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I want to begin by apologizing to Earl for taking so long to get this interview up. When I went back and watched the tape from this interview, it was epic. I haven't had so much fun with an interview before. This was a great insight into the workings of an indie label from one of the best. Enjoy the interview, and the story as to how the El Orbit(local Houston band) mobile met it's demise.
Samuel: So what happened to the El Orbit mobile?
Earl B. Freedom: Mercedes SUV hit it. Yeah, it hit when it was parked.
Samuel: It was parked? How'd it manage that?
Earl: It was a hit and run. They caught them. You can replace the Mercedes, but you can't replace the El Orbit Mobile.
Samuel: The first time I heard of Freedom Records the first time when I bought the first Hollisters album. How long has Freedom been around?
Earl: 5 years, well, March of 1995, so it's been 6 years. We did the Derailers Live Tracks album, I'm sure you've heard of them. That was a big success, it propelled a lot of other records.
Samuel: So it helped getting that first one to sell?
Earl: That's the reason there is a Freedom Records, because the first one did so well.
Samuel: Was it frightening to start your own record label and to just jump right into it?
Earl: Yeah, definitely. I had no money at first and I did it on credit cards, so it could have been a real problem if that one hadn't worked. It actually worked out. It seemed like a huge amount of money at the time, like three grand.
Rayanna: Well, that's a lot when you don't have it.
Earl: That is a lot if you don't have, and I was making about that a year at the time, so that was a year's salary at the time. So I was thinking it might come back. The band had never toured at the time or done anything, but luckily they turned out to be really hard working guys. And to this day there are no problems with them. We have a great relationship, they make money, their album has been profitable for 5 years. It's been a great relationship.
Samuel: Everyone I've talked to said that Freedom Records was a good label to deal with, does it help being a musician who is working with musicians?
Earl: Yeah, definitely. I guess that gives me a little bit of perspective. I mean, it's a business, it's hard work. Back then I had a lot more stars in my eyes. It's hard running a record label. After six years it becomes a definite business. But in the end, I didn't start it to make money, so that's why it's good. It's an artistic venture. But it's still a business.
Samuel: I know most of your artists are Texas musicans...
Earl: Yeah, it's basically Texas songwriter stuff, country, some honky-tonk. It's real music. It's definitely real Texas bands. It's not the only kind of music I like, but those are the records I can really do well. I tried to put out a rock album, Prescott Curlywolf, which is a great rock band out of Austin, I couldn't pull it off. People didn't see me as that.
Samuel: It's hard to release difference genres since everyone sees you as an alt. country label?
Earl: Yeah, I started around the same time Alt. Country took off. No Depression magazing came out. Son Volt and Wilco release there albums. It was all by chance. I had been thinking about starting a label since 1991. The infrastructure was more there then instead of when I started to do it. So many labels have popped up that it's hard to get acts. A lot of people self release now.
Samuel: What led to you moving to Austin?
Earl: Well, we really enjoyed the music from this area and wanted to come down. We basically followed Kelly Willis and Evan Johns down.
Samuel: Is Evan Johns still around?
Earl: He's living in Austin now. He's supposed to be moving back down to Austin soon. So yeah, he's still alive and still around.
Samuel: I got an Alternative Tentacles comp. a few years back and he was on it.
Earl: Yeah, Jello put out his first record. Jello has a soft spot for raved up stuff like that. We did a record with Jello. I wasn't on it, but we did shows with him.
Samuel: I heard it was kinda rough recording with Jello because he's a perfectionist and Mojo is less into that.
Earl: I always had fun with Jello. The shows we played with him were a blast.
Samuel: A friend of mine saw the show you all did with him at SXSW.
Earl: To this day that may be...that was a great show. Liberty Lunch, SXSW, 1994 with Jello. That was a great show. It was packed to the walls. It was crazy. It was definitely one of our best shows.
Samuel: How long have you been with Mojo?
Earl: Since winter of 1993, so almost 8 years now.
Rayanna: I heard his van broke down and you fixed it for him and that's how you met. Is there any truth to that?
Earl:(laughing) No, we're all just friends. I'm actually a drummer, I learned to play bass to play with Mojo. I didn't know how to play. After a couple of years, I got better. For the first couple of years I wasn't that good, but like it matters.
Rayanna: So when did you start the roundup?
