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Slumberland Records: Trapped in Amber 

A local record label offers a valuable lesson in sticking to your mission.

Wednesday, Oct 15 2008
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Slumberland Records' sole honcho, Mike Schulman, has hardly slept for days. But you'd never guess from the animated way he talks. We're hanging out at the cozy Pub in Albany, and his rapid cadence doesn't come from anything superficial, not even coffee. The 42-year-old, who looks like a more buff Phil Collins, is likely so energetic because of his deep love for music. We've just spent several hours enthusiastically geeking out on a wide variety of stuff from Golden Age gospel acts to decadent 1980s British pop. This is despite the fact that the self-described code monkey has to wake up in five hours to work on label business before driving from his East Oakland home to work at social networking site Meez in South Beach.

Since 1989, Slumberland has released almost 100 records. Considering it's an old-fashioned indie label run by one man, that would be impressive enough. But the catalog shows his extremely catholic tastes in smartypants indiepop: the Lilys, Aislers Set, Stereolab, Velocity Girl, Black Tambourine, Softies, 14 Iced Bears, Henry's Dress, and dozens more.

In recent times, the label has become more relevant than ever. Not only does nearly every other Brooklyn buzz band sound much like its back catalog, but Slumberland is about to release some of the best records by artists artfully exploring melody and noise, from the mopey drone-pop of the Crystal Stilts to the shambling punk-pop of caUSE co-MOTION! and the baroque pop of Lodger. The label currently has its largest roster ever; after releasing a dozen records in the last year, a dozen more will arrive in the next six months. Slumberland has so many solid discs coming out that it might be more vital now than it was in its early-'90s heyday. So while current news about the music business is generally grim, Schulman has managed minor success by sticking with his instinct, and fans have followed. "Small labels run by music fans with proven taste can once again serve as focus points" for those fans, he says.

Pop culture is, of course, the snake that forever devours its own tail — and now that so many artists draw inspiration from late-'80s and early-'90s indie-rock, why shouldn't those same musicians look to the labels that released their favorite records? Slumberland's return has stirred adoration from writers, too, as dozens of smaller blogs like Surfing on Steam and the Sound Bites offer excitement at its catalog. These are little stones thrown in the pond — but get enough of them and you have a wave.

Slumberland caught its first wave in 1989, while Schulman still lived in the Washington, D.C. area. At a time when most underground rock fans were exploring postpunk, neo-stoner, noise-rock, and detuned guitars, he and his friends were far more interested in pop. Their take varied from twee to jangle to drone, with a focus on melodic songs. "We started Slumberland just to document our little group of bands," he says. "It didn't seem that there were very many labels in the U.S. that would be interested." Three years later, their D.C. scene fell apart, and Schulman moved to Berkeley. Slumberland became firmly implanted in the international pop underground, encountering decent success in the early-to-mid-'90s with dreampop acts such as the Boston-based Swirlies, London's Stereolab, and local act the Aislers Set.

At the time, Schulman was also known around town for Drop Beat, a dance label and record store based in Oakland. With Ryan Cone, Schulman started Drop Beat in 1996 "to concentrate on the jungle and techno that was really blowing our minds," he says. "We knew it would be hard to make a living off a store selling esoteric records. We hoped that having a label would help bring interest to and define the shop." As it turned out, Drop Beat's selection was a little too weird for most DJs, and it closed in 2000. "I'm really proud of the 14 or 15 records we did put out," he says, "but overall I'd say it was less successful than we'd hoped."

Yesterday's failures don't always hinder today's successes, though, and Schulman is preparing once again for the bands he champions to jump into the spotlight. One act that will undoubtedly help earn Slumberland notice is the Brooklyn-based Crystal Stilts, a drone-rock act that was recently the subject of a label bidding war. After the band earned ample adoration from the likes of Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan as well as an opening slot for the Clean in New York last year, Slumberland won the rights to release the band's debut. "Slumberland was always popping into our heads," guitarist J.B. Townsend says. "The back catalog is impressive, containing some of our favorite records and singles. I really like the idea of a label being somewhat trapped in amber and then reviving."

Schulman is thrilled that his early catalog still holds resonance. "There are a fair few bands right now that claim Black Tambourine, Aislers Set, and the Ropers as influences, and that is pretty damn cool," he says.

It's not so much amazing as it is a rare case of pop justice. This little label toils away unassumingly, with slight variations on one thing, for 20 years. That's just long enough to inspire several generations of indie music, and in the end a dozen of the best new acts clamor to be part of Schulman's vision. Whether or not Slumberland rises to the sales level of other indie giants, the label offers a valuable lesson in sticking with your vision.

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About The Author

Mike McGonigal

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