For Nathan Price, this Monday was a bit more frantic than most. At 7 a.m., he'd awoken in his apartment on the edge of Raleigh's old Oakwood neighborhood to brave his daily interstate commute to Durham, where he works for the online music marketing company ReverbNation. At 5 p.m., he turned around, rushing back to Raleigh to walk his dog, Bo Diddley, before heading to practice with The Lollipops, an aggressively fetching psych-pop outfit in which he plays bass. The Lollipops are one of four bands in which Price now plays.
When practice ended, he immediately headed to Kings, one of the downtown Raleigh rock clubs where his cassette label, DiggUp Tapes, has become a consistent show promoter. Price was presenting the first in what he hopes will become a regular series of "jam sessions"—concerts of long-form psychedelic music, a marked contrast to the combustible pop preferred by most of DiggUp's roster. He returned home near 1 a.m. and managed a few hours of sleep before returning to the day job.
"It is hard sometimes, but I feel like we still get a lot done," Price says two days later, sitting down for a cup of coffee at Durham gourmet grocer Parker and Otis. He's dressed like a casual young professional, with a khaki Polo jacket pulled over a blue-and-white dress shirt. But the bags under his eyes and his disheveled brown hair testify to his frequent late nights. His interested gaze and persistent smile hint at an indomitable energy. "It's hard to bitch too much about having to play too much music and having too many shows."
Price admits that his recent Monday was busier than most of his days, but those 18 hours offer a snapshot summation of the various roles he's taken on within the Triangle music scene. In 2010, he co-founded DiggUp Tapes as a way to release the music of his friends cheaply and quickly. In the last three years, DiggUp has done just that, issuing nearly three dozen cassettes, CDs and limited-edition records. The label has not only given some of the area's best young bands, such as Carrboro's intricate T0W3RS and Raleigh's effervescent Lollipops, a platform but also formed viable partnerships between local businesses and larger entities to help Price pay for his venture. DiggUp Tapes feels less like the future of music than the now of it, a young company that has found somewhat novel ways to fund its low-margin mission.
Price founded the imprint with Brian Corum, frontman of bristly indie rock enthusiasts Lonnie Walker. The two went to high school together in Raleigh along with members of a few other prominent N.C.-born bands, including Future Islands and Annuals. While most of his friends headed east to Greenville following graduation, Price spent a year in the mountain town of Cullowhee to attend Western Carolina University.
When he reconnected with his friends at the end of freshman year, he learned that Corum had abandoned his business track to pursue an art degree. He'd started penning the songs that would spawn Lonnie Walker, while their buddy, William Cashion, had joined Future Islands precursor Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. Price transferred to N.C. State, but that didn't stick either. He soon landed a comfortable job at a real estate agency and began pursuing music more seriously.
"I never finish much of anything," explains the 28-year-old, laughing. "I was making good enough money that I didn't really care to finish school."
But the shift in path gave him time and cash to start something, at least. Corum and Price had begun backing their friend, an introvert named Daniel Michael, in NAPS, a bleary and sometimes brilliant distorted electro-pop outfit. Michael, who has since relocated to Texas and returned, had little ambition to release his self-produced recordings, so Price and Corum asked if they could help. They opted for tapes because of their aversion to digital formats and the debilitating expense of pressing a vinyl run. The decision, Price insists, had everything to do with economics and nothing to do with the recent trendiness of cassette releases, which a February 2010 Pitchfork Media article noted had enjoyed a "broader underground resurgence."
Price and Corum simply borrowed a high-speed tape duplicator from a friend and followed tips from Whatever Brains, the Raleigh band that had self-released their debut, Soft Dick City, via cassette a year earlier. They'd recorded each tape one at a time and spray-painted them, too.
"We were considering [that] for the first one until I talked to [Whatever Brains]," Price remembers. "They were like, 'Yeah, it was fucking horrible. It took forever.' So I knew I didn't want to do them all one-by-one, which was the reason we ended up borrowing the duplicator."
DiggUp Tapes issued NAPS' self-titled cassette in May of 2010, followed swiftly by a live recording from Lonnie Walker and a CD reissue of that band's debut, These Times Old Times. That move served mainly to fuel a secondary publicity push for Lonnie Walker and, nearly three years later, eat up some of Price's limited closet space. "We've still got a lot of those, pretty much every one that we didn't mail out," he admits.
