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Meet Justin Gage - Founder of Aquarium Drunkard and Autumn Tone Records
Justin Gage I Photo: Benjamin Hoste/LAist
It wasn't supposed to get this big. Justin Gage started a blog named after a Wilco lyric called Aquarium Drunkardin the summer of 2005 so that he could let his buddies know what he was listening to. "It was just an easier way than email to share with friends, who had spread out across the country, whatever books I was reading or movies I was watching, or obviously, music I was listening to." Gage told us over some beers in Silver Lake. "It started out as just my immediate circle of friends and then people I didn't know started reading it, and quickly became just focused on music."The blog flourished, and within a year was being read not just by Gage's buddies, but by people all over the US and around the world. With this new found popularity, Gage was able to quit his day job and focus on music full time. He has since launched a well respected record label, Autumn Tone Records, has a radio showon Sirius radio, promotes shows in LA, Austin, and New Orleans, and in his free time puts out free mixes with his fellow bloggers, The Mondo Boys. Last weekend we caught up with Gage for drinks Silver Lake geek out about all that he does to make LA local music scene shine. Here is some of what was said.Mondo Boys - Weird Summer, A Mixtape
Did you start the blog because you liked to write or because you wanted people to keep up with what you were doing?
Both. My first job out of college, which was in Atlanta, was at an internet company during the big internet boom in the late 90s as a music editor. After that I worked for AOL in Atlanta as their music editor, so it wasn't that far off.
Were you influenced by other music bloggers at the time?
I had never read a music blog until I started writing Aquarium Drunkard. I didn't know they existed. I mean, and at the time there were only around twenty music blogs that I knew of people like Gorilla vs. Bear, Stereogum, Said the Gramophone, those guys, but when I started they had only been around for six months, so we all started around the same time. Back then if you were doing a similar thing it was kind of like "Hey let's talk," so I got to know those guys pretty well, but now there are literally thousands of music blogs.
Do you ever feel pressure to write about one artist more than another?
No. No, I'm actually really lucky because the audience for Aquarium Drunkard seems to stick around no matter what I write about. Whether it's indie rock or soul music or funk, they seem to keep reading. That blog is literally just what I'm listening to at the time.
How did the jump to show promotion come about?
I really got into putting on shows in 2006. There were just a lot of bands around town that I was into and I wanted to support them.
Do you just slap your name on the bill as "Aquarium Drunkard presents" or do you help with the planing of the show?
Sometimes it's literally just me putting bands in order at a club in LA or Austin or New Orleans, whereever we're doing shows, but sometimes artists will just call me up and ask me to present their show. So I'll just put the name on their because I want to support them and want people to go. There's no real science to it.
How did you start promoting shows in Austin and New Orleans? Or do you only do festivals there?
Yeah, it started out with SXSW a couple years ago, just putting on a day party or a late show. Typically I'll do shows for festivals, like SXSW or Austin City Limits which makes promoting easier because a lot of things are in place.
Justin Gage I Photo: Benjamin Hoste/LAist
And New Orleans?
My business partner, Scott, is originally from New Orleans and so we got to know a lot of the club owners through him.
At what point did you realize Aquarium Drunkard was becoming a powerful force?
Well I don' t like the word power, because it seems kind of obnoxious. I realize that it wasn't just my friends or friends of friends was in 2006, when I got Google Analytics and I could see that people were reading it, not just around the country, but around the world. I began getting emails from people in Australia, Nicaragua, Stolkholm, you know? That's when I realized it wasn't just a hobby, and that people were paying attention. But that was back when there weren't very many music blogs and there was a lot less noise
I like the noise. It's like anti-Top 40 radio.
Oh yeah, I mean the beauty of blogs whether it's music or politics or art, every man has a voice. Whether your into super underground electro or weird avant garde folk...I mean you name a genre or a sub sub sub genre and there is someone writing about it. You can find some really amazing stuff. We're probably at the most exciting time as a fan. There is just a wealth of stuff out there. (laughs) You just have to dig through it.
How do you sift through all of the music that you get?
