Luna Kafé e-zine  Luna Kafé record review
coverpic flag US - Maryland - Full Moon 85 - 09/10/03

Monitor Records
Brian and Jason - monitoring the full story

Monitor Records is without a doubt Baltimore's (a.k.a. Charm City) finest indie-label. Since it's birth the label has forked out some fine dose of great records by artists like Oxes, Cass McCombs, Jeff Mueller (June of '44, Rodan and Shipping News), Per Mission, Bellini, INK and the great "Drummer Compilation" that included drummers from bands like Don Caballero, U.S. Maple, Oxes, Blonde Redhead, Fugazi and Modest Mouse just to name a few.

Monitor has also recently signed three new names to their growing rooster; EZT, Battles (Ian Williams of Don Caballero and John Stanier of Helmet and Tomahawk).

coverpic Two great men own and run Monitor Records, they are Brian DeRan (a.k.a. Babyleg - right) and Jason Foster (left). They were so kind to answer these questions, oh yeah!

LK: Could you tell us about how you got involved with music and why you started Monitor Records?
Brian: "I have always played music and really got involved after I toured with the band June of 44 for a few years. I had helped some friends get some songs from bands for a compilation series they were working on - and then decided to start my own label. I knew the responsibilities were going to be quite great so I needed to have a partner- checks and balances, so to speak. Fortunately I ran into Jason Foster while I was working on a small film. He became a fast friend, and he was excited by the idea of beginning a label. We now operate as a unit, with equal input to everything that happens here at Monitor. How I started Monitor another story - but I am forever indebted to the great Jacob Swann."
Jason: "I have always been involved in music one way or another throughout my life. When I was young I was doused in the Beatles and Motown. My Mom is a huge Lennon fan, and my Dad a big Motown junkie. As I grew up I came into classic rock and heavy metal. From here I think there were two key moments that led me to the world of "indie rock" and Monitor."

"The first would be the introduction of Nirvana. In the country fields where I grew up, there was no punk rock, no riot grrrrls. Hearing this band for the first time blew my mind, and I instantly became salacious for more music in this vein. This was the beginning of the journey."
"Many years later I became friends with Brian (my label partner) on a film and he introduced me to many more indie bands such as Slint, Modest Mouse, June of 44, and Polvo. This was the point of no return."
"A year after meeting Brian he told me he was going to start a record label, and I jumped at the idea. We created Monitor, a 50/50 operation. It was built on our love for music and our need to be around it all the time."

LK: How does Monitor Records operate?
Jason: "Monitor operates much like some of the great-established indie labels such as Touch and Go, UP, Kill Rock Stars, and Drag City. We only sign bands we enjoy and split profits 50/50 with the bands. We strive for a family atmosphere with the label, one that will nurture and help bands grow and expand their exposure."
Brian: "We operate according to each individual bands needs. The profit split is always the same as are most of the monetary arrangements...but we really try to work with the bands as much as possible, we consider all bands friends before commodities and I won't work with a band who has the wrong motives."

LK: Many indie-labels have their specific policies when it comes to "signing" bands, f.e. Touch and Go and Kill Rock Stars have only "signed" one band (Killdozer)/artist (Jeff Hanson) after hearing their demo and labels like Dischord and Peek a Boo only "sign" local-bands. What are your policies?
Jason: "Monitor does not have a strict regiment or rules when signing bands. Our main focus is the music. If we really dig the music then we move on from there. Other factors include if the band is going to tour, if they are willing to grow with Monitor, and as people, if we can work with the band."
"We have never really gone after a band after hearing a demo. Most of the times we see a band live or we are introduced through a mutual friend. I think making rules and regulations as to how we can sign bands would only stagnate our growth as a label and constrain our ability to feel free and creative."
Brian: "If you aren't going to tour, if you are doing nothing original, and don't appreciate frank and honest opinions- then keep your music in your bedroom- that's my policy I am talking to a band now that we heard first through their demo."

LK: Does Monitor Records' catalogue reflect your music-tastes?
Jason: "Yes. Monitor Records' priority is that we are putting out music that we enjoy and are fully behind. We don't put out records we think will sell or that other people will like. We put out records that we feel are intelligent and important and that we feel people need to hear."

