Chicago label Drag City had been putting out records for six years when one of its artists, Neil Hagerty of Royal Trux, proposed a new project. Drag City had already collaborated with Hagerty on several offbeat ventures–What Is Royal Trux?, a tour film cum sci-fi epic released on videotape in 1992 (and slated for reissue on DVD next year), as well as scripts for The Drag City Hour, a radio program with music and comedy sketches. Hagerty’s latest, it turned out, was a science fiction novel, and though no one at Drag City had experience with books, they decided to publish and distribute it. The result was 1997’s Victory Chimp, the first release under the Drag City Books imprint. Six years later, books account for a surprising 12 percent of the label’s total sales.
Branching into the book business seems to be an increasingly natural progression for indie record companies. Musicians who aspire to be or already are writers, poets, artists, or photographers provide a ready-made talent pool of authors and contributors. For the artists, speculates Millicent Souris, a buyer for Chicago music distributor Carrot Top Records, “I think trust is the draw here. If it’s a musician who already works with the label–and I’m referring to independent labels–he or she already knows that these people are dedicated to the text, regardless of if it’s an essay or poetry or music.” Souris also observes that record store owners and buyers are willing to take a chance on just about any product a favored label is hawking, and completist fans of a particular band or artist are eager to consume whatever that artist creates–including books. Local labels such as Atavistic, Bloodshot, and Touch and Go have all experimented with books or book/CD packages in recent years, and Rounder Records, one of the country’s largest independents, has announced the creation of Rounder Books, which will publish about half a dozen titles a year beginning in May. But while most labels have approached bookselling only tentatively–or in the case of Rounder, after 30 years of experience with records–Drag City jumped in early and optimistically.
Founded in 1989 by Dan Osborn and Dan Koretzky, Drag City has a reputation for championing critically acclaimed yet slow-burning acts like Will Oldham, Smog, Royal Trux, and Jim O’Rourke–artists with little in common except perhaps an aversion to being categorized. Initially run out of Koretzky’s apartment, the label released a handful of records before getting lucky with the Pavement ten-inch Perfect Sound Forever in 1991. Pavement opened the door for collaboration with the more established Touch and Go Records, which took over Drag City’s manufacturing and distribution and quickly increased its market reach. By 1993 Koretzky had quit his job doing legal proofreading to devote himself to the label full-time, and in 1995 he and Drag City moved into a live-work loft space, complete with loading dock, on Peoria. Around this time the label released its first big album without the help of Touch and Go, Oldham’s Viva Last Blues. The core team of Koretzky, Osborn, and sales manager Rian Murphy gradually grew to a staff of seven full-time employees plus interns, and Drag City relocated to its current offices, near Grand and Damen, in 1998. The label’s catalog now includes around 260 albums, singles, videos, and books; it also manufactures and distributes for other labels including Oldham’s Palace Records, O’Rourke’s Blue Chopsticks, David Grubbs’s Moikai Records, and the European experimental label Streamline Records.
Though they didn’t know of any other label that had done such a thing, Murphy says, when Hagerty came to them with Victory Chimp they were willing to take the leap. “We have always been interested in being more than just a record label,” he says. Osborn adds that “For us it isn’t a matter of what a record label should do. It’s more like, what do we want to do? What seems like it would be fun? No one’s getting rich off this, and we all like books, so why not do a book?” The learning curve, though, was steeper than they’d expected.
Hagerty’s convoluted tale–about a chemical-engineer chimpanzee who travels through time and space to fight the forces of evil only to resurface in the end as a pro wrestling star who gives erudite lectures on the rhetoric of wrestling–is likely one that only friends, family, and Royal Trux fans could love. “I think that keeping it straight might be a little antithetical to the intention of the writer,” says Murphy. He dutifully compares it to Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence and the novels of Philip K. Dick, but admits that “I have not fully penetrated the book in the six-plus years since we put it out.”
