Independent and underground music is driven by passionate individuals who engage in DIY projects. DIY record labels have an important role in the national indie music scene because they provide an important service at a low rate to cash-strapped bands that need help bringing their music to regional and national audiences. Countless bands release records without any label support at all, but bands that want wider distribution and more attention for their releases often seek the assistance and services of a label.
Independent labels are like independent bands: they operate on a small budget, they target a relatively small but very specific audience, they are personal projects of passion, and they are run according to the DIY ethic of self-motivated action.
Two Ames residents who run their own DIY record label recently spoke to the Ames Progressive about their operations.
Darren Hushak’s label Pinnacle Records began as a project to help release CDs made by his friends when they were in high school in Ankeny. “It actually started as a recording studio thing – just an idiot kid at home with a couple microphones – and eventually it kind of turned into a label,” he said. Although he still occasionally makes recordings, his primary activities now are online promotion and physical distribution of releases.
Hushak uses online resources like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Last.fm to expose the music to as many people as possible. “The step beyond that,” he said, “is if they hear it, can they easily find it and buy it?” He also sends out copies of albums to college radio stations and urges DJs at Iowa State’s KURE 88.5 to play music that Pinnacle has released.
The label’s roster is made up entirely of bands he knows personally, or bands for whom he has run sound at one of the local venues where he works as a sound technician. Pinnacle’s releases have included two ambient electronic albums by Blutiger Fluss, an indie-folk EP by Finn Miles, and a pleasant pop-rock release by The Magazines. The most recent Pinnacle release is Astrum Mos Veho Vos Domum, a full-length record by Modern Day Satire, an indie post-rock band based out of Ankeny whom Hushak has known for years.
Pinnacle Records is not a registered business; it is a DIY promotion and distribution resource. Hushak envisions the label as a “cohesive family of bands.” Although he is willing to provide his services free of charge, the bands on the Pinnacle roster sometimes voluntarily give a portion of the money they make from sales to Hushak. But there is no fixed amount decided by contract. Hushak assists his bands in their endeavors but he doesn’t want to own them. “The way I work, Pinnacle Records is not an exclusive deal,” he said. “I’m not gonna be jealous if a band suddenly gets on another record label.”
Edward Bignar has been involved in Ames music for over a decade. In the early ‘00s, while the BiFi Records label operated in Ames, Bignar started a label called Low Fidelity Living which released a series of compilation albums and splits. Bignar was a friend and supporter of the BiFi crew and collaborated with people in that scene. The Low Fidelity Living label went on hiatus for a few years and now has evolved into Workerbee Records, the label Bignar operates today.
In the past year, Bignar has resumed his series of compilation albums. The past two discs have emphasized indie pop and experimental music. His next release, entitled PaperCityNoiseMaker, will be a compilation featuring all garage rock. He is also at work on a compilation of avant-garde music called no. As with his older comps, a number of the artists on the discs are based out of Ames or central Iowa. His latest release includes Ames musicians such as Jordan Mayland, Dot Coma, Andy Mitchell, You Are Home, and Nuclear Rodeo, as well as Midwest artists like Ember Schrag and Electric Needle Room. But he has also included tracks by bands from all over the country and the world.
In addition to the compilation series, Workerbee Records has five bands on its roster. Like Pinnacle Records, Workerbee operates on the basis of personal agreements rather than formal contracts. “It’s a verbal agreement, handshake deal where I make X amount of copies and normally give about half of them to the band and then we both try to sell them,” he said. After splitting up the copies of the records, the band keeps 100 percent from the units they sell and Bignar does the same.
Because of the DIY nature of the label, Bignar is able to follow his own tastes in music when adding bands to his roster. The bands on Workerbee are spread around the world and across the sonic spectrum. They include the noisy Detroit-based rock band Murder Mystery, a semi-electronic experimental country band from London called The Swansea Recreation Center, and a quirky acoustic pop act from Kansas City called Electric Needle Room. The newest band on his label is a chill electronic band from the U.K. called Ten. “They literally e-mailed me up and were like, ‘Hey, you wanna put out a limited edition of our CD?’ and I was like, ‘Sure. I like the music,’” he said.
Beyond Their Labels
Hushak and Bignar are both involved in the central Iowa music scene beyond the operation of their labels. Bignar and his partner Emily Hyde also produce inexpensive posters and flyers at Prints Copy Center, where she works, and manufacture buttons for bands under the name Drunken Buttons. They also sell locally produced records and zines on commission at Prints, providing a much-needed space for local underground artists to sell their work.
Hushak runs sound at many of central Iowa’s best venues: The M-Shop, DG’s Taphouse, The Vaudeville Mews, People’s Court, and the Hoyt Sherman Theater. He also hosts a local music show on KURE, playing music by local bands like the Poison Control Center, Keepers of the Carpet, Ely Falls, and many more.
Hushak and Bignar have both started projects that are embedded in the musical community of mid-Iowa and support independent music. “I wanted to do something that was for the greater good of music,” Hushak said. “As opposed to making money.”