It's easy to start an indie-rock record label. Anybody can do it, really. All you need to do is save up a few bucks, find a couple of bands you like, convince them to record some songs, send the songs off to a pressing plant, wait six to eight weeks, and voilà: You've got yourself a record label. Unfortunately, if that's all the thought you put into it, odds are that six to eight years later, you'll still have a closet full of CDs and a bunch of bands mad at you for wasting their time. It takes planning, vision, lots of support and, yes, quite a bit of luck to start any business, let alone one in an industry as fickle and unpredictable as music. For every fluke success story, there are dozens upon dozens of ambitious failures, labels that suffered from bad taste, bad timing, bad business sense or simple bad luck. Despite the long odds, though, bands keep recording songs and labels keep springing up out of nowhere to foist them on the public. One of the more successful small labels to appear on the crowded indie-rock scene in the past few years has been the Athens, Ga.-based Kindercore Records. One of the label's founders, Dan Geller, is bringing his new band, I Am the World Trade Center, to town next week, but, first, here's a little background information on Kindercore, the little label that could.
Geller and Kindercore co-owner Ryan Lewis met in Athens in the mid-'90s. At the time, the Athens music scene was experiencing a resurgence in bands playing the jangling guitar-pop that had put the town on the musical map a decade earlier, when bands such as R.E.M., Pylon and, later, Guadalcanal Diary ruled college radio. Geller and Lewis noticed that despite the deep talent pool in their town, there was no sense of focus, no real sense of a music scene other than a bunch of bands. By starting Kindercore, they hoped to find a more effective way to showcase Athens' new indie-rock and pop bands. About the same time, Athens also became the adopted home of a handful of musicians associated with the Elephant 6 Collective, a loose grouping of '60s-style psych-revivalists that included the Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel. With this influx of established talent, the Athens music scene flourished, and Kindercore's fortunes rose as well. The label released CDs by Geller and Lewis' band Kincaid and odd popsters Of Montreal, singles by a number of Athens bands and compilations featuring both Kindercore and Elephant 6 bands.
Geller and Lewis wisely retained a strong regional focus during these first years, dealing with bands they knew personally and making the scene work for them as hard as they were working for it. Although this early "think globally, act locally" plan helped set Kindercore apart from labels that spread themselves too thin too soon in an attempt to look "national," the label was far from isolated. Their records received airplay on college and community-radio stations nationwide and, because almost every indie-rock band touring through Athens played with a Kindercore band, they soon formed connections with other labels and bands. Soon enough, Kindercore had expanded beyond Athens, releasing music from Champaign, Ill., pop kids Wolfie and Minneapolis' Kitty Craft, among others, and organizing weekend-long music festivals that attracted bands and fans from all over the country.
These successful ventures convinced Geller and Lewis that Kindercore was strong enough to survive outside the nest, and in 1998, they moved the label's headquarters to New York City without breaking ties to the still-fertile Athens scene. The move helped cement Kindercore's status as a nationally recognized label of quality, capable of hosting showcases at music industry events such as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the CMJ (College Music Journal) convention in New York; what's more, through a manufacturing-and-distribution deal with larger indie label Emperor Norton, sales picked up as well. Geller and Lewis were able to quit their day jobs to devote themselves to Kindercore full-time and even hire paid help. Although the move to New York was an essential step in the evolution of the label, after two years, Kindercore moved back to the friendlier environs of Athens, where the label's success continues.
It's difficult but essential to the survival of a small record label to establish a reputation for quality releases. CDs must sell reasonably well, because most of a label's profits go toward putting out more music. Most successful indie labels have a well-defined aesthetic, a sort of signature sound, and Kindercore is no exception. Most Kindercore bands play a style of '60s-influenced shiny jangle-pop, occasionally with a skewed take on things (thanks to the Elephant 6 connection) but never too radically psychedelic. Other than the all-instrumental combo Japancakes, most Kindercore bands also emphasize rich vocal harmonies. Although the label's sound is never affectedly retro (an entire disc of the recent three-CD Kindercore 50 compilation consisted of electronica-style remixes), fans of '60s AM-radio-pop bands such as the Lovin' Spoonful and the Byrds or '80s college-radio faves such as early R.E.M. and Camper van Beethoven would probably find a number of Kindercore bands to their liking.
It's strange, then, that the first Kindercore band to make it to St. Louis in years is one of the most atypical acts on the label. I Am the World Trade Center, which consists of Geller and his girlfriend, Amy Dykes, makes danceable techno-pop devoid of jangly R.E.M.-isms. Instead, Geller creates backing tracks on a laptop computer, layering samples to the point of unrecognizability, while Dykes sings sweetly over the top, sounding like a cross between the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser and the Pastels' Aggi Wright. The only Kindercore band that stands a chance of fitting in at Club Z, I Am the World Trade Center is touring in support of debut CD Out of the Loop. It will be funny to see indie-rockers in their thrift-store finest bopping along amid bachelorette parties, but with any luck, St. Louis' pop fans will make it to the show, if for no other reason than to pat Geller on the back for a job well done and a label well run.