Your New Favorite Label: Totally Real Records

Posted: by The Editor

For 2023’s first installment of Your New Favorite Label, Jami speaks with the NY-based Totally Real Records!

Let’s dig in. Why did you want to start a label in the first place?

Okay! Let’s go! I have a long history in music (bands, blogs, venues, magazines, etc.) and have always been excited to help friends out with their projects–contributing guitar, doing art and design, making pins, taking photos, helping with sequencing, booking shows, building websites, giving general industry advice, whatever–my jobs at music websites and especially hosting a podcast where I interviewed record label owners certainly provided some useful insight. A few years back, somewhere between multiple 4AM nights every week and changing more diapers than venue trash bags, I realized that it just didn’t make sense to keep doing things that way–that it would be more meaningful both to myself and the artists I wanted to help out if it could be more of a partnership beyond one small task, so I made a rule for myself: I can help you, but it needs to be under some kind of umbrella rather than a random freelance gig. This way, every time I helped somebody it was also a step towards building a community that would help push them forward and feed something that I could continue to grow and develop over time. Technically, I came up with the name in May 2018 with the idea to put this into motion with two friends who I knew needed a little extra push to get their new music out into the world, but neither of those ended up happening, so I sat on it until my band Mount Sharp was self-releasing our first single in 4 years in July 2019 – when I uploaded the track for digital distro, it asked for a label name, and I figured I’d use the fake one I’d created and gotten a URL for rather than a random string of numbers, so right there, Totally Real Records became totally real. A year later, with the release of my band’s first full length (on Dadstache Records) and a looming pandemic, I found all sorts of opportunities to put my idea of helping friends (and very quickly, strangers) release and promote their music into action.

I love this answer. It makes me like the name even more! What was the first full-length album you put out on the label? What was the learning process like? 

Hey thanks! One bit about the name I didn’t mention is that my friend Travis Harrison (Guided By Voices producer) has run a label and recording studio called Serious Business for many years (my first band was on his label, and I put out a David Berman tribute CD that his band The Unsacred Hearts recorded, plus he’s the other half of my improvised band LEEEKS that I did a tape for) and at my old job I spent a lot of time at sessions with bands in his studio, so I actually came up with the name there, and there’s definitely some inspiration in that spirit of the name–like manifesting that it will become an actual, serious business, just like it would become a totally real label. 

Back to your question! Technically the first full length release on the label was Excellent Systems by Superorder, but they kind of tricked me into that one. The band was the duo of Maine-based synth composer Zak and drummer Max (who I played with in band when I lived in Portland, ME), and I’d been giving some guidance on what they might be able to do with their new recordings. We had a show booked for Mount Sharp with them in Maine as part of our record release celebration (all of which ended up getting Covid-canceled) so I suggested that they make the show a release party for their first single as well. Somewhere in those conversations I suggested we use my fake label name again (that rule I mentioned finally came into play) and suddenly we were working together. Though the show didn’t happen, the single did come out, and I helped mostly in a sort of pseudo-publicist way. We never actually discussed the album, but they put the TRR logo on the artwork and physical packaging (which was really unique, since the album came as a VHS tape–actually on a USB stick that looked like a mini VHS tape, deluxe versions packaged with an actual thrifted vintage VHS tape) so I had to go along with it, right? It was definitely a learning process as they existed in a music world a bit outside the indie rock I was more used to, so I had to do a lot of research to find the right publications and playlisters to pitch to (some of which worked better than I thought, but I don’t know if I’d call it a successful campaign). It was a challenge and definitely helped me start to figure out some of the processes for how I would do things in the future, as well as recognizing that you need a lot more time for these things than I had this time around.

The next three records released in the Fall of 2020 were with more friends’ bands and had what I would consider proper campaigns (which all ran more or less simultaneously)–where we had several singles, music videos, press campaigns, etc. leading up to releases and they each had unique situations that presented very different challenges and opportunities: Weekend Lovers released on CD and already had some good heat locally in Arizona, Ilithios was on vinyl (and a co-release with Stereoactive Media) with the artist really diving into streaming shows, and The New Restaurants was digital only but the band was all scattered far from each other and had very little online presence when that was crucial. Beyond learning a lot about digital distribution, pitching to press, and playlisting, I realized the variety of ways that I could – and enjoy- collaborating with different artists on the label in a wide variety of ways. 

