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You don't know Jeff Price, but there's a good chance you've fantasized his life. Ten years ago, Price and a high-school friend started a record label in their bedroom, the kind of too-cool-for-commerce project that rarely makes it past vanity and, if it does, even more rarely remains solvent and idealistic. The record industry, you see, is slumping: Sales are down, Tower Records is contemplating Chapter 11 and indie-rock sprinters such as Sub Pop and Mammoth are sucking air. Price's label, spinART, is about to release record No. 100 -- a side project by Apples in Stereo jefe Robert Schneider -- but Price isn't celebrating. He's got a print job at Kinko's that needs picking up.
"Tell her to run 50 copies, and include it in the package for Shore Fire Media," Price barks in mid-phone interview. "Michael, can you call Planetary Group? Ask for Diego and ask him what CDs they need -- do they have copies of Bis and Mazarin, and if they do not, send them 10 copies of each via ground UPS today." The label grew out of Price chum Joel Morowitz's musical obsessions, which soon became Price's own: "I wasn't into music; I thought it sucked. As a teenager, all I knew was Top 40 radio. Joel had an amazing record collection; he introduced me to things like ska and then new wave in the '80s."
A staff of five now works from a Staten Island office, which Price describes as "circa 1976, shit-brown paneling with fluorescent lighting and gray-green industrial carpeting." Their current roster, however, is dazzling: Vic Chesnutt, the Apples in Stereo, Echo and the Bunnymen, Jason Falkner, Ron Sexsmith, Clem Snide, Bill Janovitz, the Minders, Mazarin and Bis. Some, like Chesnutt, Janovitz and Echo, have sought refuge at spinART in the aftermath of major-label bloodletting. The others couldn't get arrested at CMJ -- at least not yet.
The first spinART release was a 1991 compilation, One Last Kiss, 19 songs by sub-obscure pop bands including Velocity Girl; Suddenly, Tammy!; Spent; and the Lilys. "Nirvana had just hit; grunge was moving into Top 40," Price recalls. "There was a vacuum for the indie-pop sound, and bands like the Breeders and Matthew Sweet were supposed to be the next big thing. We had no clue what we were doing. We mailed out 10 copies to press, places like Spin, the Washington Post, Alternative Press and Rolling Stone. We got a full page at every one and, of course, never heard from Rolling Stone. Because we did not include any info in the compilation booklet, which was just an oversight, the industry thought all these bands were signed to spinART, which was insane. We had handshakes. We started to get phone calls from majors; the A&R people were looking for the next big thing, and we told them they could mail-order the disc for 10 bucks -- the idea of a multinational corporation worth billions of dollars calling me up for a free CD, when they could go fucking buy it and expense it! The industry, right or wrong, put us on some kind of pedestal, but we had no clue. We were still two guys in a bedroom."
The label finally took off with a band called Suddenly, Tammy! Peter Nash, who was booking Suede's first North American tour, heard the band's spinART release -- recorded in a basement on a $1,000 budget -- and asked them to open the tour. Radio stations in New York and Philly put the record into rotation, and spinART had an impossible hit. "We ended up in a label deal, so to speak, with Columbia Records, eight months after releasing our first CD," Price says. "The relationship was great: We could use someone else's money to release records we loved. They viewed us as an A&R source -- we were cool, hip and if a band did well, they could pick it up and put it through their distribution system."
The relationship lasted two years, before the first of the '90s massacres at Columbia. "We learned that the industry isn't about music," Price says. "It's about relationships, politics, marketing budgets, who signed the band, playlists for commercial radio, the blow, the whores, the payola. Seventeen of the people we knew at Columbia weren't there two years later. In the meantime, spinART took flak along the way; it wasn't cool for an indie to be associated with a major. As far as Joel and I were concerned, our job was to take these bands as far as they could go. Suddenly, Tammy! is a perfect example. We couldn't afford to make a video, to make new CDs, the tour support, and they had an opportunity to go somewhere. It wasn't fair to the band. I'll dance with the devil to benefit the band; I won't sacrifice their integrity. Hopefully along the way it will afford us both a living."
If spinART has shown that bedding down with the majors needn't mean pimping your heart and soul, spinART has also shown the dangers involved -- and that's not just indie paranoia talking. After Columbia, the label turned to alternative-friendly Sire, just as Sire was getting ready to implode. "We lost Frank Black because of it," Price says. "Sire owed him a lot of money. We found errors in their bookkeeping, and we were going to audit them. You think you'd just get the money, but instead it becomes a fucking negotiation. 'How about we pay you 80 cents on the dollar?' they'd say. Fuck you. How about you pay me a dollar on the dollar?