A little bar mitzvah money, some savings, the desire to meet new people and engage in the music community. That’s all it took for seniors Ari Stern, Evan Brody, Mike Mimoun and Sawyer Carter Jacobs to found a burgeoning young record label, Underwater Peoples.
For a project that began with the simple goal of creating a Web site, Underwater Peoples has had incredible success. Their first release, a record by the band Real Estate, garnered immediate attention from the tastemakers of music: Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, My Old Kentucky Home and the coveted position of Band to Watch by Stereogum, an honor the band shares with the likes of Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend.
“Building friendships, that’s what it comes down to,” said Stern. Underwater Peoples’ four founders work primarily with their network of friends to discover new bands from Washington state to New Jersey. Their personal tastes range from doo wop to ye-ye, David Bowie to Ponytail, but as they write on the label’s MySpace page, the focus of the label is individuality and exceptionality.
The label now features 12 bands. “I don’t feel like I’m listening to my friends’ music,” Stern said. “I feel like I’m listening to something that everyone else should be listening to.”
Jacobs spoke to the label’s representation of suburbia.
“There’s something to be said that it all comes from the suburbs,” Jacobs said. “The suburbs get a bad rap. You hear about the ticky-tacky houses and that there’s this whole black hole of culture where everybody looks the same, lives the same and it’s all about safety and containment and 1950s-era life. But this music is so organic and there’s so much emotion and there’s so much nuance. The more you listen to it, the more you kind of fall in love with the identity. It goes far to prove that there’s a strong artistic relevance to the kids that came out of there, and people really identify with it.”
This sense of connection is an ethos the founders have extended through their work, using MySpace, Twitter, Facebook – even GChat – to involve their audience.
“In the past, the individual could only connect to the artist,” Jacobs said. “This provides the means for the artist to connect with the individual.”
He continued, “The PR aspect is pretty grueling and it would be impossible if it was for something that we didn’t love. That sounds like a cheesy thing to say, but if you have any experience in trying to push something, it’s hard. Like I couldn’t sell Cutco knives. I’d kill myself. It’s nice to sell something that you believe in and really love.”
As with most successes, there were some challenges. Running a record label meant dealing with intellectual property rights and facing long hours just getting the Web site to operate. One particular frustration occurred while designing the free CDs they offered with the release of Real Estate’s Suburban Beverage 7″. For each of the 500 discs, they used a laser-inscribing device to imprint a design, which took 50 minutes per disc. Later, they got phone calls informing them the CDs didn’t work.
This year, they will be graduating, but their physical separation won’t be the end of Underwater Peoples. As Stern said, “We’re just going to keep doing it, and be successful and containable and pump out good stuff.”
This article appeared in the April 23, 2009 issue of the Hatchet.