Everyone knows that the best events during SXSW are the free ones. It’s almost a wonder that anybody buys a badge at all; there are just so many venues and groups playing that aren’t officially tied to the festival. Call them South-By adjacent. One such party I happened to stumble upon was the Independent Ear & Friends event at Darwin’s on 6th Street. A perfect little South By find due to there being no cover charge, cheap drinks, and good music.
Independent Ear is a non-profit, relatively young record label that is trying to infuse a bit of passion into the music biz. Their motto is “We Are Independent But Not Alone.” Indeed, this is a group that views themselves as trailblazers, as innovators, and most importantly, as music fans. Early on in the day I got a chance to talk with Independent Ear’s founder and GM Ryan Block. We got to geek out about music and I learned a little bit more about his hopes and plans for the label.
You’re from Chicago, which has a big art scene. Is it flourishing today as much as you’d like it to?
You know, a lot of people probably don’t know it, but it’s the hometown of Cheap Trick. The music scene, the art scene as a whole is growing, but it’s definitely not where it needs to be yet.
My watch is telling me I need to breathe
Independent Ear is diverse. It has a lot going on, just like Chicago. Do you want the label to help the city grow in diversity of music as well?
I don’t necessarily focus on what the label can do for the city or for the area. Because it’s really about the musicians that we work with and where they are in the world. We’ve got two from right here in Austin. They’re playing later today. One them is Julian Acosta. He’s doing a lot within the Austin Community right now; he does a lot with the Texas music office and stuff along those lines. And then another band that actually got us connected with this event called The American Revival.
I think I have a friend in that band. Don Denham?
Yeah, yeah! They’re getting ready to release their record on the 22nd.
IE has a very diverse collection of bands on the label. What does music diversity mean for you and Independent Ear?
I have always wanted to grow a diverse label because for me music’s not just about one sound or one genre — it’s about the diversity and the sense of collaboration that having a diverse roster gets. And then from a business perspective, you don’t want to have a label that’s just one sound. Because what happens if that one sounds becomes unpopular?
So there is a business element, but it’s a personal thing for you too?
I just love all music.
It’s a terribly cliche question, but what are are some of your favorite groups?
Obviously all of my label artists first. Gotta show them love first. But I’m really into that lo-fi hip hop scene. Cats like Rolan and Russ and Ali, those kind of guys. But for me music’s about being able to make somebody feel something. Right? For so long artists have been… their power has been taken away. And I think music is the strongest art form on the planet. Here’s my thought process behind that statement. Music is the only thing that can make somebody time travel. I love equating it to this because we all remember that first girlfriend or that first boyfriend, and we were sitting in the car, back when it was the radio — before Spotify — and you’re listening, and that one song comes on. And then your palms get sweaty and your heartbeat races. Then, you don’t hear that song for a decade and the relationship ends and then you hear the song. You’re instantly brought back to that moment.
I love that.
Music is so powerful. But yet, because of the business of it all, so many musicians have lost their power. So my job is to help them get it back.
Yeah, as I understand it y’all are a non-profit.
How do you feel you’re putting power back into the musicians and songwriters hands?
Because we make it about them and their music, not about us. We’re here to help make them more effective and more efficient. We’re not here to change them.
That’s got to be rare in the industry. It’s probably a breath of fresh air for a lot of people.
It is, it is. Obviously too, we face a lot difficulties with it because we don’t have the the millions of dollars in the bank account. We don’t have the private jets. We don’t have the multimillion dollar studios, but we have access to a lot of that. We’ve done this for the last eight years now, on our own, with no help from anybody else… outside the artists. No outside money, no investor. Just us.
Yeah, you’ve been doing this for a while. Almost a decade. Is there anything different in how you’re running it now to how it was when it started?
Yeah, absolutely. When I started I noticed two very important things: the music business was fucked and that relationships have the power to change the world. So, I figured if I could create powerful relationships that have the ability to change the world, through that mindset and through that process we can potentially change the industry.
I love that. That’s bold.
I don’t know how to give up.
As a music fan, I hope you don’t. You’ve certainly got me excited. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve heard from the label so far.
Yeah, and obviously we’ve got that (American) Revival record coming out next week, on the 22nd. That’s going to be a big record for them. And we’re hoping for a very positive response to it.
Yeah, I’m excited for it myself. So, how many times have you been to SXSW?
This is our second.
Anyone else in town you’re specifically excited about seeing?
One of our artists from the label actually. Julian Acosta. I’ve never actually met him face to face, but we literally ran into each other two years ago at South By. My wife and I were at a restaurant down the road. (Acosta) and I had connected on social media a few months before, and I recognized his trademark hat. And then a couple months after we got back, he hit me up and said let’s work together. That’s just weird. He didn’t really know me, right? I’m just still floored by the responses we get from people sometimes.
The fact that we pulled this together in eight weeks with a fucking skeleton crew and a really, really amazing media team…
Yeah, I’ve heard you talk about bringing the street team back. Can you elaborate on that? Why are they important to you?
Because when you can get people talking about what you’re doing, you’ve already won. Obviously, when you get people positively talking about what you’re doing you’ve already won. But so many people put so much stock in what their numbers on Spotify are [rather] than how they can actually connect to people. While that is important because at the end of the day that leads to revenue, it doesn’t build a fan base.
I like that idea. A community around your label is important. Obviously not just within the label, but also with the fans.
Yeah, if we can get them to actively engage and be responsive and interested in everything that we’ve got going on…. that’s the goal.
What would you say to a music fan, a fan of live music, a budding Independent Ear supporter?
Connect on social media. Show the artist that you want to be engaged with what they’re doing. Go support them when they perform. Buy merch if they have merch. If they don’t have merch request that they get merch and then buy it. And then just share the music. That’s really how it gets done.
Photo by Skylar Evans