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Underground sounds

Two local music labels find success on the Web

Two local music labels find success on the Web

December 28, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Since 2003, Hagerstown-based Crucial Blast Records has supported music that is "abrasive" and "experimental," said founder Adam Wright-Carmean.

He used a French band named Monarch as an example. Critics have referred to the band's style as "slo-mo nihilistic."

"I'll put out one CD from them and it only has one song," Wright-Carmean said, "and the one song is 65 minutes long."

To be clear, there is no underground "experimental" music scene in Hagerstown, Wright-Carmean said. Crucial Blast is an online record label, known as an e-label. It's mostly Europeans who get into this sort of stuff and account for the majority of Wright-Carmean's mail-order sales.

But that doesn't mean he's lacking an audience. The 32-year-old Washington County native said business was doing pretty well.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, small e-labels like Crucial Blast are able to reach fans across the globe.

It's more than posting MP3s on MySpace and stamping CDs in a buddy's basement studio. Local e-labels are offering much of what the big guys provide - distribution, exposure and publicity - minus the bureaucracy and pressure on artists to conform, according to acts signed to such labels.

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Crucial Blast isn't the only record label of its kind in the Tri-State region.

Curt Seiss, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., founded an artist-run label, Magnanimous Records, in late 1999. The label is similar to a co-op and is currently working with nearly a dozen experimental music artists in the United States and abroad, Seiss said.

"It started off as a way to create an umbrella, as a way for a close-knit group of artists to work," Seiss said. "When people started paying attention to it, it sort of grew legs and became an organic thing."

Magnanimous does mail-orders, offers digital downloads and distributes its albums to indie record stores in Washington and Baltimore, Seiss said.

On pace with everybody else

Industry analysts say e-labels like Magnanimous and Crucial Blast are going where the rest of the music industry seems to be going - digital.

According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), digital media sales only accounted for 9 percent of the $12.3 million in revenues the industry raked in for 2005. Compare that with 2007, when digital media accounted for 23 percent of the nearly $10.4 million in revenue.

RIAA spokeswoman Liz Kennedy told The Herald-Mail that 2008 data would be released in the spring.

But digital sales are only part of it.

People are listening to music on their MP3 players and cell phones, too. The ubiquity of digital media has allowed labels to distribute music by any means necessary.

"The trend is anarchy," said Jim Mahoney, vice president of the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), a New York-based trade association representing independent record labels.

The business end of things

Nowadays, any Internet startup should proceed with caution, or they could make the same mistakes that other e-businesses made during the 1990s dot-com era, said Lawrence Gelburd, lecturer at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania's business school.

"They do incomplete risk-assessment," said Gelburd, who worked for two major music labels before leaving to form his own independent production and publishing company in the '90s.

Gelburd said while today's uncertain economy and the legacy of the dot-coms has left some investors "licking their paws," there are others still willing to take the chance on an Internet startup.

Investors are looking for a high return, Gelburd said, and e-business are looking a lot more attractive than real estate at the moment.

"There aren't many places left where you can get a high return," Gelburd said.

Learning from the past

When creating Crucial Blast, Wright-Carmean said he decided to draw from experience as an indie artist performing and trying to get noticed on the underground circuit.

"That's actually where I caught the bug, from putting out actual records and CDs from my own band's stuff," he said. "But those were low-key releases."

Wright-Carmean belonged to a "speed core" band called "Strong Intention," picked up by a California-based label in the late '90s.

"I just saw a lot of how the network works, how you physically produce a record, how you get the record out to people, how you promote a record," Wright-Carmean said.

To date, Crucial Blast has put out a total of 70 releases and is working with six artists, actively - most from Europe, Australia and Japan, Wright-Carmean said.

The label has a distribution deal with the Toledo, Ohio-based Lumberjack Mordam Music Group, which works with indie rock, hardcore and punk labels in the United States and Europe.

Wright-Carmean also operates an online Web store where other indie record labels sell albums.

Generating a buzz

For any indie label, Web-based or otherwise, generating a buzz is another important aspect of the business, Mahoney said.

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