Not Such a Terrible Idea: Two Record Labels on Opposite Sides of the Digital Decade

Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor

The past decade for New York-based independent record labels has either been rough going or a coming out party that no one saw coming, with a select few few labels simply restructuring in the wake of partnerships gone south. For every bedroom upstart like Woodsist, Captured Tracks and Sacred Bones driving trends and sales today, there was a SpinART (bankrupt), Startime International (dormant) and Desco (relaunched as Daptone) that rode similar waves of influence and attention for their respective catalogues.

It is not easy to trace how every tiny label arrived at this point, right down to the micro-trends littering Brooklyn’s past decade in music, but there are two labels in particular that might offer the perfect snapshot of Brooklyn 2001 and Brooklyn 2010.

Narnack Records officially started in 2002, but founder Shahin Ewalt was already a local fixture running the Knitting Factory’s jazz imprint following an internship at Matador Direct. Fast forward a few years and the same can be said for Terrible Records‘ Chris Taylor (pictured, top), whose production skills have been in high demand for the past few years following the success of his band Grizzly Bear by the time he launched Terrible with Ethan Silverman in 2009.

“I started making my solo stuff, working on that,” Taylor says over the phone from Washington, “and I decided that if I’d ever put it out it’d be on my own terms so I would just start a label and then I started thinking about bands I enjoy recording.”

“There are a lot of bands that I’d like to record,” he says, a fact that each of his five releases share. “And then [Ethan and I] just started brainstorming and came up with this idea for a split seven inch series, where we’d basically have an outlet for releasing collaborations.”

“That’s pretty much it,” he says.

Both imprints are small operations, both catalogues start with records from the biggest little names of a homegrown scene, and both sit on opposite sides of a digital decade. More to the point, one label launched the year after iTunes and one label launched the year Record Store Day – the industry’s Hallmark holiday – posted record numbers in sales. To claim the industry is all but unrecognizable from 2001 would not be an understatement.

For Ewalt, he did not launch Narnack with Taylor’s desire for collaboration in mind, but the label’s own Buddy Seven Inch Series did feature partnerships between a number of underground bands from Brooklyn, San Francisco and Los Angeles that happened to dovetail with an exploding Williamsburg/Todd P. warehouse scene. The series paired artists like Deerhoof, Hella, Sonic Youth, Erase Errata and Young People with even lesser known bands who toured relentlessly through a DIY network of venues and promoters across the country. Each short-run release acted as a de facto trading card on vinyl. Nothing new to some circles, but critical in introducing and codifying a vibrant local scene that would become an international barometer for all things hip, with coverage from the New York Times soon to come.

“We had a lot of stuff coming out when we first started,” Ewalt says, from Los Angeles where the more mature label is now based, “so we kind of slowed that down to very specific things that we release per year just so we have enough time to focus on each artist.”

He says that has been the most significant change since moving the operation to the west coast in 2006, besides working through the current economy and cutting his staff to include his wife and one other employee. “I guess you could say when we moved out here we definitely saw things that we didn’t need to be doing,” he says with a laugh. Today this translates into a more focused marketing plan, an in-house publishing division, and being more in touch with the recording process.

Of course, Taylor’s production and studio prowess is precisely what helped shape the sound and success of Grizzly Bear over the course of two records for Warp. The Terrible Studio is an undisclosed church in Manhattan, and Taylor laughs when asked if he and Silverman collaborate. “No, but I love his advice,” he says, “I always ask for his opinions when it’s coming together. He’s got a great objective opinion about things like that so I always like his feedback.”

Similar to Narnack’s Buddy Series, the first release for the label was a split seven inch featuring an unreleased Arthur Russell song backed with a track by Taylor under the moniker Cant. The label’s first full-length — released only last September by Brooklyn’s Twin Shadow — was an afterthought. “It’s sort of a scary thing that I actually never intended on doing because I was worried about letting the band down,” Taylor says, “being a label that didn’t do everything that could be done.”

“There’s a lot of music out there and we can only keep up and just try and do right by the release and by the artist and keep our efforts humble and not get in over our heads. I guess it’s still kind of flattering that people would offer to entrust their music with us,” he says, noting the amount of emails and offers coming in on the heels of the first LP and critical praise for label-mates Acrylics and Class Actress recently. “It’s a high compliment that’s much appreciated.”

The immediate attention for both labels was certainly positive, but it’s fair to say the popularity is only as strong as the bands it supports. In just a few short years a number of Narnack artists took that opportunity to move to larger labels, while Ewalt used the visibility and attention to attract more established acts like reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry and The Fall’s Mark E. Smith to the fold, as well as signing a film and television licensing deal with Lion’s Gate Films.

“I guess it’s kind of turned out that way,” he says. “When we started this thing there was no plan on like what we were going to do, or if it was a stepping stone to go to a bigger label. The plan was always to release music that we liked, try to be as fair as we can and try to get it out to as many people as we can.”

Go figure the label responsible for releasing the latest from Death by Audio house band Sisters also earned a Grammy in 2003 for Best Reggae Album from Perry.

The most significant move at the time was perhaps Langhorne Slim, the former New York troubadour who released two records with Ewalt before signing with EMI-owned V2 in 2005. The major label folded soon thereafter, but Slim eventually found a home at New York-based Kemado Records, formally V2 in part. English punk legends The Fall are currently signed to UK-based Domino after years with Narnack, and while they remain something of underground and label journeymen, San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees have seen a swell of well-deserved popularity in recent years culminating with appearances at Primavera, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and a support slot to Pavement in Central Park. Guitarist and frontman John Dwyer released early records on the label as both OCS and The Ohsees and nearly his entire catalogue as Coachwhips between 2003 and 2006.

“We just did the best we could to support the band and try and push the albums that we released,” Ewald says, “but if [a move] happens it happens, cause it’s good for everybody.” However, for someone like Taylor with one foot very much on the artist side of the equation, he doesn’t envision anything so mutually beneficial anytime soon. “I don’t think Terrible would ever put out a Grizzly Bear release,” he says, “just because it’d just be weird if I put out my band like that. If we were going to self-release it should be all four of us self-releasing, not me helping self-release.”

It’s not surprising that one label’s success spells the same for an entire scene, if not other labels, but this doesn’t account for the brief shelf life of so many imprints over the past ten years. The days of million dollar bidding wars and exclusive men’s clubs for major labels might not exist to the scale they once did, but small labels should be able to endure after a successful release or two.

Taylor says he occasionally asks for advice, but that speaks more to the young label finding its footing over any desire to create a collective of bedroom operations across the borough.

“I don’t spend too much time talking to other labels to be honest with you,” Ewalt says, “and I don’t really follow other labels. You read about them, obviously but I don’t really talk to this person or that person. I don’t know why, that’s just the way it is.”

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