Home grown

Are local record labels a springboard to success, or success itself?

Inside its modest confines, Direct Hit Records resembles most any independent record store: CDs, new and used, line one wall; and used LPs and seven-inch singles sit in a bin smack in the middle of the store, facing another wall of new records. Near the store's entrance, a rack displays the latest music magazines, from the most mainstream publications to the more ardent underground fanzines like Maximum Rock and Roll and Flipside. Behind the counter hang dozens of T-shirts advertising such local bands as Bedhead, Lithium X-Mas, the Caffiends, and the Grown-Ups; they are next to an answering machine that often notifies callers the shop's closed for a few minutes while the owner goes out to pick up records.

But Direct Hit, which is owned and operated by Sean Handran and his wife, Kelly, in Exposition Park, is not merely a mom-and-pop record store. For several years, it has also been home to a record label that quietly has become one of the best independents in the country and easily Dallas' best record label, a bastion of independence that has released seven-inch singles and the rare CD or 10-inch vinyl by some of this town's finest: Lithium X-Mas, Bedhead, Slowpoke, Brutal Juice, Yeah!Yeah!Yeah!, Baboon, the Grown-Ups, and, next month, Dooms U.K.

It's a roster defined by its eclectic nature--a little hard-core, a little avant-garde, a little ska, a little pop and metal--and by its fine taste. Even the worst Direct Hit releases bear repeated listenings, if only because bands like A.S.D. and Trailer Park and Muck Grapa elevate bad into brilliant art.

Sean Handran, who tends to his year-old son Jacob as he talks, likes to describe Direct Hit as a "big family." Unlike most record companies, no contracts are involved between band and label; all deals are made verbally, out of mutual confidence and trust. Direct Hit has no ownership rights to their band's songs, and bands are not obliged to keep releasing singles or albums on the label; they are free to go wherever they choose with their material, to stardom or to obscurity.

To have a record released on Direct Hit--and, subsequently, to have it distributed nationally through various contacts--is surprisingly simple. Sometimes, all it takes is a demo cassette and a pleasantly asked "Would you...?"; sometimes, it takes much less.

"We're more just a doorway for people to be able to get something out," Handran says. "I think there needs to be that because a lot of people do stuff independently on their own and make up a label name like Telstar Records or whatever, but it's hard to get distribution. If you actually want to get the music out there, you do it this way."

Before Bedhead released its first single, "Bedside Table"/"Living Well," on Direct Hit in June 1992, the band had considerable trouble landing gigs; club owners were hesitant to book a band that made such droning, beautiful music, clueless about how to integrate such a sound into venues where loud rock often reverberated. The situation, says Bedhead guitarist Bubba Kadane, was "dismal."

But the remarkable single gave the band instant credibility, and soon it was being courted by most every major label around--and refusing to accept offers, even one that promised to leave the label's name off the record. Now on King Coffee's Trance Syndicate Records based in Austin, perhaps the fastest rising indie label in the country, Bedhead knows well the huge advantages of staying small.

"Releasing a single is like a business getting a tax number," Kadane says. "It makes you legit and for real. It separates you from the lot of bands that form for two months and disappear. It makes people know you're not goofing around, that you care about working."

It's difficult, in the end, to define just what makes a label. In Dallas, which has been home to such independent labels throughout the years as Abnak, Longhorn, and VVV, there are now more than a few dozen entities out there referring to themselves as labels--from the well-known players like Dragon Street (home to Tripping Daisy and Hagfish) and Crystal Clear Sound (Dixie Chicks, Sixty-Six) and Carpe Diem (Cafe Noir, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks) to the upstarts like Last Beat (Pervis, Rubberbullet) and Leaning House (Marchel Ivery) to the almost do-it-yourself start-ups like One Ton and Honey. There are vanity labels like Jackopierce's Rhythmic Records (vanity because, until recently, it released only Jackopierce product), imprints like Rainmaker that are owned by a management company, and newcomers like VIP out of Denton.

Yet each label operates under its own set of guidelines and agendas: some, like Dragon Street and Carpe Diem or Last Beat, are farm teams whose main function is to send their bands to the big leagues with promises of fat, long-term contracts. Last Beat, for instance, has spent more than $1,000 on national advertising for their bands--taking out a full-page ad in Alternative Press in late 1992 for Liquid Velvet's Mosh Your Coif, and more recently for Bo Bud Greene, Rubberbullet, and Pervis in the same publication; the label also brought Pervis to MCA last summer, though a deal with MCA never came to fruition (Pervis cut a three-song demo for MCA and released those songs in a self-released seven-inch two months ago).

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