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).
Yet even more labels simply offer bands a chance to release a single, knowing full well a home-town deal is as close as an act will ever get to success.
Most local labels--like Honey Records, which has just issued a single by Homer Henderson--will never escape anonymity, selling maybe a few hundred records to devoted fans. Those entities exist on friendly handshake deals and ambition mitigated by the harsh reality that in an industry dominated by Goliaths, the rock and roll David won't get very far with a slingshot and a Fender guitar. They're in it for grins, satisfied enough to get records in hands of those who want them.
But a handful of local labels stand taller than the rest, and possess the chance of making their mark--of helping their bands attain some modicum of national fame, however fleeting, and in the process expanding their modest enterprises far beyond the city limits. Their role models are labels like Sub Pop out of Seattle; K Records out of Olympia, Washington; Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye's Dischord based in Washington, D.C.; North Carolina's Mammoth; Chicago's Touch & Go; and even the early indies like Minneapolis' Twin/Tone and Athens, Georgia's dB Records. These are places to which the majors turn to snatch new talent, indies that have moved up within the ranks without losing their so-called street credibility.
And these are the labels who have the money (hundreds of dollars to release vinyl singles, thousands to release CDs), the drive, the talented roster of bands--or, in rare cases, the mystifying combination of all three--to actually compete on a larger scale, to sit at the adults' table.
When Billboard came down here in August to profile the Texas "music scene," the only two Dallas bands pictured have, at some point, had an affiliation with Dragon Street Records. One, the Nixons, was a Dragon Street band (even releasing a six-song EP) until the band filed suit against the label last year and leapt to Rainmaker; the other, Hagfish, released its debut, Buick Men, on Dragon Street last year and, in all likelihood, will leap to a major in just a matter of weeks.
Of all the local labels, Dragon Street--at least to the outsider--appears the most powerful and influential: their success in getting Tripping Daisy signed to Island Records almost two years ago, coupled with the imminent departure of Hagfish (and even the Nixons' deal with MCA Records), has elevated them to a position of high-profile respectability. If Dragon Street does not offer safe haven to the best bands in town, the label at least has a reputation for signing those acts that are likely to sell to the kids--bands that offer a sound as familiar as the ka-ching of a cash register.
A quick scan of Dragon Street's roster reveals a slew of acts that are (or, in most cases, were) derivative of a dozen others popular in the past: the bat mastersons, the Spin, the Shagnastys, Moon Festival, the Nixons, Tripping Daisy, Hagfish. The Dragon Street "sound" has always been defined by how closely it echoes what else is popular at the time (except, perhaps, for Hagfish, whose Buzzcocks-Ramones brand of retro-pop-punk predated the ascension of Green Day and Offspring by several months). And, if nothing else, that formula has made Dragon Street rather successful: owners David Dennard and Patrick Keel, both of whom once had modest careers on major labels, possess the keenest ability to spot a trend then make it their own.
"I think small labels have to survive in niches," says Dennard. "If we tried to release the Dixie Chicks and jazz and alternative, it would be confusing to people. It's easier to work in the alternative niche, and luckily radio has caught up with us.
"Sometimes we probably signed bands that were too commercial for our audience, so we have to walk the fine line between what's too far on the cutting edge and what's going to keep us afloat. Doing what we do is so risky. One or two out of 10 records break even or make money, and with those odds against you, you have to be careful with what you release or keep expenses down to decrease your risk. There would have been a million bands we would have liked to sign that wouldn't have done us any good financially or didn't want to sign with us."
From 1990 to 1993, Dragon Street issued three records a year, yielding few results early on. The bat mastersons' self-titled debut in 1990 sold almost 5,000 copies and accrued modest local airplay, but subsequent releases from the Spin, Stranglmartin, Moon Festival, and even the Nixons met with enthusiastic shrugs. The label's big break came with the release of Tripping Daisy's Bill in late 1992; by the time the band signed with Island Records, Dragon Street sold almost 16,000 copies, a number to which Island has barely added. Island bought the album (and Tripping Daisy's remaining commitment to Dragon Street) and paid Dennard and Keel a decent chunk of change in exchange, which would help finance Hagfish's Buick Men the following year.
"One of the reasons we started the label was to develop bands," Dennard says. "We are a farm label, and we develop them from baby bands to marketability. We do a lot of the leg work a lot of majors used to do. Now, they're picking up bands that are road-tested, and we're getting them used to contracts and managing them, basically. We're teaching them the ropes."
