Music City has felt some growing pains, with issues like a potential East Nashville housing crisis inspiring a collective desire to raise the drawbridge. But entrepreneurs like Thomas Nyström, founder of Rhed Rholl Recordings, make me want to keep the gates open.
When Nyström relocated from Connecticut with his fiancée in 2010, he brought more than a decade of experience as a touring musician, talent booker and Web and graphic designer for independent labels. Within days of moving in, he took his first steps toward becoming an ambassador. A group of friends from Chicago, The Bears of Blue River, had a single called "Flamingo" ready, but no avenue to release it. Seeing that United Record Pressing was nearby, Nyström got a quote on a short run of 7-inches and offered to design the packaging; that turned into helping finance the release.
As soon as the single — clear vinyl with a puddle of pink in the middle to match the cover art — started to sell at the band's shows, other artists saw Nyström's logo and sought him out. Suddenly, he found himself in charge of a short-press label. The roster leans toward indie and garage rockers who know the rules but break them at will, like young Nashvillians Gunther Doug and Indianapolis' Bonesetters. Nyström was happy to let it be an expensive hobby, but he realized it could become something more substantial.
"Venues like The End and Exit/In will book touring bands, but they need X amount of local support," Nyström tells the Scene. "It's an intimidating place for out-of-towners to come in and play if they're not familiar with it. But I think if you have the right couple of people trying to help bands out and get them into some cool house shows, or a DIY space, or something like that, Nashville's not so scary anymore. That's better for us, better for our bands and better for the overall feeling of the scene here."
By early 2013, Rhed Rholl outgrew Nyström's spare bedroom, and he found a convenient Porter Road storefront. There was one problem: The space had to house a retail operation. Understanding that the Internet is a double-edged sword — while it's leveled the playing field for independent artists, the sheer number of players has made it difficult to cut through the noise — it took Nyström only an hour to decide to open the micro-scale record store, which has since become key to his mission of diplomacy. The brick-and-mortar outlet gives Nyström face time with his clientele, to whom he sells instruments and the occasional turntable, along with vinyl and cassettes. Though the store covers barely more than 200 square feet, an average of 300 titles stays in stock; besides Rhed Rholl's own catalog, the racks brim with local indies like Infinity Cat, Jeffery Drag and Paco Tapes, as well as startups from other regional hubs like Louisville's Sophomore Lounge and Austin's Graveyard Orbit. Keeping it small makes Nyström a valuable resource — he can discuss every record in the store at length with his customers, and his regulars trust his taste — but he also uses it to build relationships with other indie labels of all shapes and sizes.
"I'll find some small label out of Milwaukee, and they've only got only three releases, and not a lot of people on Facebook even care about them," Nyström says. "But I'll listen, and if [I hear] one thing that sounds good, I'm going to reach out to them."
Small labels make strong allies, and their staffers know who the bands on Rhed Rholl's roster need to contact to have a successful show in their town — venue management, local bands to play the support slots and more — and he can offer the same in return.
Rhed Rholl has maintained its upward trajectory since opening the shop last summer, despite a setback in March, when thieves hurled a brick through the glass door and made off with the four guitars on the wall. "I was angry for 24 hours, but then I got over it," says Nyström. He made one post to his website, simply to notify his regulars that the shop would be closed, and added a pay-what-you-want blind item to his Web store. People he'd never met picked up on his post and spread the word. Customers showed up to spend hours helping him clean the glass shards out of his racks.
"People were amazingly supportive about everything," Nyström says, genuinely shocked by the outpouring of support. "Some people gave as much as $100 or $200. I don't even know what I'm going to give them at this point, unless it's something really special like a test pressing."
After a month of regrouping and solidifying new plans — which include a limited-edition cassette in custom shells from locals Split Wigs, due in June — the Rhed Rholl shop reopened in early May.
"We had an excellent first weekend, and I'm really inspired to push this even harder than before," says Nyström. "Let's rip off the Band-Aid and do this right."
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