Earl: We started the roundup around the same time....well, it's 2 other labels and me. It's friends of mine who all had indie labels. It's a good way to come together and set up a mail order.
Samuel: Yeah, I really liked the community feel to the roundup.
Earl: Yeah, to this day it still has a real co-op feel to it. We do something no one else does. We sell records cheaper. Five records for ten bucks each. Most of our orders are five record, we ask the artists to take a small paycut on those sales. Everyone has been really excited about it. People are willing to sacrifice a couple of bucks to get a record in someone's hands that they normally wouldn't buy.
Samuel: Yeah, if you're going to pay $36 for 3, you might as well spend $50 on 5.
Earl: Yeah, you want to pay $10 for a CD. There is no reason it shouldn't be $10. They cost like $.59 to make. When you're talking about new music, that's not too much to pay. We have had problems with a lot of people saying we're undercutting them. A lot of resistence from the industry. We really believe in what we're doing and it can't be stopped. We have a real niche, and it was kinda by accident. Really the whole thing has grown by accident. In 1996 we started it to help our labels get mail order. Now it's the main business. We have over 500 CDs in our catalog, we do CD maufacturing, brokering, we do internet sales. We're doubling revenue each year, and it's totally by accident.
Samuel: It's really nice when something you love blows up and you can make a living at it.
Earl: In fact it's really been in the past few months that things have grown so fast. We noticed that revenue went up over last year, and we're doubling that this year, so it's really growing fast. We really do stuff no one else does. We do REAL independent stuff. Records released by the artist. We're friends with most of the artists. They drop the CDs off at our houses. We're in a market no one else does bacause it's so obscure.
Samuel: Do you ever finance the recordings?
Earl: As far as the label goes, it's worked both ways, sometimes we pay for the recordings, sometimes we buy the master. It all depends. Generally, we pay for it. That's a lot of the point of the label.
Samuel: Has the internet sales helped?
Earl: Yeah, a lot. The shopping cart sales help. We used to have a printable order form. I thought our listeners didn't care, but when we bacame a shopping cart site, we boosted sales. I thought we had tapped the market out, but we're getting new customers constantly. In the past 3-4 months, it's helped sales a lot. It's real easy to use. I'm surprised, I'm not anti-tech, but I didn't think our customers cared. Everyday, I get up and there are 3-5 orders of 5 CDs or more from overseas and other places. Almost everyone who orders through the internet is a new customer.
Samuel: Is it been inspiring to see so many people from all over are into a Texas label?
Earl: It's incredible. People from countries you've never heard of buying 30 records, repeat customers. When I first put out the Derailers, I didn't think anyone cared outside of Texas. I didn't realize so many people were into Texas music. We've expanded to Nashville now. There is a good underground scene there. It mirrors Austin a lot.
Samuel: What is your take on mp3s?
Earl: I think they help independent labels like ours a lot. People like to listen to msuic before they buy it. Most people don't want just a burned copy of a CD, they want the artwork and everything. My wife is the perfect example, even if I burn her a copy of a CD off someone else's, she wants the real one. She says 'I don't care about the $15, I want the CD." We just recorded the first Conrads(Earl's other band) original song and we posted it on the Roundup site. Within 2 days over 200 people had downloaded it. It's amazing, on Monday we recorded the song, on Tuesday we mixed it, on Wednesday we posted it, and by Friday 200 people are listening to it. It's only a plus for everyone.
Samuel: Have you had any records really blow up beyond your expectations?
Earl: Not really. It's hard to sell a lot of records. A good local band that plays a lot will usually sell around 5000 records. If you can sale 10,000 records, you're doing something amazing. It's really hard to sell 5,000 records. A lot of people inflate their sales figures, but it's really hard to sell 5,000 records.
Rayanna: Where do you find time for everything you do, Freedom, The Roundup, The Conrads, Mojo, and being married?
Earl: It's not really too bad. It's not really work. The only thing that's hard about it is figuring out how to make a living off of it. Lately I've been making so money and been living off of it. I really don't see anyway it's not going to keep going. The Hollisters, Derailers, and Beaver Nelson were relative hits for local bands.
Rayanna: Don't you play weekly with the Conrads?
Earl: Yeah, we play every Wednesday. We played 5 hours last night. We played from 10-3. I'm constantly working, even though it's not really work. I'm either with my wife or working.
Samuel Barker is Senior Editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.