By ED CONWAY
Back in the early days of recording, there were many independent record labels that churned out a myriad of music in all different genres.
Many have heard of the more famous of those, such as Sun Records who not only discovered Elvis, but produced such disparate artists as BB King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a several artists that defined Rockabilly. Another Memphis label, STAX, produced hits from Eddie Floyd, Wilson Picket, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. These labels, along with lesser known, but just as impactful such as Starday (George Jones) and Event Records (created by Al Hawkes) produced many national releases. At the time, however, most needed distribution help from the major labels. In many cases, as Sun Records’ Sam Phillips predicted, these labels were either taken over, or put out of business by these same labels.
Now, in the current days of the internet, aside from the streaming services, a new breed of independent labels have begun to pop up. Many of these cater to niches not served by these large music labels. They serve primarily roots music such as Rockabilly, Surf, Garage, and other less commercial, but equal in talent, styles of music. I reached out to a few of these independent labels who primarily produce records similar to the way they were done in the 50s, mostly singles of 45 RPM vinyl, with a few full albums, as well as CD and digital downloads. Many of which, I play on my show, Big Ed’s Little Rock & Roll Show on radioradiox.com. Beck Rustic, who runs Swelltune Records out of Revere, Massachusetts, Sean Law, who runs a pair of labels, Rockin Records and Jinx Records, out of Vancouver, BC, and Magdelena O’Connell, who along with Vincent Minervino, run Hi-Tide Recordings out of Asbury Park, NJ were kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions.
Conway.: Why did you get involved in starting your label(s)?
Swelltune: I run a music festival called the New England Shake-Up, and for it’s 5th year, I wanted to put out a 45 in celebration of that, and then maybe just release some “Live at the Shake-Up” stuff after that. At the time, I wasn’t looking to start a full label… just a small, purely Shake-Up related thing where I could put out New England Shake-Up live sets. But, I guess word got out that I was starting a full record label, because I started getting all these emails and calls about the label from bands and musicians wanting to work with me. I kinda fell into it, and I love it!
Rockin: I’d previously done a record label with a former romantic partner. Since the time of our split I’d always been thinking of getting back into it, but hadn’t acted on it. One day I found an old record on the ‘ZIRKON’ label at my local thrift store. The company sleeve on the record had a really cool design, and my dyslexic brain flipped the letters for ‘ZIRKON’ to ‘ROCKIN’ in my head. I figured this would look really cool the way I’d envisioned it. So I then spent a lot of time basically fantasizing about this (imaginary) ROCKIN’ label. Eventually I kind of figured: “You’ve spent so much time fantasizing about this, to not actually DO IT would be pretty silly!” So I engineered the label from my daydreams really.
Hi-Tide Records: Vincent and I started Hi-Tide Recordings in 2016. Our vision quickly became focused on releasing newer bands in the surf music genre – giving them opportunies to expand their audiences through physical releases, and assistance on the digital music streaming platforms. The label very recently signed a distribution deal with Universal Music Group, and we release “surf, lounge & exotic sounds” from around the world.
Conway.: What are some of the problems you’ve had to deal with?
Swelltune: Budget mainly… There’s so much good music out there that I’d like to put out, and musicians I’d like to work with, but I’m limited by what I can afford to do. As the label keeps growing, I’ve been able to release more and more music… but I’ve still got more Ideas, than wallet. ha!
Rockin: I’m kind of a loner and I’m accustomed to having everything my way because of that. So working with other people has been kind of a challenge. I’ve had to learn how to compromise, and to make allowances for other people’s quirks, desires, and creative input. It’s all worked out pretty well though. Other than that I think the main problem has been the actual amount of time it takes for a record to get pressed. Sometimes I’m working on these things for a year. I wish the turnaround time could be faster.
Hi-Tide: There have certainly been growing pains and learning curves. Common challenges have been constantly changing vinyl production timelines, failed test presses, missing packages – you name it! Overall this eConway. has taught us to plan ahead, and be prepared. Anything can happen!
Conway.: How do you choose your artists for releases?
Swelltune: A combination of going to see bands, and checking them out, and also demo submissions. But in the end… It’s just music that I like. That’s all it’s based on.
I only release music I enjoy listening to.
