Number One Fan
For seven years, Skybucket Records has successfully promoted Birmingham’s music scene on a national level.
When Travis Morgan and a friend started Birmingham’s Skybucket Records in 2002, he was not particularly obsessed with creating a record label. “I don’t know if it was ever really a dream [to own a record company]. It was something that we kind of felt we needed to do in order to put out a CD, or to put a name on it,” Morgan explains. “I started Skybucket in 2002 with a guy named Justin Lee (who as since moved on). We were college friends and were both into the local music scene and decided we wanted to put out a compilation CD of local bands. We planned to release it with a literary magazine a couple of Birmingham people were putting together. But they never put out their first issue. We had a compilation sitting there and decided to create a label to put the recording out. And that came out in January of 2003, and we made 800 or so by hand.” Here’s to Last Summer is the name of Skybucket’s first release. It was originally available for $2. The second release was Taylor [Hollingsworth] and the Puffs’ You Know that Summer’s Coming. “We did several hundred of those, handmade, as well,” Morgan recalls. “We kind of upped the ante on that and sold it for $3.”
Though a musician, Morgan was more the avid listener than the player. “I’ve always been interested in music but I was always more of a fan than a performer or a recording musician,” he confesses. “I’ve been listening to so much music over the years, that I guess I have a critical ear.” Morgan’s discerning ear has led to his work with local and regional bands such as The Dexateens, 13ghosts, Through the Sparks, Dan Sartain, and Vulture Whale—as well as Seattle’s Barton Carroll. His instincts have been reinforced by numerous positive reviews that Skybucket releases have received in national music magazines and blogs.
“In the beginning, we would sit there for hours and hand-make packages,” Morgan says of the label’s early days, when their releases were burned onto CD-Rs. “From the fourth release, pretty much everything we’ve released has been a pressed CD or vinyl. When you get into manufacturing a project, it costs a whole lot more. After record number six or seven, I started looking for financing and found the occasional investment dollars that have helped me keep the label alive. But after each and every record, I feel like, ‘is this the last one I’m going to be able to put out?’”
Les Nuby, former drummer for one-time Birmingham cult favorites Verbena, formed Vulture Whale with Wes McDonald, who has released three CDs under his own name on Skybucket. Nuby splits time between Birmingham and Los Angeles, where he makes a living doing session work. “I’ve known Travis since he was an infant.” Nuby says, “and if I had known back then that I’d be answering to him on anything to do with music, I think I would have been a lot cooler to him when we were kids.”
Verbena recorded for Capitol Records, and Nuby appreciates the freedom that comes with an independent label like Skybucket, as opposed to a major. “On an independent label you can get somebody on the phone. I’m not going to say it wasn’t fun to be on a major label, because you have more money to work with. But you also have way more money to pay back. Artistically, being on an indie label is so much better because, while you can have 100 percent creative control on a major label, it’s only 100 percent creative control if they agree with your choices. . . . Major labels are like a big promise that’s never kept. I’m sure that some bands that are huge would totally disagree. But you have to fight tooth and nail to do anything with a major label.”
Nuby is not surprised that Morgan now runs his own record company. “It makes sense because he’s kinda been a musicologist ever since I’ve known him as an adult,” he says. “And he’s got a really great ethic, because he has to like the music. His number one rule is that he has to enjoy the music that he puts out. He didn’t release the first Vulture Whale album because he was like, ‘Man, I think it’s a cool album but it’s just not what I need to release right now.’ And it’s a tough pill to swallow because he’s a buddy. . . . But you’ve gotta respect the guy. He works harder than anybody at a major label that I’ve ever met.”
Regarding butting heads with his bands over artistic differences, Travis Morgan is pragmatic: “We don’t necessarily have huge arguments or anything like that. We know each other well enough, pretty much, to where we can say, ‘Hey, I think it would be better done this way.’ So, I actually have a pretty hands-on approach with most of them, and offer my two cents and say, ‘This is how I feel about it.’ Then we end up making compromises . . . Because in the end, I’m the one that has to sell it, basically, to everyone else.”
