You find it and say, “Woah! What the hell is this? A bunch of weird drawings and shit—check it out.” You bring it home, listen to it and really like it and find more about it.

Or maybe you just happen to be reading the New York Times and there’s an interview with an artist as part of a residency with the Ace Hotel. She mentions doing a show with a band called Wallpaper and the reader thinks: “What a strange band name,” and then looks them up. People find out about things in just the weirdest ways. It’s all accumulative, you can’t point to one thing. If you advertise in a magazine, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll sell x amount of records. This points to the other side of it—you can never do enough. When it comes down to it just do what you can do.

How important is it to you for people to hear the music on K?

See, that’s a good question. It’d be awesome if people actually listened to the music. That’s why if you go to our website, you can listen to any of our artists for free. It’s streaming 24 hours a day. If people want to hear the music, they should hear it. That’s the way I’ve always felt, and I remember when people said home taping was killing music. I thought it was spreading joy, it’s allowing access and access was always a big problem. Now you can listen... if you actually want to.

How do you feel about streaming services and how they pay artists?

It’s analogous to how much you would make if your song was played by radio. Radio stations pay to play: BMI and ASCAP, for example, any of the performing arts and rights societies. The music is then distributed to all members of that society. The amount of money an average artist makes from that is insignificant. The point is, maybe someone pays less by using streaming services, but it’s a way for people to hear music. It’s awesome.

I’d like to go back to the topic of radio for a minute.

I love radio. I listen to Olympia’s local station, KAOS, and various northwest stations. Just the other day I was on the phone with Karl Blau, he’s living in San Diego now. I couldn’t hear him well and asked, “What are you at a party?” He was like, “No! I’m listening to the radio, Jared Gramson’s show.” Jared’s an artist in a band called Solvents and has a radio show in Port Townshend. Because of the miracle of the world wide web, Karl could listen to his radio show live from San Diego.

How do you feel about major labels?

[Laughs]

The motto of K is: Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982.

It’s not just about the media conglomerates, it’s about a lifestyle that is overtaking our entire society. We have a supreme court that is handing them billions of dollars of public assets. I think that’s the most insidious threat to our freedoms: it has to do with the military industrial complex, the way our food is produced and distributed, insurance companies, all these different facets that take the power out of our ability to make our own decisions. For instance in Bellingham, where the local decision making bodies are trying to fight coal trains, corporations are attempting to go over their heads. That’s what corporations are trying to do but it’s exciting to see people stand up against that power.

Doug Martsch of Built to Spill said that while you don’t necessarily support major labels, you supported the idea of his band to signing to one.

Well, Doug is an artist that I have a great deal of respect for. He has a very clear vision about what kind of work he wants to do and is strong in his convictions. He’s able to assert himself in ways that a lot of other artists don’t feel comfortable doing. So, he has thrived in that major label environment because of that. Many people would have buckled in that environment a long time ago.

Would you consider working with their label Warner Brothers Records?

People always—or they used to—throw out the what if question about a major label and the fact of the matter is, it’s never going to happen. Nobody in that position is going to look at my band and say, “Oh, yeah, we can make a million dollars.” A corporation is there to make money for its stockholders; the people who work there have a responsibility to serve those stockholders. That’s what their decisions are based on, and I live in this other world where people make music because they like to.

I read that Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse would be playing music even if it was just in a shed.

And that’s exactly what Isaac did do, he lived in a shed. He also happens to be a really smart person, he understands people. He’s just a wonderful human being. It’s unusual to have a really talented musician that’s also a wonderful person.

Unusual?

It’s not as common as you would hope.

You once mentioned a book you read called Rock and Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry, published in 1977. How’d you find that book?

I just love rock and roll. That book talked a lot about major labels and their mergers. By 1977, many of them had collapsed into each other. Kind of like the computer companies, car companies, it’s all the same deal. Apple’s one of the major players in how we consume music. One of the things that interested me was that the corporations that own large record labels are also involved in manufacturing military weapons. It’s depressing but not surprising.

