Label Spotlight: Alternative Tentacles

posted November 3, 2009

by Corinne

Alternative Tentacles

Please introduce yourself.

Jesse Townley, General Manager

When and why was the label started?

1979, to unleash Dead Kennedys['] “California Uber Alles/Man With The Dogs” 7-inch single on the planet!

What kind(s) of music does the label put out?

We aim for the twisted and the unique and the ground-breaking, from blazing punk to edgy indie rock to cracked country to political spoken word to Blowfly!

What is the most recent release?

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine “The Audacity of Hype” and Star Fucking Hipsters “Never Rest In Peace” were released October 20th 2009- ask for them by name!

What has been your most successful release?

Dead Kennedys “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.”

Alternative Tentacles is gearing up for its 30th anniversary. Are there any special celebrations planned?

The 30th Anniversary Incest-A-Thon is happening this week (Thursday the 5th [of November] thru Saturday the 7th) at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. A ton of new bands & old favorites are going to play, and the Guantanamo School of Medicine will be headlining with a mostly different set each night. Thursday has Citizen Fish, Star Fucking Hipsters, and M.I.A. (the hardcore band who did “I Hate Hippies,” not the Sri Lankan rapper, though that’d be cool too!). Friday has Ludicra, Munly and the Lupercalians, and Knights of the New Crusade. Saturday has Alice Donut, Victims Family, and Burning Image.

Over the 30 years you’ve been in business, are there any bands you’ve worked with that stick out in your memory?

Since I’ve only been here for the past 7 years, I can’t speak for some of the earlier bands, but I’ve been in touch with many of them as well as all of our current bands.

Speaking with Doc Dart from the Crucifucks, now known as 26, was intense. I’ve been a huge Crucifucks fan since day one, and 26 is somewhat reclusive. While he’s just as politically radical as he was when we released their debut in 1984, he doesn’t like cursing so I had to refer to the Crucifucks as “your old band” throughout our 30 minute conversation. He works with stray animals and has been trying out some new music that promises to be as inventive as his previous projects. He is not computer-compatible out of principle. Since he’s in Michigan & we’re in California, we spoke on the phone- he told me that he uses it so infrequently that I’ll end up being one of probably 8 or 9 people total who will talk to him on the phone for this entire year.

I’ve really enjoyed meeting some of my heroes doing this job (or getting to know them better). Also, it’s been great working with younger bands like Witch Hunt, Star Fucking Hipsters, & Cross-Stitched Eyes on their new records. The excitement of assembling a new piece of cutting edge art for the masses is fantastic.

What’s the secret of your success? How has Alternative Tentacles managed to keep things going this long with no end in sight?

Jello Biafra has the final say over which bands we release, so we’re recognized as an eclectic label that’s curated by a true music fan. That’s one of the only reasons that a label can exist now, as a gatekeeper to the explosion of new music on-line- separating the wheat from the chaff. When people buy an AT release, they know that Jello has put his stamp of approval on the record.

What do you see as the future of record labels?

Record labels with strong identities will continue to act as filters for their fans. There’s an overwhelming amount of music & art out there! Also, the know-how of long-time labels cannot be replicated by individual artists doing it themselves. Unfortunately there are unscrupulous people out there (as well as manufacturers, labels & distributors) who will rip off unsuspecting bands- a legitimate label can help protect bands from the sleazy industry types, as well as use the existing network of labels, distributors, bookers, friendly press, manufacturers, and established bands to push a newer more unknown band. Bands no longer require a label to gain access to mass distribution- at least not digital distribution. Almost all young bands still need a label to gain a large audience because of the amount of bands suddenly available to everyone on-line.

How has your label adapted to changes in society, business, etc?

It’s been difficult over the past few years- losing the Dead Kennedys catalog meant a huge drop in sales for us & our ex-distributor, Mordam Records, and the concurrent seismic changes in the music industry has kept us on our toes. We’ve cut staff & economized over the past few years. Luckily we’re small enough that we’re able to change our practices more quickly than larger labels.

Any words of wisdom for those brave souls interested in running their own label?

Stay realistic- a local unknown band that doesn’t tour will be hard pressed to sell through 1,000 copies on any format at this point- no matter how great they are. Every label (including AT) have titles that can be used to make furniture: Boxes of records or cds that will not sell for many years. Also, practice quality control & push new bands to record the best versions of their best songs. Too many young bands & young labels release all of their songs just because they can. A punchy 2 song single does your band & label a lot more good than a 20 song cd with 3 decent songs hidden among the crap.

Thanks for your time!