THE MOUSE THAT SET LOOSE THE LION
Think of the time before “indie” was part of our English lexicon. A time before Sonic Youth took to the mainstream, even a time before the Replacements and Husker Du hit. 1979 seems to have been a lifetime ago, and for many people who are not here anymore, it was a lifetime ago. Punk was still dangerous, Black Flag and Minor Threat were beginning, and punk was still an infant. For mainstream America, punk was still perceived as odd; a far reach from the mall-punk, Gap-produced punk styling’s that we have today. Although Rodney was playing punk and new wave on his hit L.A.-based radio show Rodney on the Roq, punk had fallen again below the radar of mainstream media attention. Once again the fertile ground for the perverse and avant in music had gone underground and become, once again, hidden.
During the late seventies and early eighties, a sense of independence and a do-it-yourself ethic had formed around a small liberal arts college and its community radio station. The Evergreen State College and 89.3 KAOS FM Olympia began to attract many “cool” people from around the country. People like Steve Fisk (Pell Mell), Steve Peters, Dave Rauh, George Romansic, Bruce Pavitt (Sub Pop), Rich Jensen, Stell Mars, Dana Squires, Toni Holm, Lynda Barry, Matt Groening (Simpsons), Connie Bunyer, Jeff Bartone, and many more began to move into the small, Northwest town of Olympia, Washinton creating a small scene for themselves.
“We had a good little scene for a town our size, and the hard part was finding venues that would let us play. Calvin (Johnson), coming in as a young townie who cared more about this area than we outsiders did, really helped create a sense of a local Olympia scene,” said John Foster, founder of OP magazine and former Music Director of KAOS Olympia.
Whit a growth in the size of the college and small growth in independent music minded places in Olympia, a sense of a music community was formed. Larry Roberts keeping the Tropicana punk rock club going helped to start to minimalist an us vs. them (the kids yelling “punk rock sucks” attitude that was pervasive in Olympia through the 1970’s.
The Lost Music Network started by John Foster began out of an admiration of alienated weirdoes making records in their basements. The Lost Music Network originally started as the International Record Collectors in 1975 to network with some of those who were into British art bands, 60’s garage bands, and 60’s soul that Foster had read about from magazines like Bomp, Goldmine, and Trouser Press.
“I was into Roxy Music, Steve Haley & Cockney Rebel, John Cale, Velvet Underground, Iggy & the Stooges, New York Dolls, Jonathan Richman, Flamin’ Groovies, etc. Right after that the CBGB’s started to explode in New York, Patti Smith’s first album came out, and I started to read a lot about the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and others in the Village Voice, and through my work as music librarian (and then Music Director) at KAOS, I discovered a whole new world of music—all the records of all genres released on independent labels.” – John Foster
Through Carla Bley and Paul Haines’ New Music Distribution Service, Foster started to become aware of how many independent labels there were that were receiving almost zero radio airplay.
At a critical juncture in the fledgling radio station’s history Foster decided to go in a direction that would bring it far away from being a weak, imitation-commercial station. He started marking green lines on records noting a difference for independent material from major label material. With the records separated, KAOS passed the policy that eighty percent of the material aired had to be from an independent source!
“I called it independent at the time, but I’m not sure if that was a concept yet or not,” said Foster.
“However, that’s the direction fringe youth culture was going with the punk ethos of doing it yourself. That was a very liberating concept for many of us at the time, probably a natural reaction to the soulless corporate music production that was in the forefront at the time,” Foster says.
Calvin Johnson, founder of local K Records adds, “The green stripe policy was very exciting. it made you stop and think exploring the record library, both new releases and the existing discs, was always an adventure. I am still looking for records for my own collection that I have only seen at KAOS in the 70’s”.
By focusing on independent releases, the KAOS library automatically emphasized a lot of regional music that had yet to recieve attention in the mainstream press. KAOS DJs like Pavitt, Johnson, Fisk and Foster saw much of this homegrown music to have become a genuine type of “folk music”–music made by real people outside of the music industry. Oftentimes, this “folk music” had been created by some of the most eccentric, idealistic personalities of a given region. By researching these releases it had become apparent to some [Pavitt, Foster] that a type of decentralized cultural network had been forming underneath the radar of the mainstream press. A lot of this culture, especially the scenes from smaller cities, had been way below the scope of big city magazines that had a certain level of hipness (Slash, New York Rocker) as well.
After realizing that there were no all-genre magazines covering strictly independent music, Foster abandoned the IRC for the Lost Music Network. With no clear direction with LMN, foster began to publish OP magazine through the use of student loans, originally as an insert to the KAOS program guide. Along with the magazine in the newsletter, Foster began to draw attention to himself by sending the magazine to the labels whose music he featured. OP began to take off from there, fulfilling two rules of marketing: addressing a need and promoting it. When the need for OP grea a series of A-Z theme issues focusing on music assigned to their respective letters began receiving a good amount of attention. OP soon gained a great amount of attention, drawing people into the world of independent music as well as the world that surrounded KAOS Olympia. When asked about OP and Lost Music Networks’ influence on him, Calvin Johnson simplys said, “It shaped my whole life.”
