Milwaukee-based record label New Pavement Records is owned and run by Nate Ruvin, JJ Agara. It was founded because Ruvin, the de facto spokesman for NPR, was “sick of waiting to get signed to a label.”
In just a couple years, NPR has accumulated a roster of nine acts that spans many different genres: jazz, dream pop, metal, rap, and singer-songwriter. (The label’s newest artist, Nashville-based Hanna Simone, is releasing her debut EP on August 25.) Ruvin, Agara, along with longtime friend and musical collaborator Charlie Herrenbruck do all their own production, marketing, recording, engineering, and mastering. They’re also some of the label’s acts. Ruvin alone makes dream pop under his own name, plays bass in a metal band (ARYA), and is in an experimental rap duo with Agara (MoNday).
They sound like (level-headed) record execs, too. Over the course of a conversation, Ruvin casually throws out gems like, “I think now we’re more artist-centric, trying to brand the artist, not brand the label,” and, “We’ve gotten humble enough to realize our job is to get the artists where they need to be.”
Oh, and one other thing: Ruvin, Agara, and Herrenbruck are all 17, and are entering their senior year at Nicolet High School.
The word “ambitious,” it seems, doesn’t quite cover it, but the creation of New Pavement is a little more modest. To hear Ruvin tell it, the label’s founding was basically a series of chance encounters and happy accidents. For example, how Ruvin met Agara (a.k.a. Diffusive): “So I get to freshman year and I walk into English class, and this dude is standing on a chair rapping,” he recalls. “Everyone’s listening to him, the teacher is standing there listening to him. He finishes and everyone claps. And I’m like, ‘Holy shit, who is this guy?'”
Or how NPR got its name: “Our local Taco Bell recently had been renovated and they had a new parking lot,” Ruvin explains. “I was trying to think of a name and Elan [Palay, a friend and musician for NPR] goes, ‘They have new pavement.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s it! New Pavement Records, that’s what it’s gonna be.'”
Or the fact that their high school is an important piece of NPR: “A lot of the record label is based around what happens at our school,” Agara points out. “We find new artists at our school, and then we record.”
But despite the modest beginnings, the (literal) in-house nature of the enterprise allows the Glendale-based collective total freedom, something they have a strong preference towards. Ruvin tried outsourcing before, and it ended up reinforcing his desire to keep everything internal. He shares an anecdote about working with an outside engineer in a professional recording studio with NPR artist Azul Blue. He sums up the experience in two words: “Never again.”
Herrenbruck chimes in: “The beauty of modern technology is that you can do everything from your home with a laptop and some recording equipment. You don’t need the studio, you don’t need to outsource, as long as you know what you’re doing.”
Which they do. And they’re already looking to the future. All three plan on going to college after graduation, and all three want to keep running the label as long and as best they can. “We put in four years of work and we don’t wanna just throw it away,” Ruvin says.
Perhaps fittingly, their goals, expectations, and definitions of success are (mostly) realistic, given their age. Herrenbruck is the most succinct: “Success for me is being able to live comfortably, potentially supporting a family, while playing music. No matter what I do, it’s gonna be related to music.”
Similarly, Agara would be happy to make a living as a rapper and musician. When asked if he wants to be as big as Kanye or more like Aesop Rock, he favors the latter as a goal. “I’d like to be at that level, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. But I do think I can make a living doing this.”
Ruvin’s response is surprisingly antithetical to both: “I’m trying to change music. I wanna be the next big name. And I don’t want that to come across as narcissistic or egotistical, which it probably is.”
He ends on a more reasonable note: “Is that dream attainable, who knows? But that’s what I’m shooting for.”