As business plans go, starting a record label is roughly as advisable as enrolling in a trade school for switchboard operators or investing in a door-to-door milk-distribution company. (Working in print media is a shade less fiscally prudent.) Recorded music is a decreasingly viable commodity, and by now most of us understand why. The Internet has changed the way people approach, consume and value music. Spotify charges $10 a month, and in return, users are afforded the privilege of listening to any song in the world, anytime they want, anywhere they want. Record labels traditionally have asked that we pay about that much for a single album.
"It's weird, because I'm really interested in the way record labels used to work, like old Detroit labels from the 1950s and stuff," says Mat Shoare. Along with fellow musicians Ross Brown and Jerad Tomasino, Shoare runs Golden Sound Records, a local label. "It's fun to read about that stuff, but there's almost nothing that translates to the way things work today. We're in totally new territory, and it's incredibly scary. But at the same time, music hasn't changed. People still want good, quality music. So it's a matter of figuring out how to roll with the punches, figure out a new way."
Shoare is 22 years old and looks about 17, and he's in possession of a contagious optimism common to particularly determined young people. It's not impossible to see why. In two short years, Golden Sound has grown from a nebulous collaboration among Shoare, Brown and Tomasino — they're all solo performers, and they all play in one another's indie-rock bands, which include the Empty Spaces, Fullbloods and Everyday/Everynight — into a sustainable record label. In addition to the founders' own projects, Golden Sound is now releasing records from more established Kansas City acts (the Caves, Hidden Pictures) and from out-of-town acts such as Baby Teardrops (New York) and Millions of Boys (Omaha). What's in it for these bands isn't quantifiable by the old music-model metrics; cash certainly isn't at the top of the list.
"Obviously, there's not a lot of revenue coming in and out of the label from record sales," Brown says. "We had some personal investments to the label early on to get things going, and since then we've been able to maintain a pretty good balance financially. What we try to do is position ourselves as partners with the artists. There's only so much money we can provide them to record an album, but we can help them out with other aspects of being in a band."
"For example, Ross has done a good number of the masters we've released," Shoare says. (Brown and Tomasino met at BRC Audio Productions, a training school for audio engineering.) "We can mix records in-house. We can record in-house."
Richard Gintowt, frontman of Hidden Pictures, says signing on with Golden Sound was something of a why-not decision. "I've always released my records independently, and after getting to know those guys and their bands in the last year or so, the prospect of having friends help release our record just sounded more fun," Gintowt says, "and easier. They have a kick-ass website, a nice store on the site where we can sell digital downloads without going through a third party, and we've arranged a little split for digital sales. But more than that, they help us partner with folks, help us with shows. We share contacts and information about places to play, bands to play with, journalists to hit up. It's kind of a strength-in-numbers type of thing."
"I'm pretty blown away by their organization and enthusiasm, considering how young they are," the Caves' Andrew Ashby says. "They really have their shit together, which is refreshing among musicians playing in several different bands while booking their own tours and putting out their own records. I try not to look back on the accomplishments of my early 20s with shame after spending time getting to know them."