Sometimes cultures overshoot the mark. They assume certain technologies, or subcultures, or beliefs are dead. But when those technologies, subcultures, or beliefs still hold vital importance for people what you might call pioneers in reverse emerge to satisfy the demand, revitalize the community, and colonize the ruins, like the homesteaders eagerly reinventing Detroit.
The music business is a ruin comparable to Detroit. Musicians are faced with a lose-lose situation. All the “services” that deliver our music to the worldwide web are set up to enrich the suits, trickling down only pennies to musicians and songwriters. But if you opt out of services you no longer exist. A touring band might be able to survive that way but most artists are pretty much forced to accept unfair circumstances, increased responsibilities to promote and handle the business side, and so little pay that to earn U.S. monthly minimum wage of $1160 from Spotify you need 892,307 plays a month.
But flickers of hope can be found in evolving open source distribution platforms like CASH Music, and record labels like Fan Death Records, originally from Baltimore and now run by its three co-owners out of Montreal, Brooklyn, and D.C. Fan Death is not only an ironic reversal of Kill Rock Stars but was inspired by “the goofy Korean myth that leaving a fan on while you sleep will kill you” as the label website explains. Fan Death has a roster of delightfully idiosyncratic and passionate bands like Clockcleaner, Roomrunner, Australia’s Taco Leg, and both Puerto Rico Flowers and Pleasure Leftists sound like they belong on the legendary Scream compilation of 1987, (you can almost picture their videos between Sisters of Mercy and Tears for Fears on early MTV). 37 releases prove there’s new life out there in the community many thought YouTube, iTunes, and BandCamp had forever doomed.
The importance of indie labels seems obvious after Sub Pop and so many others grew into multimillion-dollar businesses. But financial success isn’t a good measure of their impact. Consider the example of riot grrrl in Olympia vs. riot grrrl in Los Angeles. Thanks to K, Chainsaw, CandyAss and Kill Rock Stars the talent of the Pacific Northwest was heard by the world. But no riot grrrl label ever happened in L.A. At best the bands made it onto an Oly label, bands like Emily’s Sassy Lime and Longstocking, who released records, and Fleabag who appeared on a compilation.
But Los Angeles had at least as many aggressive female bands as Oly: Crown for Athena, Tummyache, Girl Jesus, Snap’her, Foxfire, Shrinking Violet, Lucid Nation had no label to unify and promote, to give people a way to understand that a scene was happening. That’s the importance of a label when it comes to building community and providing the support fledgling bands and scenes require. But what kind of crazy person would try to run a genuine old school indie label these days?
The same kind of person who would co-found a zine festival in Atlanta in 2012: Tracy Soo-Ming (and her partners Sean Gray and Chris Berry). A brief perusal of Tracy’s YouTube channel will bring a smile to any old school music nerd’s face: Nina Hagen, The Damned, The Residents, Psychic TV, Can, and one of my personal faves, The Screamers. She’s a scholar of the underground.
In her summary of CASH Music Summit 2013, Tracy wrote: “I’m on tour right now with friends, and every night I meet excited kids and watch an audience that cheers relentlessly for an encore. A lot of them are buying records and even asking where they can get older material. There are always kids who hang out after the show, hoping to meet the band and get an autograph or a picture. I don’t think for a second that these people who love music so much understand how unfavorable the climate is towards artists, and I don’t think they’d want to participate in a system that makes it difficult for the musicians they love to earn a sustainable living. There’s a lot of goodwill on both sides, so now it’s our job to improve the services and solutions that stand between artists and audiences.”
That’s music to any musician’s ears!
1. What inspired your participation in Fan Death Records?
I run the label with two friends, Sean Gray and Chris Berry. Sean and I actually met on a Hole message board something like 15 years ago, and we’ve been friends ever since. We were both into punk bands, especially the stuff that came out of D.C. and the Pacific NW, and would just talk about records all day long. I was a pretty frustrated teenager… my dad died when I was 10 and my mom and I were having a hard time getting along, and I lived in a pretty mundane suburb. Music let me feel like I was part of something bigger than my reality at the time, and buying records through mail order was a pretty big deal for me.
