• UO Interviews: Anthology Recordings

    In 2010 Mexican Summer co-founder Keith Abrahamsson would make a difficult decision. A decisive point in the label’s history, Abrahamsson’s would put their re-issue subsidiary, Anthology Recordings on an indefinite hiatus. Launched in 2005 with the mission of digitizing rare and often out of print albums, Anthology laid important ground work for the rapidly growing re-issue culture seen today.

    Admiring fellow re-issue labels Light In The Attic and Numero Group while plotting their return, Anthology was revived in 2014, complete with a physical component—vinyl. Refocused and exceptionally well-curated, the label has since shone light on records of yesteryear via documentary series, brilliant re-packaging, and a handful of sub-series. Their Surf Archive brings classic surf film soundtracks back to life, while short documentaries provide context around the rich lives and stories of artists on their roster. It’s a no genre left behind approach, work that Abrahamsson is proud of.  

    We recently spoke with Keith during a rare moment of downtime at the Mexican Summer/Anthology Recordings office in Greenpoint. Read our conversation to learn about the challenges of launching the label and more. 
    Photos by Landon Speers, words by Jeffrey Silverstein

    What conversations and ideas led to Anthology’s initial launch?
    I’d always had an interest in old records and re-issue material. At the time, Mexican Summer didn’t exist. I was working for our parent label, Kemado. Kemado is more traditionally structured as far as labels go and we weren’t exploring any sort of short-run editions or even one-off type deals with bands. At the time re-issue culture was not anywhere near where it is now. It’s really picked up over the last five years. There were always re-issue labels but they were just passionate record collectors, maybe sometimes they’d bootleg them or sometimes it would be legit. My passion for those records manifested itself into what seemed at the time not only the most financially available way for me to pursue it, but a forward-thinking angle to take. It was digital only when we launched. That was the first incarnation of the label. It was that way until we went on a hiatus in 2010.

    What were the big challenges then?
    The challenge then is that people were still not really sold on digital. A lot of the artists that I contacted were either like, "Yeah, sure, fuck it, go ahead and put it up." There was a lot of that. Everything I did was legitimate. I never put anything on the website that wasn’t responsibly sourced and thoroughly communicated with the artist. The adopters of what we were doing—the press, like Wired or tech companies—thought it was cool. We were branded as the ‘anti iTunes’ which was a cool angle at first.

    Did the deep music heads take to it right away?
    It was a challenge building a new audience. Traditionally a lot of the people who would buy into those records were the kind of people who wanted something tangible. That was tricky to navigate. Even then it was still tougher to download music on the internet. It wasn’t as wide-spread. Youtube wasn’t what it is now. There wasn’t one place you could access this stuff digitally. We were trying to create a hub for this stuff that was not just "Okay come here and buy the record if you want to download it." We ran tons of editorial. I was working with a lot of writers. We had our own series that were digs we would do with Simply Saucer and bands like that. We would take material that had never been released before and re-lease it digitally. We were trying to be as proprietary as we could. Peak interest that way for people who collect records and like to know about bands. 

    John Garner from Sir Lord Baltimore said your release was the first time he ever got a royalty check. That must have been a big moment.
    That was a wonderful feeling. I would get thank you notes from these guys. These were people who had been royally fucked by the music business. A lot of them were so jaded. It was very relationship based. A lot of communication had to take place with them to get them to trust that what we were doing was pure and we weren’t trying to rip them off. Maybe it wasn’t until they got that first royalty check, even if it was twenty bucks. In John’s case, I paid him out some decent money. He’s not retiring on it, but yeah.

    What spurred the re-launch with a physical component?
    When I came to the painful realization that the digital model wasn’t working, I had shifted my focus to Mexican Summer full-time. It was a pivotal point in Mexican Summer’s trajectory. 2009, 2010, where we were really picking up some momentum as a label. Juggling that and Anthology became an impossibility. I didn’t have enough funding to keep Anthology going. At that point it felt like we could transition some of the re-issue work into Mexican Summer. We did The Orchestra, Fraction, Robert Lester Folsom and more. We got a raw deal when we licensed a record from Universal and it was a great record and they fucked up all the production and it killed us. We lost so much money on it. It was a wake up call. For a minute it was "Shit, maybe we should just stick with these new bands." It was a consensus thing. I was heartbroken, but we have all this momentum with new bands who are active and touring, let's focus there. The re-issue thing was put on hold. It took a couple years but then we saw all these labels re-issuing so much material that we had 10 years ago! We could be doing this! I felt like we were blowing it and needed to be doing that work. Not from a financial standpoint, but this was work that I really love doing almost more than anything. I thought we could really have a voice in that field an contribute something significant. It felt natural to bring Anthology back as the re-issue arm of Mexican Summer and now its evolved into something that is taking its own life.

    What makes a record re-issue worthy?
    A good record is always going to stand on its own merit. Now, you need more than that. You need context for people. Re-issue culture is at such a saturation point where if you can’t convey the story in a larger way, they tune out. It gives us a chance to go deeper. If you have full artist endorsement, which we always try to have, then you go shoot a documentary, have them available for all the interviews, try to secure paper ephemera. Anything to make it as definitive as possible. For us, what we are looking to do is make definitive statements on these artists, tell the show story. And hopefully it's compelling enough for people to embrace it.

    Have you ever come across an artist that didn’t want to be re-discovered?
    I had some of those in the early days. There have been people thats it’s taken some real convincing to have it sink in, that there are people out there that care about the record. I know there are examples, like the Lewis record for Light In The Attic where he was like "Oh, you found me great, I don’t care, keep the royalties. Have fun." That’s amazing. I’ve never had one of those. 

    Is it harder with older artists who aren’t familiar with social media?
    In the early days, it was tricky to have artists understand "Oh this is digital, what does that mean? Is it video?" Now you can’t expect in most cases that artists are going to have an Instagram account and tweet stuff. Its a generational thing. 

    Mexican Summer at one point had a maximalist approach to releasing records. Do you have the same mindset with Anthology?
    We’ve taken a giant step back from that. When you are talking about active artists, artist development is crucial. The more you put out, the less time you obviously have time to throw into that development. That was just part of the evolution of our label. 

    You’ve also put significant work into the Surf Archive series. 
    Under Anthology we have several divisions that we are curating, a little more specialized, the surf archive is one of them. That stems from my love of surfing. I'm a fairly new surfer, but a lot of those soundtracks I’ve been a fan of for many years. I was terrified of the ocean for a long time, but those soundtracks for fifteen years have been really important to me. The idea that those weren’t available and once I started to discover that I could be in the water those dots connected. It seemed like uncharted territory and work that needed to be done. 

    Have your goals shifted between when you initially launched versus where you are at now?
    It's a similar trajectory to what Mexican Summer has been. When we launched, it kind of turned into a volume game, a maximalist approach. It was easier to do that because we were digital. Scoop up as much as we can, records we all believed in, license them legitimately. But there needed to be content, content, content. Now, there is a level of care, a careful lens and deliberate approach you have to take when creating something physically, especially when it comes to archival material. The pacing and intent makes it different with how we want something to live in the world. Two separate animals, something that functions as a website and online retail destination and tangible products. 

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