Hardly Art Records: Sub Pop’s newest act

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Hardly Art is hardly your typical indie record label.

How can it be when it boasts the distinction of being an imprint label connected to Sub Pop Records? However, the label hasn’t banked on its Sub Pop roots to ensure success. Sure it has financial support and help in the distribution department from papa Sub Pop, but after nearly three years in business Hardly Art is turning itself into the big little label that could and starting to make a name for itself outside of the Sub Pop legacy.

At the rate Hardly Art is growing it could almost be considered more of a sister label than an imprint. Think of Sub Pop as the punk-rock-loving big brother with a GED and Hardly Art the hipper younger sibling who attends art school. The analogy isn’t much of a stretch given Sub Pop’s history with the g-word and the stable of current scene favorites The Dutchess & The Duke, The Moondoggies, Arthur & Yu and others who call Hardly Art home.

“Basically Sub Pop wasn’t able to work with a lot of smaller bands and wanted an outlet for that so they could get back to what’s going on on a smaller level locally,” said Sarah Moody, Hardly Art’s general manager. “All of the things we do are geared towards those smaller bands and we create a more welcoming label environment for them instead of this big scary label experience.”

Moody, along with Nick Heliotis and Ruben Mendez, handles the day-today operations for Hardly Art. The staff of three is a far cry from the 30 or so people employed by Sub Pop. Moody said this works well with the label’s artist-friendly approach, allowing her crew to be more hands-on with the artists they’ve signed. “It’s really rewarding because we get to be in constant contact with the bands,” said Moody. “Typically most of our bands haven’t put out a full-length record with a record label so it’s pretty great to be able to be the ones to show them how it works to a degree.”

Another difference between Hardly Art and its parent company is that it operates on a net profit-split model which is different from the more traditional royalty-based model used by Sub Pop. The profit-split model is more artist-friendly because once a record is in the black the artist sees a larger share of the profit from sales as opposed to having to depend on the number of units moved to make a buck.

Ultimately the goal is to stop living in Sub Pop’s shadow, which right now is hardly a figure of speech for Hardly Art considering its offices are inside of Sub Pop’s Belltown headquarters. “It is a little bit funny because we do operate within the offices of Sub Pop, so there is a little bit of overlap. The hope is that eventually we’ll be at a point where we don’t need sub Pop’s financial help as much, if at all. That would be the ultimate ideal to be completely financially independent from Sub Pop,” said Moody.

Business models and staff size aside, the major difference the casual local music fan will notice between Hardly Art and Sub Pop is that the label’s roster appears to focus on signing local musicians. Six of the nine Hardly Art signings call Seattle home. Sub Pop is still home to some major local artists (Mudhoney and Fleet Foxes to name a few) but most of its new talent come from parts outside of the Pacific Northwest.

“The local factor is pretty important but we don’t sign acts based solely on that. All the acts we sign are artists we feel need a bigger platform for their music. While it has turned out we have signed a lot of local bands, we don’t just sign bands because they are local,” said Moody. “Generally either someone from within our label or someone we know will be really excited about a band and will tip us off to them and that’s where it will start. We’ll go see the band live or ask them for music depending on the situation. That’s a lot easier to do if they are local and not in Austin or New York or some other city.”

Being in a city with as rich of a music scene as Seattle doesn’t hurt either, said Moody. “Seattle has a great music community. It’s a lot easier for us to exist in a city like Seattle where you have great bands and you have a strong music scene and great record stores and venues all over town. It’s a really supportive network of people so if a local band takes off you’re going to have all those people behind that band supporting that record and I feel that doesn’t happen in other cities. I feel we’re pretty lucky in that regard.”

However, being a Seattle-based label could be both a blessing and a curse for Hardly Art. While it is rich in talent, Seattle’s music community is dwarfed by the likes of cities like New York, Los Angeles, Austin and other larger cities known for their musical exports. Bigger indie labels such as New York’s Matador Records and Epitaph Records in Los Angeles have a pretty good feel for what’s happening in their backyards just like Hardly Art does in Seattle, which could be a challenge for Hardly Art down the road. The talent pool in Seattle likely won’t run dry any time soon, but there are definitely fewer options than there are in cities like L.A. and New York (which could partly explain why Sub Pop didn’t sign a single Seattle act in 2009). Currently Hardly Art isn’t on the same playing field as those two aforementioned labels, which are well-established indie fixtures, but if the end goal is to gain financial independence Hardly Art will eventually find itself competing with Epitaph, Matador and all the other big dogs of the indie world.

Although there are some fairly large differences between Hardly Art and its parent, Sub Pop’s notorious sense of humor lives on in Hardly Art. For example, part of Moody’s e-mail signature reads “Sarah ‘my name has an h, goddamnit’ Moody.” Despite the jokingly threatening e-mail signature she was quite a pleasant interview. Also, at the bottom of its Web site Sub Pop calls itself as a subsidiary of Hardly Art. This goes to show that you can seemingly take the label out of Sub Pop but you can’t quite take the Sub Pop out of the label.

Here’s a look at the acts that fill Hardly Art’s roster:

The Dutchess & The Duke: One of the more popular Hardly Art artists, these locals recently got some love from the New York Times.

The Moondoggies: This band’s sophomore record is one of the most anticipated local albums of 2010.

Arthur & Yu: Precious songs by a duo who named their band after their childhood nicknames.

Unnatural Helpers: These guys are the closest thing on Hardly Art’s roster to Mudhoney. The band’s debut will be released April 27.

Golden Triangle: This Brookly-based group has a dirty garage rock sound. The band’s first record will be released March 2.

The Pica Beats: Local favorites play music Spin Magazine called “A Wes Anderson soundtrack waiting to happen.”

Talbot Tagora: Noisy and psychedelic rock from a band named after a European car model from the 1980s.

Pretty & Nice: A Boston band that plays upbeat rock.

Le Loup: Happy, sometimes synthesized indie pop.

Most of these artists can be heard on this free 15-song Hardly Arts label sampler.

This story was originally posted on Crosscut.

Travis Hay

About Travis Hay

Travis Hay is a professional music journalist who has spent the past 13 years documenting and enjoying Seattle's diverse music scene. In 2009 he established Guerrilla Candy and is currently the site's editor and publisher. He has written for various media outlets including MSN Music, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Weekly, Crosscut.com and others and was the founder and former editor of the defunct music site Ear Candy.