Rockin: The general formula so far has been to work on projects with friends. I really hate getting cold-calls from strangers, and I don’t solicit demos at all. Probably not a typical approach, but it works for me. Conversely, I sometimes approach bands out of the blue, unsolicited. That’s rarely worked out though, ha ha.
Hi-Tide: Most bands we sign have been discovered by us, shared a bill with one of our HT artists, or sent our way by a friend. We receive multiple submissions each week, and listen to each one. We look for melodies and styles that transport us.
Conway.: What has been some of your favorite things about your label?
Swelltune: I get to help musicians get their music out into the world… I love that part about it. And from a personal level.. I love not having to answer to anyone. I run Swelltune Records entirely by myself, so I can make decisions without having to compromise anything.. not quality, not music choice, artwork decisions… anything.. all my concern can stay directly focused on making sure the musicians on Swelltune are happy.
Rockin: The creative aspect definitely. I’m not musically talented, so this is my creative outlet: engineering the ‘look’ of each record etc. I decided I wanted to make the sort of records that I’d want to buy, so each record is a personal ‘favourite’ in a way. I was particularly thrilled to do a record with The WildTones. We went all out on that one. I commissioned the great NYC illustrator Donny David to re-draw a design the band had done: an image of some nude women doing a Voodoo ritual around a fire. We made it 3-D (I’m obsessed with 3-D stuff), with glasses included. So it’s like all of my favourite things on one record!
Hi-Tide: Vincent and I absolutely love the process of making a record – from mixing and mastering, to sequencing, artwork and choosing vinyl colors. We have the most fun working with our design team of artists for upcoming album art & event posters, and glassware & apparel for the lifestyle side of the label.
Conway.: What does your future look like, any announcements, etc. that you’d like to make.
Swelltune: We’re growing right now, which is great. We’ve got a lot of releases scheduled to come out in 2021… Michale Hurrt and His Haunted Hearts, another 45 from Tammi Savoy and Chris Casello, a special 45 from Shaun Young and Sean Mencher, Willie Barry, Three Blue Teardrops. It’s going to be a big Swelltune year!
Rockin: Last year I started a second label, called JINX. This is my outlet for things that I like that don’t quite fit within the parameters I’ve laid down for the ROCKIN’ label. The first release was by The Knights Of Trash, a Garage-Punk band from Seattle. I silk-screened all the record sleeves myself, on my kitchen table. I’m currently cooking up the second release on the label, but I generally keep details of these projects under wraps until near release time.
HI-Tide: We are very excited to begin announcing 2021 projects – lot’s of great releases slated for the first half of the year, including a few special holiday releases for 2021.
Conway.: What issues has the pandemic caused?
Swelltune: We’ve had several tours and shows cancelled because of the pandemic. It’s always nice to be able to support record releases with a tour, or record release party.. but right now that is not an option. So, I’ve just been really focusing on promoting the label right now through the newsletter, and through social media. We’ve had a few Swelltune livestream events too… its fun, but I really can barely wait until we can all safely eConway. music “in person” again.
Rockin: A lot of what I do is directly related to the ‘Rockabilly’ (‘Rockin’) scene, most of which is currently on ice due to COVID. The venues, weekly shows and record hops, and semi-annual festivals are all closed, so it’s had an impact obviously. I was trying to get a record out on time for the last (planned) Viva Las Vegas weekender, but that got postponed along with the festival. I’ve been taking a breather during this period, but am currently getting things together for the next couple of releases.
These are, by far, not the only independent labels out there, but I’m sure many of the ideas expressed here also apply to them as well. The gift of music is always a great present, and maybe some vinyl from a nice group of small independent music lovers could be just the thing. Here are the websites to the labels I’ve included in the above article and your chance to reignite the independent label business of the past where many of the major stars were first discovered, who knows, you may find your next favorite artist.
HI-Tide: We have been fortunate that business has remained steady. As people are spending more time at home, they have been ordering vinyl & cocktail glasses for those mini-escapes that we all need right now. In 2020 we have focused on our online presence, whereas in previous years we have hosted and attended events where we were able to showcase new releases and bands on the label – particularly our Hi-Tide Summer and Winter Holiday events. While that posed it’s challenges, it was a very fun experiment that led to a label-wide remote collaboration project, The Hi-Tide Orchestra. We have a few songs online now, and planning lots more in the coming year.