Cyberspace was a different place in 1997. Social networking sites existed in places called Geocities, while few things had ever been Googled. The dot-com bubble was only beginning to inflate, and the term "blog" didn't even exist. That year, an MTSU student named Michael Eades offered Brian Rogers, guitarist for Fluid Ounces, design assistance on the Spongebath Records website. The label's profile was growing nationally through releases by Rogers' band, along with The Features, Self, The Katies, Count Bass D and others.
"He was the only one around who had any idea what was going on with the then-emerging web," says Eades, who eventually took charge of the Murfreesboro label's web presence.
In his role as Spongebath webmaster, Eades told the staff and bands about a new digital audio encoding format called MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 — more commonly known as MP3 — that would later flip the old music business model on its lid. "I burned the entire Spongebath catalog onto one CD and explained that things were going to move in this direction, and we needed to start using it," he says. The band members and staff embraced the new technology, but that didn't keep the label from folding just a few years later.
Since that Spongebath gig, web design has paid the bills for Eades, and he's become one of Nashville's pre-eminent Internet gurus. His popular Yewknee blog is a virtual storehouse of cyber-curiosities, gadget geekery and indie-rock nerd-dom, and in its final installment, the biannual facial hair celebration at the Eades-curated Whiskerino site attracted over 500 beard-growers this year alone. As a longtime booster of local music, Eades also maintains and curates the We Own This Town blog and podcast.
While the paradigm shift he anticipated while working with Spongebath led the old vanguard to lash out against the boat-rockers — Napster, Audiogalaxy, listeners, etc. — others continue to grapple with what they can sell in place of the decreasingly relevant compact disc. Eades has been an early adopter and advocate of new online industry tools, and when he rattles off the name of a site for managing a band's assets, another for music distribution and one that synchronizes all your social networking accounts, he makes DIY sound a lot more practical than it once was. Hell, why not start your own label?
Well, that's what he did.
"I'm hesitant to even call the project a 'label' in the traditional sense," says Eades of his new web-savvy YK Records imprint. "I'm not distributing the record beyond mail order. I'm not pushing the artist to radio beyond my friends who already have shows. I don't blast the music blogs with news of its release, and I certainly don't ask my artists to play live to support the releases." If this sort of non-commitment yields any monetary success, it'll be a true testament to the almighty Internet.
Essentially, YK Records balances the approaches of two of Nashville's other indie labels. On one side, the Infinity Cat label has fallen back to vinyl and cassettes. (They include a download card with each vinyl release.) At the other end of the spectrum, the Spat! Records catalog has moved almost exclusively to digital delivery. For maximum distribution, each YK release is uploaded onto a Bandcamp page where it can be streamed and downloaded for free. To appease listeners with a penchant for collecting, limited and fancily packaged editions are available on CD. According to Eades, "The physical versions are $5 because I don't believe people want to pay much more than that, particularly for an artist they may have never heard of before."
Sure enough, the five YK releases thus far have been obscure ones. The most recent is Quick Potions by Slowmotions, a solo side-project from And the Relatives singer/guitarist Andrew Brassell. Running the gamut from glitchy IDM to disjointed pop songs, the album sounds like Beck covering Brian Eno's Another Green World. In other words, it's one of the better local albums to come out this year. Between that release, Shaboi's Halloween-themed and scatterbrained Curse Walk, what would have otherwise been a scrapped EP by Codaphonic called Edison's Rival, and former Kindercastle member Ross Wariner's Uncle Skeleton side project, the YK brand has proven a dependable seal of approval thus far. The unorthodox and clever packaging design of each offers an extra incentive to spring for the CDs, but they aren't flying off the shelves.
"They are limited edition because people don't really buy CDs anymore. I've not sold out of any of my offerings yet," he says, while adding, "The largest run I've done is 250 copies and the smallest is 100." But many collectors have left CDs as well in favor of a resurgent vinyl market, which begs the question: For an imprint managed by a web designer with an interest in packaging, wouldn't vinyl seem a better fit, with its larger-format sleeves? For an admittedly unambitious label with ambitious design goals, the costs are prohibitive — "I'm all for eating a large chunk of the cost of these projects, but there gets to be a level of expense that even I can't rationalize."
So, does YK Records signal the Bandcamp-ification of label-ry, or is this the cyber-equivalent to tape trading? In either case, the endeavor more than likely isn't a lucrative one. Glossary did this very thing all by their lonesome back in 2007 with the release of The Better Angels of Our Nature — first for free in the intangible Internet version, then later for sale on that old medium that people aren't buying so much of anymore. More recently, How I Became the Bomb unveiled a series of three-song releases (with "digital packaging" courtesy of Michael Eades), each available for a period of time for free online. The songs were eventually compiled and sold on their Deadly Art CD. The suits call this marketing strategy "windowing" or "versioning." Windowing is the release of EPs and singles in anticipation of a bigger release, while versioning creates multiple versions of a release from which the consumer can choose. But in the case of YK Records, the window never closes.
From the onset of media's digital era — an era in which the initial goals were to replicate an original performance as accurately as possible — the focus of technological innovations gradually shifted to that of pure convenience. MP3s killed your record store, and Kindles are closing your libraries. On the bright side, everything ever is at your fingertips, assuming your hand is on a mousepad. That's a metaphor, of course — you can't actually touch any of those things. So, for those who give a shit about packaging but enjoy this easy access, how are those two reconciled?
"I am of the thinking that the visual portion of a record should reflect the audible portion," says Eades. "If your release is purely digital, that is no excuse to slap together a low budget JPEG with some Comic Sans text on it to represent your hard work in the studio." But the freeness that characterizes the bulk of YK's distribution might cannibalize the five-dollarness of the versions you can hold. Combating that requires controlling convenience, but for an imprint specializing in releases you would probably never hear in any other context, the YK brand is being built on maximizing exactly that.
But for the early-adopting, Internet-guruing Eades, he's behind the trend on at least one thing. The album is out, and the single is in. Songs and MP3s are well acquainted, but the long player hasn't quite adapted to the new protocol. The packaging for YK releases like Codaphonic's Edison's Rival, which comes in a 7-inch sleeve with four hand-screened prints, adds to the charm and contributes to content of the entire album. The zip file that comes from the Bandcamp page fails to duplicate that aesthetic. But then again, if it did, what would be the point in buying the CD in the first place? That's a 21st century Catch-22.
But Eades isn't fretting all those thorny details, and YK Records is likely to remain a brand of convenience: "On the off chance that one of the records actually made it beyond the circles that I run in, it'd be nice for new fans to be able to enjoy the music with no strings attached."
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