Once upon a time in the hazy and ill-defined corridors of the Atlanta DIY/indie scene, there was a progressive punk band called Blame Game. Blame Game started out as a hardcore punk band, but as they matured, their music slowly evolved into more of an improvisational jazz-punk mix evocative of groups like Polvo, June of 44, or Captain Beefheart. Blame Game was my personal introduction to Stickfigure records. I really enjoyed the material that particular group produced and delved deeper into the Stickfigure catalog. This is when I stumbled upon other groups like Big Penguin, Tenth to the Moon, Snowden and Sorry No Ferrari (technically a good friend introduced me to this band).
Stickfigure has been a strong and relevant facet within the Atlanta underground music scene for 11 years and while their 10th anniversary was last year, we are now approaching the end of a decade of music and transitioning into a new era. I wanted to speak with Gavin Frederick, the owner of Stickfigure, about how the landscape of the Atlanta music scene has changed over the past decade.
How long have you been involved in the Atlanta scene?
I moved to Atlanta in the fall of 1992 to attend Georgia Tech from SE Pennsylvania. Started working @ WREK 91.1 fm my second day there and haven’t looked back since.
How has the Atlanta scene evolved over the past decade? What are some trends that you’ve observed?
The Atlanta scene, in my opinion, is one of the most diverse and strong music scenes in the nation, if not the world. Atlanta has local grown established artists and bands representing in just about all genres whether it be hip hop, r&b, pop, indie rock, metal, punk, noise, math rock or any of the other hundreds of sub genres, there’s something here for everyone. If you don’t know about it you’re not trying hard enough to find it.
You might feel that I am avoiding the question with that answer, but I could write a couple of books attempting to answer that question and still not answer it sufficiently for everyone, so a vague general response I feel is the best answer considering this is just an interview (laughs)!
Atlanta has produced a few notable rock acts, namely Mastodon, the Black Lips, and Deerhunter. However, rap still dominates the market here. Do you feel that the indie rock scene will ever surpass what’s going on within the urban/hip-hop market?
It could happen. Sugarland are from Atlanta as well and they might be arguably bigger than such hip hop artists as Outkast, Usher and Ludacris.
Do you have any personal expectations for the indie rock or electronic scenes in Atlanta? For instance, do you want these scenes to break out into the mainstream and become more competitive with other scenes in Brooklyn, Austin, or San Francisco?
It’s best not to have high expectations. The current media environment is very unpredictable and fickle. Everything is obvious in hindsight, but who knows what will be hot in music next week. It’s easier to predict the weather. Artists “breaking out” of a local scene has it’s pluses and minuses. The main plus is the local scene is taken more seriously on a national/international level. The big minus is that the success of a local artist will cause other local audiences to just copy and borrow from the successful artist in order to hopefully attain their own success, thereby limiting the musical diversity of the scene.
A major reason why the Atlanta scene has been awesome for so long is directly related to lack of national exposure which enabled an environment where artists were more willing to take risks and please themselves instead of giving fans what the artists think they want.
You started Stickfigure Distribution and Mailorder in 1992. How did Stickfigure come about?
It actually started in 1998 (*whoops, sorry readers, their website said 1992). Before then it was just a couple box of records that I took to shows as a mobile record store. The name was given by a friend named Rebecca Merchant. Susan Rose designed the logo as well.
What did you feel Stickfigure could offer artists at that time that a conventional label or other source of marketing and distribution could not offer?
The artists I worked with in general didn’t have any other labels interested. It really was a matter of, “well this is better than nothing.” (laughs)
Can you describe the early Stickfigure music showcases and how they came about?
The Stickfigure showcases did not start until 2005. It’s just a series of shows that I put together to help promote the local bands on a local level. The 2010 showcase will be in the summer this year and hopefully all of the shows will be free. More details to come.
Was your label strongly affiliated with any particular music venue or house party scene in the early years?
I Defy House pre 1998, Under the Couch 1998-2001 and now the Drunken Unicorn. However, the late nineties more because there were not any other venues and the Drunken Unicorn now because I do all of the booking there.
Which Stickfigure alumni and current artists are you most proud of?
Tough question…for bands and artists that are no longer together, I would have to say One Hand Loves The Other. Active bands, Deerhunter, for defying the odds. Nobody in 2005 though they would be were they are at now.
Given the current music business climate, how has Stickfigure’s objectives changed as a business? Now how would you describe your target market or demographic?
Stickfigure is becoming more of a pop / electro label. Just check out La Chansons, Backseat Dreamer, Warning Light, Lid Emba, Strezo, Nerdkween, Von Iva, the Subliminator, Harken The Hands Askew, Femme Fatality and you’ll get a good idea of what the direction of the label is now.
The main label is also being split into many different labels, each of which will market to a more specific demographic:
A Distant Sound – dark wave – Attention System, Entertainment, The Feeding Fingers
Adair Park – indie rock – The Orphins, This Piano Plays Itself
Earthshaking Rhythms – noise / experimental – Baldeagle, Yatagarasu
Fieldhouse – singer / songwriter – Ben Trickey
Vagina Flambe – Hawks, Mourdella – metal, punk, loud, for those who can’t hear (laughs).
Because people are purchasing less records these days, what problems do you feel will arise in the future for smaller, burgeoning labels?
Just the usual problems: how to pay for recording, mastering, publicity, pressing costs. Digital sales keep increasing and the market is definitely shifting towards individuals purchasing their music digitally and online. Die hard fans of artists will want the real thing, be it vinyl, cassette, cd, eight track, laserdisc or whatever, but most fans will just want the hit single.
In many ways the music environment is much better for smaller labels because with digital the majors do NOT have the stranglehold on mass distribution that they had ten plus years ago. This enables small labels to spend more on press / publicity and less on distribution since digital distribution does not have the overhead of physical distribution.
Aside from Stickfigure artists, what Atlanta based acts are you really digging right now?
Lions and Scissors, Big Chad Famous, Odist, Vegan Coke, Gold Standard, Sealions, Siberia My Sweet, Sound On Film, What Happened To Your Fire Tiger, Nigredo, Royal Thunder, Scarab, Withered, The Sylvans, Small Reactions, Adron, The Selmanaires, Zoroaster among others.
What can music fans expect to see from Stickfigure Distribution in 2010?
January 2010 will see new full lengths by La Chansons, Lid Emba and Warning Light. Spring 2010 will have new full lengths by Attention System, Backseat Dreamer, Sorry No Ferrari and This Piano Plays Itself. And later in the year, we will be releasing Entertainment, Strezo, The Feeding Fingers and maybe Ringo Deathstarr.