One of the most frustrating experiences for Skybucket involved 13ghosts and the Bob Marley estate. Four years ago, 13ghosts covered Marley’s “Three Little Birds” on their CD Cicada. “We were trying to kind of be on the up-and-up with the record [by contacting the Marley representatives for permission] . . . and they sent us a ‘cease and desist’ letter,” explains 13ghosts cofounder Brad Armstrong. “We were kind of trying to use the tune in an uplifting way. . . . We thought [our version] was pretty respectful. But our lawyer said we couldn’t release it because the band added lyrics to the song. [Changing someone else's song requires getting the original artist's approval.] His advice was to ask permission.”
Armstrong doubted that any problems would arise. “‘We’re a little, tiny indie band. What’s the worst case scenario?’ I asked our lawyer. And he said, ‘Well, they can take your house.’ And I said, ‘Well, in what crazy parallel universe is that going to actually happen?’ And he said, ‘I can’t tell you it’s not going to happen.’ So he contacted [Marley's] people, and the next thing we heard was their lawyers telling us to pull all the records [from stores]. And, of course, this was after the fact. It was already pressed and distributed nationally and Skybucket had to recall it. It was a real big-to-do. . . . It was killed through our own naïve inexperience or whatever. If I were in the same situation now, I’d just put the song out and not worry about it, you know?”
Travis Morgan is not eager to repeat the experience. “Having to pull the album from the stores is expensive and takes a long time. It was definitely an eye-opening experience. It’s one of those things where, for a second, you go, ‘Why didn’t the artist tell me that it wasn’t a straight-up cover?’ But then you realize that they didn’t know that, either,” Morgan says.
Morgan has been pleased with the response to Skybucket’s efforts. “Most indie bands that are doing really well, if you’re selling 10,000 copies then you’re doing good. We’re not there yet. But I think we’re putting out quality music, and for a label to put out 25 records in five years is a pretty good milestone,” he offers. Skybucket’s top seller is The Dexateens’ 2007 album Hardwire Healing. “My underlying goal is to get these bands a lot of exposure. I honestly believe, with all the music that I listen to, that there’s enough good music coming out of this town to consider it a good music city.” &
Have Gasoline, Will Travel
Birmingham heads to SXSW.
Skybucket Records chief Travis Morgan and Jeff Tenner, owner of Soca clothing store in Homewood, are promoting an unofficial showcase of Birmingham bands at the 2009 South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
For the uninitiated, music conferences such as SXSW are something of a rite of passage for bands seeking greater exposure for their work. At SXSW, the streets are literally filled with thousands of music publicists, writers, college radio programmers, and, of course, representatives from record labels and publishing companies. A couple of shows at SXSW can allow a band to make valuable connections.
“It’s nice to be around a lot of like-minded people, people that aren’t making any money but doing it because they love it,” Morgan says, noting how much he enjoys what has become one of the largest industry music festivals in the world. This year will mark Tenner’s maiden voyage to SXSW. “The goal at SXSW is to play as much as you can,” explains Tenner, who also manages the Kate Taylor Band, which will perform at the Birmingham showcase in Austin. “Many of the bands also have official showcases at the festival. So this is just another opportunity for them to play in case whomever they need to come see them at the official show can’t attend. And then there are some bands like Vulture Whale, who for some bizarre reason, didn’t get accepted [into the official SXSW lineup] even though SPIN reviewed their record and said it was great.”
Birmingham’s Taylor Hollingsworth has performed with his band at SXSW twice in the past three years. This year, however, he’ll be doing solo acoustic shows. “I want to sound as positive as I can,” Hollingsworth laughs. “This year I wasn’t planning on going but my girlfriend [Kate Taylor] is playing, and I’ll be playing with her. You can definitely accomplish things and get things done [at SXSW] as a band. It’s nice having pretty much the entire music industry in one city, so you can invite people and they can see you if they haven’t been able to before.”
The Austin showcase will take place Saturday, March 21, at the Creekside Lounge, from noon until 6 p.m. To help fund the Austin trip, a fundraising concert titled “Gas Money: Birmingham Goes to SXSW” will be held on March 12 at WorkPlay. The lineup for the Workplay show includes Indian Red (featuring Preston Lovinggood of Wild Sweet Orange and Jody Nelson of Through the Sparks), 13ghosts, the Grenadines, Through the Sparks, and Vulture Whale. For more info, visit www.skybucket.com or www.workplay.com. &