Saturday, December 26, 2009

1989: The Year Indie Rock Broke? An Interview With Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records

Considering the amount of time we've spent lately dwelling on the year 1989, it's no surprise that I felt inspired after my phone chat with Mike Schulman of Slumberland Records earlier this month. Mike played in the band Black Tambourine in 1989, the same year the band was featured on Slumberland Records' first compilation; Mike later went on to manage the label as a whole.

When we talked on December 4th, we mostly discussed the generation gap between his generation (who brought zines and flyers to shows, and distributed physical mail-order catalogues) and my generation (who can't imagine an indie rock climate without blogs and MySpace). We also talked about what it was like to start a label in 1989, the difficulties of being an indie rock fan in the 80s, and what a great time it currently is to be a fan of independent music.

Liz Pelly: You were in Black Tambourine right when Slumberland Records first launched. What was being in an indie band like in 1989?

Mike Schulman: I was in a couple of the bands at that time- I was also in Powderburns and Whorl. Those were my first bands. I'd never played an instrument before. We were all kind of coming from a punk rock background. We were into noise stuff, like Sonic Youth, and pop stuff. It was a good time to have a band; a lot was going on. People were reasonably interested in hearing us and were generally accepting of our music.

Because there was no Internet, everything was underground and you could fly under the radar. You could take time to develop what you were doing. It's harder to do that now. The likelihood of someone coming to your show and blogging about it is greater today than the likelihood of someone coming to a show in 1989 and writing about it the next day in a fanzine. People always talk about bands nowadays blowing up before they get their shit together, like Wavves, getting huge when they're not ready for the exposure. So we had it easier in that sense...

It was just really different. A lot of the stuff that I was into was English and it was hard to find. Somehow we would know, though, that "oh, this Pastels record is coming out this week" or "this new single is coming out next week". We had three different weekly English music papers. Can you believe that? We used to read them all. Even, like, Spin wrote about interesting stuff back then. Things were slower -- you didn't have that daily fix, the morning round of checking Stereogum and Pitchfork to see what they're saying everyday and to download mp3s and stuff. It's kind of amazing how much its changed.

LP: It's sort of bizarre for me to be hearing this first hand from you, because, I mean, you started Slumberland in 1989, and I was born in 1989. It seems so unreal to try to imagine an independent music community without music blogs or MySpace....

MS: It was hard , but it wasn't bad.

LP: No it definitely sounds awesome. If you had to say, what do you think the major differences are between in indie rock now versus in 1989? Mostly just internet and the communication aspect of things?

MS: Communication is definitely the most significant. From being in a band and running a label, it's just so much easier to inform people about what you're doing. It takes out the aspect of getting people to be interested in your music, to just directly reaching those who are interested. And it's so much easier. I used to do a print catalogue that I would send out to a mailing list. It was a fucking pain in the ass. I used to distribute other labels' records too. It would take a long time, having to type all of this stuff, xerox the pages, plus then mailing it would cost a bunch of money. It was labor intensive, time intensive. A lot of our customers were college students who moved every year, so I would get catalogs returned all of the time. Overall it was hard to get word of new albums out, plus you couldn't count on radio playing any of them or the press reviewing any of them.

Now, starting a label is easier for everyone, but there's more competition. There's so much to pick through. And then when you're reading blogs, you have to pick through biases, and decide whether or not you're reading the kind of blogger who is just going to love anything that sounds like Dirty Projectors or Animal Collective. Downloading is the other big change. On one hand obviously we lose record sales, but on the other hand its great for people to be able to hear stuff and to then maybe go out and buy it, and if they don't buy it, well, at least they have it!

LP: So many important historical indie rock moments happened in 1989. A lot of indie labels formed. Slumberland, Matador, Merge, Warp, XL. Why do you think it was such a big year?

MS: Oh wow, all of those labels started in 1989? Why didn't I know that... well.. other than it being a coincidence maybe? There was a bit of a boom at the time, especially with singles, a lot of people were putting them out. Maybe there was something in the water? I don't know, in indie rock and indie pop I guess there were a lot of bands around that needed to have labels.

