You rarely, if ever, hear stories of American indie metal and hardcore labels keeping their respective visions alive against the backdrop of a hostile economy and generally disconnected metal scenes. You don't hear about them, because metal labels, especially those in Michigan, usually can't muster up the cash and support to keep the gig afloat. (There is at least one successful local hard rock model, the potent Small Stone Records, that has found some success signing bands not from Michigan.) To hit, you either have to live in a city with a bustling scene in which to hustle or you need someone to hustle for you. Hustle like Mark Coughlin of Saw Her Ghost Records.
SHGR is a little metal label stationed in Birmingham that's gaining momentum — even in this tough economic climate — and could soon rival the storied national indies Relapse and Translation Loss. If you head to the metal section at Record Time, you can find Saw Her Ghost releases between the racks adorned with slick artwork and Japanese-like paper obi strips. They're damned attractive, and the exquisite jewel cases and LPs draw in the eye.
The releases are done with a calculated precision — made for collectors by a true collector. Of course, collectors need something available to collect.
"I love physical music, something tangible, as far as music goes, rather than just MP3s," Coughlin says. "It might be a dying medium but, with the prevalence of digital medium, there's going to be, and there already is, a resurgent interest in old mediums. I might be old-fashioned in that way, but I really don't care."
Coughlin's insistence on eye-popping packaging and signing bands that create a believable fan-earning rumpus has created a fanbase for his label.
His efforts have also allowed him to sign great bands from outside of Michigan, as far away as Phoenix, Arizona, the homeland of Saw Her Ghost staple Hellas Mounds.
More importantly, the label has recently secured a showcase at the 2010 South by Southwest (SXSW) showcase in Austin; a big leap for the little indie, one that could help get the label big distribution, better press and word-of-mouth among metal fans.
Coughlin, who is a Hamtramck native, says his label is a "stepping stone," one where a band can build a sturdy platform from which to leap to bigger things, should the opportunity arise. As was the case with Fargo, North Dakota's Battlefields, a forceful post-rock band that, after spending a few years under Coughlin's banner, stepped into the arms of larger indie Translation Loss.
"I think I'm in the middle between a label that's just starting and a label like [Translation Loss]," he says. "If I could put out a release for a band and move them up, I think it helps everybody. It helps me help them get to a wider audience. They deserve it."
In 2003, Coughlin "launched" his company grassroots-style.
"I basically started the label with, like, 200 bucks," he laughs. That's how much it cost to produce his first release, an EP, Drowning in Despair, by Midland's And The Sky Went Red. "They put their faith in me and they did their best to promote what I was doing and that's how it all started."
The musical aesthetic of the first few releases revolved around metalcore, the thrashing bastard child of '90's hardcore punk and the emerging metal scene in America and Europe. The Sky Went Red were the stalwart proponents of the style; hammering start-stop rhythms that upheld guitar dissonance and a vocalist who sounds as if he was gargling nails. The band exemplified the genre's taste for controlled disorder.
The metalcore releases continued with Kalamazoo's Two Stars Burning Sun who, like And The Sky Went Red, were friends of Coughlin. As he promoted these bands, he was essentially establishing a community. "That's really what I was driving for," he says. "No matter how big I got I wanted to keep a family vibe surrounding it."
Coughlin would scope out friends' bands that were worthy and, consequently, they'd have friends who had good bands as well. Detroit's Signs of Collapse were also plucked from the local pool of talent. The majority of Saw Her Ghost's roster hails from the middle of Michigan, with a few from around the country.
"The whole out-of-state trend started with Battlefields," he says. "They sent me an unsolicited e-mail. I was onboard because the singer of the band, Rusty [Steele], was in a couple of other bands that I had grown up listening to." Steele had fronted Iowa metalcore group Dispensing of False Halos, a band touted by many to be one of the hardest-working crews in the Midwest.
Coughlin was more than elated to get to land Steele and Battlefield: "I was really flattered and honored and blown away."
One band led to another good band, the communication of a community. As Coughlin explains, "The guys from Battlefields are really good friends with Across Tundras and that's how that came about. And then, also, Empires from Minneapolis; they're good friends with Battlefields."
With a growing roster, the bands began to diversify. Empires' music, for example, is a somber and damp instrumental metal, leaning to misanthropic tendencies and the dark corners of human nature; the Nashville, Tennessee crew Across Tundras are more experimental, toying with sun-bleached southwestern American folk (see: Neil Young) within the confines of Black Sabbath's early catalog motifs. Yes, that's Neil Young and Black Sabbath.
Or Los Angeles' National Sunday Law — a kind of Hawkwind meets Japanese psychedelia troupe — whom Coughlin just called up one day after hearing their promo. "They had self-released their first CD and they sent around, maybe, a hundred promos and one of them was to me. And I guess I was the only one who responded," he says, laughing. "With their packaging and their sound, and everything that surrounded them, I almost thought that they were out of my league. They could have taken their stuff to a bigger indie like Relapse or Century Media." But Coughlin contacted the band and they were eager.
The label comes off like a community, like any good indie should, and you hear a bit of familial-like pride in Coughlin's words as he talks of the label and its history.
"No matter how big I got I wanted to keep a family vibe surrounding it," he says. "Even though I'm branching out of Michigan and all the way to the West Coast, I really feel like everyone's on the same page; common goals. Whenever one band is touring in another band's area they always try to mess with the show. It's just a good vibe all around."
And there ought to be some pride. Coughlin has been able to run one of Michigan's slickest, if criminally unknown, metal labels. With a company funded out-of-pocket, it isn't easy to keep afloat, and the label isn't his day job, which he refuses to name, but insists that what he does isn't illegal. He won't give even a rough estimate of actual sales, but he does say he frequently has albums sell to the point that it pays for that album's expenses, four or five times over, which he calls a label success.
"The label doesn't pay my bills," he says. "My original goal for the label was to have it pay for itself, so I wouldn't have to pay anymore out-of-pocket. I've gotten to that point several times. But it's always been a struggle. It's great that I've gotten as much press and as much interest in my label; I couldn't ask for anything more. But it's hard to come across certain bands who want to work with you and turn them down. It is a challenge, especially now with the way the economy is. People just aren't buying as much music, with downloading as prevalent as it is. So, one thing I try to do with the label is make really attractive releases."
Economic woes will see the label trim down in 2010. Three years ago, the roster sported around 13 active bands whereas today there are about eight active acts. The leanness will allow Coughlin to promote those bands with as much efficiency as possible.
"Well, with the label slimming a bit I want to help bands with recording, since most bands do that on their own. I'd like to help them with T-shirts and make sure that it's the band that gets most of the money off of it."
In a perfect world, all Coughlin and his bands would have to do is continue down the path they're on. After all, the "family" has been able to carve out a national niche. You'll soon hear people talk of Saw Her Ghost the same way they talk of other Michigan-bred labels, such as Small Stone. And soon you'll see its bands' beautiful packages in more and more crates of metal collectors and diggers from around the nation, and the world.