It’s early on the East Coast when Ryan Graveface of the Casket Girls answers the phone. He’s working his way through a pile of interviews before the trio takes to the road for its next gig. It’s just days before It’s just days before The Night Machines, the trio’s latest offering becomes available to the record-buying public. College and non-commercial radio have been supportive of the record in those early weeks and for a moment one senses that the band could be on the verge of breaking through to a new audience. Is that perception correct?
“Probably not,” Graveface says with a hearty laugh. “But that could be me being a pessimist and wanting more.” Graveface is cautious about a premature celebration for the latest recording that he and sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene have done. Nearly two years have gone by since the release of the last full-on Casket Girls record, True Love Kills the Fairy Tale. Twenty-fifteen saw the release of a temporary detour from the dark dream pop sound with The Piano Album. But that was hardly a respite in the almost continuous outpouring of music that has come forward since 2012’s debut Sleepwalking.
There wasn’t much significant roadwork in the two years between True Love and now and Graveface is aware that there may have been setbacks. “Touring a record is always better than just touring at our level,” he continues. “I think that time off might have hurt us.” Still, he adds, there is some sense, looking at the group’s social media followers and the general buzz about the band, that there has been some growth.
“There’s more connectivity with the digital stuff,” Graveface adds, “but we’re not playing larger rooms than we were before. Some of that, he says, comes down to the shifting nature of how music is delivered. “There’s always this big deal about vinyl. ‘Vinyl’s back! Record Store Day is up 15 percent!’ But that’s nothing. No one buys CDs, though some people buy cassettes now. Six or seven years ago a record of mine would do very well on iTunes. You could predict how much money you were going to get during the first few months. That’s all dried up because you get a 16th of a penny.”
Asked if he sees any sense to artists refusing to stream their catalogs, Graveface says he doesn’t see it as a legitimate way to boost says. “The only people you see doing that are larger artists. Radiohead or Taylor Swift taking a stand about it doesn’t prove any point for tiny artists,” he says. “At the end of the day people that want to buy music are going to buy music but that’s a foreign concept for many people today who even care about music. The people who buy records are the 62-year-olds who’ll buy re-presses of CCR records they had when they were young.”
For what it’s worth, Graveface is among those who doesn’t see Spotify as a problem. “I think it’s less evil than Google. The money you can make from Google/YouTube is preposterous. I put out one record that has 350,000 plays on Google. You think, ‘Wow, that’s gotta be something.’ But, I think, it was $8. That bothers me more than Spotify because you can’t use YouTube on your phone as swiftly as a discovery tool. That means that someone who has put a full album playlist has done so very intentionally. It’s not like an innocent playlist.”
He adds, “But I don’t know what to do about all that stuff. Until there’s someone actively fighting for change there’s not going to be adequate share for artists.”
Graveface isn’t just a founding member of Casket Girls. He’s also the owner of the label Graveface Records and a physical store of the same name in the band’s home base of Savannah, Georgia. Running that operation reminds him of the fickle nature of any business. “There are days when we’ll make 16 bucks. We sell one record. Other days, we’ll do $2000 in business.”
Without an Internet presence, he adds, the store itself would probably have shuttered long ago. “This is my fifth year of owning the store and I think it’s still open because of the label. There are enough built-in fans where people will come to Savannah just to see the store. If I had to rely solely on local traffic, I wouldn’t be open,” he says.
Graveface started his label circa 2000 in the dimming days of the compact disc. But, he adds, there was a wider profit margin at the time. “A CD would cost between .96 cents and $1.13. You sell a record for $10 and you can make a decent amount of money,” he adds. “With vinyl, by the time you get done with the packaging, the wild colors, the licensing fees and everything else you’re probably making $2 max. Of course, you could charge $25 for a single album and be known as the asshole that charges $25 bucks for a single album. But I’d rather be a $12 guy.”
If anyone’s tempted to see Graveface as all doom-and-gloom, he says that having a better connection with his audience is an overwhelmingly positive element of the current landscape. “All of this is squashing people who thought they should have been bigger,” he says. “It forces artists and labels to be really, really creative with things. “It’s humanizing the industry. At least the smaller part of the industry.”
The smaller part of the industry hasn’t actually died off, one might say, but has instead reverted to a previous iteration. In the 1980s, ranks of underground tapers exchanged demo tapes of their favorite heavy metal bands. Those demos would be reviewed by underground journalists in fanzines and smaller magazines. If buzz grew around these groups tours or deals with tiny labels might eventually materialize. Budgets, profits, and sales were slender but the fan bases remained loyal.
“That’s what’s happening right now,” Graveface says. “People like to come up to the merch table and tell you how they got into the band. I’ve heard everything from people having flipped through the free weekly paper and happening on the name to people who have been to the store, gotten a grab bag of Graveface acts and we became their favorite band from that. These are stories from people discovering things in their own ways.”
Another factor in the label’s success, he adds, is that there’s a consistency. The look and feel of the album covers and some cross-pollination between acts are culled from what some might see as an unlikely source of inspiration. “It’s Motown, basically,” he says. “I was raised on soul music and I thought that was the coolest label. So to have some element of that in my work is awesome. Basically,” he says, “I’m an idea guy.”