Cory Brown hasn’t bought new jeans in three years.
I am not sure if he is making a joke when he states this at the Bandwidth Music and Technology Conference, though he says it with a laugh. I don’t think the founder of local label Absolutely Kosher is trying explicitly to give us intimate details of his personal life. Instead, he’s giving a personal touch when describing an industry that has seen much change and is currently in a difficult state. For an industry that was once built on CDs, magazine reviews and college radio airplay, the old models have since been replaced by MP3s, blogs and a generation of listeners comfortable not paying for their musical product.
Brown says that piracy is easily the issue that is affecting the industry the most today, while adding, “Having writers and consumers turn on my ideals has been difficult.”
Brown founded the label out of his apartment in 1997. After having worked as a distribution representative for several years, he noticed a budding Bay Area music scene that seemed to lack a reputable indie. As operations grew, and local favorites such as Okay, Ex-Boyfriends, and 60 Watt Kid were signed, Brown moved the office from his apartment to Emeryville. Out of this office, a small staff controls operations for both Absolutely Kosher and Misra Records.
Despite the problems affecting the independent music business, Brown is still a maven â€“ the kind of person Malcolm Gladwell characterizes in The Tipping Point as a â€œtrusted expert in a particular field.â€ Absolutely Kosher has built a reputation among music fans for quality, so when Brown suggests a band, people listen. The label has released Pitchfork faves such as Sunset Rubdownâ€™s Shut Up Iâ€™m Dreaming and Frog Eyes’ Tears of the Valedictorian, and remains a staunch supporter or the local scene.
“My commitment is to release great records,” Brown says. “When there’s great music coming from the Bay Area, it’s that much easier.”
“To me, it’s hard to exactly pin down the Absolutely Kosher sound, but I can say it is very Bay Area,” says the label’s publicist, Naomi Weisenberg. “Bands are popping up, following in the footsteps of Xiu Xiu, Deerhoof, and Okay, which are experimental and unusual but also maintain a pop sensibility that makes listening to them and seeing them live fun and engaging.” Of how out-of-towners fit into this scene, Weisenberg adds: “The Gang, Sybris and Chris Garneau may not be from San Francisco, but I think they have a certain intangible aesthetic that fits right in with the Bay Area and Absolutely Kosher.”[audio:http://absolutelykosher.com/musicfiles/Jennifer%20Lopez.mp3] Xiu Xiu – “Jennifer Lopez”
“I think San Francisco is reclaiming itself as a music hub,” adds Richard Davis, Director of Sales and Marketing, who has been with the label since 2003 when he started as an intern.
While having your record on Absolutely Kosher likely means national exposure for an indie act, Brown laments that local press is not always supportive of its current scene. “In cities like Seattle, Chicago or New York, the local music press keeps track of what the local scene is like and what the locally-based labels are releasing,” he notes. “We enjoy some sporadic support from the local press. It’s always appreciated, of course, but there’s something of a renaissance going on in local music right now with bands like 60 Watt Kid, Sholi, Little Teeth, Battlehooch and others all popping up at once and playing alongside Okay, Deerhoof, Pidgeon, Citay and others who predate them by a few years. It’d be nice if the local press showed some more attention during this exciting time.”[audio:http://www.absolutelykosher.com/musicfiles/09JapaneseCandy.mp3] Little Teeth – “Japanese Candy”
The tide may be turning as Ex-Boyfriends were recently chosen as Best Indie Band in a San Francisco Bay Guardian reader’s poll.
Launching in the late nineties, Absolutely Kosher predates the rise of file-sharing, a force that has changed the way people engage with music, while having a drastic impact on sales. Furthermore, the internet has become increasingly influential since the label’s beginnings, making marketing a greater challenge. The label now rarely advertises in print magazines, and has shifted publicity to the often-challenging online world. “It’s really important for us to make sure our bands are seen by every relevant online media outlet,” Weisenberg says. “Keeping up on who is saying what and where they are saying it can be a challenge.”
Davis adds, “You only need ask the previous generation – the pre-internet generation – how difficult it was at times to discover new music. The internet has allowed indie labels with next to nothing marketing budget to play on level playing ground with the majors. I am not saying that you can properly market a record with $0 but with properly planned social networking, email marketing, website content, and other forms of viral marketing you can create a nice splash.”
Brown does add that he hopes listeners will come to “appreciate just how crappy most MP3’s really sound,” while acknowledging that, “It’s certainly a lot of fun exploring these new technologies.” In addition to engaging with YouTube and Muxtape, the label offers free samplers to anyone who signs up on their mailing list.
As influential as technology becomes, it is the commitment to great music and the strong identity of indie labels that keeps us a force in this ever-changing business. Brown sells merchandise at his band’s shows from time-to-time and attends the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago each year to connect with the band’s listeners. Fans of Absolutely Kosher may not know Brown personally, but they know someone is in that Bay Area office, thoughtfully listening to CDs and only releasing albums of the utmost quality. Brown says his approach may not exactly be DIY (“The notions of DIY and independent have been blurred beyond distinction, especially once you take distribution into account,” he says) but he has learned a thing or two from his DIY predecessors.
“Shrimper Records has always been a tremendous inspiration for me in that it was a label run by one guy who acted like a label run by one guy,” he says. “I always liked their approachability, the notion that they could live next door to you. While I was aesthetically more compelled by Matador, Merge, Rough Trade and Simple Machines in terms of their aesthetic diversity (and maybe a little Thrill Jockey, Kill Rock Stars and forgotten post-grunge era Sub Pop), it was Shrimper’s overall original approach that resonated with me. I never had the time to dub my own cassettes and xerox and color the artwork like they did, but for a long time, we operated out of my house and it wasn’t unusual for people to ring the bell if they were in the neighborhood and say hello.”
Brown then adds â€“ and this may just be the concluding point asserting why indie labels will always have a place in our media culture â€“ “I never want to be so big that we can’t talk to the people who buy our music.”
To join Absolutely Kosher’s mailing list and get a free CD sampler, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address and country.
Will Benham is the Founder and President of New and Used Records and is always looking at labels that came before, how they successfully build a brand name around quality sounds, and how they are navigating todayâ€™s challenging waters.