What happens to the music from a particular time and place once the bands break up?
Long after last call, once the drums have been broken down, the cables wrapped up, and the instruments and microphones are put away in their cases.
After the show posters are removed or covered over. Once the set lists are filed away in scrap books, and the band stops updating their Bandcamp page, is there some kind of time capsule that captures the guitar lines and vocal melodies? Do the lyrics live on somewhere outside of the coffee stained notebook of the songwriter?
What happens to all of that noise? Does it get soaked up in the splinters and bricks of the club walls? Does it travel at the speed of sound away from Earth, and into the atmosphere?
Thanks to Little Rock label Max Recordings, there is a record of much of the music made in Arkansas over the last 15 years.
In fact, the label, which to this point has focused entirely on Arkansas music, will soon celebrate its 90th release.
Max Recordings was founded in 2001 by musician Burt Taggart, who formed the label with help from his friend Graham Cobb as a way to release a couple songs he’d recorded with his band, The Big Cats.
The band had reunited over the holidays after a few years hiatus, and decided to record a few songs at Fayetteville-based recording studio, Listen Laboratory.
The songs came out sounding great.
“We thought, ‘What are we going to do with these? How do we put recordings out?” Taggart said. “So we really started the label to release two Big Cats songs.”
Taggart had previously run a label called File 13 Records as a teenager, so he was familiar with the industry. He named his new label as a tribute to his friend and band mate, Shannon Max Yarbrough, who had passed in a car accident a year earlier.
And though he wasn’t sure what would come from it then, the Big Cats’ 45-single Fayetteville Blues was the first of what would become dozens of releases documenting Arkansas music as part of the Max Recordings catalog.
One thing leads to another
Fayetteville Blues turned out to be a pretty good seller for the new label, and it wasn’t long before other central Arkansas bands caught Taggart’s eye.
“We were thinking, ‘Two songs isn’t too hard for anyone to come up with,'” he said. “Let’s take a look around and see who else has two songs they want to put out.”
The next several releases were along those lines, with Little Rock artists John Housley, Il Libertina, Chinese Girls, and others each putting out singles on the new label.
In 2003, the label released it’s first full length album with American Princes’ debut We Are The People.
That next year, American Princes 2004 release Little Spaces was the first record that the label was able to sell to a larger label for actual money. After Little Rock native and Lucero frontman Ben Nichols famously showed the record to a Yep Roc Records executive while driving around with him one day, the band was signed to the Chapel Hill-based label.
“They asked if I minded if they went to Yep Roc,” Taggart said. “I said ‘Of course,’ and Yep Roc gave them some money for that record, and (The American Princes) gave that money to me.”
That relationship also led to a business partnership with Yep Roc that helped Max Recordings to expand their digital distribution for other of its releases.
All of the money Taggart has received from the label has been continuously reinvested to release more Arkansas music. Little Spaces came out 10 years ago, and the label has released multiple albums in just about every format since then.
The label’s latest release, another for Taggart’s band The Big Cats, is a single that’s printed on a playable, mailable post card.
The label printed only 100 of the singles, called Shining, and are selling them for $2 from the website. Each postcard also comes with a digital download code.
The Arkansas connection
So far, all of the music released by Max Recordings has come from bands with an Arkansas connection.
Most of it has come from the central Arkansas area, with early releases coming from Little Rock bands like Big Silver, Isaac Alexander, The Moving Front, Sugar & The Raw, The Easys, Mulehead, and others.
A couple records have come from Fayetteville as well, with former Fayetteville band Tel Aviv’s Underwaters released on the label in 2007, and The Good Fear’s Dirty Lowdown Adventure released in 2008.
Recently, the label released Tingle Tingle Wanda, a record by Philadelphia-based band Blood Feathers featuring three Little Rock expats now living in the City of Brotherly Love. He has also released records by Jason White, a Little Rock native and Big Cats bandmate who now plays guitar for Green Day.
The Arkansas connection is not necessarily a requirement for a release on Max Recordings, Taggart said, but more of a symptom of his personality.
“I have a tendency to want to document what’s around me,” he said. “That just seems to make the most sense. I get demo submissions from all over the country, and I guess if it knocked me off my chair, maybe I’d want to do something with it, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
An unconventional model
There’s been plenty written about the state of the music industry these days, but none of the issues plaguing the large labels of the world really apply to the model at Max Recordings.
The label has always done things a bit unconventionally. The bands handle the costs of creating the recordings, and the label helps with the cost of pressing records and takes care of digital distribution.
Record sales are split 50/50, and though no one is really making much money in the process, that’s not really the point.
“The thing about most of the bands on Max is, they don’t travel,” Taggart said. “Some of them aren’t even really very active.”
But the music made in Arkansas, whether it is being pressed into vinyl, burned onto CDs, downloaded, or streamed, is making its way into people’s ears.
That is what Taggart still gets excited about.
“It’s just fun for me,” he said. “It’s fun to work on projects, to see them go well, to interact with folks that you kind of know but then get to know really well in the process of releasing a record with them.
“I used to get that kind of buzz on a regular basis doing music directly,” he said. “Now, I get that out of doing work with the label.”