Label Focus: Hardly Art
Indie label Hardly Art is turning ten this year, and to celebrate they’d throwing a huge party at Seattle’s Chop Suey in May. Given that many of us non-Pacific Northwesterners won’t be able to attend, TIDAL spoke with general manager Sarah Moody about Sub Pop’s sister label ten years on.
How did you get into the music business? What motivated you?
The clichéd old tale of I-love-music-music-is-my-life, basically. I grew up in a remote city that I didn’t appreciate at the time, so music was my lifeboat and my number-one goal after graduating high school was to have a college radio show. I did that for four years, was on the board of directors, and booked shows at the college venue. My specialty was finding windows in tour schedules, or managing to pay more than local clubs so that there was an incentive to play to fewer people.
At some point in there, I realized that working at record labels was a legit career option achieved by a certain few, so I set about making the acquisition of one of those jobs my business. Thankfully I landed an internship at Sub Pop, and started part-time in the publicity department a year later.
Which, if any, labels were your own role models or guiding stars when you started up?
Absolutely Kill Rock Stars. Elliott Smith was my gateway to KRS, which led me through a spiderweb of so many other artists and labels. I also personally love the ethics and output of Kranky, Dischord, P.W. Elverum & Sun and Constellation. Ryan at Graveface was a huge help when we were first getting off the ground and always patiently answered my one bazillion questions.
What does Hardly Art stand for as a label?
We stand for new and largely unheard artists that are doing something that we feel should be on a larger platform. We are here to support them; we would not exist without them.
What has been your biggest achievement as a label?
I would say lasting ten years is a good one. The idiosyncrasies of the music biz aren’t exactly the most inviting thing — I’ve had my moments of doubt, but am so glad that we are here. Getting away with existing under the protective wing of Sub Pop is up there as well. I don’t know that it’s an achievement per se, but certainly something that doesn’t happen terribly often.
Did you have an initial idea of what the label should be and how it could evolve in the future when you started it?
Not exactly. There were a lot of people involved when it first sprang into existence, and at the time, we barely had a logo or website, let alone a name. My hope was always for it to become a successful label venture that was truly supportive of the artists it represents, and of course to outlast the other sub-labels of Sub Pop’s past. It changes every few years, but I love what Hardly Art has become.
What are you looking for when signing artists?
It’s always first and foremost about the music, and connecting with or appreciating that on a basic level. From that point, more practical aspects come into play — where are they based, how many people are involved? Will they tour? Have we seen them live? Are they not assholes? What’s their timeline and what do they hope to do with this record?
If you think about it from the standpoint of writing, there’s a difference between when someone has cobbled scattered sentences together and when they have a solid theme that they are building around. I like to think that we tend to veer toward artists that either reflect the latter or are genuinely angling toward it.
Your artists tend to be pretty successful. Why do you think that is?
It all depends on what your metric is for success. With our current roster, I can tell you that they put everything into touring off of a release — so with La Luz, for example, that meant being on the road for nearly three months straight following their last full-length. It’s more lucrative for them right off the bat, and helps us from a press and promotional standpoint.
The majority of our artists also stay present with their fans — they stay engaged, whether they’re actively working on an album or not. It also comes directly from them, so there’s no weird marketing filter. It’s all pretty genuine.
Was it crazy intimidating to sign someone like Kathleen Hanna? How did that feel?
Oh lord. You mean other than the fact that never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d meet, let alone work with her? At the same time, I learned early on that no matter how much you idolize someone or adore their music, everyone is human. I would argue that artists, writers and musicians are the most human.
When I first met Kathleen, it was in tandem with the entirety of the Julie Ruin — which was really a combination of being so thrilled to have the opportunity to meet everyone, while also attempting to immediately answer a variety of general biz-related questions. Turns out the latter is somehow easier when you are in awe of everyone you’re speaking to. It was bewildering in the best sense.
At that point, it could have gone either way in terms of working with them and I still would have counted myself as lucky that we were considered as an option. But more than anything, it made our work over the years feel very validated, and brought it full circle in a way. So I’d say the overall feeling was general ecstatic happiness as opposed to intimidation.
Where do you want the label to be in ANOTHER ten years?
Existing! Being better at what we do so that we can continue to give opportunities to our artists. I’d love to diversify on a larger scale. Give connection to those who feel they are without it. Music without gender. Humanity before profit. Small goals, right? And also being bigger than Sub Pop. That’s always the covert mission.
The music industry goes through rapid changes these days. How have those challenges affected your work?
It changes every month in terms of what people are most focused on and how music is discovered and consumed — for a while it was streaming, now that’s more geared specifically toward playlisting; it used to be markets, then metrics, followed by market metrics, and now it’s a game of being the first to know literally every possible statistic possible for any given time period.
Meanwhile, if you’d told me years ago that we would be manufacturing cassettes in 2017 I would have never believed it. It’s all a game of adapting to meet those changes. One of the biggest challenges is keeping up on the web front — literally our website — as the norm changes constantly, but piecing together and launching a new site is an incredibly slow and tedious process. And rightfully so — there are reasons for that, the amount of decision-making involved is maddening, even when working with a small team. Suffice to say, we had a plain html site for nine years of our existence. I hope the current update won’t last nearly as long, although I understand why many labels take their time.
Any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second chance?
I wish we were a little more organized on the intern front so that we could let more people get their foot in the door. And a few signing opportunities that went away or went awry, but there isn’t much to be done about that. Otherwise, nah.
What’s the next thing you’re excited about that you’re releasing?
We’re putting together a compilation of demos, rarities and b-sides from our roster throughout the years — that’s coming out on tape/digital this summer. I’ve always loved demos, sometimes more than the final versions — they’re a great way to hear sketches of an idea and because of that are typically less guarded in their presentation. I love hearing a composition work itself out, and how much changes or stays the same between the two. The comp also covers a lot of ground, so it’s a good introduction to the scope of artists that we work and/or have worked with.
How would you describe Hardly Art as a family?
Loving but dysfunctional, for sure. We’re all basically long-lost siblings.
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