Music labels, like the movie and print industry, have been blessed and cursed by the digital era’s upheavals and paradigm shifts. For every new cutting edge label releasing ProTools savvy bands and re-imagining distribution in the Pandora and Spotify era, other labels have scaled back, leaned on licensing agreements, or tried to maintain a loyal following by keeping a tight focus on recycled products, such as offering enhanced remasters.
For example, Merge records in North Carolina recently offered remastered editions by both Sugar, formerly featured on once-lauded Ryko records, and Archers of Loaf, an Alias records act recently reunited. Plus, Merge has chosen to introduce new work by alternative rock icons with plenty of cultural currency, like Red Kross and Wild Flag, which features the familiar name of Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater Kinney. All those moves were fairly safe.
Texas once housed myriad tiny record labels, especially during the salad day ‘90s, when singles were cheap, easy to press, and found a waiting network of record stores willing to make shelf space. Small ventures like Trance Syndicate, Ojet, Unclean, Fuzzgun, and Peekaboo barely blinked on the radar of most consumers, yet they indelibly contributed to the underground cultural fiber of the times.
Just over a half decade ago, Jeff Smith, best known as the sardonic and frenetic front man of the ribald cowpunk band Hickoids, kick started Saustex Media. The time, rife with uncertainty, he posits, constituted “… the roughest era the recorded music business has ever experienced in almost a century as an industry. I brought a fairly antiquated sense of how things were to be done to the table. My experience, thus far, suggests the only thing that is constant is change.”
In part, the vision of Saustex can be traced to the early hardcore punk era, when labels like SST (Los Angeles), Touch and Go (East Lansing/Chicago), and Dischord (Washington DC) began to document regional music scenes created and maintained by youth alienated by both mainstream FM fare and the fake promises of larger indie labels.
Blondie, Ramones, and the Talking Heads survived the major label shift to innocuous new wave and pop, but that same industry was never going to sign bands called The Dicks, Crucifucks, and The Fuck-Ups. In response, resilient fans and scene makers created a whole business model from scratch based on mail-order catalogs, 7” records, constant gigs, and flyers strewn across cityscapes.
SST, the home of Black Flag, soon ballooned, becoming the home base for acts ranging from Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. to Bad Brains and Soundgarden. Touch and Go might have supported steadfast Midwesterners like Killdozer and The Didjits, but they also reached out to Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid in Texas. Years later, they even plucked Yeah Yeah Yeahs from Brooklyn.
Dischord, however, kept their business vision blatantly local by focusing on the Washington D.C. and Maryland metroplex area, including formidable early acts like Minor Threat (whose members Jeff Nelson and Ian MacKaye founded Dischord), Scream, and Dag Nasty and later acts Fugazi, Jawbox, and Shudder to Think.
Saustex approaches their catalog in a similar fashion. “Maybe unfortunately for me,” Smith attests, “I tend to do business with my heart rather than my head a lot of the time. Many of the acts are my friends and bands that I go to see on a regular basis. I’m not trolling the Internet looking for the next big thing and making a demographic study out of bands that I really don’t have any interest in for the sake of a buck. There is plenty of great music in this area. The regional music is what resonates with me and my goal is to cast that seed outward in the hope that others connect with it.”
Smith’s efforts presciently prove that Southwest music offers panache, uniqueness, and fecund hybridity. Glambilly offers updated country swagger replete with urban roots rock. The Beatlesque, taut rock ’n’ pop of Snowbyrd recalls early college rock ala the dBs. Chief Fuzzer combines the wallop of voodoo garage rock, indebted to the roster of Crypt Records, with a lysergic wonkiness, while Pinata Protest re-imagines Tex-Mex by forging a boisterous, hard-edged conjunto style. El Pathos dollops fuzz rock with 1960’s frat boy stomp akin to the Fleshtones, while Churchwood melds cranky honky-tonk, dirty soul that winks at Jon Spencer, and backporch funk.
“Most of the label acts operate at the corner of roots and punk,” attests Smith. “They bring in one regional style or another and combine it with punk attitude and/or energy. It is not done in a pre-fab, calculated, bad mash-up sort of way, like ‘We’re gonna’ mix this with this and everyone’s gonna’ go apeshit over it.’ Instead, it comes from a place of love, knowledge and understanding for and of the genres in question. So, I guess I would describe the music as being “organic with attitude.’”
That spin on regionalism feels powerful and smart. The Internet era melts borders and inundates the world with pop culture, some critics insist, forming a “gray out” that buries or alienates local traditions and practices. Saustex’s role is more akin to acting as local incubator, stirring nearby creative efforts; meanwhile, the label preserves and disseminates local fare rather than perpetuating the “melting pot” tidal wave that often lacks nuance and distinct flavor.
Part of that mindset might be the result of being a San Antonio native, rather than emerging from Austin. “San Antonio has played second fiddle to Austin since I was a teenager, starting to play in rock bands. If anything, San Antonio has its own sound to a greater degree than Austin. It is not the media darling of American cities by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just a great big military and blue-collar town that is a little oblivious to the outside world at times but certainly a little more real than the hipster Disneyland Austin can seem like, as if it’s an over-heated, low-budget episode of Entourage.”
Critics of the digital age often bemoan the death of the record store scene throughout much of America. Yet in Portland and Austin, niche record stores are alive and well. Others deplore YouTube as the great multiplier of mediocrity. In contrast, Jeff Smith and Saustex prove the digital age can harness new opportunities for listeners to explore authentic difference in a country that often goes to Wal-Mart and Target instead of supporting a ma and pa store capitalist democracy.
Sameness is way over-valued. People deserve to explore their musical backyard and roots, especially when those places are missing from the maps of music and culture gatekeepers.