Nine years and 53 albums ago, I-Town Records was the brainchild of Kevin Kinsella, founder and lead singer of the internationally-acclaimed reggae band John Brown’s Body. Following the release of JBB’s debut album All Time on the label, other bands like roots rock group Sunny Weather began joining the local, cooperative effort. “At that point we all had a feeling of let’s get together, lets get organized,” recalled Trevor MacDonald, lead singer/songwriter of Sunny Weather, “Once we got started, it was very fast and pretty soon we had a dozen bands signed within a year.”
Innovative and devoted to its Ithacan roots, I-Town reconciles continuous evolution with a sense of loyalty to its origins, a characteristic especially evident in the label’s organizational structure. Noted Sean Kobuk, sales and distribution, “We’re unique in that we’re for profit but decisions are made cooperatively.” Different from conventional record labels, I-Town an entirely artist-led and artist-sustained organization. Regan Carver, ’02, who works in digital marketing for the label, added “For example, someone could be a blues guitar player but also a great graphic designer.” In fact, Kobuk, a solo artist and Carver, a member of the group Thousands of One, are themselves both artists signed under I-Town.
“There’s more of a network, a family now,” said MacDonald, “It [I-Town Records] took away a lot of the competition and really encouraged the artist and community energy to flourish.” Also an advocate of supporting the local economy, I-Town is truly a uniquely Ithaca creation in terms of the production process as well as the music released. Album packaging and graphic design are handled by fellow musicians while music is mixed and recorded at Electronic Wilburland or Pyramid Sound, both located in Ithaca. As MacDonald says, “There’s definitely an Ithaca flavor. It’s hard to pinpoint and it comes from a lot of different places but there’s a positive energy and it’s very real and very honest. As opposed to other sounds that have been marketed, I think we’re all very unique and creative in our own way. That’s what’s interesting about Ithaca: the [music] styles are very different but there is a common bond.”
Kobuk shares MacDonald’s sentiment, “Most small labels are genre-specific, but I think Kevin’s vision was to highlight Ithaca music.”
I-Town’s conception and evolution has “encouraged the artistic growth of the town and brings together a community of people who appreciate Ithaca music,” in MacDonald’s words. “We’ve had regular meetings as a cooperative for years and it’s amazing who has taken interest in those meetings and have shared their music.”
The cutthroat music industry, entrenched in commercialism and motivated by profit margins, is perhaps not ready for a label whose mission, as MacDonald clarified, “was not to pick a style of music and market the shit out of it.”
“That’s the catch of commercial music,” explained Carver, “In order to get exposure, you have to pay for it.” To combat this often closed-door policy, I-Town has begun to explore new avenues of promotion such as through digital means. Maximizing the Internet, I-Town has adopted an innovative marketing strategy with the help of podcasts and music websites, also looking into file sharing services like Napster for creative ways to spread the music of their artists. “We’re like Robin Hood,” said Carver with a grin, “going through the back door and taking an opening when we see one. And we’re always looking for interns.”
In a town with two colleges, I-Town’s must as Kobuk says “continuously reiterate the label” because “a large percentage of the people in Ithaca are affiliated with the University and the changeover rate is incredibly fast. It’s definitely a challenge.” Kobuk explained that in the past, before the days of Collegetown, there was more integration between students and the local music scene. The organic growth model that characterizes I-Town’s strategy is marked by a dedication to first focus on artists’ grass roots fan base and progressively expanding the reach of promotion from there. The approach seems to be working. Thousands of One participated in last year’s Cornell-organized Big Red Relief Concert, which raised money for tsunami victims while just this past August, Trevor MacDonald performed in a Cornell Concert Commission organized concert on the arts quad as part of Orientation Week.
Whatever the future may hold, possibility is still brewing back home. Said Kobuk, “After living on both the east and west coast, I think that the music of Ithaca is at the highest level of any other independent stuff out there from writing and playing to packaging. It’s amazing how this town can yield that.” Visit I-Town Records at www.itownrecords.com
Listen to a sampling of the latest I-Town Records Fall 2005 releases via podcast
Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor