Mock Records is Investing in a Scene

It’s a Thursday night in Los Angeles’ Silverlake district, and Olentangy John is getting down. Silhouetted against a backlit stage, the young musician stomps his boot to the syncopated beat of his banjo while belting out the blues behind a fierce, unkempt beard. The small crowd gathered before him –about 40 in number — can’t seem to get enough. This is all a welcoming sight for Brennan McNally.

Brennan McNally

At 22 years old, McNally is one of three partners launching Mock Records, an all vinyl record label specializing in undiscovered garage rock and folk musicians. The Thursday concert is one of the label’s “soft openings,” a series of shows at Silverlake’s Old Style Guitar Shop aimed at getting the label’s name out to LA’s underground music enclave before the company’s official launch on May 25th.

2012 is certainly an interesting time to be starting a record label. Aside from the challenges of Los Angeles’ notoriously over-saturated music market, record labels around the world are struggling to remain relevant in a digital age of self-promotion and distribution. But McNally, and his partners Jake Whitener and Erik Lake, aren’t looking to do things traditionally. For one thing, they’re only pressing vinyl.

Yes, if you hadn’t heard, vinyl is back. And all the cool kids are spinning it. The medium has seen a drastic resurgence thanks to its growing popularity among hip and gentrified millennials — being especially prevalent in smaller niche genres like lo-fi folk and garage rock, where releases have seen successful sales at independent record stores like Origami Vinyl in Los Angeles. The only problem? Economies of scale. Pressing limited quantities of vinyl is quite expensive. Many smaller artists simply don’t have the coin to etch their tunes into LP’s, even though there is an increasing demand among the consumers of their music.

This is where Mock Records comes into play.

“We see our company almost like a coupon for bands,” explains McNally. What he’s referring to is the company’s advance policy – a co-op type expense model where the artist and the label split the fees for vinyl printing. Unlike a traditional record label, which retains royalties until the advance is paid-off, Mock Records divides half of the printed vinyl copies between itself and the artist, allowing each party to retain complete proceeds of their sales.

At least for the genre in question, the move makes sense. Most young consumers these days already listen to their tunes digitally. But many fans of LA’s garage rock movement feel that if they are going to dish out the green for a physical copy, they’d rather do it for a vinyl disc than a CD.

“There’s just something special about holding the [oversized] album art in your hands…about hearing the pops and imperfections from the records. It allows the artist to have more character.”

With ten artists already on its roster – including Olentangy John, the Mutations, and the Spyrals – Mock Records isn’t so much a final destination for artists as it is a band incubator. “For now, it’s actually our hope that our artists go on to get bigger deals” says McNally. The idea is that any artist making it big will add exposure for the entire Mock Records lineup.

Olentangy John @ Old Style Guitar Shop

If this sounds like the label is short-selling itself, it’s because Mock Records isn’t investing in individual artists so much as it is investing in a scene. It’s a trend that’s becoming more common in Los Angeles with small record labels springing up around highly selective markets. It’s what happened with Low End Theory, the experimental electronic scene in Lincoln Heights. It’s what happened with the indie pop scene in Echo Park. And now it’s happening to LA’s underground garage rock/folk scene with Mock Records.

McNally benefits from knowing what it’s like being on the other end, having witnessed different sides of the industry as  a band member and band manager (through his other independent company, underdog management). For him, Mock Records is first and foremost about being a fan, and doing what he can to elevate the status of groups that he believes are underexposed.

In doing so, Mock’s no-strings-attached advance policy is certainly a risky move, but McNally and crew seem confident it’ll work. After all, it’s been done before. Have you heard of a band called the White Stripes?

“Back before the Stripes became superstars, Jack White released a compilation record entitled Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit to bring light to that city’s under-appreciated garage rock musicians,” McNally explains. “We figured, why can’t we do the same for LA?”

The company plans to do just that with the release of the Mock Records 12” sampler at the company’s launch on May 25th. If the album gains any sort of traction with LA’s mainstream tastemaker’s (think larger labels and concert promotion companies), Mock Records will be able to claim credit for bringing their scene to the limelight. At that point they can set up exclusive record deals based on a mass market model.

Importantly, It’s a vision that seeks to elevate a whole culture of musicians rather than a single artist – a feat that would reap profitability for all in the long run. Until then, McNally and his co founders are simply investing on faith. Only time will tell if their efforts can serve as a stepping stone for LA’s garage rock and folk community.

“Let’s just hope it’s not a gravestone” quips co-founder Jake Whitener. Our attention is drawn back to the stage as the crowd starts enthusiastically clapping along to Olentangy John’s smooth crooning.

“Yeah…I don’t think it will be” McNally says with a smile.

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