Tonight, Rush-Mor Records will welcome Lookout! Records co-founder Larry Livermore, who will discuss his new book, How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. The book tracks the origin of Livermore’s label, the growth it experienced as Green Day and Operation Ivy achieved mainstream success, and his decision to leave the popular punk rock imprint in 1997 at the height of Lookout!’s success. In the early ’00s, a mass exodus of bands and the advent of downloading brought financial troubles to Lookout! By 2012, the label was no more.
Lookout! is just one of countless labels that were unable to sustain the rampant changes in the music industry. Today, in the era of streaming services, pay-what-you-want downloads, digital-only albums dropping at an alarming clip, and CDs standing at the edge of extinction, running a record label is far from the lucrative career it used to be. Despite the growing risk and diminishing returns that come with putting out music these days, people continue to ply their passion into releasing music into the world—including a few people right here. As we eagerly await Livermore’s story of Lookout! Record’s rise and fall, we wanted to shine a positive light on 12 Milwaukee-based record labels that are weathering the storm.
1. Breadking Records
Breadking started out as a tight-knit collective of Riverwest folk musicians eventually expanded to a three-years-running music festival called Breadfest, and as of 2014, Breadking Records. Spearheaded by Milwaukee music troubadour Myles Coyne, the venture specializes in small-run cassette releases. While a large portion of the young label’s 20-some tape catalog is composed of Coyne’s solo material and releases from collective cohorts like Calliope, Lousy Trouts, Ladders, and Victor Buell IV, Breadking Records has branched out of the neighborhood to issue cassette components of releases from Group Of The Altos, WC Tank, Brett Newski, and Hello Death, among others.
2. Delaware House Records
While attending college at UW-Stevens Point during a period when his band was on an extended hiatus, Soul Low bassist Sam Gehrke started Delaware House Records in effort to stay connected to the Milwaukee music scene. The label—named after his childhood home on the Bay View main drag—has 10 releases beneath its belt, ranging from Soul Low’s excellent debut EP, Antler House’s first full-length, a Straya EP, and the gorgeous introductory record by teen songstress HoneyBee. Gehrke’s focus is presently split between his band and his involvement with Gloss Records, but he’s kept the label alive in case a release that piques his interest needs a home.
3. Dope Folks Records
In 2010, lifelong hip-hop fans Jon Kuester and Vanguard co-owner Chris Schulist funneled their love of rap’s golden era into an outlet to let little-known records live on to be heard by new listeners. The duo’s Dope Folks Records has managed more than 70 releases, ranging from anthologies of classic tunes, full-fledged re-releases, and even a new record from Milwaukee’s own AUTOmatic.
4. Dusty Medical Records
In 2005, then-Mistreaters guitarist Kevin Meyer pressed a Black Lips live album to wax and, in doing so, launched Dusty Medical Records because “[he] just wanted to see if [he] could put out records.” After 10 years and close to 50 records by about 35 bands, it’s safe to say he can. Last summer, Meyer celebrated the label hitting the decade milestone with the Dusty Medical 10th Anniversary Festival, which found 20 acts from two countries playing seven shows over the course of four days. Fresh off the label’s busiest year yet, Dusty Medical doesn’t look to be slowing any time soon, as 2016 brings about Space Raft’s recent Paper Airplanes seven-inch and the band’s forthcoming full-length, Rubicon.
5. Geology Records
Having no music background outside of his love for the cassette format, Milwaukee graphic designer Eric Krueger put his passion for the plastic platform into starting Geology Records, which he founded in early 2014. The young endeavor has managed 10 releases in its first two years, ranging from locals like Disguised As Birds and Heavy Hand, all the way to electronic and ambient projects from Canadian and Asian acts. Five more are planned in the near future. With $5 or $6 prices and no run topping 100 tapes (between 25 percent and 50 percent of which are given to the artists to sell on their own), Geology is a prime definition of a hobby. “The point isn’t to make money anyway. It’s fun. I’m not going to be paying my mortgage off with this or anything like that,” Krueger says.