Anticipating modest sales, Drag City limited its financial investment in Victory Chimp by taking on nearly every aspect of its creation in-house. Koretzky copyedited and proofed the manuscript, while Osborn, a graphic designer who works on most of the label’s album covers, puzzled out the details of layout and production. “At first you think, oh, a book just has these few simple things,” he says. “Then you realize as time goes on that there are a billion questions you have to answer.” Osborn educated himself by studying texts such as Richard Hendel’s On Book Design and Jan Tschichold’s The Form of the Book; he also relied on The Chicago Manual of Style and sought advice from his occasional freelance client, World Book, Inc.
Working with Murphy, Koretzky also took on the formidable task of marketing, selling, and distributing the book. For the first six months all of Victory Chimp’s sales were made through music distributors (including Carrot Top) or directly to record stores. But over time they started selling through independent and alternative book distributors such as Last Gasp, wholesalers Baker & Taylor, and bookstores like Quimby’s, Powell’s, and St. Mark’s. Today sales through traditional book channels account for 70 percent of all Drag City book sales.
Asked whether he would consider another book with sales potential as clearly limited as Victory Chimp’s, Osborn responds, “Sure. I don’t think we’d ever not do something we thought was interesting simply because it wouldn’t make a profit. But you don’t want to do ten things in a row that aren’t going to appeal to a wider audience–you’ve got to balance it out. Ultimately, it’s a gut feeling whether we want to do it, whether it interests us.” In 2001, Drag City experimented with yet another medium–and confirmed its support of Hagerty and Royal Trux’s oddball visions–by publishing The Adventures of Royal Trux, a graphic novel in which Victory Chimp makes an appearance.
Though Drag City eventually sold through Victory Chimp’s run of 1,000 copies, Osborn says the company took too long to create the book, probably used the wrong type of paper and printed too many copies, and knew too little about book distribution. Despite these shortcomings, the label’s established infrastructure gave them some advantages not enjoyed by most novice publishers.
“Putting out the first book was much easier than putting out the first record,” Osborn says. “We’re able to bring all the knowledge of selling a product in the marketplace to bear on the books. All the structure within the label for packing stuff up, shipping it out–all that stuff pretty much transfers over.” The company still hasn’t hired any new staff to accommodate the publishing side of the business. Instead, book-related tasks have been integrated with staffers’ responsibilities on the record-making end–Seth Bohn, for example, who handles foreign licensing and production, works with Osborn and fills the managing editor role, negotiating with printers and vendors and ensuring that deadlines are met. Melissa Severin now does double duty on tour support and promotion and on book publicity.
After Victory Chimp it became clear that if Drag City wanted to gain wider distribution the imprint would need a bigger catalog. “When you only have one book it’s like only having one record,” says Osborn. “Either people don’t want it or they’re looking forward to screwing you over. You’ve got to have some leverage.” Now they have six titles, with more on the way. Typically they’ll be approached by a member of the extended Drag City “family” who’s working on something or has a friend or acquaintance who is, and soon a new book will be in motion. Osborn says he has no interest in soliciting manuscripts or proposals more formally: “For some reason I think that would result in a lot of really bad manuscripts that we’d have to pore through. Listening to demos can be painful, but reading books–man, I really feel sorry for people in big publishing houses.”
Drag City’s books are as hard to categorize as its bands. 2002’s Warm Voices Rearranged: Anagram Record Reviews, by Gregg Turkington (the creator of Neil Hamburger, “America’s Funnyman”) and Brandan Kearney (who’s worked with a number of bands including Thinking Fellers Union Local 282), carries the unlikely label “Music/Humor/Occult.” It’s a slim compendium of the names of rock and pop artists and albums rearranged into generally negative, raunchy, and mean-spirited but surprisingly funny anagrams. Targets range from rock’s sacred cows (“Neil Young’s Harvest = Another guy snivels” and “George Harrison Dark Horse = Horrid ogre goes Hare Krsna”) to indie heroes (“Yo La Tengo And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out = The truth? No good. Go find tune! An inane din. Yet it sells”).