Do you consider yourself environmentally conscientious?

I do what I can. I recycle, it’s one of my hobbies.

Do you wonder whether it’s good to continue manufacturing physical music when a lot of it’s available online?

The answer to that is always going to be no but it’s also always going to be yes. What if we decided in 1960 that the world didn’t need any more phonograph records? We would have never heard The Beatles. It doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have existed, you just wouldn’t have heard them. Any record could be as great as The Beatles, why would I put out a record if I didn’t think so?

The real answer is immaterial. If K made a huge pile of all the records we’ve put out it would be a drop in the bucket of one day of military bullshit. Perhaps the world would be a better place if we hadn’t made any records; but, there are ways the world is a better place because we did. Is it worth it for you to have driven here to interview me? No. Then on the other hand, yes.

I see your point but think of the tragedy of the commons.

I think of the glory of the commons and celebrate it every day by walking down the street. I can scream, sing, and hand out flyers. At the mall, you can’t do any of those things. The street is dirty and filthy, there’s none of that at the mall. The commons is where there’s exciting life, dirty gum you can step on. At the mall they clean up gum before you can get your foot on it. I always had this idea that we should bomb the malls but it’s never caught on.

–S–

By Harrison Kadwit
Published: September 20, 2013 at 5:51 p.m.
Edited: September 23, 2013 at 3:23 p.m.

Tracking four albums in less than half a decade would burn most bands out to the point of dissolution. But rather than confine themselves to the typical two to three year release pattern, The Men choose to blitz listeners with a new album every 12 months. Overzealous? The Men think not. They have not only done it well but with the utmost prudence, firing a new release just as the ripples of its predecessor begins to fade. Impressive? Well, yes. Of course it is.

With astute lyricism and the hearty brunt of classic Americana, The Men, through their most recent and refined effort, "New Moon," yet again impressed critics across the board including nods from The Onion's A.V. Club, NME Media, Pitchfork and Spin Magazine.

Through employing new-found four-part harmonies, piano lines, mandolin, and harmonica, The Men have even earned comparisons to the likeness of Tom Petty. Not bad, for a band who just hit their fifth birthday.

SIGNED was able to catch up with frontman Mark Perro for an interview while he, and the band, were hightailing on the wings of their most recent release to discuss the withstanding wisdom of Bob Dylan, the difference between a self-release and label-release, and the aging model of modern day record labels.

What do you think is the single most important thing people ought to know about record labels?

The fact that at the end of the day, they are a business. There's plenty of examples of people at labels that truly do care about art and integrity and all that stuff... but the bottom line is these labels need to sell records in order to exist. So, there is a level where that does matter and it is going to affect how they operate and think. It's important to realize that especially as a band on a label. You exist on different planes but it’s true, it's kind of a co-dependent relationship. The label can do things for the artist that the artist could not do on their own and without the artist, the label would have nothing to do things for... but there is that separation. So when making decisions as an artist, all that shit, keep in mind where the label's motives are coming from.

Growing up, what knowledge did you guys have about record labels, if any?

We all grew up in the punk rock scene so major labels = bad. DIY = good. In one sense, I feel incredibly fortunate because I was exposed to that DIY mentality from a young age and was able to see that there are ways to exist outside of the major label system, outside of the corporate world, and still be a successful and functioning band.

When your band sat down to sign, what happened exactly?

It was pretty simple. I would imagine our relationship with Sacred Bones is not the typical band-label relationship. They are dear friends of ours and have been for a long time. So, it was a real natural thing. There was no courting, no fancy dinners or any of that crap. It was more like an agreement between friends to work together. We had self-released all of our own records up until that point and were planning on releasing “Leave Home” the same way. But, Caleb, the owner of Sacred Bones, offered to put out the record and we went with it. I don't think we even thought of it as "signing" to a label. There was no contract at that point. It was just an instance where this dude, our friend, liked the record and wanted to do it. We liked his label—we knew he was a good dude so we went with it. It's become more complicated since then but that's where it started and that's where the core of our relationship with the label is, that friendship. I feel really good about it.

