PRINT February 1995


Drag City

THE CHICAGO INDEPENDENT RECORD-LABEL Drag City has two major claims to fame: 1) it discovered critics’ darlings Pavement and Royal Trux, only to weather the inevitable cannibalization of those bands by bigger labels (Matador and Virgin respectively); 2) much as Sub Pop was considered the home of grunge, Drag City is known as a hotbed of lo-fi, the kind of cheaply recorded sound that dates back to the Velvet Underground and was revived by Beat Happening in the mid ’80s. Technically, “lo-fi” refers to the process of recording songs on inexpensive four-tracks, like Liz Phair did before she signed with Matador and became the intelligent sex queen of indie rock. Beyond that, music called lo-fi is often sung by a singer who doesn’t always hit the notes or stay on key, and this singer is usually accompanied by a minimal number of instruments, maybe just guitar.

But the “firm,” as it’s called by Rian Murphy, the label’s well-spoken 27-year-old director of marketing and sales, doesn’t want to be labeled. “I am here to debunk the myth that we are some stable for the lo-fi sound,” says Murphy, a sometime Royal Trux drummer who now plays with Drag City’s Plush. Though he concedes that Pavement, Smog, Silver Jews, and the highly acclaimed, highly literate punk-folk Palace Brothers are unabashedly lo-fi, Murphy insists that the label is just as interested in hi-fi sound. As proof he cites the latest Palace Brothers release, which is a touch more produced than earlier records, and the wacky, idiotic King Kong, which is as lo-fi as a surf band can get.

The label was started in 1989 by Dans Koretzky and Osborn, who are in their late 20s. They met when they both worked at the Chicago record distributor Kaleidoscope. What happened was, they heard an album that Royal Trux released themselves, they called the band, and they came up with the agreement for Drag City’s first release, a single called “Hero Zero.” They got involved with Pavement the exact same way. Five years later Drag City’s roster includes between ten and fifteen bands. All agreements with the artists, says Murphy, are sealed by “a firm look in the eye and a handshake,” and profits are split 50-50 between the band and the label.

But “no one’s living fat,” says Murphy. Profits are poured right back into the company and he’s the only full-time employee. Even Osborn still works a day job. Would the label consider a lucrative distribution deal with a major label, like the one Matador inked with Atlantic last year? No way. “We don’t know what their motivation is,” says Murphy. “Our motivation is survival and the triumph of good music.”

Christina Kelly is a writer who lives in New York.