J : Can you give me a simple description of your record label? Say,
if I was someone’s mother and asked you,
S : We are an independent record label in Olympia, Washington. If I was really speaking to your mom…Many people’s moms have a really hard time understanding what an independent record label does. They go…”Oh, so you record bands? Where is your studio?” For some reason they always seem to get their head around it easier if I say, “it’s like…there’s Holt & Rhinehart who publish books, but there are also other people who publish books, who are, just like, regular people. Well, it’s just like that, except it’s for records. We’re not the big companies, we’re the small companies. But until I give them the book analogy they never get it.
J : Then the next thing they say is,”Oh, don’t those companies become really famous? Some day you’re going to be Motown.”
S : Yeah.
J : What makes Kill Rock Stars different from other small labels?
S : Well, what we try to shoot for, in theory, is to be the closest thing to putting a release out yourself without having to actually put it out yourself. We’re very artist-oriented in terms of freedom. We don’t do what some other labels do like telling their bands what songs to use or where to record or what producer or art to use. We let the bands set the price, within reason. We let them spend the money involved how they want, within reason. We split the profits with them so they share financially in any dumb decisions they might make. So then we don’t have to get into an adversarial relationship with them where they want to do something but we have to say no because it will cost us money and not cost them money. We’re just really artist-friendly. We’re part of an underground community of people who like this kind of music where it’s not so much about how popular a band is, but how much you like them. Which is very different from major labels that are really focused on selling nine million copies of one record. We’d rather sell a thousand copies of nine thousand different bands.
J : How long have you done it?
S : Eight years.
J : Has it gotten easier to run the label?
S : When we put out a record it ranges between selling 800 and 75,000 copies. That’s the realm we move in. Our label has been kinda weird because we started selling a lot of records pretty fast. The Kill Rock Stars compilation has a lot of bigger bands on it and then Bikini Kill got something happening really fast. And then Huggy Bearand Bratmobile and then Unwound. Unwound didn’t sell a lot of records when they started but by their third album the sold a lot. Then 1995 was really bad and then in 1996 sales picked up a whole lot with Elliot Smith and Sleater Kinney. I don’t think we’ve leveled off yet. I know that downward arch that independent labels go through and I do think it’s going to happen to us, I just think it will happen next year or the year after that. We’ve grown every year so far. But I doubt if we’ll continue to grow.
J : How long have you been working with your distributor,
S : 7 years.
J : One of the observations I would make, with no disrespect to the quality of the artists on your label, is that you wouldn’t have be able to sustain such a successful label without working with such a great distributor.
S : Yeah, that was huge.
J : Can you tell the readers of this interview why Mordam is such a great distributor to work with?
S : Well, If you distribute yourself it’s hard to get paid. What Mordam has done is to put twenty small labels together. That way, between the twenty labels, most months we have some releases that they (the distribution chains) want to buy in our strong, collective catalog. So distributors and stores pretty much have to pay us because we’ve got enough product that’s important to them that they want to stay in our good graces. Mordam is also really smart about balancing risk with opportunity so you don’t get wiped out when one of your distributors goes out of business and doesn’t pay their debts.
Mordam began as a group of 20 small labels but now it’s 20 labels including some that are pretty large, like Lookout and Alternative Tentacles. In the last few years Mordam’s been able to use that power to reach into chain stores, as there has been less opportunity to sell to the mom and pops. That means maybe we can be accused of contributing to the death of the mom and pops, I guess, because we got more vigorous about being in all the chains. Or maybe it means that we’re just reacting to something that is inevitable and ultimately out of our control. I don’t know.
J : Did you have any experience trying to get into the chains before you worked with Mordam?
S : No, I really doubt that we were in any chains before we worked with Mordam. We were not in many chains for a while after we started working with them too. Mordam got a lot better at it, and so did Caroline (another distributor). A lot of our stuff doesn’t just go straight to the chains from Mordam but it goes to Caroline and then to the chains. Mordam really respects us; they treat us the same way that we treat our artists. They are very label-oriented ad understand that our primary motive may not be making money. It might be something else, it may be aesthetics or it may be politics or whatever else and they are very respectful of that.