Seattle Weekly interview with Knick Knack Records owner, Joe Johnson

Two new local labels are on the rise, thanks to an artist-centric, handcrafted approach

Here are excerpts from a recent interview that Knick Knack Records owner, Joe Johnson had done with Seattle Weekly writer Dave Lake:

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"Across town, Joe Johnson had a similar idea: What if he could create an online record store that was as enjoyable to shop at as the brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop stores he loved that were rapidly going out of business? To do that, he created Knick Knack Records, a digital record store (and label) which sells not only new releases from artists like the Black Keys and T-Model Ford but also a hand-picked selection of used LPs. He hopes soon to expand to tickets, T-shirts, books, and more. "I'm curating a particular niche of music that I think will appeal to a certain segment," he says of the endeavor—"people who like rock & roll."

After learning the ropes as an intern at local label Sarathan, Johnson (who spends his days as a web-merchandise planner for a large retail clothing brand) decided to launch a record label in whatever bits of free time he could muster. His experience as an accountant and a warehouse manager for several large e-commerce companies prepared him for starting Knick Knack as a label, but after studying the economics he decided to launch an online specialty shop alongside it. "It's tough to generate enough revenue to keep yourself afloat as a label," he says. "Your competition is Warner Bros. and Sub Pop and much bigger organizations who have so many more resources."

Johnson's goal is to cut out as many middlemen as possible from the process, and he hopes his hand-picked selections and passion for vinyl will encourage record buyers to shop with him instead of giant e-tailers like Amazon, which he says does a crummy job of fulfilling vinyl orders. "They ship vinyl in boxes that were made for books," he says, "and it comes to you fucked-up."

Though the Knick Knack web store got off the ground first, last September the label released the LP To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig from Seattle's the Foghorns. Johnson said he has at least half a dozen releases lined up through the first half of 2012, including a new record from psychedelic blues band GravelRoad. Bandleader Bart Cameron said they decided to make the record with Johnson after his web store sold an impressive amount of their previous albums.

The artist-friendly approaches of Fin and Knick Knack have made bands eager to align with them. Though neither label signs bands to a traditional multi-album record deal involving book-length contracts, the handshake arrangements benefit both parties, particularly as each begins to operate on a larger scale and establish their identities. Cameron says Johnson has stayed out of the way of their creative process: "All I've gotten in terms of critique was shocking enthusiasm."

Both labels are beginning to get noticed. Fin has released a radio-only 12 single by J. Pinder that's seeing traction on college charts, with a full-length yet to come. In March, the label will release a single by the Walkabouts, who have been generating airplay on KEXP. And, most rewarding for Fulghum, his records have garnered praise from tastemaking music blogs with a penchant for vinyl, like Philadelphia's The Styrofoam Drone.

While Fulghum is able to devote most of his energy to Fin, Johnson doesn't yet have that luxury at Knick Knack. "My goal in 2012 is to quit my day job," says Johnson, who hopes that Knick Knack's continued success can make that a reality. And with most indie labels operating on what he calls "the old model," he thinks he is well-positioned to succeed.

"If you manufacture it yourself and sell it directly to the customer, your margin is so much bigger," Johnson says. "With a handful of bands, we can do what a larger label [can] do.""