Interview: Dave Adelson, 20 Buck Spin
Dave Adelson is the man behind one of doom metal's most gracious labels, 20 Buck Spin. It was born in 2005 with SPIN001, the re-released Supereclipse by Black Boned Angel. From day one, Adelson's life became the label that began as a mixtape of his favorite bands. Adelson bonds comfortably with acts like The Obsessed, Grey Daturas, Coffins, and Graves At Sea, lowering the divide between business partners and close friends. What arose as a love for extreme music now flourishes as a small yet thriving label that continuously gives back to the metal community. With the label's advancing success and his recent purchase of the Olympia, WA record store Phantom City Records, Adelson has been able to pay the bills by doing what he does best: being a true metalhead. We talked with Adelson via email to cap off 20 Buck Spin week.
What are your criteria when selecting bands for 20 Buck Spin?
The only real criteria there's ever been is music that's heavy and/or dark. It also has to be something that I want to listen to repeatedly. Lately there has been stuff I want to release that I don't feel is necessarily appropriate for 20 Buck Spin, and for that reason I'm "spinning" off another label soon. 20 Buck Spin will remain a diverse label that will always have its foundation in metal, even if some of the releases seem to deviate from that label to some extent. 20 Buck Spin is my personal mixtape for whoever cares to listen.
Explain the risks for those interested in starting their own record label.
Well, I suppose the risk you take is losing a lot of money and embarrassing yourself by supporting music that sucks. One kind of leads to the other. Figure out ahead of time what you really want to achieve. Are you doing it to help out friends? Then maybe making money isn't so important. I want to make enough money to keep putting out more records and pay the label's bills. If you can do that, you're running a successful label in my mind. My goal is just to put out good music in a quality looking package.
What is the Business 101 on making connections with bands like Coffins? What causes a band to spark the thought that they'd do justice for your label?
If you think a band is killer and want to do something with them, literally just ask them. That's how I hooked up with Coffins. My friend Mauz gave me their first album, I thought it ruled and I just emailed [Coffins frontman/guitarist] Uchino about maybe doing something and he was into it. I suppose depending on the band it may matter how "established" your label is and what bands you've worked with previously. I worship Darkthrone and Throbbing Gristle, but it's not likely either would consider doing a record on 20 Buck Spin if I asked them.
As for what makes bands think they got the goods to be on 20 Buck Spin, I'm sure they just look at the roster and previous releases, and based on that determine whether or not their band might be to my liking. Actually, sometimes I don't know if bands really pay attention to that, either. I need to put up some kind of disclaimer, I think. I get hit up by a lot of shitty solo projects that have a demo after three months of existence that they deem worthy of me releasing. Probably not gonna happen, lads. If a band thinks I might like them because they play in a similar style to The Endless Blockade, for example, then it follows that they should be as good or better then the Blockade are because I'm already working with them and I don't need two. I already got the best.
What's the prized lesson you've learned by running 20 Buck Spin?
Maybe not something I've learned, but something I always believed that has been reaffirmed doing the label is that in the music biz the best way to have lasting relationships with bands, or anyone else involved for that matter, is to treat them honestly and treat them as friends. A band/label relationship needs to be looked at as an equal partnership in my mind, and I don't want to work with bands who don't understand that. The label is not "bigger" or more important than the band, and vice versa. We need each other to achieve the goals we're working towards.
Why is maintaining a small-label mentality so important for 20 Buck Spin?
I've thought a lot about whether I want the label to become some kind of bigger entity like the major metal labels, and I just don't know. I'm pretty happy with the way things are right now. It seems like with the bigger labels, only a very small fraction of the ten albums they release every month are any good. A lot of it is downright embarrassing. Maybe I'm just a snob, but smaller labels always seem to be doing a better job with more sincerity, more fairness to the bands, and finding cool new bands. Having a bunch of employees just seems like a hassle, too. I'm kind of a control freak about the label. The best labels around, like Tank Crimes, Nuclear War Now, Life Is Abuse, and Prank are all one- or two-man ops.
What monetary hurdles do you face with the label?
Man, in my personal life I'm just a working class dad livin' paycheck to paycheck, and the label pretty much works the same way, if that makes any sense. As soon as cash comes in, it goes back out for something else. If I can snag a few bucks to help pay the rent or my phone bill, it's been a good month. Also, if there ever is a surplus of dough, that just means I can release one more record this year than I thought I could (since I'm always committed to more than I can actually afford). In other words, just like life, it's a constant struggle. But I'd much rather live this way doin' something I love and scraping by than live comfortably by slaving away in a cubicle doing meaningless shit for The Man.
With Black Boned Angel's reissue Supereclipse in 2005, 20 Buck Spin rose up from the ground. What motivated you to give light to this release along with your own record label?
At that time, that album was kind of the embodiment of a lot of different shit I liked about music. It was utterly heavy but on the experimental side, for sure. I knew if I did a label I wanted to represent both facets, and Supereclipse, being only released as a really limited CD-R, was just asking for a wider release. So, like I said before about contacting people, I just emailed Campbell [Kneale, mastermind behind Black Boned Angel and Birchville Cat Motel] outta the blue, and he was into it. It helped that the bonus track he gave me was about 15 minutes long and the most crushing of the three.
I'd been working at Alternative Tentacles at that time for about six months and felt that a lot of connections I had made and knowledge I had gained through that job would help me get my own label off the ground, and it certainly did help in the early stages. But working for other labels has always had creative restrictions (after all, it's someone else's baby). So 20 Buck
Spin was just my way of taking total control of a label in every way in exactly the way I wanted it to be done. No outside influence.