As a GBV fan, that is such a cool origin story for the name! Thank you for the links. I am having fun digging into the musical history of the label and I know our readers will as well! That brings me to my next question: What is your favorite part of running your label? Do you have a favorite way you have collaborated with an artist?

My favorite part of running the label is that I get to be the first to hear new music from my favorite artists. It’s always been exciting to get to hear new music early (I still remember the first download links and press listening party invite emails I got for “big” bands in the early ’00s) but when it’s coming directly from the artist because they trust your ears with their art, it’s a different thing. Also, an interesting side effect of no longer working a day job in music is that it’s not my job to listen to every new release–nor to do it months before they come out–so I’ve come to actually enjoy discovering new music on release day and getting excited about it.

I’ve been enjoying collaborating with the Dutch band WE ARE JOINERS. They’re one of the first acts on the label who I didn’t know prior to working together. I was just browsing through the new releases on Bandcamp one day–partially looking for new music for my weekly podcast at the time but also keeping an eye out for the label–and I saw their Clients EP. The cover was interesting (is it the band? some band from the ’70s? I later found out that it was just a photo of some random friends from a family member’s photo collection) but the music grabbed me immediately. Lo-fi, blistering, acoustic guitar slamming bedroom garage rock that reminded me of the first Thermals record. I reached to ask about playing some of their music on my show, and started up a conversation that ultimately led to the first tape release on the label, which combined their first two EPs, and opened the door for collaboration as I provided artwork for that tape. Since then, we’ve released several singles and EPs, and occasionally I’ll receive raw demos with a request to add guitars, so I just record something and send it back and it usually winds up in the final track–so much so that now they’ve told me that I’m in the band (which might get tricky if they ever start playing shows)! WAJ have also collaborated with our artists Snake Lips and Old Man of the Woods, as well as covered Hark (who also covered them) on a split release we came up with (the tape includes a bonus track which is Hark + WAJ + me), and the latest is a collab with our friend Tom of Teenage Tom Petties (kind of a cousin band to WAJ thru the label Repeating Cloud, who we work with on Snake Lips releases) and myself called “Punching Bag.”

Though the first release on the label was technically a single from a band I was in, my intention hasn’t ever been to use it to promote my own music, but it has provided a convenient outlet for that at times, and it’s been cool to me that some of the artists have asked me to get involved in their projects musically – after all I am first and foremost a fan of all of them, so I’m honored to get to contribute in that way sometimes.

I have that WAJ tape! I really liked their sound but I also loved the cover, so I had to buy it. Manatees are one of my favorite animals. Also a fan of Teenage Tom Petties. That track is rad. Are there any labels that inspired you or that you look up to?

That’s awesome! I didn’t know you had that tape, thanks for getting it (and for liking the art–funny story that the manatee was actually reused from some wedding invitation illustrations I did for some friends maybe a year before, and I just grabbed whatever I had available to play around with art for the tape).

So many labels inspire me! One of the things that put me in a unique position to start a label was that I’d been doing years of very specific research: interviewing owners, founders, and managers of some of my favorite indie labels as part of my job, so it’s fair to say that they all inspired me in some way. It’s a bummer that those podcasts are no longer available because there were some great conversations there, but luckily Scott Orr’s Other Record Labels podcast has covered much of the same ground and way more at this point. I’ll narrow it down if I must though (in fact, I’ve done this! so maybe I’ll expand on that) 

As mentioned previously, Travis’ label Serious Business Records is an undeniable inspiration. I watched him start it as something that seemed kind of like a joke to a legitimate label with a stellar catalogue. It’s a bit dormant these days, but there’s some great history there with tons of incredible releases from talented musicians – many of whom have actually since gone on to do pretty big things, but his approach of working with his friends to build a community and using his intuition to decide what to work on is definitely something that I’ve tried to do as well. 

Another friend, Pete D’Angelo, runs Ernest Jenning Record Company, one of the best indie labels around and I consider a sort of mentor, though I feel like they’re a bit low key in the self-promotion, which is fine because the focus is clearly on the success of their artists and releases. EJRC has consistently been home to some of my favorite artists and friends (Worriers, Beauty Pill, Fred Thomas, Miniboone, Takka Takka, The Occasion), in fact I first met Pete at a music job on one of my first days, because I had written the first review of the band o’death for The Deli Magazine, and they were on his label. Fast forward about 10 years and o’death played at my wedding, so it’s safe to say it was a positive review. 

