You'd never guess at a glance that the wood-paneled office in Barry Phipps's Goose Island recording studio houses a record label. It's only the size of a modest bedroom, with two desks taking up the bulk of the floor space, and it's tidy--there aren't unopened boxes of CDs stacked everywhere. This room isn't just the headquarters but also the printing press, manufacturing plant, and distribution center for Phipps's Tight Ship label: album art is designed and printed here, CDs burned and shrink-wrapped, orders filled and shipped.
Since the fall Phipps, best known as a member of the Coctails, has released five discs, mostly EPs, from locals like poet Thax Douglas, the Lesser Birds of Paradise, and Clyde Federal; in the works are titles from the Like Young and Bosco & Jorge. Phipps records, mixes, and masters each one in his studio, North Branch, taking advantage of lulls in his usual business. He doesn't charge the bands a cent: "The concept for me was to utilize the time and resources here that wouldn't get used otherwise," he says. Phipps is already turning a small profit, which he splits evenly with the bands. He sells the discs exclusively through tightshiprecords.com, and because he burns copies only as they're needed--when a Web order comes in, for instance, or a band wants a batch to sell at shows--he never sinks a pile of cash into a pressing of several thousand CDs that might end up sitting unsold.
Phipps also runs a mobile DJ business for weddings and parties, and Tight Ship's sole employee, Mary Nisi, works for that company as well. Photographer Andrew Collings, who met Phipps through a wedding job, is responsible for the cover images, each one a stylish band portrait shot against a featureless white backdrop.
Phipps has been half owner of North Branch since he and partner Jeff Hamand bought it in 2002, and so far his paying clients have included everyone from Otis Clay to Jeff Tweedy. He hit on the idea for the label because he was already using studio downtime for his annual holiday music project. Each December, when bookings are traditionally thin, he invites several dozen friends into the studio to help him write and record a CD, which he mails out as a musical Christmas card. Years earlier he'd also helped run the Coctails' boutique imprint, Hi-Ball, so label business wasn't foreign territory to him. He decided that he wanted the bands that he invited to record for Tight Ship--most of which have more formal relationships with other labels--to use it as a chance to break out of their established musical identities. "I don't want something that sounds like their records; I want them to be different," he says. "I want for it to be a one-off or an experimentation."
Most bands so far have had to squeeze all their recording into a 12-hour day or even just an afternoon--the Lesser Birds' EP was recorded "from 5:27 PM to 10:32 PM" and bears the catalog number 053104, for the date the band came in. This time limitation keeps overdubs to a minimum and helps Phipps get the results he wants: "Knowing you don't have the luxury to redo things over and over, you kind of automatically get something different than what most bands normally do," he says. Phipps initially invited musicians he'd collaborated with previously, like Bill Lowman of Bosco & Jorge, or bands he'd produced, like the Lesser Birds and the Like Young. "The rest of the artists are ones that I heard and sought out," he says.
Mixing and mastering usually add two more days to the process, after which Collings takes his photos and Phipps and Nisi get to work. "We have templates for the packaging, so we can punch in credits and song titles," says Nisi. "The whole layout is done in Illustrator; then we get out the shrink-wrap machine and finish it off."
Online business has been steady but modest, and so far Tight Ship has been able to make do with nothing but the CD burner in Phipps's PC. Each copy costs two dollars to make, half of that in printer ink; Phipps charges seven for an EP, ten for a full-length. "I immediately realized that by making the discs ourselves and limiting the distro to the Web site and shows, there's actually kind of a big profit margin," says Phipps. "The whole thing is as streamlined as possible."
A few distributors have expressed interest in putting Tight Ship discs on store shelves, but expanding into retail is at odds with Phipps's business philosophy. "What I would rather do is keep all the middlemen out of it," he says, "so that the bands and the label can actually make money."
A Record Label Called Record Label
Bobby Burg, guitarist for the Make Believe, has also released a stack of EPs in the past few months, all part of what he's calling the "Graduate Series." Burg runs the Record Label record label in Logan Square, and the first three artists in his series--Cex, Burg's Make Believe bandmate Tim Kinsella, and Ryan Rapsys, aka Euphone--inspired its title. "That was kind of a joke," says Burg. "Because just coincidentally the first three people I got to do it had been on Jade Tree at one point, so this was their graduation onto my label."
Record Label has been in business since 2000--earlier releases include discs from Burg's group the Love of Everything and Chin Up Chin Up, plus a few tour-only items from Kinsella's other band Joan of Arc--but it didn't really hit its stride till Southern Records signed on as exclusive distributor this fall. At about that time the Make Believe was taking a break from the road, and Burg decided to focus his energy on the label while he could. Though he hasn't adopted Tight Ship's business model, he does share Phipps's interest in releasing material that's atypical for an artist. "I have all these friends who want to be putting out different types of records than what their main bands do and aren't able to for some reason," he says.
Despite its in-your-face title, Kinsella's Crucifix Swastika is laid-back acoustic pop; Cex's Rjyan Kidwell debuts a grubby, proto-industrial live-band sound on Know Doubt; and on V, Rapsys chucks Euphone's post-rock arrangements in favor of more traditional song structures.
Alikeness, a piano-and-electronics EP from Parish School, the solo project of 90 Day Men and Ponys guitarist Brian Case, is due in mid-May. This summer Record Label plans to release its first full-length, Joan of Arc Presents Guitar Duets. "It's ten people that have played guitar in Joan of Arc at one point or another," says Burg. "We all got together and drew names out of a hat and paired up to record."
The initial pressings of the first three discs have sold out, but Burg doesn't yet know how many of those sales will evaporate when retailers start sending back returns. For now he's staying optimistic. "I'm hoping they do well enough that we can keep putting them out," he says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.