Picture the stereotypical record label. It’s probably in a trendy high-rise in New York City or Los Angeles, maybe even San Francisco. But hidden among coffee shops, yoga studios and dispensaries, Boulder has its own little record industry that includes SCI Fidelity Records, sitting just above The Unseen Bean on Broadway.
The label got started in 1998 when native Boulder band String Cheese Incident realized the best way to maintain creative control of their music was to do everything themselves. The band borrowed $10,000 from bassist Keith Moseley’s parents, recorded its first album in a friend’s studio, and the label was born. They paid the money back with record and concert sales, and with the help of their manager, Kevin Morris, started taking on friends’ bands.
“I think one of the things that was instrumental in the band wanting to start a record company was just, you know, as we were touring a lot in the early days and meeting a lot of bands and [hearing about] their record deals and what they liked and what they didn’t like and such, a lot of artists seemed dissatisfied,” Moseley said. “So we thought maybe we can do this on our own and be able to maintain full creative control of what we do.”
They were right, and SCI Fidelity has since grown to include 21 other artists. One of the first to sign was one-man band Keller Williams, a friend of the band who was also under the same management. Other early signings included experimental electronic DJ and producer DJ Harry, who’d be followed by acts like Lotus, Tea Leaf Green, Umphrey’s McGee and The Disco Biscuits. SCI Fidelity mostly takes on artists with a jam band feel, along with a handful of electronic acts and DJs — all artists that the label thinks play well live.
Inside SCI Fidelity
With a full-time staff of just three people and a couple of interns, SCI Fidelity works with the bands from inception through recording, manufacturing, production and promotion. Moseley acts as a sort of proxy for String Cheese Incident, staying involved in bigger picture decisions about taking on new projects and where the company is headed.
General Manager Matt Hogan, who started with SCI Fidelity doing grassroots marketing in 2002, has been running the day-to-day activities of the label for the past three years.
“Rule number one for us is that we don’t ask the artist to change what they do,” Hogan said. “The major label model needed to be torn down. We’re totally about taking the power back and giving it to the artist.”
That attitude is what keeps SCI Fidelity going, but it’s also what’s hurting the industry. Bands realize they can release music through services like CD Baby or Bandcamp and bypass working with a label at all. Everyone knows the internet is freeing artists and killing record sales — that’s not news. But Hogan said the best bet for bands lies in labels like SCI Fidelity because it takes more than just a web presence to succeed.
“It’s a sea of music [online],” he said. “The challenge is breaking through and getting people’s attention.”
And that’s what project manager Allie Hamby and digital & grassroots marketer Dave Hearn are there for. According to Hamby and Hearn, the key is organization and communication. They always know what everyone is working on at any given time.
“To have three of us running the day-to-day, it surprises people, but it works,” Hearn said.
The staff is actually down from about 10 people just a few years ago. Just like the major labels, they’re not immune to the industry’s decline. Hogan attributes the label’s ability to stay alive to having a small, nimble business model, a deep catalog that still sells well, and a focus on bands that do well playing live.
“A lot of it has to do with the idea that a lot of the bands we work with thrive in the live setting,” he said. “The record is another piece of the puzzle to help sell tickets and grow the long-term career of the band. Studio albums tend to complement what they’re doing live or introduce new songs.”
Labels still matter
SCI Fidelity isn’t the only Boulder label. There’s Elm and Oak, just off Spruce on 13th Street, What Are Records (W.A.R.), on High Street and Broadway, and Adventure Records, which operates without a physical office space. SCI Fidelity aren’t the only ones to shift the focus from record sales to stay afloat, either. Elm and Oak is also a design firm and has a clothing line. W.A.R. has scaled back and starting focusing on band management.
Kyle Wofford, who works both A&R (artists and repertoire) and management for W.A.R., said the label has to avoid going out on a limb financially and instead focus on managing the artists they already work with.
“Management is where my heart is, so I came back to the company to start the management branch. It just happened to coincide with the record sales dropping,” Wofford said. “Our catalog still sells really well. We still have the full label staff and the press and distribution and digital marketing, we just have to be a little more careful about it.”
Rob Gordon started W.A.R. in New York City, but moved the label to Boulder for the quality of life. It seems counterintuitive, but Wofford pointed out that tons of labels are thriving away from New York and L.A. Sub Pop runs out of Seattle, Fat Possum is in Oxford, Miss., and Saddle Creek is in Omaha, Neb.
“All you need is a laptop and internet access,” Wofford said. “There’s some really amazing companies right now that aren’t quite majors, but that are huge and challenging the major labels. They’re just really smart, and with the internet, everything is easy.”
It’s a big part of SCI Fidelity’s strategy, too. The staff is out at shows at the Fox Theatre and Boulder Theater four or five nights a week, doing things the old fashioned way, but their online presence is stronger.
“I’m always thinking of ways that we can get ourselves out there in social media, blogs,” Hearn said.
The goal for Hearn is to “connect the dots digitally” for fans. If they like String Cheese Incident, for example, he needs to find ways to direct that interest to other artists on the label.
It’s work like that that keeps labels relevant and important in the music business. A label with brand recognition and long-standing industry relationships can provide a team that coordinates press, merchandising, retail sales and everything else a band could possibly need.
DJ Harry signed onto SCI Fidelity with an album of String Cheese Incident remixes in 2001. Over 12 years, he’s seen the industry change from the inside, but stuck with the label while other DJs and electronic musicians decided to do it themselves.
“The past five or six years — it’s a different kind of environment that we live in now. Anyone can have success because the internet is the great equalizer,” he said. “[But] every minute that you’re spending doing something other than creating your art is time wasted.”
In 2001, he was impressed that SCI Fidelity supported a project mixing techno and jam bands, something that hadn’t really been done before. What kept him around for good was knowing they would take care of business while he focused on his music.
“My job is to be a musician. I’m a professional musician. I need professional business people. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do both,” he said. “It gives you a home base. It gives you someone with expertise. It gives you a mentor. A record label gives you focus, and without it — people think that they can do it on their own, but they don’t have the expertise that a record label does.”
Perhaps the most important factor in SCI Fidelity’s success, though, is dedication. The staff is incredibly passionate about what they do, and they each consider themselves lucky to be doing it.
“Being fans is another thing that keeps us going and moving,” Hamby said. “Being a fan of what we’re producing and what we’re making is so worth it.”