LK: Are there any records that you've listened to and you've said to yourself: "Geeee... this record is really amazing, I wish that it would have been on Monitor!" (You know - that daydream thing?)
Brian: "If I could have a dream Monitor roster it would include: Thin Lizzy, Leonard Cohen, Lou Rawls and Joe young (Actually 90% of the bands on STAX)... As far as contemporary music goes - I am completely happy with whom I am (and plan to be) working with."
Jason: "If we are talking of from the beginning of recorded music, obviously yes. Anything by Leadbelly, Gang of Four, Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, Joy Division, Peter Gabriel era Genesis, or Amon Duul. But, I think you are talking more contemporary terms, like records that could have possibly been on Monitor. I really like the Shins first record. This record is very precious to me. I am very fond of the KARP records that were released by K. I don't know how they weren't as big as their music. I would of really liked to put out a Dead Meadow record, who are way on top of their game. I also wish we could put out the dance grooves of!!!!"

LK: When surfing on your website Monitor Records seems to have a good sense of humour, do you agree and why? Does it matter a lot to you to have a good sense of humour?
Jason: "I think humor is something that is very important to us at Monitor. We don't want to come off as goof balls, but we want to make our web site entertaining, and we ourselves as a label, want to show that we aren't stiff. When I first entered the foray of indie rock everyone was so serious. I understand the sincerity of music and it's sometimes deep meaning, but the straight faces-folded arms thing was a turn off. Even the greatest, most serious artists had a sense of humour: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Leadbelly."
"The music we put out is serious. It is sincere. But as people, the Monitor family laughs and enjoys one another. We have intense times like everyone else, but we are happy when we are laughing and enjoying one another's presence. It gives us that warm fuzzy feeling inside. We only hope this would transcend to those who buy our records and enjoy our bands, and feel they too can be part of this family."

LK: What do you think of the Internet?
Brian: "That is a very loaded question. Many more people are able to hear the music of bands that they may never have heard of any other way (for example I was able to listen to some African Dozo music through the internet- which made me buy the record) - but as a label owner (and for bands) the less records bought mean lower sales - means less support - means bands can't survive."
"Ultimately, people who listen to music through their computers, and put whole albums on the web to be downloaded and not support bands they love, have some serious issues."
Jason: "I think the Internet is a powerful force that can either yield positive or negative results. For Monitor, being able to get information out there to people is a plus. We focus a lot on our website, advertising on the Internet, and e-mailing folks about Monitor and it's bands."
"Sometimes I feel that this can also be a negative concept. When I was thirteen or fourteen and I was listening to Led Zeppelin, I didn't have any pictures of them. I didn't have any websites. I just had these epic songs and words and it was so magical. There was so much mystery, so much left to my creativity. Back then Led Zeppelin was a magical beast to my young ears and mind."
"But, with the age of the Internet and "information super highway" we are able to learn too much about bands and lose that mystical idea and naivety."

LK: What about Kaaza, Audio Galaxy and other similar websites/databases? Do you think they're helping or destroying music-sale? ...and do you think it concerns major labels more than indie labels or vice versa?
Jason: "I have had many discussions among friends for and against file sharing. I think there are two types of people that download music. The first are the kinds that are destroying music, and they don't care. These are the people that only download music and do not purchase music. They are the ones with the mentality of "bands are rich anyway" and "record labels rip everyone off." They have no sense of musical community and the concept of supporting bands and the labels that release quality music."
"Then there is the other side of the coin. There are people that will actually purchase music after hearing songs that they downloaded. They will spread the word about music they have heard and support the independent music community. Unfortunately, I think this group is in the minority."
"I think there are many things that have decreased the sales of music besides the Internet. This massive recession we are in is one main reason. Another is how badly the major labels have destroyed the honesty and integrity of music. With the bottom line being the dollar, major labels have released crap record after crap record causing consumers to become corrupted and turned off."
"Personally I don't mind downloading songs as a tool to make the right musical purchase. But when you download a whole album, again, I think the concept and beauty of a band's album is lost. An album should be heard in its entirety, and it should be enclosed in its intended artwork. This is how music was meant to be heard."

LK: Do you or have you played with any bands yourself?
Jason: "I have played guitar for about ten years now, but I have yet to join a band or perform live. I don't know if I have the courage to create songs and play them in front of people. I don't know if that has to be the lack of confidence or the incredible level of musicianship that I am surrounded by, but hopefully one day I'll have the courage to perform somehow. I think it is in my blood."

