Reid Johnson had to learn the hard way about the value of self-promotion. In 2008, Johnson's veteran pop-rock project, Schooner, embarked on a northbound tour with Regina Hexaphone. The trek included only a few dates, mostly in markets they'd already visited.
Still, Johnson was shocked at what he didn't find: new fans, fresh fliers or really any evidence that someone had lent his band an advertising hand.
"We take the trip, and there were posters in no places," Johnson remembers. "Nobody had known we were heading up there. The only press person that came out I had e-mailed personally."
Out-of-town tours for small bands are always a gamble of finances and egos, but Schooner was on a label with a publicist, and this wasn't their first trip. Johnson had hoped for a little backup from the people responsible for helping to sell his band's records. That benefit of the doubt backfired.
"The only people that knew about it," Johnson says, "were basically the people that I had directly contacted."
Johnson took such lessons of disappointment as an inspiration, using frustration to help shape the PotLuck Foundation, a loose collective of area artists who function as a record label even if they don't behave like one. Together, PotLuck co-founders Johnson, Maria Albani and John Harrison have built a purposefully shoestring operation that allows their friends to release records at their own pace, according to their own standards.
And it's working: In only three years, they've issued 24 titles, including a half-dozen in the past few months alone. PotLuck has become one of the Triangle's most vital currents of local music. They've learned that self-reliance offers some of the best label support imaginable.
"If you do it yourself," Albani says, "you have no one else to blame."
The PotLuck Foundation releases albums, yes, but it's less a traditional label than an inclusive resource pool. They don't have contracts or a hierarchy dividing the signers from the signees. Rather, the three seasoned musicians who lead PotLuck offer their help to bands they like, who in turn take it or leave it. It's about what the bands say they need, not about what the PotLuck trio thinks they want.
"The whole word label just doesn't feel like it even applies," Albani says. "It doesn't work that way."
Albani, Harrison and Johnson each have their own main musical outlet. Albani fronts the chirpy and swerving Organos, while Johnson leads Schooner's pop-rock charms. Harrison explores collages of pop and noise in Jphono1 and leads the long-running rock outfit North Elementary, too. They've also all played supporting roles in scores of other bands, offering backup and playing bass and filling in where needed. PotLuck stems from that experience, as they realized that all their bands would benefit if they could employ one another's skill sets.
One day, Albani remembers, they reckoned they had been helping each other out for years, anyway; why not do so in a more official and efficient way. "Why wouldn't we just continue to do this ourselves, but do it the way we want to do it on our timeline?" she says.
This year, that timeline has been hectic. PotLuck has released full-lengths from Rogue Band of Youth, North Elementary and Curtains, plus an EP by Beauty World and a 7-inch split between Wild Fur and Joshua Carpenter. The most emblematic release, though, might be Le Weekend's EP No Object, a 7-inch record sleeve with no CD or single inside but filled with visual art and a download code for the new tunes. It was an experiment in extreme DIY.
"We said, 'What can we do that's interesting that quite un-sexily keeps our overhead down?' Again, it has to still be interesting and be good," explains Le Weekend's Matt Kalb.
He found some 7-inch sleeves left over from an old college band, flipped them inside out and stamped them with the record title. No Object became an object. Kalb already had that release format in place before he joined forces with PotLuck, but they didn't balk at the idea. Johnson says that such measures reflect their try-anything approach. Though they encourage bands to take unconventional routes, what the band wants supersedes such advice.
"I've definitely encouraged people to try to do something," he says, but if they want to do a CD, yeah, do a CD, man."
"If we can help, we will," Albani echoes. "Maybe we'll all chip in towards getting some cassettes made, or maybe John will screenprint posters. We'll all pool our resources."
PotLuck doesn't sign new bands, per se. Instead, Harrison, Albani or Johnson simply ask an act if they can help. If the answer is yes, they take on each new release like a project manager. There are no official powwows to discuss who joins PotLuck—they've had one official meeting in their three-year history—and no label representative cuts into any prospective band profits. The bands and the label co-founders work together to ensure the record gets out and gets promoted, as best as budgets allow; to date, whatever money has been made has gone straight to the bands.
One of Johnson's new projects is Beauty World, the duo of cellist Leah Gibson and guitarist Duncan Webster. Formerly Prypyat, the pair changed its name and released its self-titled EP in June. Webster plays bass in Hammer No More the Fingers, and Gibson played for years in Lost in the Trees. Both of these bands have been on labels, and Gibson and Webster have both gone on long tours. But Beauty World was a new sound and experience. They found comfort and confidence through the PotLuck trio's cumulative expertise.
