Indie Voices: At Indie Label Kill Rock Stars, Chicks Still Rule

Indie Voices: At Indie Label Kill Rock Stars, Chicks Still Rule

Editor’s note: In recognition of A2IM Indie Week, SoundExchange spoke with numerous executives at independent labels about the state of the industry. This interview is one in a series of those discussions. Read our previous interviews here.

Slim Moon started West coast indie label Kill Rock Stars in 1991 to give voice to artists with a lot to say and limited opportunities to get their music released broadly.

That led to the powerful – albeit brief – Riot grrrl movement, which launched the careers of numerous female recording artists. The Riot grrrl movement may have ended, but the label still prides itself on promoting female artists.

Now run by a woman, Kill Rock Stars will celebrate its 26th anniversary this year and it’s riding a wave of interest from fans in search of indie music.

Portia Sabin took over the label in 2006 from Moon, her husband.

“I’m excited that more labels are popping up that are headed by women, and that indie labels have been so successful in some tough economic times. I’m proud of the community,” she said.

SoundExchange: How vibrant is the indie community today, and what do you see that makes you either optimistic or pessimistic about the near-term future?

Sabin: I’ve been so much more optimistic and so much more positive the last couple of years about the indie world. I took over my record label in 2006 and we plunged just a couple years later into both a big recession and the new economy where music was free, people didn’t buy albums and everything was online. That was a very tough time for the industry. We had some very dark years where I just thought “this is crazy. We’re all going out of business and, we should invest in toilet paper factories and things that people can really use and always need.”

Just in the last few years, I have been impressed by the turnaround in the indie sector.

The ability of the independent sector to change with the times and get a hold of how to make a living in this economy has just blown my mind. There’s a lot of musical diversity in the industry, too. The EDM labels are just killing it. But also in the alternative rock world, some terrific labels have come up and are doing great work.

Portia Sabin (second from right), president of indie label Kill Rock Stars, sits with Beth Ditto (left) and Nathan Howdeshell of Gossip and Maggie Vail (right) at a restaurant in San Francisco circa 2007.

SoundExchange: What trends have you noticed in the indie world over the last few years?

Sabin: People are doing great at super-serving the super fans. The initial promise of the Internet was to cast a very wide net and to get your music to the greatest number of people. The upshot is that hasn’t been very successful monetarily. What has been economically successful is finding the niche who truly love what you’re doing and then super-serving that population.

The old has become new. We can now use the new technology, but we’re doing it to serve the group of fans that love what we do. Before the Internet, that’s exactly what a label like Kill Rock Stars did. We had a catalogue, and we had fans of the label. People would buy stuff because they liked other stuff on the label.

SoundExchange: Speaking of old becoming new, is the increase in vinyl sales helping indies?

Sabin: Certainly, in our world, people are buying a lot of vinyl. When I took over the label in 2006, we had stopped putting albums on vinyl. We just put them on CDs. I restarted releasing albums on vinyl because there was demand. We started slowly. We would pick a band that had a dedicated fan base and do a small pressing of 500 LPs, and those would sell. Now, some artists only do vinyl and no CDs at all. The weird part is that CDs are still relevant because the vast majority of people still have CD players in their cars.

The absolute best way to run a record label is probably to go digital only because the overhead that goes into vinyl is quite extensive. Vinyl has helped, but it still costs a lot to make.

SoundExchange: Talk about technology. Fans have embraced access over ownership, and technology is a huge trend in the music community. Is it easier for indies to compete in the age of streaming? Is it harder?

Sabin: If we’re talking about competition with the majors, I think the retail marketplace is where the balancing has occurred, largely because of streaming and digital services. Overall, though, radio is still the domain of the majors, with the exception of some of the very big indies.

So, it’s not exactly a level playing field, but we’re seeing the demand in retail from consumers. When you let consumers choose, they choose indies a lot of the time. Maybe more of the time than they choose majors.

Another thing that has helped is that not long ago the GRAMMYs® opened their doors to the indies, and ever since then indie artists and indie labels have won over 50 percent of GRAMMY® Awards.

SoundExchange: Talk about the impact of streaming on indies. Has the growth of streaming and technology helped indies cut costs or let you spend more on A&R?

Sabin: When Spotify came to the U.S., I refused to put my catalog on it. At the time the conversation was about the per-stream rate, and the argument was “we’re devaluing music by allowing it to be sold for such a small amount,” and that was a perfectly decent argument at the time.

About a year after Spotify started, I had an artist say “we need to put our stuff on Spotify. Every night kids come up to me at the merch table and say ‘why isn’t your stuff on Spotify?’”

I was just like “the universe has spoken.” So we put our stuff on Spotify, and that artist is doing great. Five years down the line, streaming is making a lot of money for labels and certain artists. We can’t ignore that, nor would we want to.

I don’t know how many conclusions I want to draw. I don’t want to say “streaming will sustain the industry for the next 45 years.” I don’t want to get too comfortable, but right now I can’t deny that right now streaming is absolutely an excellent source of income for all my artists, and for the big ones it’s really good.

There are other aspects of the Internet that haven’t worked out, like YouTube. That’s still a pain point, certainly for indies.

SoundExchange: You’ve been critical of radio for not opening their format to indies. Do you see that changing?

Sabin: I don’t. I think radio is a closed shop. The interesting thing about that is that in the last five years there’s been an explosion of community radio stations. Communities are interested in hearing new music, but they won’t hear it on their big, corporate radio stations.

SoundExchange: You’re coming up on your 26th anniversary. Talk about your label, the Riot grrrl movement and how Kill Rock Stars survived following that movement.

Sabin: Slim Moon, who started the label, was documenting the Riot grrrl scene in Olympia, Washington, in the 1990s. He put out Bikini Kill’s record and records from Bratmobile and Huggy Bear.

Before you know, it was a hotbed of what became the Riot grrrl scene. Not too many years later he discovered singer-songwriter Elliott Smith and put out his first record to very little acclaim, because in those days putting out a record in your own name was a death knell. In 1997, Slim put out [Elliott’s] second record, “Either/Or.” Elliott got invited to put some music on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack.

The story Slim tells is that he had overextended himself, had too many employees, couldn’t make payroll and he was on the verge of laying everyone off. Then Elliott got nominated for an Academy Award for “Miss Misery,” which was in Good Will Hunting, and it turned everything around. He didn’t have to lay everyone off, and he got to keep putting out records.

SoundExchange: And now you’re looking at year 26.

Sabin: It comes and goes in waves. In the early 2000s we signed The Decemberists and put out three of their records. They were truly an indie phenomenon. They were selling 250,000 records.

It’s a little more eclectic than it used to be and we have a lot of genres. I always joke that I wish I ran a metal label. It’s very clean. Everyone uses the same font, and they have a specific fan base.

The through-line for me is we can’t sell a band that doesn’t have women. There have been a few, but even Elliott Smith has Janet Weiss playing drums. We believe in people who have strong opinions, are very political, have something to say and challenge the status quo.