LK: What are the best/worst things about running the label?
Brian: "Having a blast doing what I love, meeting great people, hearing and seeing enthusiasm in fans of bands on Monitor...there are a million of them."
Jason: "Running a label is like this huge seesaw. One day is up, the next it is down. Like anything in life, running a label does have it's good times and bad times. I'll start with the hardest. Building the label is the most difficult. Monitor is very grass roots, and we do everything in house. This makes for a slow growth through distribution, working with the press, putting together tours, and creating a fan base for our records. We are working hard and constantly growing in this department and doing better as time passes."
"Money is also a difficult issue to tackle. There is no trust fund or million dollar backing just hard working blue-collar-dollars at work. We fold everything we make back into Monitor hoping one day it will sustain itself and it's owners. Money, money, money! Maybe it couldn't buy us love, but it could by us some stress free days."
"Believe or not there are also some amazing dick heads in the rock'n'roll circuit. Dealing with people with attitudes and enlarged egos is always a bummer."
"The last thing is the lack of free time. There truly isn't much free time to do other things. I have been trying to finish this Modest Mouse tour film for about 2 years now and I am having difficulty finding the time!"
Brian: "So far the worst thing I have had to deal with is saying no."
Jason: "But, the good things do outweigh the bad. We woudn't be doing Monitor otherwise, right? I would think the best thing about doing Monitor is meeting the most amazing people, be it artists, bands, label owners, press folks, distributors, or fans. I have met and become great friends with many people across the globe, and it is a beautiful thing."
"We get to travel quite a bit too, whether it is touring with a band, visiting a festival, or going to some sort of conference. The travelling always leads to good times and the good people I mentioned above. Another exciting event is watching our bands grow and develop. It is like raising kids and seeing them off to do amazing things. It is truly precious."

LK: Do you feel lucky about running a label like Monitor?
Jason: "Lucky? Yes, even after all of the bullshit we sometimes have to shovel, I think running this label with Brian has only been a positive experience in my life. Meeting people, travelling, hearing fantastic music, and partying like rock stars have been truly amazing experiences I never dreamt of when I was fifteen. I thought I was going to be a psychologist or lawyer or something. But here I am trying to forge my own way, building and establishing a record label. Even though the future is uncertain, this is what makes everything so exciting."
Brian: "I feel very lucky running this label. The simple fact that we're doing this interview, gives me great joy knowing that others are listening to great music that I am a part of."

LK: Is it anything that you regret doing, something you would have done in other way? (I'm talking about the label.)
Brian: "Yes - but those are the experiences you grow and learn from- mistakes are exactly that - accidents. I hade no idea I was making a "mistake " at the time - now I don't do those things any more and I don't dwell on what "could " have been."
Jason: "Oh man. Soooooo many things. When we started this label we really didn't know anything. We started from step one. We spent a lot of money in ways we didn't know better, and released records in an untimely manner at some points. I feel positive that you learn more out of your mistakes. Thinking this I feel that we have become very wise and more efficient from the beginning days of Monitor. We still make mistakes, but they are only beneficial in the long run."

LK: Could you give people/bands who want to start their own label any advices?
Jason: "Do it for the right reasons. Don't start a label with the idea that you are going to be making tons of money. Don't do a label solely for money. There are already major labels that do that. Release records that you feel are important and that people need to hear."
"Running a label is like an expensive hobby. If you are not passionate about it, don't start a label. Music is spiritual. If you set your course to being sincere, putting out honest music, the nature of things will take its course and things will begin to work out."
Brian: "Well, I feel under qualified to offer advice but...I would say it great to keep yourself surrounded by good people, people you trust and respect and vice versa - and if you are going to get started on something - don't half step."

LK: What are you listening to these days (at home, in your car and at work)?
Jason: "Many, many things. On heavy rotation are the new Cat Power album, everything by Dead Meadow, Lungfish, and old blues like Leadbelly and Skip James. I am always keen to classic rock and have been heavily into Thin Lizzy, David Bowie and Tom Petty. I have also been listening to some hip-hop via Ol' Dirty Bastard and a Baltimore lad named Height."
Brian: "As I write this- Merle Haggard. At my house - in the cd player right now is - Neil Young - After the Gold Rush, Ornette Coleman - This is Our Music, Red - Felk, For Carnation - s/t and Ethiopiques - 9."

LK: Do you know if there's "Free Love in Amsterdam"?
Brian: "I am not sure, but if there is... It might be free now, but sure as shit you're going to pay later."
Jason: "I was in Amsterdam once, and I was really poor. I was eating cold spaghetti out of a tin can and getting liquids out of water fountains. If there was anything free in Amsterdam I am sure I would of known. Truly, and economically, I don't believe that anything is free, so I believe not."

LK: Would you like to add something?
Brian: "I would like to add Iceland to the United States as the 51st state and give it big hugs all the time."
Jason: "Commemorative Monitor drinking glasses, plates, action figures, and soccer balls coming soon! Seriously, I would just like to thank everyone who has in some way aided Monitor in it's growth and good opportunities; such as folks who went to shows, bought records, working with Will and Palace Records, Modest Mouse taking me on tour, the bands on Monitor, and anyone else who has somehow helped maintain Monitor's road to prosperity. Cheers."

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