What are your goals for the label?
My goal has always just been to release records and bands I really like and would want to listen to a lot. And I do listen to all the shit I put out constantly. I am intimately familiar with every album I've released. I really just don't want to contribute to the glut of shit records being released all the time, and I hope that the label is not perceived that way. I'd be horrified if I was adding to the landfill of terrible garbage you generally see advertised in the magazines. Seems like people like the records I've been releasing, but it's hard to know how it's really perceived.
The other goal is just to make enough cash to keep putting out more records without losing my ass over it. I can't really afford to lose money in my life, so if the label ever gets that way, I'll just fold it. But at this point it's paying for itself, so in that regard, goal attained.
For their first US tour ever, Coffins were introduced to America via the Maryland Deathfest, with you as their tour guide. What compelled you to drive them all over the East Coast?
Well, luckily I didn't have to drive them all over. The first leg of the tour they were driven around by The Endless Blockade and their awesome driver Christina. So I gotta give credit where it's due. Andrew Nolan, Blockade bass player and lead academic, plotted the course of the tour and booked the shows (with the exception of Deathfest) and coordinated a lot of that. I met up with the band around Pittsburgh, and from there I was Coffins driver, guide, mouthpiece, and spiritual guru. I did facilitate connecting the two bands, as well as getting the Deathfest to bring 'em over. It was a lot of work to make it all happen, but it was more than worth it for me to see two of my favorite bands play together. And witnessing Coffins at Deathfest, the culmination of a lot of work for a lot of people, and seeing the crowd reaction (I was watching from the side of the stage) made it all worthwhile. Bringing a band all the way from Japan to play and the fact that it all went down OK was for me a definite highlight in the label history so far. I'm working on getting them back over to the West Coast, my homeland, in the spring of '09.
Tour Poster 2008
How has your battle with cancer cultivated the label?
Cancer fucked up my life in ways I can't even begin to explain here. The year it was all going down was the first year of the label, 2005, and that was the main reason I only got two records out that year. My friend Mauz who does Life Is Abuse had to physically assemble and ship out all the Graves At Sea/Asunder LP's for me because I was pretty much bedridden when it came out. Most of 2006 I spent recovering and getting used to my altered way of life, and also there was a lot of other personal upheaval that year, so getting six records out was pretty miraculous. 2007 again was characterized by enough personal problems that I felt like it somewhat affected the label. I felt I could have done better. Now I've moved out of the Bay Area and left behind a lot of bad memories and feel a lot more at ease up here in Cascadia. In a sense, I feel that 2008 might be the first year of 20 Buck Spin operating at full capacity. So I'm hoping I can get through it without any more bullshit going down. If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all.
What was life like before you gave birth to 20 Buck Spin?
Life pre-20 Buck Spin was still a lot of involvement with music. I worked at Necropolis Records in the early part of the century, and in the late 20th century I did a 'zine called Short Wave Warfare. Before that, I did a metal radio show at my high school radio station in Concord, CA. So I've been involved with this shit in one way or another for a long time. For most of that time, since I was 20, I've also had a daughter who is really way more important to me than any of this other stuff.
What's your daughter's response to your involvement in the metal community as well as the music you listen to?
Thus far my daughter has little interest in metal - at 10 years old. I haven't pushed it on her 'cause I feel like when parents try too hard to get their kids into what they're into, the kids just reject it during their teen years. So she hears it, it's around, but she's never expected to like it or participate. Living in Olympia now, it's a good place for a girl to be into music. It's very female-friendly here. I think she'll really like the punk rock house shows that are such a big part of the Olympia music scene. I took her to a few shows at  Gilman Street when I was still living in the East Bay, and she enjoyed the social atmosphere of it. My daughter doesn't live in Oly yet, she's still in the Bay Area, but visits often and will probably move here in the near future. So, whatever she ends up being into is cool with me - kids need to be allowed to develop their own interests, not inherit their parents'. She loves Miley Cyrus right now, but I've managed to get her interested in stuff like Johnny Cash, Lush (she really loves "Ladykillers" and "Single Girl" [from 1996's Lovelife]), and Kimya Dawson. She's a really happy kid, and doesn't understand why metal dudes are always screaming about shit.
What do you wish to see happen with the label in the next five years?
I want it to grow in a way that allows me to work with more established bands I admire and respect, in addition to still trying to find a lot of newer, worthy bands. Dream bands to work with would be Darkthrone, Bohren Und Der Club Of Gore, Philip Jeck, Nurse With Wound, Eyehategod, Jack Rose, Daniel Higgs, Amps For Christ, and Corrupted among many others. I really just want to keep it relevant. It seems like after a certain amount of years, almost every label, with very few exceptions, seems to lose the ability to put out good records (I'm speaking mainly of metal labels here), even if they are bigger now then they were. In fact, it seems like that growth is directly related to the decline in good records. So, I hope I can avoid that pitfall. If it's starting to feel shitty, I really don't think I'll have a problem putting the whole thing to bed.
I just bought a record store in Olympia called Phantom City Records. So in addition to the label, I'll be concentrating on that for a while as well. It's something I always wanted to do. Despite the shitty climate for selling music these days, I feel like I can make it work to the extent that it pays for itself and maybe even pays me a little. Mostly I just want to have fun with it, just like the label.