Slim Moon, a spoken-word artist and musician, as well as owner of fellow Oly label Kill Rock Stars, recalls his first impression of the scene Johnson largely engineered. "In the Olympia rock scene, from the moment I moved here it was always understood that punk rock was, 'If you can think of it and it's a good thing to do, then just do it,' and yet elsewhere there always seemed to be these rules. This was more punk rock than the legions of hard-core bands who all sounded the same."
Buoyed by the support of like-minded individuals like John Foster, a fellow DJ at Oly's college radio station KAOS and the founder of OP magazine (later the much-respected Option magazine), and Steve Fisk, also a DJ at KAOS (later a producer who would record Nirvana, among other luminaries), Johnson's inspiration was to create an art factory, à la Warhol's New York Factory, to support his community's artistic efforts.
Johnson's first great victory in this regard was 1991's International Pop Underground Convention, held in August at a handful of venues in and around Olympia. With performances morning, noon and night by then-burgeoning acts like Bratmobile, the Spinanes, Beat Happening, Courtney Love, the Melvins, Kicking Giant, Mecca Normal, Nation of Ulysses, and many others, the IPU stands out as an important meeting of the minds that would help mold a new concept of what punk rock could be.
Rock crit Ira Robbins characterizes the IPU as the "tribal gathering of 1991: Everyone who knew they were supposed to be there was." The convention did its own part in breaking down the stringent code book of punk rock. There was no security, no time limits for the performers, and all the staff were volunteers, including a ticket taker who played in a little band called Fugazi. Jean Smith recalls, "The interesting thing was that the musicians were mingling successfully with the audience. I would say that having Mr. MacKaye there, Mr. Fugazi, doing the door one night at the theater was illuminating to people; that this idolized character within the punk-rock scene would sort of stoop to do the door sort of broke down a few misconceptions of what the interaction of the music scene was about."
Started as an outlet to release the works of Johnson and his friends' projects, K began as a cassette-only label with a distribution network that spanned a few local record stores in Olympia. But with the networking explosion that the IPU facilitated, Johnson and K partner Candice Pederson were soon inspired to release K's artists on seven-inch vinyl and LP formats. In the documentary, Courtney Love member and Yoyo Recordings owner Pat Maley recalls asking Johnson what happened to the cassette revolution. His response: "Didn't you hear? We won."
Johnson's pivotal role in this revolutionary music movement is understated by only himself. Noted rock writer and Nirvana biographer Michael Azzerrad puts it best: "For any movement like that, I think you have to have a figurehead, a cult leader, and that would be Calvin Johnson." Johnson downplays his efforts, saying, "There's so many amazing people in Olympia, it's hard to credit just one person. I'm just one of many."
Through its history, K has developed a reputation as an extremely nurturing record label continuously driven by the same ideals it was founded on. Matador Records head Gerard Cosloy, who found large-scale success as an indie magnate, offers his own interpretation. "K ideally is the spirit of friendship. It's not so much about commerce and market share and how to use the label as a battering ram to buy someone a huge house someday, it's more about educating people about different kinds of music and helping your friends document what they're doing and get it out to people."
In recent years, Johnson's vision of a factory-esque organization has materialized nearly completely. In K Records' new building in Olympia, the upper floor is divided into spaces that local artists rent to pursue their projects. On the phone from the complex, Johnson excitedly reports, "I was just up in the studio checking out some people silk-screening for a record cover; there's just all kinds of people doing stuff around here. Pretty much all of the spaces are rented to artists who are making a living doing their artwork, so it's kind of exciting."