Both of us had always just wanted to be a part of that community. There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction when you find a band you love and you get to give them a platform. Sean actually started a label called Hit-Dat Records around then, and I helped him out with the website and a few other tasks. I must’ve been 15-18 at the time. We fell out of touch for about five years, but when I was 23, we began speaking regularly again, and I learnt he’d started a new label with Chris. They were two releases in and their website was a mess, so I volunteered to help, and just became increasingly enmeshed in the project and picked up whatever tasks I could. A few months later, I became an equal partner. The three of us having complementing personalities and strengths, and once I got involved, I feel like things just started moving so quickly.
2. How and why do you work with CASH Music?
I met Maggie Vail (co-executive director) about three years ago when she began dating a really good friend of mine, Josh. She was leaving KRS and devoting more time to CASH, and I was learning about it both from her and from Josh. I decided to give the beta version a try and kept emailing Jesse von Doom, the other co-executive director, with feedback. I was just a really big fan of their platform, but more importantly, their mandate, which in layman’s terms, is to ensure a sustainable future for music by helping musicians out, with tools, skills, resources, you name it.
I think they just appreciated that I really love what they do and want to see it do well. Whether I was collaborating with them or not, I would still be CASH Music’s #1 cheerleader.
Between the two of them, Maggie and Jesse have worn many hats: musician, manager, publicist, indie label VP, and so on. They’re both grown-up punks with big ideas and business savvy—which they learned from actually working with musicians, not by going to school. They aren’t clueless execs coming up with stupid services that hinder musicians more than they help them. They’re hard-working, super earnest music lifers who just want what’s best for the people who want to make music or support it—in short, for people like them.
Keep watching them; they are going to do some really big things for artists.
3. What inspired you to launch the Atlanta Zine Festival and how did it go?
I was spending a lot of time down in Atlanta and was pretty surprised to learn they didn’t already have a zine fest. Montreal has a really vibrant DIY scene, it seems like there’s a different fair every weekend, and I guess I’d always taken it for granted that those things exist. So I figured, if it doesn’t already exist in Atlanta, why not do it myself?
I told my friend Josh (incidentally the same Josh who introduced me to Maggie and CASH Music!) about my plan and admitted I had no idea where to start. The thing is, I might’ve been a frequent visitor, but that didn’t make me an Atlanta native by any stretch, and to start a zine fair, I’d need to reach out to local zinesters, artists, and writers. Josh told me I should get in touch with this girl Amanda Mills, who runs the Atlanta Zine Library. I went ahead and messaged her on Facebook with my idea, and she didn’t so much as hesitate. She just asked me to coffee and when we met up, she proceeded as if we’d been planning on doing a zine fest for years, even though we were as good as strangers. But we instantly became close friends. We have so much natural synergy, and I think it’s that natural synchronicity that’s really made AZF possible. We could’ve just as easily learnt we have nothing in common and have no desire to work with each other.
As for how the festival went, I sadly had to miss it. My mom passed away in April and the Buddhist tradition involves an important ceremony on the 49th day after person dies. That fell on the weekend of the AZF. I was sad to miss it, but I needed to be with my family. But I know it went well and we’re both really excited about next year’s zine fest. We have a new website up at and we encourage folks to check out our fundraisers and sign up for our mailing list.
4. Does Fan Death Records have a mission? Do you?
The three of us never sat down and hashed out a mission statement, but I’d say we set out with the shared goal of moving forward and growing organically with our love for music and the process at the forefront. We only ever wanted to do the label if we were having fun. “Success” was never the objective; it was about putting out records that we love.
6. You helped Fan Death survive when in 2010 the drummer of two of your Brooklyn bands was accused of rape on message boards. At the time you released a statement: “The crowd Fan Death Record tends to cater towards is an especially male-dominated one, and I speak from personal experience when I say that it can be daunting to get involved when you feel like the odd girl out. One of the reasons why I’ve been happy to help Sean out with label stuff over the past nine years is because our personal politics line up pretty well; we both agree that women need a place to feel safe and empowered, and he’s proud of the women who take the initiative to get involved in music.” Has Fan Death changed since then?