“I was initially interesting in going to Evergreen because I had attended an alternative high school in Illinois,” adds Bruce Pavitt.
“A local music fan (owner of Cowboy Carl Records) showed me a copy of OP, which at that time was serving as the unofficial KAOS newsletter. Anyhow, at the time, I was very interested in American punk rock culture and was thrilled to find extensive coverage of underground US bands in this publication. Until I saw the newsletter, I was unaware of KAOS,” Pavvit says, “John Foster who edited OP and developed the music polcy at KAOS, was a true visionary. His focus on independent releases was inspired and threw a very different light on the purpose of community radio and the alternative music press.”
In 1979 Bruce Pavitt sent a letter to then KAOS program director John Foster introducing himself. Subsequently, in the fall of 1979 Pavit met Foster in person after arriving at Evergreen. To Pavitt it had become obvious that KAOS and Evergreen were very special, unique institutions with progressive policies.
Soon Pavitt had become a full fledged KAOS DJ with a show that focused on mainly new wave and punk artists. At the time it seemed that the majority of the evening time slots had the same kind, or similar type, of focus that highlighed underground and independent music throughout the world. The KAOS library, overseen by Foster, comprised the core of Pavitt’s real educatio at Evergreen. It allowed him study every nuance of packaging, sound production, etc., of these hard-to-find and unique recordings. A show allowed Pavitt to have an opportunity to hear what was happening across the country. He had become fascinated with the cultural idiosyncrasises of different regional punk scenes in the US.
“The combined libraries of both KAOS and OP provided me with the information I needed to start my own fanzine/cassettezine, and ultimately laid the foundation for the record label I started, Sub Pop.”–Bruce Pavitt
As a magazine Sub Pop was vastly different from its influential predecessor OP in that it was much more defined. Rather then encompassing everything independent as OP set out to do, Sub Pop tried for the most part to be a very parochial magazine in nature. Sub Pop focused mainly on independent “punk” music of very specific and localized scenes that seemed to be well below the radar of popular culture.
Sub Pop had a very unique approach to documenting the momentum of local underground scenes, which had begun to network together throughout the nation. Sub Pop very specifically reviewed records regionally (IE all Texas records reviewed together) which had the great benefit of graphically showing what was going on where and how. As a magazine form, Sub Pop gave Pavitt the ideals and tools to set out and document his own scene and create his own movements eventually through the label.
“We met [Pavitt] in September 1980. I immediately took a shining to the guy. He had a lot of really good ideas. I liked the way he danced and played guitar, both of which I continue to imitate to this day. I was working with Sub Pop at the time and sensed that a lot of what Sub Pop was about could not actually be punk into practice via Sub Pop. So I started K.” –Calvin Johnson
Johnson, a native Olympian, has for years been a supporter of the do-it-yourself movement and community radio. From his high school days as a KAOS DJ to his band Beat Happpening and record/cassette label simply titled K, Johnson had single-handedly launched a cassette tape revolution that to this day seems possibly one of the most unique and amazing ways to break into the music business. Following a huge mdeia explosion in the eraly 1990s, K remains a vital outlet for independent music in the Olympia community.
In the summer of 84 nearly half a year before OP’s last issue was to be published, Robin James coordinated a national LMN conference that took place during Olympia’s small Lakefair week, a tradition that the now famous Olympia music festivals such as the Internation Pop Underground, Yoyo a Gogo, and Ladyfest typically have followed.
During the LMN conference, a group decided to continue publishing an independent music magazine based in LA, which later splintered off into two separate magazine: Sound Choice and Option.
It has been over ten years now that Sub Pop has become a household name to the world and the mainstream press. As the label that “found” Nirvana and paved the road for all things grunge, Sub Pop has remained on the map of popular music journals [Spin, Rolling Stone, NME, etc.] for more then a decade. Although Sub Pop is now forty-nine percent owned by Time-Warner, it has remained an interesting and vibrant label that survived the post-grunge backlash.
With the release of the 1994 Beck record One Foot in the Grave, K records became flooded with media attention. While the label remains uniquely “Olympia,” the mainstream press continues to follow the small label’s roster. From extensive coverage of the “love rock” scene through the”riot grrl” days, and into an uncertain future for “indie rock,” K Records remains as a gem in the landscape of American independent record labels.
KAOS remains as a model for several community radio stations throughout the United States with its unique independent music-based and open programming policies. Recently KAOS increased wattage now allowing the station to be heard throughout Western Washington. KAOS can be found on-air nearly twenty-four hours a day via the internet for the whole world at kaosradio.org. KAOS also stands as the model for liberal politcal radio as broacaster of the Pacifica network and Democracy Now!
The following article ran as a two-part feature in the COOPER POINT JOURNAL on April 11, 2002 and April 18, 2002. It was later reprinted in part in Buzz Magazine Issue 4 Vol. 1 August 2002.