"I'm not here trying to sell millions of copies of records," says Knot Known Records president and sole full-time employee Chris Richardson.
He says this between bites of a roast chicken sandwich at a Mill Avenue eatery staffed with nervous waiters and waitresses who look like next year's crop of bright young things on some hourlong Warner Bros. drama. "I'm just passionate about the bands I'm working with. I believe in them all. They call me up at all hours of the night. If something breaks down on the van, I am the one calling Triple A. That's why when I talk I am not trying to give this record-label pitch."
Such is the life of a junior indie Mo Ostin who takes a vested interest in the bands he personally signs to record deals on his Tempe-based label. Though his dialogue may at times smack of West Coast underassistant PR flack flunky, underlying earnestness speaks volumes for his cause. And there is a cause; at least that's how he sees it.
"I get sick of some [major label] idiot that knows nothing about music and what these lyrics were about and what it meant to this band," he continues. "And the next thing you know, the label made all this money and the band's made shit and they're dumped. I'm just sick of reading about bands getting screwed. It's their music; it's their lyrics. They're [major labels] just selling them like a hamburger. I hate seeing that happen, you know what I am saying?"
His lawyers think he's crazy. But then again, most lawyers don't think there needs to be a change in the way the record business is run. Besides, most lawyers can't very well vacation in Bali when working for a guy who exercises Good Samaritan tact with Record Biz shenanigans.
"I am a band-friendly label," he says, lifting his hands shoulder level and turning them palms up to emphasize his point. "I'm not greedy. If I can make a dollar profit and keep this thing going forever, I'll do it. I want to help bands."
Richardson, 28, grew up in the affluent northwest Chicago suburb of Glenview. His father was a tail gunner in a B-24 during WWII. Later he founded a plastics company that sprouted from a basement embryo into a multimillion-dollar corporation. Before Chris was born, his mother danced at the Playboy club in Chicago.
Like any kid, Richardson loved music but hated music lessons. He would often hide from the Beethoven-worshiping piano teacher his mother foisted upon him. Richardson was into Midwestern kid jive, like rock 'n' roll and hockey. Tunes on the radio got him through the adolescent twinges and provided him a place he could call his own. He knew he couldn't play, but he wanted to be involved in music somehow.
Yet it was his old man and not some rogue from his private school who gave Richardson his first taste of live music and the all-night parties that frequently ensued. His dad was a fan of the music and its players from the old country; Richardson spent many nights in low-rent clubs, digging the faithful and steadfast.
"He used to take me to clubs when I was a little kid, and we'd go see Lionel Hampton playing on the vibraphone in these seedy Chicago clubs, or Louie Belson and all these guys from the big-band era. I mean, that was his life. My dad would sometimes bring the bands home and they would set up and play all night at our house. Our neighbors hated us. The bands would be playing outside when the sun was coming up while the neighbors were getting up to go to work."
When Richardson was 12, his only sibling, 13-year-old brother Charles, was riding his go-cart in a church parking lot and was unintentionally run over and killed by a careless rookie cop.
Richardson was devastated and says his "family was really affected, my dad, the house, everything."
The family lasted three more years in Illinois, and in '86, Dad sold the business and retired to north Scottsdale.
"We were trying to erase the pain of the house and everything. I can only imagine that a parent losing a child is the worst thing that could ever happen to a parent. I saw it rip them apart. And, man, then again music really helped me get through that. Me and my brother were close."
Richard attended Scottsdale's Judson boarding school and graduated in 1990. Four years later, he held a degree from ASU. Richardson's father died last year.
During his time at ASU, Richardson did the beer-guzzle routine with college pals in local bars like Balboa Café and Long Wong's. Watching bands in the clubs planted the label idea. He figured that there must be a band like the Refreshments or Satellite in every town. He started visiting other college scenes where chums from Judson had gone. He found a college-type Mill Avenue scene everywhere. And existing in each was at least one good band. He wanted to be the guy who signed and promoted that one band.
In the early '90s, he started by paying for a Tempe band's tape and selling it at its shows out of his backpack. A junior record mogul was spawned.