Fire Talk Records are one that I learned about while doing my record label podcast – I’d comb through my PR inbox for interesting new releases and label names I wasn’t familiar with, then do some research on them. At the time, Fire Talk had mostly been working with some cool local NY bands that I was into, and I was intrigued by their slightly askew taste, everything they put out seemed to have some kind of twist that made it stand out from your average indie rock, and I liked that. Their artists DEHD, Deeper, Weeping Icon, and Patio quickly became favorites, and label owner Trevor was just such a likable, easy to talk to person with a really strong sense of where the label was going and seemed to have the business sense to make it happen (which–if you’ve paid attention over the last few years–they have!) that it really left a strong impression.

Father/Daughter Records are what I considered for a long time to be the gold standard of a small indie label–just impeccable curation of a roster and catalog. If you look back at their history they’ve really been out way ahead of everybody when it comes to what they’re working on and talking about.  In terms of other indie labels, honorable mentions as always goes to Citrus City for doing things their own way and discovering and sharing incredible music that I never would have found otherwise, YK Records for bringing a classy boutique feel to the artists they believe in (including – at one point, Mount Sharp) and being super supportive and encouraging of my fake little label, Dadstache Records for keeping the tape dream alive and supporting artists they believed in (again including Mount Sharp, as well as Onesie and other friends), and Good Eye Records for being a guru in many ways over the years, generously sharing wisdom from their extensive experience and even helping out directly in a few super important ways. I can’t pretend that I only like small indie labels. Labels like Matador, Merge, Polyvinyl, 4AD, Jagjaguwar, Sub Pop, Kill Rock Stars, Secretly Canadian, they have inspired me for so long. 

I really wish I could have listened to your podcast. I am such a label nerd (I get it naturally from my dad)! I do love Scott’s podcast though. Also, the bigger indie labels were my first discoveries and helped me find artists I had never heard of before when I was a teen, so no shame there! I still follow them a lot. What do you feel like is the hardest part of running a label?

What did your dad do to get you into record labels? I think for me it was compilations like Sub Pop 200 (which I sought out because in the ’90s I needed everything that had anything to do with Nirvana, of course) and that made me realize there were smaller record labels than the majors that actually had unique perspectives and curation. Finding new artists specifically through small record labels is one of my favorite things about it–you come to trust somebody (or some entity/the label)’s taste and curation, and depending on what sort of label they are, that can mean you’re getting turned onto stuff that never would have gotten through the noise to you on its own.

There are certainly a lot of hard parts about running a label (some of which I’ve purposely avoided thus far but should really put some work into before long)–for me personally the thing I have the most difficulty with is saying no and staying focused, because it’s super fun! I really enjoy every opportunity to collaborate with and support these artists, and get excited every time somebody sends me their music to listen to–so much so that it’s hard to say no to a potential release. Of course, the other side of that is I’m just one person, doing this in my miniscule free time between family and work and really with no budget, so if I over-commit then there’s a high probability that we won’t have as successful of a campaign as I’d like. But I tend to do it anyway to some extent, and so far I don’t think anybody has been too upset with the work I’ve done on their releases – since there always seems to be some way that I’ve helped them progress or even just fill in the gaps in what they’re doing. Of course I’d love to have more resources even if it meant doing fewer releases, but somehow I justify it by saying that if I keep the label active–even if we’re not doing big marketing campaigns or able to hire publicists, all that–that there will be this cumulative effect just from the name being out there, a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of mentality I suppose. It’s also important to me that the artists are able to make new connections from the label, both internally with the other artists and within the greater music scenes, and the more activity there is, the more that stuff seems to happen.

My dad was both a collector of music stuff and music knowledge. He played guitar almost his whole life, sometimes in (very local) bands as a young adult. He had a music room in our basement that was a treasure trove of records, tapes, old magazines and billboard publications, flyers, and books about music. He had a table he built that was over half the size of the room that stored a multitude of vinyl singles. I can still feel the sounds of some ancient (to me) vinyl flowing out of his giant, dusty speakers and through my bedroom floor if I think hard enough. He lived in Nashville for a long time and knew all the obscure labels down there, even recorded their addresses and would tell me what record stores were around that location. I was lucky to inherit his eternal curiosity and love for music and have free rein of that small room whenever I wanted. He was the best. Sub Pop was the first indie label I found, and it was an oasis. Since then I love and follow mostly smaller labels, but labels like Sub Pop, Merge, Matador, etc., are still in my heart. Learning to say no is such a super power, I’m still working on that. And I think you are right about the rising tide. I have definitely seen that happen! Ok, what’s a valuable lesson you have learned from your experience running Totally Real Records?

