Column 70 — Climbing Mt. Fuji

Category: Blog — @ 1:20 pm March 30, 2006

Seriously, you need to go see The Cops on Saturday night at Sokol Underground with labelmates Little Brazil and local heroes Race for Titles and Le Beat. Seriously.

Column 70: A Label of Love
Mt. Fuji Records’ difficult climb.

Before we get started, if you haven’t done it already, flip over to page __ and read Sarah Wilson’s lovely profile of Mike Jaworski’s band, The Cops. We’ll wait for you (*twiddles thumbs; patiently glances at his watch*). (Note: I’ll be adding a link to Sarah’s story as soon as the webmaster at The Reader gets off his ass and gets the story online).

Done reading? Good. Aren’t you happy you did? Having lived for the past few months with The Cops’ debut LP, Get Good or Stay Bad, I was eager to interview frontman Jaworski — or just “Jaws” as he’s known throughout the local music community. Not only about his band, but about his record label, Mt. Fuji.

Jaws started Mt. Fuji back in ’02 for the same reason most musicians start labels — to give his band at the time, Hello from Waveland, a platform to release their music. The label’s name, by the way, is a shout-out to Jaworski’s Omaha roots. “When I was in high school at Prep, I must have driven by the Mt. Fuji Inn a million times,” he said. “I always thought that logo looked cool and exotic.” He forgot to mention the restaurant’s multi-colored libations, the quality of which I can attest to personally (though it’s been too long since I’ve been to the Mai Tai Lounge).

The difference between Mt. Fuji and the run-of-the-mill vanity label is, of course, distribution. You can find Mt. Fuji records in stores all over the country, thanks to their deal with Redeye — the same outfit that distributes records for labels like Yep Rock, Gern Blandsten, Flameshovel, Parasol and GSL. Landing a “distro deal” is the biggest hurdle for any new label, let alone one as small as Fuji, so how did Jaworski do it? He used the time-tested combination of booze and old-fashioned salesmanship.

“I knew the president of the company, Tor Hansen, from my record store connections,” said Jaworski, who also works at Sonic Boom Records in Seattle. “I took him out, got him drunk and sold him on what we were doing.”

One “sell point” was having the band Little Brazil on the roster. With LB comes ties to Saddle Creek Records in the form of frontman Landon Hedges’ past service in The Good Life and Desaparecidos. “I also told him that every band I work with on the label is dedicated to touring. We want our bands on the road at least four months a year. It’s the only way to create a fan base.”

Touring is an absolute essential for any band that wants more than twice-monthly gigs at the local bar, Jaws said. “It’s fun to knock around town and play music and sell CDs to your friends,” he said. “But without touring, you have to be realistic about your goals. You aren’t going to get ‘discovered’ though your Myspace account.”

Little Brazil is living proof of Jaws’ theory. Landon and company — who have spent more time on the road than any other band on the roster — also are the label’s best sellers. Imagine how well recent Mt. Fuji recruit Slender Means will do once they start serious touring. They’ve already sold more than 1,000 copies of their debut in Seattle alone. LA band Wintergreen is the label’s most recent signing. Jaws said their new EP, which came out on Mt. Fuji in January, was compared to Death Cab for Cutie and The Smiths in an upcoming issue of The Big Takeover.

Add The Cops to the list and you’ve got a solid little line-up for having been in operation for four years. But the operative word here is “little.” Jaworski isn’t interested in putting out records for the sake of putting out records. He’s content with slow, steady growth — maybe adding one band per year. “I want to keep it small and focused, and take sort of a communal approach,” he said. “These bands are not only friends with one another, but believe in each other musically.”

Sound familiar? Jaws points to Saddle Creek Records as a model for his label. And just like Creek, Mt. Fuji pulled its bands together last week in Austin for a couple showcases in conjunction with the South By Southwest music festival. But unlike Creek’s showcase, Fuji’s weren’t “officially sanctioned” by the illustrious SXSW organization. Like dozens (maybe hundreds?) of other bands and labels, Jaworski bypassed the bureaucracy and organized his own day-long party at a lawn and garden shop called Big Red Sun, located off 6th St. A second Mt. Fuji showcase was held at The Longbranch Inn. Both were well-attended. “Sometimes the parties are better than the event — you don’t need a wrist-band to get in, there’s no line, there’s free beer, and the environment is more laid-back.”

Sound like fun? Maybe, but for Jaworski the weekend was mostly work. Such is the life of an independent record label owner and musician who has yet to see the financial rewards for all his work. But he ain’t complaining, at least not much.

“It’s definitely a labor of love,” he said. “I would like to see it become a profitable business. It’s been funded by credit cards from day one. I don’t recommend anyone start a label that way.”

Which forces me to end this column with this cheesy line:

Guitar picks: $2.95
Used Econoline van: $2,000
Bail money for incarcerated band: $5,000
Living the life of a music mogul: Priceless

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