The Vinyl Truth
Metro Detroit's music heritage doesn't just owe itself to natives like the White Stripes, Eminem, or local techno DJs jetting off to Berlin and Athens. There are plenty of players behind the scenes. What's not part of the Detroit mix? Megaliths like Sony Music and EMI, Neilsen SoundScan counts, or, even, measurable profits.
Post-Motown is, instead, indie labels and vinyl. Home addresses and PO boxes. People that don't move to Nashville. It's Italy Records. Bellyache Records (yes, the one that also sells retro candy). It's also Loco Gnosis, the Few Records, and X! Records. But, how 'bout the money? Let's see...
After travel and living in Arizona for several years, in 2005 Jeffery Howitt moved to Ferndale and founded Loco Gnosis, originally as an archive for basement and 4-track recordings that his friends had made. Loco Gnosis (which translates to "crazy wisdom") now does both archival work and new releases.
"Ultimately when all is said and done, five, 10, 20 years from now I want the music to be accessible and found because I know what it's like to find an old record or something along those lines and have it really influence my outlook or what I want to play," Howitt says. "And I would like to have the same opportunity for most of this music, because some of this is kind of wild or it's not up to the current taste. Wildcatting, or Bars of Gold, now, they've got their fan base and everything like that but I don't want the stuff to get lost."
Loco Gnosis has a roster of 10-12 active Detroit-centric bands, with mostly a "sonic Americana bent", as Howitt, 37, puts it. Count among them Duende!, Scotty Karate, Spitting Nickels, and Dutch Pink. Howitt writes lyrics and plays guitar and theremin for Duende! and mans the congas and theremin for Pinkeye. The interest level among músicos wanting representation is higher than what Logo Gnosis can shoulder, but, "We try to be more inclusive than exclusive. Even if we don't produce your album, we'll book you for one of our big shows. That's how we make friends –and keep friends – for the most part."
Pressing for Art
Loco Gnosis defines itself as actually more of a network, or collective of bands, musicians, and artists, rather than a label per se. It does not own any rights to the music, Howitt says, and as for profitability, the group is happy to break even. Deals are variable, with the label sometimes covering production costs and splitting web sale proceeds with the bands, or providing promo services.
"We're kind of like a no-collar," says Howitt, whose regular 9-5 is working as a finish painter and plasterer. "We're not blue collar, because most of us work in different trades, or work at grocery stores, or whatever. The music is what we do in our spare time. It's another job, but it's also like an accelerated hobby." In fact, he's planning to seek non-profit status for Loco Gnosis. He'd like it to continue on as an archive of Detroit music, with a board composed of members from local bands.
Woodbridge, Detroit-based the Few Records was conceived in 2005, when owner and founder Dominic Arrellano was hired by Red Bull to make a compilation for the Motor City music conference. Today the label, which favors no particular genre, has six artists signed, including funk-hip hop artist Will Sessions and ockers Silver Ghost. Arrellano, 32, also serves as the executive director of newly launched Forward Arts, a hybrid profit-nonprofit arts organization.
"One of the reasons I feel like I started the record label, besides wanting to do it, is trying to keep some of our artists in the region. Obviously there's the big brain drain that people have been talking about for years and it doesn't necessarily end with computer programmers and marketing coordinators..." Arellano says. "It's trying to keep some of the artists here but it's also trying to give other people a chance to work within the art industry as well. You don't have to be a musician in order to work in the art industry."
Facilitating art is the commotion behind X! Records, started in 2005 by Frustrations drummer Scott Dunkerley, who had been releasing CDRs for his band. After seeing local groups play together for years, without any releases, Dunkerley, 23, stepped in. He started with seven-inch vinyls for the Terrible Twos and Tyvek and has since built up to about 15 local bands.
"The label started as more out of a necessity and not as much of a business venture," Dunkerley says. "It was more... than just that there were bands that had kind of similar sounds. I wanted to try to promote all under one name, which I thought would promote everybody in turn."
Dunkerley, who also holds down jobs at a record store and a movie theater, says his Hamtramck-based stable isn't really specific to one genre but leans more towards punk and psychedelic sounds. He's issued 17 new releases so far, equating to about two or three a year. He also does bookings for out-of-town acts coming into Detroit, often pairing them with local groups. Many of those he signs have been previously set up with touring bands.
"Independent labels are more the go-getters between the major labels and the indie labels because they really are the DIY sort of creative class people. They go after the artists more," Arellano explains. Living on a guitar string
Everyone refers to the indie label business as a labor of love, but how does it get to be a viable full-time gig? To start, bands should take themselves seriously, Howitt says. Those who give away their music and don't require venues to pay decently perpetuate the undervaluing of real talent and "... it just hurts everybody who is actually trying to make something."
Adding to the limitations is that Detroit's music industry is more muted than that on the coasts. "For instance, I'm probably not going to run into a video producer sitting at Roast tonight or at a dinner party next week, versus if I was in L.A. or New York, I may run into someone big like that..." Arellano says. The flip side of course, he adds, is that absent the noise of New York or L.A., artists can hone in on their craft.
And glory sticks to sweat. "Detroit's always been a little bit of a place that's been focused on, especially like in the British press and everything years back... That whole era of garage bands – Dirt Bombs
, White Stripes, the Detroit Cobras
– got a lot of press at the time," Dunkerley says. "It's definitely a place that's watched for things that are up and coming, a little bit. I think Detroit has a pretty good track record of quality music coming out of it."
All agree: It's the region's depth and variety of talent that keeps the indies pressing vinyl. "I've found no shortage of records I release by the bands just in the city [of Detroit]," Dunkerley offers. "People always ask me 'Are you ever going to do records from bands in other cities?' I always say my focus is Detroit... There's more than enough records I want to put out as of now."
You could also say that the area's out-with-uppity vibe doesn't hurt – or, that depends. "All the legends are accessible," Howitt notes. "Duende! has played with Dennis Coffey, Motown's first psychedelic son. These people are theirs. The best thing about it is that you can still meet John Sinclair, Dennis Coffey, these folks, and work with them, but maybe the nonchalantness about our scene is also probably the biggest pain in the butt with it, too," he laughs. "It's a dual-edged sword. Whiskey doesn't always taste good the first sip."
Tanya Muzumdar totally rocks as Metromode's and Concentrate's assistant editor. She's also a freelance writer and editor. Her previous article was DetroitFashion: State Of the Art?
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All Photos by Dave Lewinski