Little Rock has had its share of independent labels, from Lee Anthony's legendary soul, funk and R&B label True Soul in the '60s and '70s (anthologized beautifully last year by Now Again Records) to garage rock imprints like Zay-Dee, My Records and others that have been collected on Harold Ott's essential "Lost Souls" compilations.
There was File 13, started back in 1989 in Little Rock and now based in Chicago after a long stint in Philly. Burt Taggart of The Big Cats has the long-running Max Recordings, home of many of the state's best rock bands. There's Rex Bell's jazz label Inrafred Records. Industry vet Butch Stone has a new digital label Mole.fm. Mutants of the Monster is a new label from Rwake and Iron Tongue vocalist CT that looks to have a very promising roster.
Two Little Rock labels that have been prolific over the last five to six years both happen to be operated by guys named Travis — Travis Hill and Travis McElroy, who run Last Chance Records and Thick Syrup Records, respectively. They sat down to talk shop with the Times on a recent afternoon at White Water Tavern.
Thick Syrup has released albums from locals like Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth, Smoke Up Johnny, The See, Ezra Lbs. and many more, as well as reissues and new work from legendary underground artists such as Half Japanese, Chrome Cranks, Weird Paul and side projects from such giants as Mike Watt, Thurston Moore and Don Fleming, among others. Back in October, McElroy put together a huge two-day show with rare live performances from Half Japanese, exhibitions of artwork from the band's principal members (Jad and David Fair — whose artwork also graces the new album from Little Rock's The Alpha Ray) and a screening of "The Band that Would Be King," a fantastically entertaining documentary about the brothers. Thick Syrup acts Ezra Lbs. and The Bloodless Cooties also played.
Last Chance boasts a roster of artists with Arkansas connections — folks like Kevin Kerby, Ben Nichols and Cory Branan — as well as those hailing from other locales, such as Tennessee's Glossary, North Carolina's American Aquarium, Memphis rocker John Paul Keith and Indiana-based singer/songwriter Austin Lucas.
Nearly all of these acts have played the White Water Tavern on numerous occasions, and last weekend the venue hosted the lion's share of Last Chance bands over a three-day event that promises to become an annual tradition. People traveled from more than 15 states and two foreign countries to attend.
Last Chance and Thick Syrup got started in the 2006/2007 timeframe. Hill and McElroy collaborated on a few releases by San Antokyo, Frown Pow'r, Brother Andy, Jonathan Wilkins and Bryan Frazier before branching out in their own directions, with Thick Syrup charting more experimental rock waters and Last Chance pursuing Southern and Midwestern Americana bands and singer/songwriters.
"Putting out records is a great way to lose money," Hill said. He repeated this phrase a couple of times actually, prompting an understanding chuckle from McElroy. Clearly, these guys aren't in it to get rich. McElroy does freelance IT work and Hill has a full-time day job. Many small labels are labors of love, but in the years since Last Chance and Thick Syrup got rolling, things haven't necessarily gotten any easier.
The price of oil has shot up considerably, meaning not only are touring bands shelling out more at the pump, but records are getting more expensive to press, vinyl being a petroleum product and all.
At the same time, iTunes — once hailed as the savior of record labels — is slowly but surely giving way to newer streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio, Mog and others that generate a tiny fraction of the revenue of Apple's online music service.
"Here's the way I look at it," Hill said, "and I get asked this all the time — 'Should I put my music on Spotify?' At the level we're operating at, exposure is the most important thing."
"Same here," McElroy said.
Most of both labels' catalogs are available on Spotify, but Hill said, "I make more off SiriusXM satellite radio play quarterly than I do off Spotify.
"I'll see my Spotify numbers and it's awesome to see that something's been played like 60,000 times." However, even at that volume, "you get like two cents off it."
McElroy said he considers streaming to be part of the cost of doing business, and that if it gets people turned on to other bands on his label, then perhaps they'll be more likely to buy the albums in a physical format or go see the bands play live.
Hill echoed that assessment, expounding on the double-edged-sword nature of the Internet: "Everything's free on the Internet, yet the Internet is also the great equalizer. Either one of us can get press that 20 years ago would've been impossible to get," he said. "The flip side of that is that 20 years ago, press sold records, and press today doesn't necessarily sell records."
But back to the other side of the Internet, "People will pick up Kevin Kerby because they heard Glossary," McElroy said.
Hill agreed: "I have people from Europe order Kevin Kerby records and they don't know who Kevin Kerby is, because he doesn't tour Little Rock, much less Europe."
McElroy said he's seen the same thing with his artists, with customers ordering Ezra Lbs. CDs based on the fact that Thick Syrup has bands like Half Japanese and garage rock veterans Chrome Cranks on its roster.
"I've gotten some really good reviews from Europe, D.C. and California with Ezra Lbs. just because of the Chrome Cranks connection," he said. Laying that groundwork will no doubt help a young band like Ezra Lbs. when it comes time to hit the road.
McElroy said the band "wants to go to Japan and they've already gotten like a ton of Japan followers on Twitter."
Touring in Europe and Japan has long been viewed as the gravy train for U.S. bands: the distances between gigs are shorter; the pay is often better; the audiences are more engaged and into it.
"Europe is crazy man," McElroy said. "They love the vinyl, the sales are three times as big as the CD or vinyl [sales] are in the U.S."
Austin Lucas and John Paul Keith & The One Four Fives have toured Europe and can attest to this. "John Paul Keith just got back from Europe and he sold every 45 that he carried over, and he sold them in about seven days, which is more than we sold here in two years," Hill said.
"If I had deep pockets and could send all of my bands to Europe and Australia?" he pondered. It was a rhetorical question.
That's one of the common misconceptions about label owners — that they must surely have deep pockets. Another common misconception? That somebody running a label is interested in hearing your demo.
"For a long time I tried to listen to everything," Hill said, "and I got to the point where I don't listen to anything. Now if you handed me a CD or [McElroy] handed me a CD — a personal recommendation — I'll listen. Something that comes blind in the mail? I can't. I don't have time."
McElroy too gets an endless stream of submissions, so many that he's had to outsource: "I have a guy who does that for me now, that's all he does is he listens to demos and everything goes to his e-mail so I don't have to see it all."
Hill said he pretty much limits himself to the roster he has now. "What I tell bands all the time if they won't take no for an answer is, book a show at White Water Tavern, kick my ass there, and we'll talk," he said. "Pretty much everybody on the label is somebody that I first saw at the White Water that changed my life."
The fact that both labels have been as successful as they have speaks not only to the owners' hard work, but also to their respective genres' dedicated followings. They might not sell a million copies of anything in their catalogs, but it's not a flash-in-the-pan hit that either is looking for.
So why run a record label?
Perhaps that's best answered by the new Last Chance T-shirts, which read, in all caps: "MUSIC MATTERS." That's really the essence of it. It's true for Hill's label as much as it is for McElroy's or Taggart's or CT's or many of the others. These folks do this because they really believe that music matters. It matters enough to make all the late nights and long hours and endless e-mails and back-and-forth with pressing plants and distributors and musicians and all of that extra work worth it.
McElroy and Hill both said getting to work with some of their favorite artists is one of the best things about running a label.
"As long as I can approach breaking even, it's a labor of love," Hill said. "And keeping the integrity of the label name you know? That's all I really ask."
McElroy said while he's not selling a ton of records, "I just like what I'm doing."
"I feel pretty lucky that I'm getting to work with these people that I've always loved and listened to," he said.