An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn (2000), by guitarist Alan Licht, is an entertaining if at times overly nostalgic pastiche of cultural criticism, personal essay, and song-by-song reviews. Licht muses about the “good bad” music of the 80s, the New York rock scene over the past three decades, the “Clintonization of rock” in the 90s, and the current state of the punk-rock dream. Whether irreverence or naivete is behind a title whose allusion (“to a book by Fielding Dawson called An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline”) has to be explained by the author in the introduction, it does suggest an attempt to translate Drag City’s trademark irony from the music realm to the book trade, where issues of marketing and packaging are quite different. Indie records can trade on a brand, be it the band or the label. But nonfiction books tend to be selected based on subject matter, and clearly presenting that subject is crucial to attracting the casual browser–an overly obscure title or impenetrable cover can discourage sales. Osborn counters that the label strives to achieve a balance between marketability and the artist’s vision: “We allow our artists a lot of latitude,” he says. “Maybe that’s not the smartest thing to do from a profitability standpoint, and we’ll only go to a certain point–if we’re going to lose money then we’ll say no–but with that book I’d rather someone look at it and say, ‘That encapsulates Alan.'”
Drag City’s recent publications show signs of increasing savvy. The imprint’s limited-edition hardcover rerelease this fall of Actual Air, the first book of poetry from Silver Jews front man David Berman, was poised to hit at a good time: Berman, who’s been called the “reigning poet laureate of indie rock,” is currently contributing a poem to each issue of The Believer, the much-hyped new magazine from the McSweeney’s crowd. The original edition, published in paperback by Open City Books in 1999, got rave reviews in the New Yorker, Publisher’s Weekly, Spin, and GQ and was praised by U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, so Actual Air could sell briskly the second time around–particularly to libraries, whose purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by reviews and who favor durable hardcover bindings. And the Silver Jews, one of Drag City’s best-selling bands, have a cult following enraptured of Berman and his lyrics; the label is working to spread word of the book among this core base of music fans.
John Fahey’s Vampire Vultures, a posthumous collection of the groundbreaking guitarist’s writings, also came out this fall. It’s the follow-up to 2000’s How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, by far the standout on the Drag City list with more than 10,000 copies sold–an enviable number for any full-fledged independent publisher. Carrot Top was very successful with Bluegrass and is seeing strong starting sales of Vultures, says Souris. “Of course, that’s John Fahey. I could sell his fingernail clippings.”
Just as Fahey’s music crossed boundaries, both books mix fact, fiction, memoir, fantasy, music history, and philosophy, and they illustrate Fahey’s rebellion against the 60s nostalgia and political correctness of cloying academic “folklorists.” Bluegrass is the funnier and warmer of the two, with more material about Fahey’s musical influences, objections, and experiences. Vampire Vultures reveals a mind racing with unpleasant memories, childhood demons, and unfinished business.
Collected near the time of his death, while Fahey was living in a remote Oregon motel room scattered with–as editor Ayal Senior notes in the introduction–“all the things you would generally expect to find in the room of a reclusive genius living out his last weird days,” the writings range from short unfinished sketches to unsent letters to mythical tales about cat people and battles between good and evil. Constantly drifting in and out of fantasy, sometimes quite obviously and sometimes not, the book can leave readers oddly off balance, unsure whether or when Fahey is messing with them. (Those familiar with his penchant for perpetrating elaborate deceptions through his album’s liner notes will be more on their guard. In one now infamous hoax, Fahey invented a fictitious bluesman, Blind Joe Death, and credited him on the 1959 release The Legend of Blind Joe Death, apparently just to enjoy the thought of phony intellectuals reveling in their “discovery” of this obscure, unappreciated “Negro bluesman.”)
If Vampire Vultures enjoys the same success as Bluegrass, Drag City may well find itself more firmly established on the book-industry radar. The label is also making inroads into the zine world: The Galactic Zoo Dossier, a hand-lettered and -illustrated “work of fandom” that pays tribute to psychedelic bands, appears semiregularly. The Minus Times, a series of “literary almanacs,” includes short fiction, poems, facetious news items, recipes, and suggested mix-tape sequences by writers such as Sam Lipsyte, Robert Bingham, Dave Eggers, Hudson Bell, and Mark Richard, as well as David Berman’s writings and drawings. Due out in January is a new book, The Galactic Zoo Compendium, which collects the fanzine’s first four issues and includes a CD. From there, says Murphy, “We’re taking it very spontaneously.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.