What compels an artist to start their own record label? Is it a desire for unbridled creative freedom? Pure hubris? Revenge on The Man? All of the above? In our new series titled Why I Did It, we’re going beneath the surface and asking DJs, producers and musicians about why they decided to form their own imprint.
Launching a DIY project has always required a leap of faith. But what drives creatives to go through the hassle in an era when labels are faced with countless challenges?
For our debut profile we spoke with Brian Chase. A founding member of highly influential NYC trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Chase and his cohorts, Karen O and Nick Zinner, have eschewed trends to etch out a post-everything experimental sound on their own terms for nearly 20 years.
In addition to his work as a drummer, Chase works as a drone musician, performing and recording with the likes of John Zorn, Stefan Tcherepnin and Seth Misterka. (Chase’s drone style has been inspired by his time working at La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House in NYC.)
Along the way he recently launched Chaikin Records and just released Untitled: After, a provocative avant-jazz album with Irish saxophonist, improviser and composer Catherine Sikora. Below we asked Chase about how the label came together, what his YYY bandmates think of his label and plans for his new endeavor.
Let’s get the first — and perhaps most obvious two questions — out of the way. When did you decide to launch Chaikin Records? What compelled you? And what’s the significance of the name? (Okay, that was actually three questions.)
Brian Chase: I decided to launch Chaikin Records at the urging of a mentor. He knew I had some releases in the works, and the tipping point was when another label that was to release an album of mine asked me to cover the manufacturing costs. My mentor said that for the same amount of money I could do it myself and have it come out exactly how I would like it. The thought of doing a label had never crossed my mind, but my mentor saw the potential, as mentors do. The name for the label was his idea as well. Chaikin was my family name before it was changed to Chase. My paternal grandfather did it. He was an entertainer and was looking for a more neutral stage name partly as a result of anti-semitism.
How did your bandmates react to your decision to start the label?
My bandmates in Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been very supportive. In fact, the third release on Chaikin Records is planned to be a guitar/synth instrumental album by Nick Zinner going under the name 13 Million Year Old Ghost.
Did you form Chaikin with a particular musical manifesto in mind?
The musical manifesto is to represent an ethos more than a specific sound: music that looks past differences and genre classifications to reflect a spirit of the artistically radical (both quiet or demonstrative) and forward-thinking.
Launching a business of any kind is stressful, mainly because you need to find startup capital, hire lawyers, etc. Plus, you’ve got to hit the ground running and start proving yourself. Did you go through a methodical process of creating a business plan? How exactly was Chaikin born?
My mentor outlined a basic plan for me: start with three releases. From there the logistics started to pile up like set up the legal registration, create the website, and register the data with the distributor, on top of handling the creative elements. It took a while and was something that had to unfold at its own pace, but little by little I got there.
I know you have a publicist. Have you hired anyone else to help handle A&R, production, marketing, etc.?
There is a distributor, Redeye Worldwide, that helps sell the albums to retailers, and also ship purchased items. Aside from that I’m on my own!
You’re a member of a prominent band who’ve been signed to a label for many years. What’s been some of your biggest learnings when it comes to dealing with record labels?
You can always say no if it’s not on your terms, and surround yourself with good people who you trust and love.
“What is interesting about Chaikin Records is that it leaves itself stylistically open yet committed more to an attitude and spirit. This way, if the spirit is there then it came take any number of forms.”
I know a few artists who really like the business side of music (they’ll wax poetic about streaming, know contract hacks, rail against 360 deals, etc.) Where do you stand? Is the business a means to an end that will allow people to hear your music, or are you a businessman down deep?
I’m an artist that is involved with the business side of music mostly out of necessity. I stand behind business models that support the artist because that’s what maintains the community.
I’ve heard a lot of artists who’ve started their own labels after being on an established imprint say that the chance to own their master recordings was extremely attractive. Did ownership and the complete ability to control your destiny play a role in your decision to launch Chaikin?
The music on Chaikin Records is independent music, meaning that the label is merely a conduit and platform for the artist. After having much experience in the music world and having developed a reputation, it seems like this is a next step for me — it is new and challenging,
The label’s first release is a collaboration between you and saxophonist, improviser and composer Catherine Sikora. How did Untitled: After become the first release?
Actually, the first release is a triple album and 144-page book of my solo project Drums and Drones. Releasing a triple album and book is something that another label might not do because it has a high cost of manufacture. I got to do it myself with the help of very talented designers and it came out amazing, I’m super proud of it! That project is largely electroacoustic meaning that it is a combination of electronic and acoustic sounds. In this case, the electronics are there to enhance many of the sonic subtleties of a drum’s resonance, and use that material to establish expansive soundscapes. Much of the music is meditative in character.
The duo album with saxophonist Catherine Sikora is the second release. She is awesome! It is such a thrill to play with her. The music is coming from a post free-jazz aesthetic yet seems to be finding favor with those who have many different musical tastes.
The album is a wonderful blend of avant-garde and free jazz. Was your intent to create a starting point far away from YYY or did it just happen organically?
Ever since I was young I had a love of many different styles music: blues, jazz, classical, metal, oldies, etc. As I grew, my musical development continued on this path of eclecticism. I deeply love YYYs’s music. At the same time, it is not my only musical side and Chaikin Records is partially an outlet for my more avant-garde interests. Artists tend to be like sharks — if they stop making art, they die.
Will future releases on the label fall under a similar stylistic umbrella, or will the label go in different musical directions?
What is interesting about Chaikin Records is that it leaves itself stylistically open yet committed more to an attitude and spirit. This way, if the spirit is there then it came take any number of forms.
What’s been your biggest learning so far as a label owner?
I’ve learned that this is a lot of fun! The work is often tedious, but the main purpose and end result are great! It has been amazing, too, the way it’s had me step up my own game and be more active in my community, which is ultimately what I love.
Brian, thanks for your time. Before we go what would you say “success” looks like for Chaikin in the next few years, either qualitatively or quantitatively?
Success means putting out great music and art.