"[Those three] have been playing music around here and touring and putting out records for 20 years now, I bet," Webster says. "They know what it's like, and they know what to expect, and they know how to do it right."
Gibson learned just how invaluable that earned wisdom could be in June when Beauty World hosted its release party at Durham art gallery The Carrack. She hustled to set up the space for the evening and burn CDs to sell. Johnson arrived unexpectedly and got to work, alleviating the stress by running errands. He set up lights and raced out for beer, arranged the merchandise table and even sat behind it for a spell. That attentiveness and intuition made the show a success, Gibson says; he just knew what needed to be done.
"We didn't even have to think about it or ask him," she says. "He just knows what you need and takes care of it."
What's more, no one involved in PotLuck has ever sold a lot of records in their other bands. In turn, they keep expectations reasonable for the artist and keep both the record-release process and the finances transparent. As Harrison puts it, "We definitely don't promise anybody shit."
"It's very realistic and very together," Webster says of Beauty World's collaboration with PotLuck. "We know we're not going to just give them a CD-R and let them do all the work. We work together."
Aside from supporting friends, the most essential aspect of PotLuck might be its mood. It's a low-key operation of necessity, as they're more into delivery than demands or promises. Sure, they'd love for the label to make money in the future, if only to pour it back into band perks like vinyl pressings. But that can't come at the expense of the project's overarching mood.
"It's chill," Harrison says. "There can't be bad vibes with this thing, or it'll be over."
Hot dishes: Five essential PotLuck titles
The PotLuck Foundation isn't an old imprint, but it's an active one. In three years, the collaborative project has released 24 titles. The discography offers a compelling composite glimpse into several subsections of the local music scene, but these five titles in particular represent the breadth and lure of just what PotLuck has managed to do.
Schooner, Neighborhood Veins
Neighborhood Veins, or Schooner's best record to date, delights at the threshold of breezy fare and bracing rock. Balancing polish and grit, speed and sentiment, the record moves from early, agile, would-be hits like "It Won't Matter" and "Feel Better" to "Still in Love," which swirls with a slow sweetness. The record closes with the title track, an intriguing 12-minute piece that ambles through many of the same elements found throughout Neighborhood Veins. At once, it encapsulates and highlights Schooner's broad and inviting sensibilities.
EVIL TENORS, PEACH FUZZ
This six-track EP from 2012 proffered the premiere of Evil Tenors, the new guise of songwriter Nathan White. It's dark and a touch angry, too, with a bit of haze adding some emotional distance. "My Love Goes Uh-Oh" puts a smart surf guitar over pounding drums, while "Peach Fuzz/You're Not A Sharp Knife" starts in space before zooming ahead with a narcotic bassline. The most cutting line of this acerbic little gem? "Can't find the common sense between your ears."
Felix Obelix, The Ringtone Album
This one isn't like most plug-and-play rock 'n' roll records. Built from 30 ringtones meant for your cellphone, The Ringtone Album stemmed from Felix Obelix mastermind Wendy Spitzer's realization that the sounds people spend the most time with might well be those of their phone ringing. Most of the work is based around cello and organ, from the Latin verve of "Papel y Lata" to the gentle plinks of "Lullaby." Some are happy and quick, while "Every Narrow Burden Widens" takes a more doleful approach to your digital assistant.
The Flute Flies, Yes Means Maybe
This collaboration between Schooner and PotLuck co-founder Reid Johnson, The Rosebuds' Ivan Howard and producer Zeno Gill carries some added poignancy. It's dedicated to Cy Rawls, the local music stalwart who died from a brain tumor in 2008. Proceeds from this 2012 full-length record still go directly to Duke's Tisch Brain Tumor Center. Yes Means Maybe's casual rock is thoughtful and even tempered, somewhere between cheer and the sadness surrounding the release. The album closes with "Singing and Drunk," a pensive and mostly acoustic number that serves as a reminder to appreciate good times while you have them.
Jphono1, Know Your Clouds
Jphono1 is the solo project of North Elementary and PotLuck co-founder John Harrison. He edges into more spacious electronic territory than most of PotLuck's roster, even if Know Your Clouds is a soft, easy listen full of ideas. "Wall of Women" sounds like the unfinished backbone of a fist-pumping bar rock tune, but "Step Into The Hot Pocket" and "Don't Freak Out" counter with reverb-heavy mirages. Harrison occasionally pulls from folk traditions, too—"Don't Freak Out" features a banjo, as does "Hospital Summer," which sounds like the wild, wooly appendix of Megafaun's opus, Gather, Form and Fly.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Do it ourselves."