Dennard and Keel may have taught one band the ropes too well. Dragon Street's release schedule ground to a halt in the summer of 1993, when the Nixons--a band that bears a striking resemblance to Pearl Jam--sued the label, which had released their EP Six in 1992. The band members claimed in their suit that Dennard and Keel had not, within the time allotted by their contract, exercised their option to release--or, for that matter, even begin recording--the Nixons' full-length album. Singer Zac Malloy alleged in an affidavit that Dragon Street had canceled several recording sessions, and said Keel had told him their material was "unacceptable."
A year ago, the suit was settled--and, quite unexpectedly, the Nixons leapt to Rainmaker Records, a local indie created by 214 Entertainment, which books and manages a handful of Dallas bands (including Hagfish). The blow to Dragon Street, which was riding high because of the success of Tripping Daisy, would become greater: shortly after the release of the Nixons' debut Halo on Rainmaker, which has sold almost 10,000 copies, the band was signed to MCA Records, meaning that money and bragging rights that would have gone to Dragon Street now landed in the laps of the Rainmaker folks. When the Nixons' major-label debut is released next April, Rainmaker's logo will appear next to MCA's.
"The success of [the Nixons' next record] will create opportunities for other bands on this label," says Rainmaker's Paul Nugent. "In terms of revenue, we're a poor company. We live week to week like everyone else."
Rainmaker--which has also released albums from Deep Blue Something, pop poppins, Tabula Rasa, Adam's Farm, and the Judas Engine--does not own the rights to the bands' recording masters or songs; rather, the label uses the CDs to promote their product (i.e., the bands they book and manage), helping to secure radio play, which in turn helps get gigs in faraway towns, which in turn helps sell records. In some cases, the bands even front the money for recording, manufacturing, and distribution (most all of which is handled by Sam Paulos' Crystal Clear Sound).
"You gotta have a record," Nugent insists. "I don't know if it's about credibility as much as it's a chance to win friends. All of our records are done for 10 grand or less, and with packaging [costs] that gets you to $15,000. So you gotta sell 2,000 records to hopefully break even, and not every band can break even.
"Constant touring is the only way to do that. The only way you can make people aware is a gig. When you go out and play these towns all over the country and leave three or four CDs behind, you hope they're heard by other people who then want to come out and see you and buy your record. And it goes on and on like that till eventually people know your name."
Dragon Street Records sprang into being because of a band it tried to--and failed to--sign. In 1990, Dragon Street attempted to lure then-goth-rockers Course of Empire to its fledgling label, offering them a three-record deal. But Carpe Diem Records, which had released Rhett Miller's debut Mythologies in 1989, stepped in and countered with a contract that tied the band down for only one album, which appeared far more attractive to a group that didn't want to be restricted to local heroes for too long.
For Carpe Diem's owner Alan Restrepo, the rewards of the coup were soon reaped: Course's eponymous debut wound up selling between 6,000 and 7,000 copies, a little better than breaking even, and began ascending the college-music charts. More importantly, Zoo Entertainment, a label distributed by the mammoth BMG (which owns RCA Records), signed Course of Empire and, in a rare move, leased the album's masters from Carpe Diem, re-releasing it the following year under the Zoo banner. (Usually, a major label will buy a band's indie-label masters outright.)
Restrepo, who began the label almost as a favor to longtime acquaintance Miller, hoping to land him a recording deal with Island Records that never happened, refers to Course's album as the one that "established the label"--more so than Mythologies or Leroy Shakespeare and Ship of Vibe's Jubilation, which followed shortly after.
"That's when I knew we would stick around with the label," Restrepo says. "We signed Course of Empire, which was a goal of ours. We see the label as a stepping stone to the majors. We never thought we could provide what the majors could provide, but we knew it was a start."
But because Restrepo had signed Course of Empire to a one-record deal instead of the three-record contract Dragon Street had offered, Restrepo had no leverage in the band's dealings with Zoo. If, indeed, Carpe Diem was a farm team readying bands for the majors, they would receive little compensation for their hard work--unlike Dragon Street, for instance, which signs bands to longer deals and forces the majors to buy out their contracts when they sign Dragon Street bands. In retrospect, Restrepo says now, Carpe Diem would be a "totally different company now" had he locked down Course of Empire to a longer option.
"It was a mixed blessing," he says of Course's departure. "It essentially ended our affiliation, at least financially, with the band. It accomplished our goal of getting them signed, but we cut our throats at the same time because we signed them away."
