Bands Signed to Local Record Labels Get More Than Marketing 

Barn Owl Records' Jay Saenz (left) and Matt Dalley (right) are reshaping the role of record labels.

Laurie Pearman

Barn Owl Records' Jay Saenz (left) and Matt Dalley (right) are reshaping the role of record labels.

Seated around a table at Mulligan's, a dozen or so local musicians listened as Stephen Gere, drummer for Atomic Mama, spoke about repairing speaker cones. Members from bands like Owlright, Fairweather Academy and Mozam were invited by their Boise-based label, Barn Owl Records, to participate in an open forum to share information on everything from equipment maintenance to out-of-town booking contacts to recording techniques.

But considering the wide variety of tools now available to independent musicians--enough to do everything that a record label has traditionally done from the comfort of a laptop--one might wonder how relevant labels are in the current market.

The answer is that Barn Owl is one of a growing number of labels reshaping its role from that of a business and marketing agency to something like a farming collective.

"When people say they're with Barn Owl, they're saying we're a part of this community," said label co-founder Jay Saenz.

Barn Owl still works as a distribution hub for music from the acts on its label and is making inroads into the lucrative field of music licensing. But its overall goal is less about record sales than it is creating a general support network for the myriad needs of its acts.

"Right now, one of the musicians on our label needs health insurance," said Saenz. "And we have to figure out if that is the purview of the label. So we're going to research and explore the issue and see if that's something we can do."

That marks a shift in the label's intentions. Saenz originally co-founded the label with his friend and bandmate Matt Dalley in order to better promote their band, Fairweather Academy. But then Saenz attended a performance by Solomon's Hollow, whose promotional strategy consisted of handing out CDs at coffeeshops.

"It was frustrating to take it home, listen to it, think it's great and know that it only exists for the people [the band] can physically hand it to," said Saenz.

So Barn Owl "signed" the band and helped Solomon's Hollow put its music online. The act has since relocated to Portland, Ore., and the CD that Saenz loved so much has been downloaded more than 20,000 times.

"It's funny because we started Barn Owl to promote our own music, and now we're working more with other bands than we are with our own stuff," said Saenz.

Barn Owl isn't the only local label that is part of this trend. Nathan Walker, the man behind Nampa's newly launched Sunless Sea Records, views his label similarly.

"Part of what I want to create is a whole ... recording community with people being able to lend talents across projects to one another," said Walker.

Though best known for his stint in The Invasion and as booker for Flying M Coffeegarage, Walker has spent 17 years in local bands. Sunless Sea is the product of watching friends make good music that went nowhere.

"It's not that bands can't do it on their own," said Walker. "A lot of them just don't or don't know what to do next or feel insecure about it. I think there's a sense that they have to commercialize or commodify themselves in that way, and it's appealing to have someone else to do it for them."

Walker's debut release was Realities of Grandeur, a solo album by former Invasion bandmate Aaron Mark Brown.

Walker is hoping to release three to four more full-length albums this year, with a focus on vinyl and handmade or creative components--like the limited edition piano-key USB drives from Portland, Ore.'s Radiation City.

"I want to stay small enough and do things cheaply enough that we can fail a few times without it being the end of us," said Walker.

The re-envisioning of the role of small record labels has happened to local labels that were around before the Internet boom as well.

Boise label 1332 Records was started in 2002, during the infancy of the iPod, and has since released albums from 20 or so bands from Boise and beyond.

"My plan with the label is to try to get all the bands together," said 1332 Records owner Levi Poppke. "So if people go out searching for an artist, they'll stumble across other bands that are similar in style or genre."

Though 1332 Records is self-sufficient, Poppke doesn't make much.

"I made $500 personally for all of last year after doing 40 hours a week," he said.

But strangely enough, the thing that has moved Poppke closest to being able to run 1332 as a full-time job is what in the old days would've been considered "the competition."

"Labels would pit themselves against other labels, a lot of stealing bands, a lot of infighting," said Poppke. "And now I work with other labels. It's a lot of scratching each other's backs, helping each other out. Those guys are an integral part of putting something out."

Poppke said that the market is wildly oversaturated, and that even with the increased visibility of a label, it's harder to stand out in the noise. But with a collective of labels working together, instead of one label pushing a band to the 3,000 people in its network, it's four labels pushing things out to 12,000.

"All the labels I work with have niches that we work within and all complement each other," said Poppke.

Those labels include Farmageddon Records, P.I.G. Records and PB Records, and each specializes in topics like the European market, digital distribution and physical sales.

And while the other labels Poppke works with are mostly outside Boise, labels in Boise are colluding as well.

When Walker started Sunless Sea, some of the first people he approached were Saenz and Dalley of Barn Owl Records, both for advice and to find ways to complement one another, rather than compete. They invited Walker to the Barn Owl meetup at Mulligan's.

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