A Label of Love

Virginia’s independent music labels weather a chaotic industry by finding and releasing music they love. A look at the creative hubs of indie music around the state.

The way to Virginia’s hottest music label leads to a hilly side street in Richmond. A pair of old red warehouse doors open to a nondescript series of offices beneath renovated apartments. Behind one of those office doors hides a series of modest carpeted rooms.

Other than the drums stacked politely in a corner and the cubby-sized recording area, the headquarters of Spacebomb Records could be the home of any export-import business. Which, in a way, it is. It’s just that instead of finding tchotchkes from China and selling them to retailers, it finds songs and sells them to consumers.

Matthew White, Spacebomb’s extravagantly bearded musical impresario, sprawls across the office sofa and muses on the label’s beginnings five years ago. He had been listening to music of the late 1960s and early ’70s—Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, the Beach Boys.

“You’re listening and you’re like, how did this get made?” he says. Not just the recordings themselves, he adds, but the system behind them. “Then you realize, Oh, it’s a team of people, and … the business is arranged in a certain way, with different people doing different things.” That moment of realization, the sudden understanding that people did and can do this, inspired White to start Spacebomb in 2010, in partnership with an attorney friend who offered funding, and seven musicians, promoters and managers who offered their abilities in return for shares in the business.   

Almost 30 years earlier, another group of musicians—far scruffier but just as passionate—in a house in Arlington, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., had the same awakening. They began Dischord Records, the home of punk legends Minor Threat and Fugazi, along with a host of other aggressive, sharp-elbowed bands that caught the anger and alienation of the 1980s.

And nearly 30 years before that, an ex-New Yorker with a record store in Norfolk had the same realization. Frank Guida gathered together some regional musicians and recorded a series of raucous, hard-charging singles that helped invigorate early rock ‘n’ roll. They included Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” and “New Orleans,” and Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy” and “Twistin’ Matilda”—songs that stormed the national charts and inspired musicians around the world.

A slew of independent record labels like these have sprung up over the years in Virginia. Unlike the giant labels trying to create worldwide hits, driven by the profit concerns of their corporations, indie labels like the roughly 100 or so in Virginia today act as collaboratives—creative hubs, promoters, coordinators and sellers of music, spinning art into commerce.

These could be the best of times for Virginia’s indie labels …. or the worst. With the music industry in chaos thanks to the violent upheavals of the Internet, some are struggling, others surging. Some see new possibilities, others the loss of options. But they all keep at it—because in the end, they love the music.

“Indie music is much more relevant now than it was 20 years ago,” says Tim Harwich, founder of Richmond boutique label Forcefield Records, home of metal bands such as Windhand. “There’s a lot more people doing it and it’s easier to do. … These are our friends and we’re all just trying to put awesome art out into the world.”

Brian Lowit remembers the moment. In high school he had bumped around Northern Virginia, attending various schools and hanging around the 1990s punk scene before going on to Guilford College in North Carolina. He was working at Guilford’s student-run radio station and realized that though he wasn’t personally inclined to make music, he could help record his friends’ songs.

In 1996, Lowit fronted the money to have the D.C.-based band The Monorchid record four songs at a studio in Richmond, and had 1,000 copies pressed of the 7-inch EP. In the process, he started his label, Lovitt Records, which has gone on to release work from bands in the same Northern Virginia/D.C. scene, like Frodus, as well as several from the Richmond area—Engine Down and Denali, for example. Small print runs though they had, those albums traveled across the country through networks of independent retailers, musicians, college radio stations and online enthusiasts.

Like most small labels, Lowit chooses bands he likes, often helps them arrange and pay for recording, manages the production and distribution of those recordings, and helps with the logistics of printing, selling and mailing. Not every band wants every service, but most are relieved to let Lowit handle these details.

“We’ve been pretty lucky because the indie-rock and punk scenes are pretty tight,” Lowit says. In the early days of the label, he’d set up shop at shows and people around the bands would tell each other about releases. Now the label’s reputation as a source of excellent punk and post-punk music spreads the word for him. (Lowit’s reputation also has spread; along with running Lovitt, he now is the label manager for Dischord, whose founders he knew from early in his label career.)

In the past decade, as the music industry has shifted from selling CDs in record stores to selling MP3 files on iTunes to licensing streams on Spotify, Lowit and his indie-label peers have had to shift as well. Unlike the large labels—Sony, Warner Brothers and the like, which handle sales for giant stars—indie labels such as Lovitt never stopped pressing vinyl records. “Our audience liked vinyl all along,” Lowit says. “That hasn’t changed.”

In the past five years vinyl has resurged as a format for those who love its warm sound quality and the fact that, unlike digital files on a smartphone, it exists as a physical object that can be collected, obsessed over and admired. While still modest in comparison to the markets for streaming and downloaded music, vinyl sales have jumped more than 300 percent since 2009, according to industry tracker Nielsen SoundScan. The boom has been driven largely by hip, retro-loving millennials under 25, who buy more than half the vinyl albums sold.

That’s been good and bad news for small labels. A typical run for Lovitt is modest, usually 1,000 vinyl records. Before the vinyl boom, those would have been pressed within a month. But lately the 15 or 20 vinyl plants still extant in the U.S. have been overrun by orders, which can take up to six months to be filled. At times Lowit has, somewhat reluctantly, turned to CDs, which cost much less to manufacture, but are less valued by collectors.

Within a few years that vinyl bottleneck should be relieved. Fairfax County-based manufacturer Furnace MFG announced last year that it would open a vinyl-pressing plant somewhere near its Merrifield headquarters sometime in 2016 or ’17, at a cost of at least $4 million. But for now, small labels have to be patient.

