Little Rock has had its share of independent labels, from Lee Anthony's legendary soul, funk and R&B label True Soul in the '60s and '70s (anthologized beautifully last year by Now Again Records) to garage rock imprints like Zay-Dee, My Records and others that have been collected on Harold Ott's essential "Lost Souls" compilations.
There was File 13, started back in 1989 in Little Rock and now based in Chicago after a long stint in Philly. Burt Taggart of The Big Cats has the long-running Max Recordings, home of many of the state's best rock bands. There's Rex Bell's jazz label Inrafred Records. Industry vet Butch Stone has a new digital label Mole.fm. Mutants of the Monster is a new label from Rwake and Iron Tongue vocalist CT that looks to have a very promising roster.
Two Little Rock labels that have been prolific over the last five to six years both happen to be operated by guys named Travis — Travis Hill and Travis McElroy, who run Last Chance Records and Thick Syrup Records, respectively. They sat down to talk shop with the Times on a recent afternoon at White Water Tavern.
Thick Syrup has released albums from locals like Brother Andy & His Big Damn Mouth, Smoke Up Johnny, The See, Ezra Lbs. and many more, as well as reissues and new work from legendary underground artists such as Half Japanese, Chrome Cranks, Weird Paul and side projects from such giants as Mike Watt, Thurston Moore and Don Fleming, among others. Back in October, McElroy put together a huge two-day show with rare live performances from Half Japanese, exhibitions of artwork from the band's principal members (Jad and David Fair — whose artwork also graces the new album from Little Rock's The Alpha Ray) and a screening of "The Band that Would Be King," a fantastically entertaining documentary about the brothers. Thick Syrup acts Ezra Lbs. and The Bloodless Cooties also played.
Last Chance boasts a roster of artists with Arkansas connections — folks like Kevin Kerby, Ben Nichols and Cory Branan — as well as those hailing from other locales, such as Tennessee's Glossary, North Carolina's American Aquarium, Memphis rocker John Paul Keith and Indiana-based singer/songwriter Austin Lucas.
Nearly all of these acts have played the White Water Tavern on numerous occasions, and last weekend the venue hosted the lion's share of Last Chance bands over a three-day event that promises to become an annual tradition. People traveled from more than 15 states and two foreign countries to attend.
Last Chance and Thick Syrup got started in the 2006/2007 timeframe. Hill and McElroy collaborated on a few releases by San Antokyo, Frown Pow'r, Brother Andy, Jonathan Wilkins and Bryan Frazier before branching out in their own directions, with Thick Syrup charting more experimental rock waters and Last Chance pursuing Southern and Midwestern Americana bands and singer/songwriters.
"Putting out records is a great way to lose money," Hill said. He repeated this phrase a couple of times actually, prompting an understanding chuckle from McElroy. Clearly, these guys aren't in it to get rich. McElroy does freelance IT work and Hill has a full-time day job. Many small labels are labors of love, but in the years since Last Chance and Thick Syrup got rolling, things haven't necessarily gotten any easier.
The price of oil has shot up considerably, meaning not only are touring bands shelling out more at the pump, but records are getting more expensive to press, vinyl being a petroleum product and all.
At the same time, iTunes — once hailed as the savior of record labels — is slowly but surely giving way to newer streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio, Mog and others that generate a tiny fraction of the revenue of Apple's online music service.
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