That is so cool, what a rad experience to grow up with so much music around! I mostly just had the Beatles and Eric Clapton on the stereo during dinner every night, although I am from NJ so there was plenty of Bruce Springsteen to go around (which I loved, then hated, then accepted back into my life in my late 20s).

One valuable lesson I’ve learned running TRR is to trust my instincts with creative projects. I learned it the hard way a few times – saying yes to a project that fell flat or underdelivered or blew up (in the bad way) when I had an inkling that it wasn’t the right thing to do at first, but maybe let myself get talked into it (either by others or by that voice in my head that convinced me there was some other reason to do it). Other times, I’ve said yes to stuff or actively pursued projects that were very uncertain because I had an excitement about them, even though I knew it was unlikely they’d be very successful in terms of sales or critical response, and I’ve found them to be extremely rewarding (LEEEKS, the 50-song Sebadoh tribute comp,  the SUPERORDER tape, two releases from Pharmakos). Because this is really more of a hobby or passion project than a business, I have that freedom with it, and have been trying to intentionally pursue projects that scratch that itch and not take on ones that don’t. There are also some inherent limitations here – so there have also been several projects (some of which I’ve seen come out and do incredibly well either as self-releases or on other labels) that I passed on because I didn’t have time, or knew they needed more than I could offer, but I’m glad to see that they could still happen. Art is going to find its way into the world, somehow.  

I forgot about the Sebadoh comp, that was such a cool project! I remember distinctly burning Harmacy illegally as a teen haha. What do you think makes Totally Real Records unique?

I didn’t have an easy answer to this one so I sat on it for a minute. I like to think that what makes TRR unique is that it’s very much a DIY label, but so much of what I’m trying to do is based on what bigger, more “real” labels do, which is definitely a bit of a fake it until you make it approach, though even I’m not sure what making it would look like–I just want to get to keep doing this. If you look at our roster, you’ll find artists from all over the place, with lots of different genres (though there’s definitely an overwhelming majority of rock of one kind or another represented), and a pretty busy release schedule that you might not expect from a one-person operation. I’m not saying it’s smart, but it is unique.

Ok, I only have 2 more questions: Do you have anything upcoming that you are really excited about? And the very last one, which makes me kinda sad because I have really enjoyed this conversation–what advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a label?

Okay, here we go to the finish line! Not sure when this is coming out so some of the tenses below might need to be adjusted. Upcoming things I’m excited about (and able to mention at this point): Somebody Had To by phoneswithchords is out this Friday, July 14. Arthur Alligood’s work on this project is stellar, and this followup to his Z Tapes release last year, Cut the Kid, is a perfect evolution on the lo-fi sound, adding danceable elements to the very personal sort of storytelling of his songs with a heavily nostalgic vibe. It’s really a record that deserves a huge audience, and I hope it’s able to find that. We also have great records from NYC band friends Onesie (who were labelmates of mine when Mount Sharp was on Dadstache Records) and The Planes (a rad full length followup to the excellent Eternity On Its Edge EP we put out) and a new EP from Snake Lips, as well as our first full length from internet friend and meme-master turned real friend and label “signee” (we don’t actually make people sign anything, artists should own their art, we’re just trying to help) Pacing that I am stupidly excited for (because it is truly a work of genius), but can’t really share anything about just yet. I’m also excited about all the stuff that WE ARE JOINERS is going to keep putting out–I don’t even know what it all is but I may or may not be playing on and mixing some of it? At this point I have no idea, it just comes when it comes and we put it online. It’s super fun. OH and there’s a cool new track coming soon from old man of the woods which is a collaboration with a friend of TRR. If you read between the lines of the TRR Mix and the Sebadoh comp we put together, you can usually get some hints at who else we or are artists will be working with, it’s like little easter eggs (even to myself at times). I’m sad too about this being the end! Can’t we just keep going forever? Do I get to interview you next?

Advice for someone starting a label: I would direct anybody to my fine Canadian friend Scott and his website/podcast. He’s built a wonderful resource for anybody running a label or thinking about starting one. I actually interviewed him years ago for my podcast on record labels, then he returned the favor and did an episode on TRR a while back. As for my own advice: just think about why you’re doing it and what you want to offer and potentially get out of it. It may (and probably will) change along the way, but just be clear with yourself, and more importantly be clear with the artists you’re working with or talking to, and don’t screw them over. 

Jami Fowler | @audiocurio

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