Today, Knot Known has six bands signed to the label, each from different parts of the country, from the worthy old-timey picking of South Carolina's Low Country Boil Bluegrass Band (an album featuring fiddle diddle from Vassar Clements) to Colorado Green Day vaudevillians Knee Jerk Reaction. One band, Shaking Tree, a Kansas City group whose record Matter of Choice resembles an odd mix of the Band and Dave Matthews, was recorded at Ardent studios and produced and mixed by Gin Blossoms producer John Hampton. The band just landed a deal with Corona beer, and one of its songs will be featured in a national radio ad campaign.
The label has a publicist working out of Los Angeles and a Tempe office staffed with an intern and employee who handles all the Web-based stuff.
Richardson's plan for Knot Known is nothing if not clever -- he signs bands with strong local followings from all U.S. regions. This gives the label instant strongholds in various markets. Ads in college 'zines and on the label Web site seek student interns who want record-label experience. The intern's job is to call area record shops, press and college radio, pushing Knot Known bands. The label and its national distributors follow up with product mailings. Currently, Richardson has six unpaid interns working around the country, each handling a different region. The internship keeps overhead low while giving the student firsthand experience with record-company bilge.
Most of his bands stay on the road for upward of 300 days a year. The incessant touring seems to be paying off. Knot Known is quietly garnering a national buzz, from the regional 'zines to the CMJ charts. And many of its bands were recently featured on a Magnet sampler.
From Knot Known's roster of six, one is from Phoenix, 17-year-old Emily Ayn, a singer-songwriter who has been playing for a year and a half. Her just-released Blah is a near remarkable collection of melancholy mists, at once overtly introspective -- like the poetry of any displaced teen girl -- but it leaves you wanting to know more. Her baby Natalie Merchantisms combined with a voice that at times resembles the long-forgotten Pauline Murray (from U.K. punk band Penetration) is a comely mix. And Emily Ayn is the only Knot Known band signed to a multiple deal.
As Richardson points out, "She is our first project here locally. You know, I have gone outside of Arizona to build a reputation with an independent that could have more of a national feel. Emily just kind of fell into my lap through a friend, and the reason we are really not doing a street date is we brought in session players. On the album she's got session players and stuff. She doesn't wanna just be an acoustic person, she doesn't want to be like a Jewel. She wants to have a band. Her biggest influence is Ani DiFranco."
Aside from Emily Ayn, all Knot Known bands sign a "one-off deal," meaning after one record they are free to go elsewhere, or, if all goes well, sign again with Knot Known.
This is a departure from the standard deal, which calls for the indie label to get a piece of the band's future profits should the group sign with a major label. For the band, it's like paying record-company alimony -- the logic being that if an indie label helped launch a band's career, it deserves a piece of its future profit.
Richardson's deals aren't set up that way. He retains only the rights to the original album Knot Known released, thereby absorbing whatever losses the band incurred while on tour, recording or whatever, if the record didn't break even. If the band goes on to be huge, all Richardson can hope is that a demand is created for the Knot Known album. It's an unselfish maneuver and considered foolish business practice by many.
"I want to give these bands an opportunity to make a living. And give them a stepping stone. I hope that they love what I do and see that they can probably make more money with me in the future and re-sign with me. Who knows what's gonna happen? That's the beautiful thing with the one-off deal." He stops, looks around and shrugs his shoulders. "Everything's going good.
"If they are touring, they get tour support. I give them enough. . . . [But] by no means do I have millions of dollars to dump into this label. They come to me with reasonable numbers. All the bands are really appreciative, too. They say things like, 'Without you we wouldn't be in this market.' The bands are not greedy, they know where I stand and I know where they stand. Keeping the bands on the road is helping us open up new markets."
On the horizon is Knot Known Radio. By the end of summer, Richardson says his satellite-based Internet radio station will be up and "run by and for college students." At the end of this month, he's moving the label office to a bigger space on Mill Avenue. The new space will have its own radio studio and separate offices.
"We'll hopefully launch Knot Known Radio by the end of September. It will be available on the Web with streaming audio. It's not 40-year-old DJs at major radio stations telling a 20-year-old kid what's cool. We're not gonna play any major-label records.
"And I know owning a record company everyone believes you are in it for some other reasons. That's why I do one-offs. I mean, the reason I don't like majors is the way they spit out and chew out and leave [bands on] the curb. And that's 90 percent of the bands.
"I am not a goodwill service," he concludes. "I mean, the bands are producing, they really are."
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: Brian.Smith@newtimes.com
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.