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Little Label, Big Problems

Jim Baker and Michael Zerang/ Just Wanted to Believe

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In February, Chicago sound artist Lou Mallozzi was preparing for a short European tour. Among the tasks on his checklist was to obtain 30 or 40 copies of his first CD, Radiophagy, to sell after performances. But he was having trouble getting in touch with Adam Paul Vales, who'd released the album in July 1997 on his label, Eighth Day Music, and neither Mallozzi nor acquaintances in other parts of the country could even find copies to buy back from the shops that were supposed to be carrying it. Mallozzi knew his cerebral, rigorously experimental work wouldn't be flying off the shelves, and with an initial pressing of 1,000, he couldn't understand why no one seemed to have it in stock.

After ignoring at least 12 E-mails, faxes, and phone calls, Vales finally admitted to Mallozzi that 800 copies of Radiophagy were sitting, unpaid for, at Monsterdisc, the Chicago plant where they'd been manufactured. Mallozzi persuaded Vales to let him go to Monsterdisc himself and purchase as many copies of the CD as he needed. "I decided the best thing to do was just to buy all of them, which I did by paying Adam's bill," says Mallozzi. The $1,100 "was money that I didn't have on hand, and I'm still paying off my credit card." The CDs have since been released, with stickers over the Eighth Day Music logo, by Penumbra, the label operated by Wisconsin instrument inventor Hal Rammel.

Nearly every artist once affiliated with Vales has a similar story. This Wednesday at the Empty Bottle, percussionist Michael Zerang and keyboardist Jim Baker will celebrate the release of a beautiful new double CD, The Earth Sessions, which was made for Eighth Day in September 1996 but has only just come out--on the local Boxmedia label. A Meeting in Chicago, by Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, and Kent Kessler, has been released by Okka Disk; a couple albums by Bay Area clarinetist Ben Goldberg have been released by Tzadik and Victo; Seikazoku, a Japanese experimental outfit featuring Tatsuya Yoshida from Ruins, took its Out Takes '66-'78 (recorded in '96) to the French label Fractal; and in coming months at least three more projects recorded for Eighth Day will be released on other imprints.

Vales, who was young and had no previous music-business experience but was generous with funds for recording, started Eighth Day Music auspiciously enough in March 1996 by releasing the debut album by Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams's reed duo, Cinghiale. Within the year, he'd followed up with records by Fred Lonberg-Holm, Broken Wire, Steam, Jack the Dog, Debris, Jenny Magnus, and a few others. But after the first year the label developed a reputation more for what it hadn't done than for what it had. Vales claims his distributors didn't pick up every title and that they often failed to reorder those they ran out of. He also says local record shops, which carried Eighth Day releases on consignment, didn't call him to reorder sold-out titles. But Jimmy Johnson, who distributes a lot of independent experimental music through the Massachusetts-based Forced Exposure, says he carried every record the label released and reordered several sold-out titles to no avail. Dave Kuner, assistant manager of Jazz Record Mart, says he too called but Vales rarely replenished their stock.

"I think he had a good time writing checks, and then when he had a bunch of records to sell it was no longer very interesting," says Lonberg-Holm, whose In Zenith trio with Zerang and Jeb Bishop was cut for Eighth Day but will be released soon by a Swiss label.

Part of the problem, Vales and the artists agree, was that Vales's money ran out long before he saw any return on his considerable investments. But the artists say they could have forgiven his financial shortsightedness if he had simply been straight with them. Instead, says Zerang, "he just shut down and didn't respond to anybody. With this kind of music if someone came up to me and said, 'Look, I can't do it, I don't have the money,' it wouldn't be the end of the world. The hard part was being dragged out, in my case, for a good nine months, from the time he knew it wasn't going to happen to the time he admitted it and I got my stuff back."

In order to get the "stuff"--master tapes and sleeve artwork--Zerang had to show up unannounced at Vales's home at eight o'clock in the morning, because Vales had blown off a previously planned meeting. Zerang had more invested in Eighth Day Music than any other artist. Besides The Earth Sessions and In Zenith, he'd recorded albums for the label with Dutch vocalist Jaap Blonk and saxophonist Luc Houtkamp and produced a five-CD box set for his long-standing improv group Liof Munimula. Seven hours of tape had been painstakingly edited and mastered, writer Carl Watson and photographer Marc PoKempner had contributed content to a 40-page booklet, and noted conceptual artist Dike Blair had designed a five-panel box for free. "There's a certain amount of equity that you can't translate to dollars and cents," says Zerang.

When Vales, who's now 26, returned my call, he didn't deny any of the artists' accusations. "I just shut down for a while," he agreed, with a nervous laugh. "When I had nothing to say to people, which was every day for a while, I just...that was it. I can't quite describe the position I was in at that point, but it wasn't good for me in any respect. It wasn't just Eighth Day I was having problems with." When I asked about a specific incident Mallozzi had related, in which Vales said he'd sent out promotional copies when in fact he hadn't, Vales told me it was true, and that it wasn't the only time he'd lied. "That happened a few times," he said. "I always thought I was making the right choice, whether it was telling someone I sent out promos when I hadn't or whatever, I always thought I was doing the correct thing, and that sooner or later things would even out. But it went so far and then it was over." Vales said he is now planning a new enterprise called Human Music that will specialize in eastern European prog-rock reissues, which he'll press at home in batches of 50.

With local success stories like Drag City, Thrill Jockey, and Okka Disk making independence look almost saintly, it's easy to forget that one guy can screw a band over at least as easily as a large corporation. Eighth Day Music certainly isn't the only indie label that's ever hung its artists out to dry. But how is it that experienced artists continue to fall into the trap? "I blame myself for some of it," Zerang says. "I'm going to be 40 this year, and I need to have this stuff released if I'm going to have some semblance of a career. Nobody's lining up to release my stuff, and when someone approaches you and tells you that they like your music and would like to release it, it's hard to then say, 'Well, I don't think so. I don't know who you are, and since you're just starting out you probably don't know what you're doing.'"

Postscripts

Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake will play songs from his forthcoming solo album Friday at HotHouse with guitarist Archer Prewitt, bassist Josh Abrams, and drummer Chad Taylor.

On Sunday San Francisco noiseniks Caroliner bring their version of the greatest show on earth to the relatively new venue Roby's, on Division just east of Damen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Baker and Michael Zerang photo by Marc PoKempner.

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