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The instructive joy of artist-led labels



In 2008, I was on an overambitious but underfunded record-buying spree in New York City. During my few days in town, I'd been to the standbys and a few new-to-me stores, but they were mostly preludes for my pilgrimage to Hospital Productions.

Located on a relatively quiet street in the East Village until it lowered its shutters for the final time last year, Hospital served as the tiny and blood-red-walled headquarters of Dominick Fernow. A prolific musician always entangled in several bands at once, Fernow was, at that point, best known for the harsh noise and distorted electronic records he made under the name Prurient. I was—OK, am—a fanboy, purchasing every Prurient book, cassette, single, album and split I could find.

Going to Hospital, then, was going to the fountainhead. Not only could you scoop up Prurient rarities (in Hospital, impulses could and did kill), but you could also ask Fernow himself about the rows of black metal, power electronics and macabre dance records he sold there—you know, some of the stuff that informed the music he made and that I coveted.

Toward the end of my visit, with my arms sagging from stacks of records and CDs, Fernow did what he'd often done: "Hey man, this is a cool thing I'm putting out on Hospital," he said. "I think I'm going to play in this band. Take this home and listen to it."

The seven-inch record Fernow handed me that day was called Painted Nails, the first release by the then-new band Cold Cave. Over the years, Cold Cave has blossomed from that coveted three-song single into a full-tilt, pomp-and-glory gothic dance act featuring, as he suggested that day, Fernow on electronics.

But that's speaking retroactively: At that point, Cold Cave's dimly lit electronics made me alter the context in which I had heard Prurient. That little record said something new about the busted beats of Cocaine Death and the romantic menace of Pleasure Ground, a brutal Prurient album Fernow had recorded on Valentine's Day two years earlier. Three years later, when Fernow made a strong turn toward electronic music on Prurient's Bermuda Drain (and with his latest project, the intriguing and Homeland Security-trolling Vatican Shadow), I again thought of how that Cold Cave single helped the musical move make sense.

In fact, the same holds for most every Hospital release: I learned about one of my favorite bands by listening to what he wanted the world to hear.

Labels owned by artists are nothing new or niche. Madonna co-founded Maverick, for instance, and Dave Matthews helps lead ATO, the label that has issued music by My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and South African singer Vusi Mahlasela. Locally, Merge Records rose from the ranks of Superchunk, while the leaders of that label's new signing, Mount Moriah, also helm their own label, Holidays for Quince.

That structure is standard enough, but as a 2010 piece published by British newspaper The Independent suggested, little labels started by musicians work now because they understand the music industry and its oft-diminishing margins.

"It adds a certain cachet to a new band to be taken on by a label set up by a hip act," Elisa Bray opined in a discussion of labels run by, among others, Jack White and Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. "And both the new act and the music-buyer would hope that, with musicians behind the labels, making a quick buck is less on the agenda than with many major-label deals."

Those features of functionality compute, but that's only half the charm: From a fan's vantage, band-run labels are also a lot of fun, offering the sort of engagement with a musician that all the meet-and-greets and stock question-and-answer features in the world can't. You start to understand how your favorite band hears music—what they like and appreciate, what they're willing to invest their own lucre in, the way they categorize and process sound. It's an invitation to share the same enthusiasm as a hero or inspiration, a process that makes the act of picking up records feel a little bit like hanging out in your childhood bedroom or your parents' basement with friends, having your mind blown by new music. Trite as it may seem, it adds a little community to the commerce.

That subterranean décor sets an apt scene for the often faded music released by Woodsist, the 6-year-old label that belongs to Jeremy Earl. The sweet-and-sad-voiced frontman of New York's Woods, Earl uses Woodsist and a corresponding cassette label to release music by his own bands (in addition to Woods, the late and sometimes great Meneguar), that of his friends and tunes he stumbles upon.

"I kinda just put out whatever bands I'm digging," Earl told New York Magazine in 2009. Speaking to The Agit Reader a year later, he reiterated that casual approach: "Woodsist has been known to put out a record or two just from hearing a couple of songs from a band on MySpace."

Woodsist earned an influx of exposure when Woods released its beautiful Songs of Shame in 2009. Though Woodsist had issued more than 20 titles by that point, the buzz behind Songs pushed Woods and the label into new spheres of attention. A good thing, too: Through its inherent association with Woodsist, Woods has, at least in my mind, avoided associations with any scenes or trends that they might find unfavorable. Instead, Woods' peers came to be defined somewhat by its label's ever-expanding roster: Kurt Vile's Constant Hitmaker, which took the catalog number immediately before that for Songs of Shame, became a suitable companion piece. Woodsist titles by Sic Alps and Real Estate, Sun Araw and Vivian Girls served as telling sidecars for the label's flagship act, an ostensible rock band that sounded sometimes lost in clouds of depression, weed smoke and delay.

Despite the ramshackle jangle and occasionally snarled psychedelics of their music, Woods weren't relegated to the realm of freak-folk by critics. It's an indie rock manifestation of indirect spin control.

That's because, at least for a moment, new fans were hearing the world a little bit like the man responsible for the songs they'd started to love. The mechanism for context was one of the band's own invention and control. Their label made their sound make sense.

Cold Cave (on this tour, without Dominick Fernow) plays with Divine Fits at Lincoln Theatre Sunday, Oct. 28. Tickets are $16–$18. Woods plays with Widowspeak at Duke Coffeehouse Wednesday, Oct. 31. Tickets are $5.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Own your own."

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