BY Nash Young
The Decemberists’ first album is on HUSH. Chad Crouch, purveyor of the record label, says, “I’m really interested in how technology dovetails with the music industry. I started, kinda, at the very beginning of the digital revolution, and by that I mean, we started with a CD burner before people really knew about CD burners — and it’s amazing to think that was only ten years ago. In that time we’ve gone from … okay, I’d invite people over to record them and we’d cut a CD right in that same room, to having people, or recording myself for example, and releasing that song within minutes of finishing it to an audience of thousands … that’s nuts, and that’s really interesting to me.” HUSH Radio streams the abridged albums — segments of songs cross-faded in a rich introduction to the artists and their songcraft.
“What ends up happening is: I’m friends with all these people. It’s not just a professional relationship, and so, separating the personal from the professional — at least in the way I run the business of music — is impossible. Obviously, if I’m going to invest in something, I believe in it and I believe it has the ability to reach people. And that’s just the core of it — of choosing to work with someone.” The only album Crouch plans to release in 2009 is Beasts of Seasons by Laura Gibson. “I take a hands off approach,” Crouch says. “There’s less risk for me. I often don’t pay for the studio time that it took to get it done — or however they got it done and what it cost to get it done. They retain ownership of that in perpetuity. In exchange for marketing, manufacturing, and doing the things that I can to give it a life in the market, I get a license to that master recording for five years.” The golden rule of independent labels is a 50/50 profit sharing.
“The number one way for an artist to have success,” Crouch confirms, “is to play music for an audience and keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it. That’s always been the enduring … with the Internet you’ll find examples of people in their bedrooms making stuff and finding a huge audience for some reason, but that’s cheating.” Crouch laughs. “You definitely had a stroke a luck when that happens. In my opinion, the way to build and the way to build reliably is that face-to-face interaction, because that’s what gets people talking in a way that’s meaningful. But yeah, the Internet’s been a game changer to be sure.” Available anywhere, the media’s so flexible “you’ll find a lot of people giving away“. Crouch ventures, “It’s unthinkable for a label not to have the music streamable.” At HUSH online a buyer can download an album for under eight dollars, or purchase the CD for ten and have it shipped through the postal service and upon purchase, download the entire album, so they don’t have to wait. “We don’t sell songs individually at our site, but we do at iTunes music store.”
Portland’s CD Forge manufactures the HUSH CDs and Nail distribution is their national carrier. So far, HUSH’s only CD to make it into the big-box stores like Tower records is the Decemberists’ “Five Songs” CD from 2003. Nail is the Pacific Northwest’s major distributor of alternative, independent music. The success of Pink Martini is instrumental in Nail’s business. Pink Martini ships in the tens of thousands upon first release, whereas an album like “Five Songs” has sold 10,000 hard units total. “I like making entertainment content,” Crouch says. “I find that really fulfilling working. Working with the tools of distribution, creation, etc … basically the number one tool for all of that now is the personal computer. It’s interesting to me. I like that.”
I ask about the traditional acoustic instruments, and how the electric amplification of those instruments change the music, and the possible development of new instruments through the personal computer, more like a Wii or Gameboy controller that can modulate sound. “Sure, there’s an infinite number of ways to make a sound,” Crouch bursts. “Is that interesting to most people?” he counters. “To some it’s fascinating. To some people, they’re just more interested in the melody. The way this song, this sound makes them feel. They don’t care if it comes from a guitar, a voice, a piano, whatever. They don’t really consciously think of it too much. At the label, I love the experimental stuff but I also generally respond more to what you consider crafted folk or rock or pop songs.”
Chad Crouch created a community around music. People make music in every way possible, and what we hear affects what people make. It’s very democratic. Crouch tells me these days, Pitchfork is a taste maker. Is there a pop music push, or does it pull you in? The strange thing about HUSH is that it doesn’t push or pull you in. It’s just there. The “Funeral Song” Laura Gibson plays for the camera at Portland’s Lone Fir pioneer cemetery, is so spare and maudlin, even Crouch writes the caveat “Compare and contrast with Vimeo [YouTube alternative] if you’re bored.” Crouch and the artists he promotes are not going out of their way to make it popular. The effect is “culture jamming” — making a cultural product that is exactly the opposite of mainstream entertainment. Crouch composes spare minimal soundtracks for videos that he calls “anti-viral”. Pop culture craves as many people as possible. HUSH is a rare alternative that is not apparent, not available in the big-box, and a distant find for true believers of music made in the living room, the kitchen, and on the porch while the world passes by.
“I’ve always liked the Doug Fir,” Crouch beams. “I love going to the Aladdin. I really enjoy shows when I’m at the Aladdin, and it’s a nice sounding show. In terms of smaller venues like, I really like Holocene. Mississippi Studios is great — they’re in transition now, so I don’t, the space will become a lot bigger. I like em all. In terms of actually sitting down and listening, you’re there for the show.”
I ask if there would ever be a HUSH concert to raise funds for a worthy cause. “The ideas start with the artists, whatever social causes they hold dear.” Crouch champions livability, sustainability, energy efficiency, “anything that has to do with sustainable living”. He tells me, “Artists have shows all the time — if they’re on the roster, sometimes a couple of them get together. We’ve done a few HUSH showcases, and those tend to happen to celebrate something. We had a ten year anniversary last summer.”