Insofar that Sean (and Chris, for that matter) are proud of women who take the initiative to get involved in music? No. They are rad allies and totally get it.
That whole situation was really upsetting and caught us all by surprise, but I was so proud when Sean very quickly identified as a feminist and Chris as an ally, and agreed our label shouldn’t support somebody at the center of multiple sexual assault accusations.
7. What did you see out there on the road? Was there an all ages scene? What kind of participation are you seeing by women in indie music?
I was with Deerhunter, who certainly have a lot of young fans. Some shows were all ages, and I definitely prefer those ones. I remember hearing records for the first time when I was 15 or 16 years old, and those records changing my life. I still really enjoy music, but a record doesn’t have quite the same impact on me anymore. The cult of personality stuff certainly doesn’t have any effect on me as an adult. So it was really nice seeing a lot of kids out at shows. Some of those kids are going to internalize the experience of seeing their favorite bands live and then go start their own bands.
There is still a dearth of women in music, but rather get into that, I’ll just say that Marnie Stern joined Deerhunter for a few tour dates, and holy shit. I invite any dude who thinks girls suck at playing the guitar to try covering a few Marnie Stern songs and then get back to me.
8. How do you picture the future of the music business?
I’m not sure. I think we’re at a crossroads right now and as it stands, decisions made by technologists and music industry types (but not musicians!) will determine what path we’re set on for the next little while. I don’t like that status quo. There are plenty of reasons why I think CASH Music is a great non-profit and I’m proud to be allied with them, but first and foremost, it’s because they want to make musicians major players in the discussion about the future of the music business too.
9. How important is the web to what Fan Death does?
It’s totally essential to how we operate. We’ve never all lived in the same city. Sean used to live in College Park, MD, while Chris lived nearby in Baltimore, but for the past while, I’ve been in Montreal, Chris has been in Brooklyn, and Sean’s been in D.C. I think it’s great that in 2013, geography doesn’t limit who you can collaborate with. Sean and I have been collaborating since about 2002, entirely over AOL Instant Messenger. I don’t think we spoke by phone until 2009.
10. Are you now or have you ever been a musician and/or riot grrrl?
No, I’m not a musician. I play music sometimes, and I’m a classically trained pianist, but I wouldn’t say it’s my instinct to write music. Or at least, it isn’t my instinct yet.
I don’t identify as a riot grrrl, but I don’t not identify as a riot grrrl either. It’s not the first label I’d use to describe myself. Riot grrrl was super important to me as a teenager: I read the zines, bought the records, walked the walk and talked the talk. I’m indebted towards it. Nowadays, I just call myself a feminist.
11. What are your musical guilty pleasures?
I could go on for days. I actually really enjoy Linkin Park singles. The lyrics are pretty bad and I think the over-emoting that pervades all of nu-metal is absurd, but they’re super catchy songs. “Blurry” by Puddle of Mudd always gets stuck in my head and I somehow know all the words. And there’s this J-Pop band called Perfume whose songs are so addictive. I phonetically taught myself the words and I can sing along to all their major singles, even though I don’t actually know what I’m saying.
12. Got any advice for musicians (and by extension writers, artists, and filmmakers since we’re all in similar distribution bottlenecks)?
I don’t have a magic formula, but this is my M.O.: Be very nice. Never burn bridges. Passionate, creative people will always find each other; once you’ve found the people you want to collaborate with, work hard and good things will happen. Work very hard. Work relentlessly. Never feel like you’re owed something. Never take anything for granted. If anyone helps you along the way, remember to say thank you… people love hearing the words “thank you”, and they’ll help you again if they feel like you really did appreciate their gestures. Be sincere. Earnestness is contagious and will help you find people who want to help you with what you’re doing.
Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.