One of the biggest ways, and this is going to sound like a no-brainer, but the Recommended If You Like stickers on the album. If an album says RIYL Badfinger, Paul McCartney, and Big Star then I'm definately going to check it out, but if it RIYL Old Dirty Bastard, then I'm probably not, just because I'm not really a big consumer of hip hop.
When did you decide to quit your day job and do this full time?
The summer of 2006.
I assume your wife was down with it?
Clearly she supported it. She was finishing grad school at USC in May of 2006, so I was the sole breadwinner while she was at school. So it kind of freaked me out a little to jump into the unknown.
When did you decide that you wanted to branch out and start a record label?
I always thought the idea was somewhat intriguing and glamorous. I have since learned that it's not. I was flying from Mexico City to Los Angeles in the summer of 2005 and I was listening to my iPod and came across this guy named Daniel Hutchens. He was a guy that was in this band that I loved when I was in Atlanta, but I hadn't heard him do anything in years. My wife and I started talking about what he was doing now and finally I was like, "You know what? I'm going to find out." And I wrote it down on the napkin, "I'm going to start a label. Daniel Hutchens will be my first signee." When I got back to LA I found him on MySpace and asked whether he had anything in the works. He said he did, and that was the beginning of Autumn Tone Records. We put out his second solo album. There was a pretty fast learning curve.
It's pretty brave on his part to trust his record with a brand new record label.
(laughs) I commend him on that. I really do. We also really hit it off. We had a lot of similar interests, and he could tell that I'd been a fan of his music for a decade. And he had read my blog, so I think he could tell that I wasn't just into what was trendy at the moment.
What was the second band that you signed?
This band called Travel By Sea. That band actually has a really funny story. It's just two guys, but one lived in LA and the other lived in Denver, and until 2007 they had never met. They met on a message board in 2001 and decided to form a band. Kyle, who lives in California, would sketch out the song just singing and playing acoustic guitar and then upload it on an FTP server. Then Brian in Denver would download it and do all the production. So I heard their first self-released album and was blown away by it. I got to talking with those guys and the record came out in the summer of 2007.
So how is the record label doing?
It's doing well. There's a lot of upward momentum. The last eighteen months have been great. I mean, the first couple years it was like, "What am I doing?" You know, all of the pieces that had to be in place. From distribution, to marketing, to PR, to all of that. There was a lot of trying stuff out, failing, and trying something else.
If you could change one thing about the music industry what would it be?
That good art could prevail without the commerce aspect.
How do you define "good"?
Non commercial. I mean, pick your favorite commercial movement whether it's boy bands or Britney Spears, you know, anything like that, music that...is consumer driven. I guess, I'm mainly annoyed with the fact that major labels are no longer interested in developing artists. In the beginning they would sign artists and then give them a few albums to get their shit together. Whereas now, that's just not possible. If you ask me what Autumn Tone is, it's an incubator label. We try to work with bands, that have great stuff, but don't have a booking agent yet or have management or distribution. We kind of put a team together for them so that one day someone like Henry Clay People can sign to Sub Pop or Merge. We're like a stepping stone to the next level.
You just put out a free cover album of Paul McCartney's RAM with every song done by a local LA band called RAM On LA. Why did you choose that album?
My dad was very into the Beatles. My dad was a music freak, that's where I get it from, and some of my earliest memories was hearing those albums playing. RAM was the album that I always gravitated towards. A couple years ago, RAM sort a kind of resurgence, at least around here. I'd go to a party and it would be on the turntable or a discussion would come up about it randomly. It's not one of his most celebrated albums. I mean, it's great, but people don't really talk about Paul McCartney's solo stuff like they do John Lennon. I kept having these conversations with these artists about it, and I had been wanting to do a free musical LA scene sampler because there are so many different things going on here. I mean, if I did one now, it would be a completely different list of bands. That project got underway a couple years ago. I had been talking with Earlimart and Frankel and Parson Red Heads, who were all big fans of RAM, and I figured why not just make the sampler with every band covering a different song from that album.
Well, it turned out great. We wish you all the best. Thank you for speaking with us.
Dig the mix? You can download it for free at Aquarium Drunkard.