Genius Awards 2016
A record label that has thrived in the era of the death of the record label.
An autonomous subsidiary of Sub Pop, run by Sarah Moody (center), Jason Baxter (right), and Matt Kolhede (left).
Its name from a lyric in the Thermals song "No Culture Icons."
Hardly Art is the first record label ever nominated for a Stranger Genius Award. It's worth taking a moment to consider how influential this label has been in fostering the current golden age of Seattle rock music.
The decline of the record business and the rise of downloads and streaming as the dominant means of listening have required that bands develop a new way of existing in the world. That challenge has been exponentially more difficult for labels, which have not only lost their traditional means of making money but also their sense of necessity. The internet is lousy with good ways for bands to release their own music, promote their own tours, and communicate directly with their audiences.
Nevertheless, during the very years when this change has been most evident, Hardly Art, a small imprint started by Sub Pop Records (which has also done an excellent job of weathering the storm) and run by two people, general manager Sarah Moody and publicist Jason Baxter, has fostered a very influential, maybe even dominant, aesthetic. They focus on local, proudly feminist, prominently female artists. But not exclusively.
Consider what the past few years of Seattle music would have sounded, looked, and felt like without Hardly Art releases by Tacocat, Chastity Belt, La Luz, S, and Gazebos, to name a few. (Consider, too, the artistic growth of those bands from album to album.) Now add to that list such out-of-town stars as Shannon and the Clams, Protomartyr, and Colleen Green. Then note the recent signing of Kathleen Hanna's band, the Julie Ruin. A pattern emerges.
Moody and Baxter recently celebrated their successes by hiring a third member of the team, Matt Kolhede, to oversee digital sales and media.
The art of the record label is a beautiful tradition, equal parts (please forgive me) curation, intuition, vision, faith, and realism. Which really means art and commerce. And yet Baxter, (a former Stranger intern, apparently—I never worked with him) says the commerce element of the label is less central than one might imagine.
"At the risk of sounding pretentious," Baxter says, "though we take marketing very seriously and pay very close attention to fluctuations in industry trends, we really don't operate in much of a business mind-set. The impetus for the creation of the label was to provide exposure for deserving underground-level artists, and it remains our mission to this day. It's always a pleasant surprise when our bands become greatly profitable, whether that's a result of licensing, sales, or touring."
As for the overall aesthetic, Baxter says: "This was never an intentional thing—it happened organically over years of signing decisions. If I had to pinpoint a year when it dawned on us that (A) there was a relative consistency in the 'sound' of our roster and (B) a majority of our bands included or were fronted by women or LGBT individuals, I'd say it was... 2013 or 2014?"
Hardly Art has had a big couple years since then. Big enough that one naturally wonders if they can keep it up. "I sure as hell hope so," Baxter says. "Personally, I hope we can keep our operation small. It would be good to maintain our 'DIY label with benefits' (distribution, marketing, international, etc.) vibe."