Latest Flame Records head honcho Dan Hanke is looking as relaxed as ever. He’s got a lot going on right now—he’s working on buying a house, his excellent band Like Like The The The Death is writing a new record, and he’s taken time out from nursing a sick girlfriend back to health in order to chat tonight. What we’re chatting about is the one thing that’s not happening as much for him any more. After a decade-plus of pressing records and CDs by his favorite bands (including We Are Hex, Troubled Hubble, and—full disclosure—your humble author’s IfIHadAHiFi and Body Futures), Hanke has pulled the plug on Latest Flame as a physical-release label, scaling back to digital distribution and occasional promo for LFR alums as they hit the road or release new music.
“We’ll maintain the digital catalog, and if bands want to release digitally, we’ll do that,” Hanke says. “It’s weird, because that sort of thing you can do yourself anywhere, but there are still some bands that don’t want to deal with it. And I’ll still promote tours to writers and radio.”
But why will his record label no longer be putting out, well, records? Nothing too mysterious about it, as it’s the same story labels large and small are dealing with in 2015: they’re just not selling. “The last two, three years of the label, the drop-off has been dramatic in physical and digital sales, and I don’t know what to attribute that to,” Hanke says. “Maybe we had fewer bands touring. It’s the same question lots of labels are asking: ‘How do we handle this?’”
Latest Flame was started in 2002 by Tony Olveda and Aaron Gorski, Hanke’s then-bandmates in long-departed Milwaukee act Crime & Judy. “We were starting to record and the thought was, instead of shopping it to labels, let’s do this ourselves,” Hanke explains. “We were starting to get out of town and were meeting bands like Troubled Hubble and The Slats and the Gunshy, and they were thinking ‘Wow, we really love these bands and they don’t have labels either. Maybe we can do something.’ That was mid-2002, and the first releases came out in fall 2002—Troubled Hubble and The Response.”
Eventually, Gorski parted ways with the label, and Olveda offered it to Hanke to run as he saw fit. Not only did Hanke try pumping more resources into Latest Flame, he also reevaluated the style of music he invited onto the roster. Previously an eclectic indie label covering the power-pop of Troubled Hubble, the organic folk-punk of the Gunshy, and The Slats’ wiry, stripped-down new wave, Hanke opted to focus future releases on what caused him to fall in love with music in the first place: the aggressive noise rock made popular by labels like Touch & Go in the ’90s.
But what happens when the records you want to release aren’t the records that are clicking with the average record buyer? “There are numerous bands and certainly labels where the mass appeal didn’t meet that level of knocking down dominoes coast to coast,” Hanke says. “But that doesn’t in any way diminish the work or invalidate it, or shouldn’t make anyone feel like it wasn’t worth it. If you wake up and this is the music that really makes your heart go, and you’ve done what you really felt like you could for it, you can’t really have any regrets.”
Which is not to say that Latest Flame didn’t have its moments where it felt like a band like Seattle’s Police Teeth or Bloomington, Indiana’s Waxeater might actually catch on with enough people to at least cover costs. “In 2010 or 2011, we put out [Police Teeth’s] Awesomer Than The Devil, [Waxeater’s] Sleeper, and maybe one other record, and the press was incredible for us. It was weird. We did nothing different than we had done with any of the other releases. Those particular records struck a chord and got a lot of write-ups, and that led to our biggest e-store sales in the history of the label.”
As the indie scene moved farther away from CDs and toward the new standard of vinyl with digital downloads, Latest Flame followed suit. But as has been the case for several small labels in recent years, the majors’ co-opting of the vinyl resurgence ended up putting the squeeze on more and more release timelines. “The thing is, you’re doing a run of 500 records. To them, they’re not going to push off a run of 20,000 to sneak your 500 in there,” Hanke explains. “Conversely, if your 500 run has started and somebody walks into the plant and says, ‘Hey, I need my 20,000 records in May,’ and we’re sitting here on April 6, they will put us aside.
“And you can tell now that the major labels have gone all in on the vinyl thing,” he continues. “You can walk into Best Buy and think, holy shit, an NWA reissue on 180-gram vinyl? When did that happen? So you have to find pressing plants that are a bit smaller, or find one that is more empathetic to our situation.”
Finally, a combination of lagging interest in releases, combined with personal self-assessment (“Last summer, I thought, holy crap, I’m going to be 43 pretty soon. I don’t have a nest egg for the future,”) took its toll, and Hanke finally began to give serious thought to moving on. “It really weighed on me that I’d put out a record and get six or eight reviews, and damn if I didn’t put the same amount of time that I did three years ago, writing to the same people, adding more people to the list, and the returns are still diminishing. It really breaks your heart.”
But since he’s now closing on a house, Hanke says he’s made the right decision for him. “In my own mind, I’ve always wanted my own place, to own a dog, and have a quiet, sedate existence, I guess. To not always be frustrated and think, holy shit, I just spent so much money on this campaign, I won’t be going out for the next three months. I would power through that, though, because, hey, listen to this fucking record—it’s the best record you’re going hear for the next eight months! But now I’m like, holy crap, I need some space. And hopefully, someday, somewhere, some kid who’s 17 and about to become the next hotshot writer discovers Pick It Up by the Slats and says, ‘Holy shit!’ Who knows?”
So no more physical releases from Latest Flame Records, but the romantic idea of banding friends’ bands together like a street gang and putting out their records will likely never lose its luster. Does Hanke think a new label starting today in Milwaukee thrive—or at least survive? He’s cautiously optimistic.
“I think it’s still possible for someone in Milwaukee to start putting out their friends’ records, and for the stars to align and have it eventually be a self-sufficient thing, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that your bands must tour incessantly. Get in people’s faces. There are only so many times you can call and email people, especially if they’re living in New York or Birmingham or wherever. Why are they going to care unless the band’s coming through? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that, or ‘You have to have a story.’ Man, my girlfriend dumped me so I went to a cabin and wrote songs. That works. That’s a story. That’s an angle. But I would never discourage someone from trying to do it, ever.
“But,” he adds, “I’d caution them: what do you really want to accomplish with this? You can’t go from zero to being Merge.”