Which is not to say the label hasn't been successful since then: Cafe Noir's Windows to the Sea, released last year, has sold 10,000 copies and ranks as Carpe Diem's best-selling album, even with limited national distribution. And with the addition of Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, who released World of Fireworks earlier this year, the label has established itself as the home of this town's sharpest, smartest, most adult and challenging acts--the antithesis of Dragon Street Records, which tends to pander to the lowest common, and commercial, denominator.
And that, ultimately, could be a problem for Restrepo. Because Restrepo admits he is "more emotional than pragmatic," signing bands he admires rather than ones with broad-based appeal, the label has had little success in launching his current roster to the next level; he says he's brought Cafe Noir and Little Jack to Zoo, and the label has expressed no interest--though major-label consideration shouldn't be ruled out for either band. Just a few weeks ago, Carpe Diem released Neptune's Daughters by the young Austin-based pop band Plum to flesh out its roster, hoping to lure interest from those quarters who dismiss the label as too "intellectually oriented," as Restrepo says.
"Dragon Street has smart ideas," he says. "They're creating a niche for themselves they can make a living with. A lot of my stuff was based off naivete. I thought you could follow your heart and make a living. I sign the bands I like, whose records I'd want to buy."
In January, Cafe Noir (which makes a rare club appearance December 20 at Club Dada) will release its third album, The Waltz King, and Restrepo also plans to creep onto the information superhighway, though his plans are tentative for the moment. His "ultimate goal" is to eventually connect with a larger label because he's all too aware of the limitations facing a local label with stiflingly low revenue. Because Restrepo answers the label's phones, he does not have time to promote and book bands, arrange for photo shoots, write press releases; he likens himself to a "janitor" for the bands, but acknowledges the clean-up chore is too great to handle alone.
"My regret is not having succeeded more for the bands we work with," he says, "to allow them to make a living off of what they're doing. If they're trying to make a living off their records, it's virtually impossible. I wish I could have liberated them from their day jobs."
At the opposite end of Alan Restrepo sits Sam Paulos, who could well be the most powerful person in the local music industry. His Crystal Clear Sound is, in many ways, a miniature representation of a major label, handling everything from recording to manufacturing to distribution to promotion. Crystal Clear not only has its own label--which has released albums by the Dixie Chicks, Killbilly, Mildred, and, come early next year, Sixty-Six--but it also distributes and manufactures CDs for just about every other label in town (except Direct Hit, but only because Crystal Clear does not handle vinyl).
When Paulos, who previously had managed and booked bands and worked as a small-time distributor, bought Crystal Clear in August 1990, it was, as he calls it, a "demo-class studio with an album-class engineer" in producer Keith Rust. Bands were renting out the studio only 80 to 100 hours a month; by February 1991, after a major redo that brought in thousands of dollars of equipment, the hours had more than tripled. Last January, Reverend Horton Heat recorded his third album, Liquor in the Front, at Crystal Clear with Ministry frontman Al Jourgenson behind the board.
Though the Dixie Chicks and the now-defunct Killbilly call Crystal Clear Sound their label of record, Paulos does not own the rights to their records; Crystal Clear merely leases the masters for a protracted period of time, after which the rights revert back to the artists. (Paulos has worked similar deals with Panic Choir, Mister Rocket Baby, Dah-veed, and Joe Rockhead.)
"For us, we're concerned with selling records," Paulos says. "Every step of the things we own and our involvement in recording, manufacturing, and distribution is geared toward selling records. Having the band signed to a major is secondary to us."
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Crystal Clear has released only one album to which it owns the rights, Mildred's 1991 Whippersnapper, which "didn't sell a whole lot," Paulos says. Early next year, Crystal Clear will release the debut CD from Sixty-Six, with which the label has signed a moderately long-term contract--meaning, if a major wanted to sign Sixty-Six, they would have to buy out their contract and the recordings from Crystal Clear.
Sixty-Six guitarist-singer Bill Longhorse has been on a major before, if only briefly, as a temporary member of Power Trio from Hell, which was signed to Warner Bros.; his previous Dallas band, Rumble, also had been courted by Sony. Both experiences left him disillusioned: though he still would like his shot at a larger success, he is satisfied to work with a local indie like Crystal Clear, which has the resources and patience to allow an unknown band to grow before it's suddenly thrust into the unfriendly spotlight outside of Club Clearview and Bar of Soap.
"We don't need a label that will put a lot of pressure on us," Longhorse says. "This band has been together only six months, and we're still trying to figure out what direction we're going in. We're still formulating what we're best at, and we don't need a lot of pressure that a huge record company would put on us.
"What we're trying to do is get the name out, and that's really the path to being a band that's going to be around for a while.