Kranky and Proud of It
Much has been made of the heroics of those who put out records for love rather than money. But the truth--from personal experience--is that if half of those people had known ahead of time even a few of the pitfalls of the enterprise, they probably wouldn't have bothered.
Bruce Adams and Joel Leoschke were already among those who should've known better when they founded their label, Kranky, in 1993. The two men became friends while working at the local offices of Cargo, which as a major distributor of releases by small and independent labels gave them firsthand experience with the difficulties faced by start-ups. In five years as Cargo's domestic buyer Leoschke had seen labels squander precious time and money on excessive and unfocused publi-city and advertising, add indiscriminately to the glut of seven-inch singles, and kill themselves with overambitious release schedules. And before coming to Cargo, Adams had gathered insight working in radio and music retail and as a publicist for Touch and Go.
Still, when the self-released debut single by Labradford, an unknown duo from Richmond, Virginia, crossed their desks one afternoon, Adams and Leoschke knew what they had to do. Within a few days, they had called the band and offered to put out a full-length. They named the label after what they proudly identify as their common distinguishing personality trait: "Curmudgeon had too many syllables--got to keep it short and snappy," says Leoschke. A promotional bumper sticker made during the label's early days read honk if you hate people too.
Labradford's debut album, Prazision, was ambient music for indie rockers, blissfully devoid of both high-gloss digitalia and New Age goo--a series of drifting, beatless soundscapes created with analog synthesizers and heavily treated guitar. It wasn't music that would ever captivate a mass audience, but it did establish an aesthetic that would make Kranky a known entity in a select subset of households. Labradford's dreamy, sometimes caustic nature informs almost everything else the label has put out, from the droning space rock of Jessamine to the low-tech ambience of Stars of the Lid to the smoldering psychedelic folk rock of Dissolve. And like Labradford, most of the groups use at least some traditional instruments, like guitar, piano, and organ, to conjure these waking-dream sound tracks.
Early on Adams and Leoschke contemplated signing one hard-rocking band (which they would identify only as a "raucous, nominally lo-fi" punk outfit from Columbus), but the deal didn't go through. They've since concentrated on expanding their niche in subtler increments. "At a certain point, an aesthetic started to congeal," says Adams. "I always think of it as the intersection where our tastes overlap with the economic possibilities of who we can work with."
Oddly, until August not a single Chicago band fit that bill, and it's only by accident that exactly one does now: the newest citizen of Krankyville is Pan-American, a side project of Labradford guitarist Mark Nelson, who moved to Chicago over the summer to be with his girlfriend, a student. (He'll be returning to Richmond in a few months to make a new Labradford album.) Pan-American's eponymously titled debut, which lays delicate guitar lines, mournful organ swells, and whispered vocals over very un-Labradford-like dub grooves, came out this week.
Despite their almost recreational negativity, after five years and 25 albums Leoschke and Adams are the satisfied owners of a modestly successful, uncompromised business. They've wisely avoided exclusive distribution deals--which, though they can seem flattering, effectively limit distribution of smaller acts. They favor bands that keep production costs low, and they've avoided releasing singles and EPs, which cost as much to make as LPs but sell for less. "You have to think capitalistically and be profit motivated," says Adams.
Though Kranky has yet to support either owner--Adams works in shipping at Facets Multimedia Center and Leoschke works part-time at Reckless Records--it does operate in the black, and eight new releases are already slated for this year. "We've carved out our little bit of territory," says Adams, "and probably in the way the queen of Holland feels, there's a sense of accomplishment in that."
In last month's issue of Harper's, Baffler editor and Reader contributor Tom Frank let well-heeled liberals in on a joke previously known only to his friend Chris Holmes: that Holmes's wildly overhyped "ork-pop" band, Yum-Yum, was not a sincere vehicle for the making of music but an elaborate piece of conceptual art designed to expose the playability of the media and the music industry. Thank heavens nobody bought Yum-Yum's album--because I have a feeling that if it had gone platinum or something we might never have become privy to this devastating prank. If you can't find a copy of the article, never fear: the hilarious illustrated distillation posted on March 27 by the on-line magazine Suck (www.suck.com/daily/98/03/27/1.html) is really all you need. For those who still care, Holmes is currently at work on the Atlantic debut from his techno project, Ashtar Command.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joel Leoschke and Bruce Adams photo by Marty Perez.