It’s a common refrain around the Austin music scene: “This city needs more labels.” There’s plenty of raw talent around, but without supportive infrastructure, artists are meeting dead ends. At best, when discovered by outsiders from other major cities, they’re leaving their hometown. For the Live Music Capital of the World, Austin is missing a beat.
One newly publicly launched Austin label aspires to change that, starting with a European tour for its flagship artist and aiming for a very slow, intentional build to its roster.
BlackDenim Records has been a label for four years, and focused on developing just one act. Zach Person, an indie rock recording artist with a bluesy sound, charmed co-founders and industry vets Christopher Durst and Will Loconto, not just with his fiery roots aesthetic but his strong character. The relationship started as a simple management and production deal. When Person’s first album was complete, the trio started discussing how best to protect the intellectual property, and decided to keep the team together by creating their own label for the release.
“The music was turning out fantastic,” says Durst, a music entrepreneur and former rock photographer. He and Loconto, a producer and musician known for his work with Information Society and T-4-2, felt a spark. “We knew who Zach was, Zach knew who he was, and everything just felt very natural.”
In August, Kaylin Karr signed on as BlackDenim’s second charge, bringing a gentler pop sensibility with the same indie singer-songwriter attitude. The outfit now includes the three co-founders, the two represented acts (Zach Person in both camps, touring with drummer Jake Wyble), and two more of Austin’s own: Juice Consulting founder Heather Wagner Reed as senior vice president of marketing, publicity and strategy, and Austin City Limits Live’s Kelly Mosser as senior vice president of brand partnerships. With Brussels-based Jennifer Smits as BlackDenim’s president in the U.K. and Europe, the production is going global.
“Our entire strategy is to assure that every one of our artists truly gets the attention they need and deserve, and that we are financially able to represent and position them,” Durst says between two sold-out Zach Person shows in Sweden. “We see no reason to go out and sign four or five artists that just sit and wait and have nothing going on. So it’s a slow growth strategy, which we feel is extremely effective.”
Albeit slowly, the label is adding to its ranks, and has started to plan a 2022 showcase that will result in one $100,000 recording and publishing deal. The production will feature 24 Austin artists to start and eventually narrow down to one winner. Casting a wide net for talented Austin acts in need of support, the label aims to keep the submission process simple and open to a variety of styles.
“It’s not just about talent; it’s the full package,” says Durst. “We’re looking for somebody who’s truly going to come in and be willing to support the other artists on our team, and be willing to represent us in the best light possible as we position them around the world for global success.”
It’s a big commitment, but the effort results in a unique position. The company’s core model includes equity for each represented artist. Starting with a management deal and moving through recording, an artist with a successful first release will move into an equity deal, ensuring that the group success built through their work is coming back to them on every possible level.
“I don’t think a model like this has ever been done before,” says Person of the specific deal developed between him and BlackDenim. “It’s something that I feel like really benefits artists and the industry. Everybody is working for the best interest; nobody’s being greedy. I think it’s a really innovative, successful model and I’m glad to be a living, breathing example of that.”
Knowing BlackDenim’s progress feels slow from the outside, Durst wants to continue reaching out to artists to offer advice, regardless of whether they get signed. Echoing nearly everyone in Austin’s music business right now, he thinks the city is positioned to become a prevailing music-industry city, given the resources.
“I think it’s really important that artists are capable of positioning themselves independently,” says Durst. “You have to have that entrepreneurship and that savvy burning desire to truly want a career in music. And, you know, we’re willing to help anybody out.”