However, I can say that labels have approached us and have tried to court us and quite honestly, it's real sleazy. These are people that want to be a part of something that is proven and that has some cache or buzz attached to it—it's not based on love or art—it's based on being able to sell records. The problem with that is if you're not selling records, you are worthless to these people. That's a terrible relationship to be in. 

An mp3 sounds like shit, straight up, but that’s the main way people listen to music now.

Besides Sacred Bones, were there any other alternatives to sign with in mind?

There were other options but none that we considered seriously. As I said, I think we have a special relationship with Sacred Bones because it runs a little deeper than just "we sell a bunch of records together.” When we first started working with them, we didn't sell records. We were a band that no one really knew about outside of the punk rock world so the bond we formed was based on friendship and it was about the music. Luckily, things have worked out really well since that point and I believe that bond will still be there however this thing ends up turning out.

How do you feel self-releases contrast with label releases?

Well a decent label can do things that you just can't do as a band: distribution, making it available to people, things that when you get to a point as an artist you just can't do. We tour constantly, are constantly writing new music, working on music etc. and to throw in that business end of distributing and producing records—it’s too much. It's a full time job, so I'm happy to have those duties handled by people we trust and respect.

What do you believe is the number one most important role a label should play?

I think the number one role a label should play is to make it possible for the band to focus on their music, freely, without the label exerting their influence on how it should sound or what it should be. To work with the band so that the band can grow artistically and not worry about the more business end of making records. Allowing the band freedom is mutually beneficial—creative freedom leads to better music, which will ultimately lead to better records and more sales.

How often do you feel like labels have a hand in determining where a band decides to record or which engineer they end up working with? Has that at all been part of your experience being signed?

Unfortunately, I think most times. I'm not saying the label shouldn't be involved in the process at all, but ultimately, these decisions should be made by the artist. The artist is the one making the music and they should be able to decide how that is going to happen. Now, with that said, we've definitely been given feedback from our label and we appreciate it. There are times when we even ask for it. But ultimately, the decisions are always up to the band and that's one of the main reasons we love working with Sacred Bones. They support us as artists and give us the freedom to make the music we want to make, the way we want to make it.

Record labels were invented 100 years ago. How do you think the industry has changed since then?

Well, the internet definitely changed things. Physical formats have changed—78s, 45s, 33s, eight tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now mp3s. You have these waves of technology that influence what the label can sell and what they can sell it for. It changes how the music sounds. An mp3 sounds like shit, straight up, but that is the main way people listen to music now. I think that's sad—that appreciation is lost and there are ramifications that follow. If the listening experience is not high quality, it's going to domino effect back to the creation and the creation will suffer. Bob Dylan was talking about recording technology one time and he was commented how in the 60's every record sounded good because at the time the technology did not surpass what the artist could actually do. It was about the music and what was actually being performed. Now, with digital recording and pro-tools and garage band you can manipulate music in ways you should never be able to. You don't need to know how to play in order to make a record. You don't even need to know how to record in order to make a record. The learning curve and that self-check evolution system has been abandoned. Most records now stink and most bands can't play. They don't need to.

And what are your thoughts on the future of record labels?

They need to adapt to the changing times or they won't be around much longer.
 

—S— 

By Harrison Kadwit
Published: August 6, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.
Edited: August 12, 2013 at 11:42 p.m. 

Despite focusing the bulk of their monthly energy on reeling out 20 to 25 online video shorts in the name of fair comedy, Mike Farah and his production team of 25 at Funny or Die have recently managed to tie musicians into the mix. Questlove, RZA, Neko Case, Chan Marshall and Ben Gibbard have all been featured showing off their comedic chops over the course of the last few years. This along with Farah’s recent adventure to the White House—where he met with President Barack Obama and his Senior Advisor, Valerie Jarrett, to discuss ideas for a video campaign to encourage young people to embrace The Affordable Health Care Act (aka, Obamacare)—presented SIGNED with a rare opportunity to conduct an interview with someone who can bridge the gap between the changes going on in the record industry and the world of online video.