Dischord, the punk label where Lowit also works, distributes Lovitt’s vinyl and CDs to its extensive network of independent retailers as well as reselling it to other distributors. One of Lovitt’s biggest sources of sales is Bandcamp, an online service that allows visitors to play independent music for free and gives bands an online store to sell recordings. Lowit says his label often sells several hundred copies of releases on Bandcamp.

But for all its convenience and reach, Lowit adds, the distractions and demands of online promotion and sales can be exhausting. From keeping up with social media to working with streaming and digital-distribution services, the Internet’s requirements seem never-ending. Those and other frustrations—many streaming sites don’t bother to mention an artist’s label, for example—have taken their toll on the small labels and their minuscule staffs.

On top of that, consumers are pickier now, Lowit adds. They’re buying vinyl not simply as a way to listen to music—they can go to Bandcamp for that—but as collectible objects. “If there’s any imperfection, no matter how small, they want their money back.”

How has the Internet changed his job? “It’s double the work, but half the income,” says Lowit. Before, he spent time arranging for bands to record, having the records pressed and distributed, and working with college radio: “Now you do all those things plus update social media and everything else. It’s a lot more work.”

Still, after almost 20 years of putting out music he loves amid music-industry turmoil—from vinyl to CD to iTunes to Spotify and back to vinyl—Lowit is sanguine about the future. “It’s been a great run. I think we can survive because people appreciate what we do. It’s going to keep going and keep changing and that’s fine. It’s not something I worry about.”

Perhaps it’s the nature of recorded music—by definition a capturing of sound in the past—but many indie labels one way or another look to the past for their futures.

Dischord, the Arlington label that brought the world the furious, intense music of Fugazi and Minor Threat, makes much of its income on its back catalog. “There’s a lot of music that came out on Dischord that … continues to mean a lot to people,” says label spokesman Aaron Leitko. “They know what it stands for.” Leitko, a 35-year-old freelance reporter, is one of four full-time staffers who work at Dischord’s generic, fluorescent-lit office not far from the Arlington house where in 1980 bandleader Ian MacKaye created the label and its uncompromising punk ethos.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Dischord and other Arlington-based labels, including TeenBeat and Simple Machines, became the hubs of musical communities in and around Washington, D.C. (Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters is by far the biggest star to rise from that scene, while MacKaye remains its guru.) Each label focused on different aspects of underground rock music—TeenBeat specialized in arch, arty bands; Simple Machines leaned toward heart-on-their-sleeves emotionality—while giving the musicians logistical help in recording, manufacturing and distributing albums.

TeenBeat moved to Massachusetts with its founder. Simple Machines shut down in 1998. But Dischord lives on, carrying forward its mission of promoting music that is intense, brutal and blunt. The label spends much of its efforts these days remastering and re-releasing its catalog of 150 albums and singles, primarily from its hardcore and post-hardcore heydays—most notably Fugazi and Minor Threat. Every release is available in digital download and vinyl; sales are split fairly evenly between formats. Orders come in from across the country and the world.

Dischord puts out between six and 10 new releases a year: “We just kind of put something out when we find something we want to be involved with,” as Leitko puts it. But its focus is on its catalog and on its extensive distribution network.

Spacebomb in Richmond looks to the past in a different way. Founded in 2010 by eight partners—all in their 20s and 30s—and a silent investor, the label works to bring together songwriters and performers with the studio’s roster of skilled young musicians and arrangers, led by White and his partners and co-owners. Instruments are recorded live, from Pinson Chanselle’s drums to Trey Pollard’s intricate string and horn arrangements. Songs are produced, often at the Spacebomb studios, in a warm, inviting style that can recall 1970s artists such as Dusty Springfield.

That’s particularly true for the label’s highest-profile release, Natalie Prass’ 2015 self-titled debut. The longtime Nashville resident reconnected in 2012 with White, with whom she went to middle school in the Tidewater area. The Spacebomb house band pulled the best out of Prass’ songs, from the Feist-recalling single “Bird of Prey” to the sweeping, Disneyesque closer, “It Is You.” Influential music site Pitchfork called the record one of the best releases of the year, while Rolling Stone dubbed her one of its 10 best new artists to know.

The Prass album was delayed for almost two years while White and the Spacebomb musicians managed another success, White’s own 2012 debut, Big Inner, which to their surprise became something of a sensation in England. Those conflicting needs—to pursue their individual music careers while managing a label-cum-studio—caused Spacebomb to get “clogged at the top,” White admits. That led to some reorganization and delegation.

Now, even though White and his musicians play 150 live gigs a year in North America and Europe, the studio and label are laying the groundwork for more growth. Including White’s 2015 second album, Fresh Blood, Spacebomb has put out six releases so far that explore the possibilities of what might be called hand-crafted pop music: pulsing with R&B-influenced rhythms and woven through with horns and strings, often in sophisticated arrangements that hark to the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks and mid-’70s California rock.

The attention from White’s production has brought other bands to Spacebomb’s door, some of them quite well known (White asked that they not be named because details aren’t confirmed).

Befitting their startup’s focus, White and his partners are comfortable with the language of entrepreneurship. White calls Spacebomb “vertically integrated” (it does everything from writing music to arranging, performing, recording and releasing it) and nimbly cites its unique selling proposition (“We are not only a curator, we actually make the things we think other people will like”). In this, Spacebomb is both trendily contemporary and sturdily traditional. What it does would be familiar to Motown or Stax or to FAME in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which birthed hundreds of hits in the 1960s and ’70s including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man.”

Treating the label as a job has taught the Spacebomb team the value of working at the craft and business of music. As White says, “The thing that’s happening behind the scenes is as important to getting the music to people …”

Chanselle completes the thought: “… as the actual music.”

Dischord.com, ForcefieldRecords.org, Lovitt.com, SpacebombRecords.com

This article was originally published on Jan. 4, 2016.

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