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.
Om Records, founded by Chris Smith in the Lower Haight in 1995, is one of the most robust electronic and dance music labels in the US of A. Known for its awesome catalogue of house, lounge, and soulful electro jams, the label is home to Bassnectar, Groove Armada, Dirty Vegas, Zion I & The Grouch and now even has a Grammy nomination under its belt. We caught up with Director of New Media Gunnar Hissam to hear about the Grammys and how Om smashes all perceptions about just how an indie label should be run.
I'd love to hear about the Grammys! How'd the company celebrate?
It was our first Grammy nomination so we celebrated with a big party at the new Supperclub in Hollywood. Groove Armada, Dirty Vegas and Jason Bentley from KCRW were all on the bill. Groove Armada’s ‘Black Light’ was nominated for best electronic / dance album, unfortunately it didn’t win. La Roux took the award, but it was an honor to be nominated with such an amazing group of talented artists.
Describe the sound Om Records has pioneered over the years.
That’s a tough question, considering all the different artists and the progression of the sound of the label over the years. In the early days, we were probably most known for our house and lounge stuff like Soulstice, Mushroom Jazz, Kaskade, but in recent years we’ve released a lot more heavyweight electronic stuff from such artists as Bassnectar, Underworld, Groove Armada and Dirty Vegas. We also have a deep catalog of hip-hop music from People Under the Stairs, Zion I & The Grouch and Strange Fruit Project. Overall, the sound is soulful and electric, so when you pick up an Om release you’re going to hear a something refreshingly different from the norm.
Can you compare the music scene and business now to when Om first started?
Wow, really? Aside from the actual manufacturing of CD’s and trying to sell them, everything has changed. It’s moved to the digital age, so every year a new technology comes along and resets everything. Now we’ve got iTunes, Pandora, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and soon we’ll have Google Music. It’s funny, because all of those companies I mentioned are all based here. Being a music company in San Francisco really has an advantage when you think about it that way because we have personal relationships with all of these companies and as the music business becomes smaller, it’s all getting more personal so having these companies in our back yard is definitely an advantage.
What's been your favorite band to work with over the years, if you can choose?
Another hard one! I’ve enjoyed working with all of the artists over the years. Some of my favorites include Soulstice, People Under the Stairs, J-Boogie’s Dubtronic Science, King Kooba, Rithma and Kaskade but the list can go on an on. So many talented individuals have called Om their home!
What gave you the idea to start an apparel line for Om?
We’ve worked with amazing graphic designers and artists over the years. The original Om office was painted by graffiti legend Twist! Since then, we’ve had the honor of working with Doze Green, Sam Flores, Damon D23 Soule, Erik Otto, Dave Kinsey and David Flores among many others. The apparel line is an extension of the design aspect of Om, where we take the art from our releases and translate them into clothing. My favorites are the new Sam Flores hoodies, I get compliments on those all the time.
What's the least glamorous thing about owning a record label that most people don't know about?
Keep in mind this is coming from an independent record label’s perspective. We all rent our own places. We ride bikes, skateboards and public transit to work. But you know what? There’s something very genuine and real about that, and it reminds us that if our hearts are not in it, there’s no reason to continue doing this. Of course we’d love to have a more glamorous office and maybe a Bentley or something like that, but hey, the basic necessities for us are that we love what we do and we have fun doing it.
What’s the craziest thing a musician or band has done to get their music on your label?
We had a guy walk into our office one time dressed as Darth Vader. We thought he was an intern playing a joke on us, so we told him to have a seat and wait and we’d be right out. It turned out that he was a rapper by the name of Ghetto Vader and was there to drop off his demo. Another time, we had a man by the name of Mack Devious (Mack D for short) stop by with his demo. He was there to sign the deal and get started! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way but we’d like to give shout outs to Ghetto Vader and Mack D wherever they are.
What have done with Om that’s different from what other labels are doing?
We’ve managed to build a strong foundation with our catalog and grow into new directions like licensing for films, television, games and new media along with creative services for events and special markets. We are always looking for ways to move the music forward and generate new revenue streams.
You guys have been around for almost 20 years at this point….why do you think you’ve been able to stick around so long?
We’re Om Records! Ha ha.
Editor's note: This MTV interview with founder Chris Smith was filmed in their old Minna Street office with host Janeane Garofalo. It's so 90s!