While questioning Farah over the phone, we could not help but ask whether his initial encounters with Funny or Die co-founders Will Ferrell and Adam Mckay (who together co-wrote blockbusters Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights) and travels to the White House ever left him star struck and dazed. Farah simply replied by saying, “They’re just people I work with.” Farah even admitted to a preference for staying in L.A. whenever possible because he says he can get more work done that way. Personally, we guess it might be difficult to stray far from home-base when your job entails working with the likes of Natalie Portman, James Franco, Amy Poehler, and even the much esteemed star of Two and a Half Men, Charlie Sheen.  

Have any of the artists that have worked for Funny or Die been opposed to not being paid or tried to negotiate any kind compensation?

No, most of them just see it as a promotional tool that’s promoting their song or album or bringing them to a new audience. We don’t really pay people to do that stuff because we feel like we’re bringing a lot to the table that’s more valuable than say, $500. So no, that’s not something that comes up too often.

With Funny or Die, artists are willing to sacrifice being paid in exchange for exposure and to reach a different kind of audience. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any apparent outcry from fans that the artists are being ripped off, whereas with streaming services such as Spotify, even though artists are being paid poorly, they are nonetheless being paid.

The main difference is that Spotify is cashing on what musicians do, which is make music…but the vast majority of musicians are not in the world of comedy. So if they’re taking two or three hours to make a Funny or Die video for exposure, it’s something that I think fans appreciate and think is cool. If they were coming in 30 hours a week and working on something there might be more of an argument about paying people.

It seems Funny or Die has capitalized on free content in an age where the record and film industry are still in the process of figuring out how to deal with illegal downloading and torrenting. How do you think either industry could learn from Funny or Die?

Everything is just an artist driven model now. Whether you go out and create a three minute comedy video or a three minute song, you’re going to try and spread that to as many people as possible. From a purely content perspective, I think music and video sites kind of look at that the same way. What’s different with music is that once you get to a certain level and you’re signed and have an album and there are things like Spotify,  iTunes and Pandora which are these infrastructures in which to monetize that—that’s something video doesn’t really have, yet. And it’s interesting, because everything online video-wise is essentially free unless it’s something from the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal—which is something they deem “proprietary information” and want people to subscribe to see. I think Funny or Die will always be free.

Personally I think music has gotten a lot better. They [the industry] just got hit so hard 15 years ago with Napster and were caught totally off-guard by the digital revolution. It’s not like T.V. or movies wouldn’t have been caught off guard either; T.V. and movies are just longer than three minute songs, thus making it harder for people to steal them. Music just got kind of got burned by the nature of how short songs are and then online video didn’t become a real popular thing until YouTube made it very easy. I think music has done a better job trying to organize these things—obviously there’s still ways to steal music if you want to—but just from a consumer point of view the idea of paying for digital music is much more accepted now than it was 10 years ago.  

Watch: Documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Napster

In terms of the typical functions of a record label—digital distribution, publicizing, promotion, incurred costs of recording and manufacturing—what similarities or comparisons could be made to Funny or Die and how it operates?

I’ve never worked at a record label but I imagine it’s very similar. We do our own distribution, our own marketing, we have to raise our own money and invest it in things we believe in, we have to build out an audience and make sure we’re servicing them; it seems like thematically there are a lot of similarities.

It almost sounds like more of an independent record label opposed to a major record label?

Yeah. We’re still very much a start-up and it’s still very important to us to have all departments talking together to make sure we’re making the most of what we’re doing. I think that you want to be big enough to get stuff done but you want to stay small enough to remain very nimble.

