Local Music 'Mericans: Erv Karwelis Has Kept Idol Records Going For 18 Years At This Point

Welcome to Local Music 'Mericans , where we meet some of the people behind the local music scene -- those who aren't necessarily members of local bands, but more the people who make the scene move.

You know who needs a serious set of stones? The person who chooses to run an independent record label in the current millennium. The costs, the risks and the footwork (often with little or no staff to assist you) just has to add up to an unimaginable burden.

And yet Erv Karwelis, just as he's done since 1993, continues to run his local label Idol Records -- and strongly, too, having just released new albums from local favorites Calhoun, Here Holy Spain and The O's in 2011. Back when he started, though, he was just a music fan and record collector -- two titles he still claims today -- that ended up pursuing his interest in the business of music at UCLA.

From where we stand, it looks like he had some darn good teachers.

Not only has his Idol Records venture survived the worst period in the history of the record label business, but Karwelis has managed to keep his label afloat through a veritable shitstorm of other more logistical industry challenges.

And, through it all, he's managed to maintain Idol's indie integrity. The label doesn't go out chasing after the next Kelly Clarkson cash cow just to keep the mortgage paid; instead, it churns out local classics. The proof is in the label's catalog, which boasts names such as The Old 97's, PPT, Chomsky, Black Tie Dynasty, Flickerstick, Centro-matic, [DARYL] and Deathray Davies.

He's still expanding, too, having recently launched an imprint called Exploding Plastic Records.

So how does he do it -- and still find the time and money to eat? We bend his ear in an effort to find out after the jump.

Idol Records has been around for 18 years! Seriously, you must be very proud. How'd you manage to survive the financial apocalypse of the label industry? Is it a matter of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall," in the sense that you don't have the overhead that bigger labels are forced to deal with?
That is very true. I've always kept my overhead low and try to keep everything as lean and mean as possible. Too many labels, especially the majors, waste money on fancy offices, parties, unnecessary vanity and large staffs. As soon as music sales started to drop, a lot of those labels were caught off guard and forced to downsize or, in some cases, go out of business. I also try to work with bands that have a strong work ethic and realistic understanding of the changes that have happened in the music industry.

What set you off in the direction of starting your own label? Were you a musician? Was there a record or a show that inspired you in the beginning?
My dad was a musician. I played in bands during high school and college. I liked the business side of music, was a lifelong record collector and worked in record stores, so I moved to LA to attend the music business program at UCLA and to see if I could get my foot in the door with a record label. I worked for a few indie labels including Chameleon and Triple X Records and then landed a job with Sony Music and spent a decade working in the major label world with them and Universal/Geffen Records, which is how I landed in Dallas. I was really into the local music scene here and started putting together compilation releases and singles for some of them, and started up Idol Records to release them. It was more of a hobby and creative outlet for me at first, but, over time, several of the bands started to do well and the label grew to the point where I needed to focus on it full-time. So, in early 2000 I left the corporate label world to run Idol Records full-time.    

Tell us about your goals for Idol, and what you hope for in the future.
I've always just let the label grow organically and never forced anything. I've always been open to trying new things and embraced licensing music to TV, films, advertising and video games early on, when it still had a stigma of "selling out," and was able to forge some great relationships with music supervisors, TV producers, game developers and ad agencies, which has been a big advantage for Idol and our artists -- especially since it is now one of the biggest revenue sources for recorded music. I also embraced digital music services early on and did deals with eMusic all the way back in 1998 when they launched and was one of the first indie labels to do a direct deal with iTunes at their launch. The same went with all other download services. So Idol is one of the few independent labels that has direct deals with all digital services rather than going through a distributor. In recent years, I've launched a few sub-labels such as Exploding Plastic (with Dylan from The Crash That Took Me), a reissue label and a publishing company which makes sure that our artists are getting paid for all of the radio, internet and TV broadcasts. There are going to be a lot of changes in how people consume music in the next few years, so I'm looking forward evolving and continuing to grow with our artists.

Some labels are even doing away with CDs now. But one of your bands, The O's, just released an eight-track cassette. How do you plan for business success in a market like this?
It really comes down to a case by case basis on which formats make sense for a release.  People still buy merchandise at shows, so if a band is touring extensively and playing a lot of shows, then it makes sense to make CDs. If the band does not play live very much, then it's probably enough to just release the album digitally through iTunes, etc. I'm personally a huge fan of physical formats of music and have a collection consisting of every music format ever made, from wax cylinders to mini-discs, and there is a huge collector market out there, so once a band establishes a loyal fanbase then it makes sense to start putting out limited edition releases on other formats like vinyl and even 8-track. Or even doing short runs of singles and other collectible items. 

Who's next from DFW? Turn us on to an artist you love that maybe even we haven't heard of yet? Or, alternately, is there an artist you'd be willing to bank on that will grow to become a success?
That's a tough call, but I obviously feel very strong about all of the current Idol artists. The O's in particular are showing signs of breaking big; they have toured the U.S. extensively (even Hawaii) and are about to return to the U.K. and Europe for the third time in the past year for another tour. They have been getting some nice airplay, press coverage and TV placements, so keep your eye on them.

How'd you spend your Record Store Day?
Every day is Record Store Day for me. I buy between 10 to 20 records a week. I made the rounds to most of the local stores to grab some of the limited edition record store day titles, and checked out some of the in-store performances.

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Alan Ayo