DiggUp managed four releases in its first year, but it was the label's fifth endeavor—and first of 2011—that crystallized its eclectic range of energetic pop reined in with a uniformly fuzzy sound. Equipped with the recent eBay purchase of a large box of blank 10-minute tapes, Price and Corum concocted a plan one night at Chapel Hill's Local 506. They envisioned a singles collection in which 12 of their friends contributed a song. Each tune would get one side of a cassette, creating a package of six tapes. The more they drank, the more excitable they became. They asked the seven or so musicians they were hanging out with that night to participate. They woke up not with hangovers but with a mountain of logistics to overcome.
"It doesn't hurt when you're too drunk to think about how much work it's going to be. You're just like, 'Let's do it,'" Price remembers. "Then the next day, you get like seven emails from your friends with, 'Yeah, here's the song I'm thinking about.'"
Released in February 2011, Cassingles Vol. 1 included a solid selection of DiggUp regulars: NAPS, Arbor Myst and Lonnie Walker, the last of which soon licensed its track for an episode of the HBO comedy series Eastbound & Down. Importantly, the compilation also saw DiggUp expanding its imprint to include established local favorites such as muscular and mercurial psych-rock outfit Birds of Avalon and regional acts that included Charlotte posi-pop powerhouse Yardwork and Snails, a Baltimore collaboration including members of Future Islands and Lower Dens.
DiggUp's reach beyond the Triangle has grown considerably in the last two years. A 2012 compilation opposing North Carolina's Amendment 1 included bands from the Triad and the coast. The label's recent output has featured albums from surging and slanted Richmond pop-rock group White Laces and Greensboro indie rock outfit Mutant League, creating a web of Southeastern upstarts who can lean on one another for out-of-town shows and reciprocating fan bases.
Landis Wine sings in White Laces; for his band, Price's energy and zeal provided a foothold outside of Richmond.
"Nathan's been really invaluable on our end as far as getting down to North Carolina and getting in front of a lot of people," he says. "[Cassettes are] not a medium that are necessarily incredibly difficult to do if you really want to, but doing it right and doing it so it looks good and there's a consistency to it—I can't stress that enough."
Wine refers to Price as a curator, a term that fits not only the label but also Price's interest in regularly putting together strong bills in area rock clubs. In 2011, he began using the label to present showcases—starting at Kings, but soon expanding to clubs throughout the region—that include bands both local and on the road from out of state. He elicited sponsorships from Raleigh's Nice Price Books and the now-defunct blog New Raleigh to promote the gigs and offset expenses. Pabst Blue Ribbon has been a consistent sponsor of DiggUp Tapes concerts; the beer company is currently underwriting the label's Six Pack series, which again puts one song by a new band on each side of six tapes. DiggUp is issuing each cassette in small batches and giving them to the first 50 people through the door at a set of shows throughout the year. Such alliances have allowed Price to pay bands while managing to make many of his shows free to attend.
This emphasis on live presentations hasn't quelled the label's ambition to improve its recorded output. Carrboro's Derek Torres took on a prominent role with DiggUp after his exuberant and ambitious pop project, T0W3RS, joined its roster in 2011. Corum now lives in Greensboro and can't contribute to the label on a regular basis, so Torres has become the de facto second in command. He constructed an eight-deck "Duplicatron," which allows him to record eight tapes at a time at regular speed, improving their fidelity while expanding DiggUp's inventory.
"I don't think tapes are a fad," Torres says. "They're cheap, and bands keep seeing that. At the end of the day, people want to go home with something. CDs are lame, and vinyl is too expensive. They still have something to bring home with them."
Despite the new level of production and professionalism that the Duplicatron brings the label, Price has no plans for rapid expansion. Though he's grown the roster, he finds himself passing on as many artists as he picks up. For him, the musicians who aren't a good fit are the ones who can already make things happen on their own. He's willing to help them, but he'd rather they funnel their enthusiasm into their own efforts, which is exactly what he's done from the start.
"There's no reason why everybody can't just do it themselves," he says. "It'd be way better because they have way more invested in it than we could. They care about it more than anybody else. They just need a push in the right direction usually, so I'm happy to help them make the tapes. But I think everybody should be able to start their own thing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Open reel."