- Photo by George Chen
- Ben Goldberg and a monkey: "What, you'd rather hear Beirut on an iPhone?"
Ba Da Bing Records began as a vanity project. Ben Goldberg doesn't mind admitting it, either. He was a student in Vassar College in the mid-'90s, playing in a very mid-'90s indie pop band called Salteen. He really wanted the feeling of having his own music on a piece of seven-inch wax. He formed the band, fronted the cost for the single, and picked up another Vassar act, The Receptionists, for a simultaneous seven-inch shot. He was just having a good time.
"The whole reason I formed a band was to release a seven-inch," says Goldberg, laughing. "I didn't think beyond that."
By then, though, Goldberg had the bug. He was the music director of Vassar's student-run station, WVKR, and, through that job, he knew how to get in touch with several bands he liked, including Chapel Hill's Spatula. Eventually, 15 bands signed on for Follow the Bouncing Ball, released in August 1995, eight months after those first two records. That was his first CD, but it wouldn't be his last: Demos came drifting in, and he kept finding himself with good music he wanted to help. Now, 12 years later, Goldberg has released just over 50 albums, and he seems completely ecstatic about the possibilities of what he can accomplish with each new one.
Part of that is because Ba Da Bing isn't what it used to be: Last year, Ba Da Bing innocently released a record called Gulag Orkestar, the work of an Albuquerque wunderkind named Zach Condon and his band Beirut. Balkan-sound and ballad-structure obsessed, the disc found a bigger popular clutch than any previous Ba Da Bing release. To date, it's sold more than 100,000 copies and met nearly unanimous critical raves. The Flying Club Cup, their second full-length, is due Oct. 9, and it is among the year's most hotly awaited records. This is new for Goldberg.
"It's a very anticipated record, and I've never worked with a very anticipated record on my label before, at all," says Goldberg, adding that one of his other best-sellers—New Zealand noise staples Dead C—will never generate as much buzz as Beirut or those types of numbers. "This is something different, like when you're worrying ... about it leaking early."
This afternoon, Goldberg will fly from New York to San Francisco to design marketing plans for the album. He just returned from England, where Beirut played Glastonbury, one of the largest music festivals in the world. 4AD—the British enterprise responsible for records by Bauhaus, Pixies, The Birthday Party and more than 100 other bands since 1979—will co-release the album with Ba Da Bing in every continent but North America. Goldberg has hired an assistant, a bookkeeper and an outside publicist for the first time, and he's already helping the band schedule touring and studio time for 2008. Ba Da Bing is finally bigger than Ben Goldberg.
Goldberg's past was fitting preparation for Ba Da Bing's new ground: After Vassar, while still slowly releasing other bands' material on Ba Da Bing, he moved to New York to work radio promotions for Atlantic Records. He lost his job in a downsizing spree. Goldberg and Stacy "Spott" Philpott, a longtime staff member at Merge Records, had known one another for years, and Merge happened to have a job opening for a radio expert. Goldberg arrived in 1997, the right time to be a new employee at Merge: Their popularity and network of bands were expanding exponentially. It was a year after the release of the first Neutral Milk Hotel album and a year before the second. Superchunk was busy with Indoor Living. Lambchop was taking its big band on the road behind Thriller.
Goldberg moved back to New York in 2002, but he took several Chapel Hill lessons with him. He remembers the sense of family and camaraderie among Merge's bands, and he thinks that's invaluable for small, independent record labels to survive and grow.
"I think the reason why they've continued to be successful is because bands have seen how the label has acted over the years," says Goldberg, who could have never imagined The Arcade Fire's success for Merge, just as he could have never imagined Beirut's for Ba Da Bing. "They know it's a label that will stand for them and creatively back them."
Another sort of musical family was as important to Goldberg in the Triangle, though. Living in New York, he'd seen pockets of good bands operate in their isolated cliques, islands removed from the rest of the city's creative energy. In the Triangle, he remembers bands that sounded nothing alike playing with one another and supporting each other. It was too creative to be boring and too small to be exclusive.
"There was Six String Drag, which was something completely different from Spatula, which was completely different than Ashley Stove," remembers Goldberg. "But those bands were supportive of each other, and it was more of a celebration than a bunch of codified scenes. Like any good scene, it didn't matter what kind of music you played."
Ba Da Bing seems structured around a similar philosophy, and that's perhaps the biggest reason for its success. It doesn't matter what kind of music a band makes as much as it matters whether or not Goldberg feels some connection to it. The Ba Da Bing catalogue runs from Jason Morphew's downtrodden acoustic love songs and Hawksley Workman's spectacularly produced pop songs to the minimalist jangle of Th' Faith Healers Peel Sessions and the sprawling psych of Comets on Fire.
Ba Da Bing hasn't been successful because of Goldberg's persistence, at least in the classical sense of the word or the music industry. That is, Goldberg hasn't been seeking acts just to make them—and, in turn, Ba Da Bing—famous. Instead, Ba Da Bing has found a larger audience because of Goldberg's insistence on building a label based simply on what he thinks is worth it. And, if people agree, then great.
"When you put out records that do just fine and your goal is to break even with them, there is always this level of hope—'Maybe I'll do a little better than breaking even,'" says Goldberg. "But to put out an album where people are responding like this is a whole new experience."