6. Gloss Records
In February of 2015, Harrison Colby (NO/NO) and Joe Peterson (Rio Turbo and Platinum Boys) partnered up to start Gloss Records, a small-run boutique label. The (mostly) tape label quickly went about gathering up acts from all corners of Milwaukee’s music scene and has averaged more than a release per month in its young existence. In addition to putting out tapes by Colby and Peterson’s projects, Gloss has partnered with Soul Low, Lorde Fred33, D’Amato, (ORB), and GGOOLLDD. Late last year, the label also got into the vinyl business by releasing GGOOLLDD’s GOLD+ anthology. Beyond the growing cassette catalog—which grew by one with the release of Surgeons In Heat’s Going Through The Motions over the weekend—Gloss will have vinyl output from Soul Low and NO/NO by year’s end. Hear Peterson, the Dope Folks guys, and Kevin Meyer from Dusty Medical talk about their operations on an episode of our podcast.
7. Good Land Records
Though Good Land Records founder and renowned local drummer Jon Phillip recently relocated to Nashville, his label has a significant attachment to Milwaukee—even down the name “Good Land.” (Thanks, Alice Cooper!) More than the namesake, Good Land has also released records from local mainstays such as Midnight Reruns, Joseph Huber, Brett Newski, Direct Hit!, and Phillip’s former bands Trapper Schoepp And The Shades and the Benjamins. Phillip has also extended the label’s scope beyond state lines with releases from The Figgs, Archie Powell & The Exports, and Josh Berwanger.
8. Halo Of Flies
We recently learned that Milwaukee’s metal scene is in a very good place. One reason for that is the tireless work of Protestant member and Halo Of Flies founder Cory von Bohlen. Started in late 2006, “primarily to release records from [von Bohlen’s] band,” Halo’s catalog has swiftly climbed past 90 releases and has touted many more bands than Protestant in the process. Operated out of von Bohlen’s house with packaging hand-assembled by von Bohlen and friends, the label’s DIY ethos has been instrumental in the great deal of things it’s accomplished over the course of a decade. This month’s Primative Man and Northless split LP signals more good things are on the way.
9. Latest Flame Records
Originally started in 2002 by Crime & Judy’s Tony Olveda and Aaron Gorski, Latest Flame Records‘ keys eventually wound up in the more-than-capable hands of Dan Hanke. Aside from putting out music from his band, Like Like The The The Death, Hanke’s adopted side business put out material from other Milwaukee rockers like Heavy Hand, IfIHadAHiFi, Body Futures, and out-of-town outfits like Police Teeth and We Are Hex. A two-night event last October marked the end of Latest Flames’ existence as a physical label, but Hanke isn’t opposed to putting out the occasional digital release.
10. Tasty Tapes
Tasty Tapes was founded by Phil Hoge and Jeff Grabo last year in an effort to give their bands, Filter Free Rodeo and The Rashita Joneses, a platform to release new music. To date, the tape and CD label’s output has been limited to those two bands. However, the awesome lineup of acts the duo assembled for this year’s inaugural Tasty Fest suggests more releases from more bands could be on the horizon.
11. Triple Eye Industries
Not unlike a few of the other operations on this list, Triple Eye Industries initially took shape to serve as a distribution destination for the band of its founders. Started by Volunteer, Stock Options, and Tron Jovi members Martin Defatte (who also co-runs MKEPunk), Fran Ramirez, and Mark Sheppard in early 2014, the vinyl label has evolved to put out releases by other lauded locals like Soup Moat, Hot Coffin, and Northless, as well as respected non-Wisconsin projects like The Rutabega and Them Teeth. What Triple Eye’s catalog currently lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality.
12. Uni-Fi Records
Uni-Fi Records has long served to prop up Milwaukee’s hip-hop scene. Just as the city’s rap identity is changing and evolving, the label has changed over its five-plus years in existence. Veteran rhyme-spitters Dana Coppafeel and SPEAK Easy still hold domain, but have incorporated up-and-coming youngsters like Von Alexander and Vincent VanGREAT into the fold as well. Some of the label’s best rappers and producers came together on last year’s impressive #RapLords.