The Bay Area's got world-class music and killer indie record labels to match. But what does it take to run a tastemaking label? In this new series, we look at the movers & shakers who've been changing the music game here in the past decade.
Absolutely Kosher started in the beginning of 1998 in founder Cory Brown's living room. He took the ethos of torch-holding East Coast biggies like Merge and Matador and forged Absolutely Kosher as a freewheeling group of artists united by their risk-taking, experimental mindsets. Here, Brown sheds light on the flipside of working with seminal indie bands like Pinback, The Wrens, The Mountain Goats, Sunset Rubdown, Little Teeth and many more:
What was the first band you signed?
The first band was a San Francisco band called P.E.E. They were a really amazing pop band. They called themselves “grind pop”.
What do you think of the music scene now in the Bay Area, compared to when you started? What about the national music scene?
There were a lot of different challenges back then. We didn’t release a record until the very end of 97, or the very beginning of 98. And back then, nobody wanted to know about indie rock. Electronica was the big thing. Those were the darker years for Matador and Sub Pop and they tried to adapt too. I thought well, if I could do a label in this climate, it’s only going to get better, right? It really was about getting attention amidst the zeitgeist having moved onto something else.
Now there’s a very anti-label vibe coming from new media. They think artists don’t need labels––that they can do everything on their own––and that’s a really dangerous attitude. Because when you work with a label, you’re hopefully working with an expert. As an artist you suddenly become a business owner, if you get big enough.
You’ve been around for more than 10 years at this point, which makes you pretty established. Why do you think you’ve been able to stick around so long?
Yes, it’s our 13th year. We’ll be celebrating our bar mitzvah this year. We've got a healthy sense of endurance, I guess. We’ve had some success, enough to sustain us, but I think it’s a matter of being resourceful and adapting to different things. Sometimes more successfully than others.
What do you look for when signing a new band?
It changes over the years. If there’s a single thread that carries through my records, it is not a complete casting-aside of traditional song structures…..I’m still a pop guy so I would never claim that we’re a totally experimental label, but I work with people who have an experimental mindset. Bands that want to write pop songs but have a different way of looking at things, approaching or executing them, that’s probably the comment thread for most of our catalogue.
What’s something people don’t know about when it comes to running a label?
People don't have an impression of just how small an operation we have. For years I ran this out of my living room and then when I bought a house in the East Bay we moved into my garage. When we started to grow, we moved into an office in Emeryville, which is where we’ve been for the last four years. Even then it’s a small office underneath an overpass, next to the train tracks. It’s super ghetto! When people come, I think they expect the glamourous stuff from the movies. It’s just not like that.
What’s the craziest thing a musician has done to get their music on your label?
I don’t wanna encourage bands to be crazy to get on the label, I want to encourage them to be good. Making a good record and providing great songs goes a hell of a long way to getting signed as opposed to schtick. Once you sign, that’s when the work begins. You have a lot of responsibility in terms of making a band’s career, like marketing them, and pressing records and distributing them.
Why do you trust your ear over others?
I always considered myself a fan before anything. But then my first job was working as a buyer for a record store in LA and so listening to music and being able to sell it right to the customer really gave me confidence in my convictions. That’s actually the reason I met the Wrens, because I found a promo of their record in the used bins, listened to it, bought it and added it to stock, and sold two dozen copies on word of mouth. And the band had never played there it was their first album, they were just on a little label in New York. So it was years later when I had a label I achieved my biggest success to date through that kind of scenario.
Do you have advice for people trying to get into the industry?
Most people who are trying to get into the industry think their taste will somehow make them money. And I would say that’s very rare. There’s so much work involved, and it’s more about your ability to follow through, being able to listen and to grow as a person. Having a good ear is a great thing, but this is a horrible business to get into if you’re looking to get rich.