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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Milwaukee Births Several New Record Labels

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As business plans go, starting a record label is a pretty awful one. Music sales are down, record stores are dying off and bands have learned how to release their albums without a label’s assistance, so there’s more music than ever competing for the buck of fewer consumers still willing to pay for it. It’s a sign of enthusiasm about the local music scene, then, that despite the financial disincentives, new record labels continue to spring up around Milwaukee. Several prominent ones have launched within the past year, joining already established labels like Dusty Medical, Uni-Fi, Snapdragon and Bus Stop.

Among the newcomers is Listening Party, which Decibully members Nick Sanborn and Andy Menchal created to release the band’s latest album, World Travels Fast. This week Listening Party issued its third release, a solo album by Def Harmonic rapper Lunaversol 9, which it will follow later this fall with a new Def Harmonic LP and a cassette by the ambient electronic musician He Can Jog.

“Starting a label was something that Andy and I had been talking about while drinking for a year and a half,” Sanborn explains. “When the Decibully record ended up needing a home, we decided it would be a good idea to finally put our money where our mouth was. It’s been a great experience, because we get to think about our fantasy label and how they would treat us, then we get to treat our artists that way. We don’t take publishing percentages on the master, for instance. And being a small label, we can give each release a lot of personal attention. Even the album packaging we really take to the nines. The Def Harmonic album will be on translucent, marbled purple and white vinyl, and will come with a paint-by-numbers poster.”

This summer saw the first release from Ten Atoms, a label started by Ryan Matteson of the website Muzzle of Bees and fellow music blogger Kyle Matteson (the two share a last name and similar taste in music, but they’re not related). Its inaugural release is a self-titled 10-inch EP from the Milwaukee folk-rock band Conrad Plymouth. Like Listening Party, Ten Atoms plans to specialize in limited-run vinyl releases with pay-what-you-like downloads—and like Listening Party, the label has no expectations of turning a profit anytime soon.

“We’re seeing a lot of labels pop up, which just shows the dedication people have to music in this city,” Ryan Matteson says. “There are people who want to put their time and resources behind music they really love. I think we all have the same intentions; we’re really proud of the music in Milwaukee and want to do what we can to get that music out to as many people as possible.”

The most specialized of Milwaukee’s new labels is Dope Folks, which John Kuester (better known to some as local rapper Kid Millions) and Chris Schulist launched this summer to reissue rare and unreleased golden-age hip-hop. Schulist says there’s a nearly endless supply of lost hip-hop from the ’80s and ’90s, enough for Dope Folks to do monthly releases, including some from vintage Milwaukee acts.

“We’ve got one coming up from Stranj Child, which was a Milwaukee group from around ’94 through ’96, and one from a guy named Rock La Flow, which is just awesome,” Schulist says. “We call it Milwaukee’s Illmatic, because it was recorded around the same time as that Nas album, and when we heard it, we were laughing because it was so good. We couldn’t believe it had never come out.”

Schulist says he’s been surprised by how much interest the city has taken in the label, which plans to hold local listening parties and DJ spins for each new release.

“We thought we were just going to press these niche records, then mostly sell them to collectors abroad over eBay, but Milwaukee’s been really interested in it, too,” Schulist says. “In general, the city has been really supportive.”