LP: When I think of Slumberland, I associate you guys with K Records and with being one of the first record labels to take the DIY ethos of punk and apply it to pop music. Do you think that has anything to do with all of these indie labels popping up at the end of the 80s? That a lot of rock and pop fans were seeing all of these DIY indie punk labels and realizing they could do the same for their genre?

MS: Yeah for sure, punk was a big inspiration for us. I was really into Rough Trade and Creation, and a lot of other labels that had come out of punk. The idea of taking those DIY ethics and the ideas about honesty, integrity, and applying that with other kinds of music. Yeah, that does make sense, for the late 80s to be when that was happening. You had all of these kids who were hardcore fans in 1983 moving on musically but adhering to those ideals.

K was a big inspiration for us, and they came from a punk rock background. There were a lot of ideas that were being inspired by that scene, but doing something different musically. There was a lot of that in the air, which was great for a lot of people. Like, a label like Merge has been successful because of its ideals and how they treat their bands.

LP: In 1992 you became the general manager of the record label. What was it like to manage a record label at that time?

From a practical standpoint, things changed a lot. When we started, it was kind of a collective. The work was spread out amongst 5 bands who all shared members and lived in 1 or 2 houses. Everyone made time to package promos, stuff records into bags. When I moved to California in 1992 from DC, Velocity Girl was pretty popular and always on the road, Whorl had stopped playing, Black Tambourine stopped playing.

Before, I had that community of support of bands being around, and it was more about my friends' projects-- something I did with other people. It was cool and really fun and there was a sense of camaraderie. When it was just me, it became a slightly bigger thing. It all became like a teeny bit more business-like or serious-- at that point it was less about that original core of bands and more about me working with other bands, which raises the bar in terms of responsibility, when you're working with other peoples' music.

From then until now there's been a lot of ups and downs. In the mid '90s we were putting out a lot of records. In the early 2000s we were also putting out a lot of stuff. Then past few years I've made a conscious effort to pick it up again, since 2006. We've decided to do more advertising, and more press, and radio, to give the records the best chance to succeed. In the past, I found some aspects of PR to be a little distasteful. I always thought, "this music' s really great, so a record reviewer guy should love it because of that, not because of advertising and free copies". But it's a tough business, plus at this point I have a real job and I can actually foot the bill to send out some free copies.

LP: Ha, well... thanks for sending the free copies! We've gotten some Slumberland records sent to WTBU this semester and have them in rotation. Pains, Brilliant Colors, Pants Yell... Anyway I guess my last question is -- the birthday year is almost over; how was it?

MS: Meeting people like you who were just born when we started this whole thing is crazy. I don't think our ambitions were anyting beyond putting out a single or two! It's amazing. We just wanted to document what we were doing; thought I'd put out a few albums and then grow up. I didn't realize how interesting and cool it would be to make music and meet people. The idea that people are still wanting to listen to those albums 20 years later is... fucking hell... SO COOL! I came at this from a fan's standpoint. I started buying records when I was 11 and I was so into LABELS-- Roughtrade, Postcard--and I imagined what those people were like who ran those labels. They were halfway around the world but I could get a view point into their aesthetic or personality. It's amazing to be in that position now and to have people care about what I have to say about the year 1989, and independent music. You know, people had been predicted the death of the music industry since Napster, and if you look at the industry one way, yea it's over, but if you look at things another way, music is bigger and more booming than ever.

LP: Yeah, I think this is a really exciting time to be an engaged member of an independent music community. I don't know... I feel like there is a lot going on and a lot of awesome music being made and a lot of people who are excited about it.

MS: It is. It's an exciting time. And it's interesting, it shows the resilience of the idea of Indie with a capital I. Bands reaching out to fans really directly and labels really working closely with the bands. Yeah, it's harder to sell records now, but the ideals behind those records are still really strong, and awesome. It's so good. [pause] I'm such an optimist! But I mean, it's easy to get down on things because it is really hard financially, but ultimately I didn't start this label to make money. I just wanted to be able to put out records that people would want to listen to and be excited about. And I still come at it like that, like an excited fan, and that's the number one thing, to be really excited about the records.

No comments: