Saturday, July 4, 2009

Suburban Home Records: Surviving the Record Industry’s Hardships with Grace

By Brian Polk

It’s hard to remember the last time anyone penned a success story about the flagging record industry. Aside from all the “vinyl comeback” articles that the major media outlets were all too eager to gloat about, any news over the last decade has been very bad news for most recording companies.

But despite the consumer’s dwindling interest in songs that aren’t free, there are exceptions to the downward trajectory of recorded music.

“Somehow, despite how shitty the industry is, we’re doing really well,” says Virgil Dickerson, owner of Denver’s Suburban Home Records and it’s online counterpart, Vinyl Collective. “The past year was the best year we’ve ever had in our 15-year history.”

Which is good news for at least someone in the business. But even though things may be rosy now, much like the overall picture of the rest of the industry, Dickerson’s professional life hasn’t always been so encouraging up to this point. “It has constantly been a roller coaster up and down,” he admits. But through it all, the 33-year-old, life-long punker somehow managed to never lose sight of why he started the label in the first place: unrelenting appreciation and devotion to the culture of underground music.

If you told the 20-year-old Virgil about how successful his label would become, he probably would have never believed you. Partly because it’s impossible for a college punk rocker to envision himself in his 30s, and partly because he was too busy putting together the first incarnation of Suburban Home, which was in the form of a fanzine.

“We put out the first issue of the Suburban Home fanzine on September 1, 1995,” says Dickerson with the obvious nostalgia it takes to recollect the exact date. “We first distributed it at a show in Denver at the Aztlan Theater. It was the first time I saw Pinhead Circus. I think they were playing with Mandingo and Schleprock.”

It was this show that he met a lot of the musicians that would impact the Denver punk scene for years to come, including members of The Facet and Pinhead Circus—bands that would wind up on the Suburban Home Compilation, Punk, It’s all about the Orchis Factor.

But Dickerson didn’t start releasing records until a year later, when he discovered the Raven, a small, all-ages club on Welton Street (that has since become the Climax

“For a time there, the Raven on a Friday night would have three or four hundred people. At that point—I don’t feel like it’s so much so now—there was such a big family of the bands and fans. Everyone would party and hang out together. I never thought I’d have a job doing anything like this, but I knew I wanted to be involved some way. That’s how the fanzine started. And that’s how I started Suburban Home Records.”

Initially the label was a testament to ‘90s style pop-punk, releasing Screeching Weasel-influenced bands like Overlap, the Fairlanes, and the Gamits. The aforementioned compilation even featured the likes of Digger and Blink 182—the latter of which, of course, went on to sell millions of records.

But in the early 2000s, when the popularity of pop-punk waned, Virgil’s musical tastes broadened beyond four-chord progressions and songs about girls. It wasn’t until he befriended and eventually signed the alt-country super-group, Drag the River, that he broadened both his musical tastes and the primary focus of his label. Though he didn’t know it at the time, adding the band to the roster would eventually open the door to signing much bigger acts, like Tim Barry, singer of the quintessential Richmond hardcore outfit, Avail.

However, “preceding that,” he says, “we had some difficult times.”

By far his biggest hardship occurred in March 2007, when sluggish CD sales in the pre-vinyl boom days nearly bankrupted the company. Dickerson downsized his staff and moved the operation into his actual suburban home. It got so bad he pleaded with his customers to help his struggling company by buying anything they could. “Then we just got so much support from people all over,” he says. “It helped us get through a
really tough period. Somehow after that it slowly got better.

“Coincidentally,” he continues, “working with Tim Barry and Drag the River and starting the Vinyl Collective was a whole new chapter for us. Since then every year has been better than the previous year.”

It helps that Suburban Home has been buoyed by the rediscovery of a long-dead music format and releases by more notable acts. However, it’s doubtful whether his company would have reemerged so successfully without the friendship-first, business-second approach Dickerson takes with all his bands.

“For me it’s really important that our relationship with our bands is strong,” he says. “Other labels treat it as purely business and don’t look at the personal aspect at all. But for most of us that get into this, we don’t do it because of money, we do it because there is that connection personally. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. I love all the bands we work with—not just musically, but as far as people go.”

It has been a long time since the owners of record labels have talked about putting the love of people and music before money. Similarly, it has been awhile since they were able to say the things that Virgil gets to say, like, “We’re going to put out more albums next year than we have in the past five years.” That’s also probably why there has been such a dearth of good news to report about the record industry in general.

Of course, when people like Virgil, who are in it for all the right reasons, have better years than money-obsessed phonies, the bad news might not be such a bad thing.

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