One of the most interesting things to me about Funny or Die is how some of your advertising is through product placement in your videos, but in a very tongue and cheek kind of way. For example, Zach Galifianakis busted out a Speed Stick deodorant in the middle of one of his Between Two Ferns episodes and rubbed it on his armpits. People understand what’s happening, that it’s an ad, but it’s like the humor cancels it out. I’m wondering how musicians might be able to do something to that effect in their videos without having to face the onslaught of criticism that often comes with selling songs to T.V. shows and car commercials. Does that sound like something that might be viable?

It’s definitely viable. I think when it works it’s kind of what you just said. There is some advertising, there is some sponsorship but you don’t mind because hopefully you’re having a good time watching it. Musicians are no different and I think that’s part of what we’re going to try and do is, now that we’ve built up a foundation of working with lots of different acts and people see the value in it, I think there’s ways, hopefully organically and very still true the spirit of the partnership, to team up and have some brand involvement. I don’t know the stats but I know lots of big indie bands and probably even more mainstream bands are making money by having product placement in their videos. So if through Funny or Die we can take that to the next level engagement wise, by keeping it funny and keeping it cool—which are the challenges of doing that kind of thing—so that it becomes more than just something fun but another way for fans to support the artist in getting their music out there.

How effective is social media as a platform for driving the bottom line? Particularly in the case of Funny or Die, where your revenue mainly stems from advertisers and venture capitalists?

Well I think social media is just another tool to help drive revenue. It’s a fancy word to talk about now, but unless you have content and ideas and things that people want you won’t have the social media to back it up. It’s all a part of the pie that’s part of the conversation going on with online advertisers.

Do you feel like social media is just as viable within the record industry or that it’s more advantageous for a digital age company like yourselves?

Well I think forward thinking musicians and labels can certainly embrace it, there’s nothing stopping people who have content from sharing it and hopefully that turning into more people liking it and equating to more opportunities for everyone. It’s not rocket science, these things, it just takes a certain attitude and culture and persistence to get good at and turn into an asset. 

I know of a record label owner who is skeptical to invest his companies’ limited resources in social media because there is this kind of skepticism about how much it will actually drive the bottom line, how much “likes” and “tweets” actually equate to revenue.

What’s that expression? Something like, “50 percent of advertising works, I just don’t know which half.” So who’s to say? Social media could help. It isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so no use diverting away your attention from it. It’s only going to get bigger and more impactful. It doesn’t take much, and that’s the beautiful thing. If you’re doing it well, a lot of people, your fans, end up doing the work for you. Just think how expensive ads probably are or used to be in the Rolling Stone or The New York Times—probably one of those ads could pay the bright smart kid who’s 22 and has grown up on social media and is leading an independent label—it could probably pay for a year’s worth of salary. All things considered, it's way cheaper compared to the way it used to be, especially when the right person or company is sharing content that the fans can help spread and advance.

You have to be smart about where you’re at and how you’re communicating but ultimately it’s just another way to get your product out and you shouldn't ignore any of those ways. We’re a digital age company: We're not held back by conventions that have been built up for the last 50 or 60 years. We definitely cultivate and engage with an audience that turns into this community of people that hopefully enjoy what we make and share it so those things can grow organically. It’s not always just promotional, it’s putting a voice behind [Funny or Die], a kind of lifestyle that makes it feel trusted.

Shifting gears—you know that “Dressing Room Sessions” video you did with Neko Case?

Yeah I thought that was a funny video. 

Is that something Funny or Die plans to do more of, working with musicians?

Actually doing more music inspired videos or music videos or a combination thereof is a huge priority of ours. We’ve done stuff with Macklemore, Odd Future, the premiere of that Matt and Kim music video that did really well, Flea [Red Hot Chili Peppers], Questlove, Tegan and Sara. And yeah, musicians are always looking for a way to get their music out and if we can do something that’s funny and unexpected and taps into their fans and taps into our audience, it’s a win-win.

 

—S—