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."
Ashby, Gintowt and Matt Dunnehoo (of Baby Teardrops, formerly of KC's Doris Henson) are all established songwriters who have been playing in bands for years, which makes it somewhat unusual that they would team up with 20-something upstarts.
"Approaching bands that you really like and telling them you want to help them put out their music is really nerve-racking," Brown says. "You don't want to blow it. We all play a lot of shows, so we get to know a lot of bands, and naturally we become big fans of certain bands. But it can be a strange thing to say, 'Hey, I'm a big fan, and also maybe I can help you out with this label I have.' I think the basis of what we've done along those lines so far has been approaching bands with a combination of humility and confidence. Sort of saying, 'You've been maybe doing this longer than we have, and maybe you don't need our help, but if you do, we love your band, we're in this for the long haul, so let's talk about it if you're interested.' "
"They expressed interest in putting out the record before we'd even put all of the finishing touches on it or started considering who we might want to put it out, which was flattering," Ashby says of the Caves' upcoming LP. "All we knew was that we didn't want to do another self-release. So it didn't take very long for us to come around and organize a meeting with them to start discussing details."
Breaking even on an album's sales is no small feat these days, but it's also no way to build a business. And so new revenue streams are being explored. In early July, Golden Sound hosted the Crossroads Block Party on 19th Street between Wyandotte and Baltimore, a free showcase of the label's talent as well as some acts from the Record Machine, another KC label. Shoare estimates attendance at around 800 throughout the course of the night — an encouraging success that further illustrates the evolving nature of record labels.
"The block party was an example of us trying to kind of immerse ourselves in Kansas City commerce," Tomasino says. "There are all these great local businesses to partner with in Kansas City. And for us, it's a new way to sell our bands."
"Music is so accessible and easily streamed and consumed," Brown says. "And I think part of our role is to bring it back from Internet land, to bring more of a human interaction to it."
"I think, really, what people want from us is an extra reason to keep going," Tomasino says. "To be in the music industry is to just tie your hands behind your back and take beating after beating after beating. Shitty show after shitty show. Not getting paid. You need an extra hand every chance you get, some extra footing. And I hope that's what we can be for people. I think that's why bands buddy up together: You do a joint tour, you do shows together, you look for some organization that can give you reason to take the next steps. Knowing you have people in your corner helps."
"And every Wednesday night we hold a Golden Sound support group," Brown jokes.
"Right — 'My name's Jerad,' " Tomasino says. " 'And I've got a record coming out.' "