Dave Adelson is the man behind 20 Buck Spin - a label that’s succeeded on the simplest of platforms: only release music you like. It seems easy enough, but when the general cacophony of hashtag culture has the inexplicable clout to sway label owners and even bands themselves, it can be a lonesome and arduous task. Adelson isn’t worried, though. Hell, he’s indifferent to the distractions. That attitude and focus has rewarded Adelson since the label’s inception nearly a decade ago. Labels are a dime a dozen. Labels that manage to maintain a reputation of reliability and quality are increasingly rare. 20 Buck Spin has been fairly busy this year, releasing the outstanding Mournful Congregation EP, Concrescence of the Sophia and the Vanhelgd full-length Relics of Sulphur Salvation as well as a handful of other damn good releases. SfB asked Adelson a few questions about the label’s story, the excellent Chips and Beer Magazine, and what we can expect from 20 Buck Spin in the near future.
20 Buck Spin is about to celebrate its ten-year-anniversary next year, Dave. What’s been the most rewarding experience for you in that time not only from your perspective as a label owner but as a fan of heavy music as well?
Ten years already? I’m not a sentimental guy so I don’t know that you’ll be seeing me make any fuss over it, Jonathan, but it’s nice to still be around. It certainly wasn’t clear in 2005 that the label, or I myself, would make it that far. As a label owner the best thing has been to work with bands I admire and help spread their music and help them along their way. I’ve made good friends in doing so and gained experience in collaborating with people in ways both positive and negative, which ultimately is valuable not only for conducting business but in other areas of life too.
I’ve been glad to see that liking and listening to Heavy Metal doesn’t have the connotation of lameness to it that people used to attribute to it. I never thought it was lame of course, I’ve been fanatical about it for 20+ years now. But when I was young (early-md 90s), the ‘punks’ would never like Metal and actively ridiculed it – at least in my neck of the woods – East Bay Area, California, which pre-Internet was all you could judge by, your own region. Nor was it ever acknowledged by the “alternative” scene, or any other. It was me and one other guy in my entire high school into the good shit (Napalm Death, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Deicide, Darkthrone, etc), and this at a high school that was attended by members of Death Angel and Autopsy in years prior. That’s not really the case anymore. The fan base is more diversified across the musical spectrum now and there are more females involved, all good developments.
Your first release was Black Boned Angel’s Supereclipse back in 2005. Looking back it’s an indicator of the value you place on experimentation within the heavy music genre and regarding those bands you choose to release with the label. Has your discernment as a label owner changed since that initial release, or has that perspective stayed largely the same with regards to how you pick bands?
It’s always only been about stuff I like. I don’t worry about whether or not it’s experimental in nature, something new, etc. If I like it and it seems within my sphere of influence, I pursue it. However, I would say that when I started 20BS I was more into experimental type stuff at that time, as a listener. That was at the tail end of experimental heavy stuff and experimental music in general being my main listening habit. I still enjoy it, but it’s not my main interest as a fan anymore. Soon after the label began I started getting more back to my roots which are Death and Doom Metal, and Black Metal / Thrash / 70s/80s metal to a lesser extent.
That’s what I was into from an early age and is probably the #1 kind of music I enjoy. I became bored by Death and Black Metal from 2000-2005. Not much good was on my radar, especially with Death Metal. From mid 2001-2003 I also wasn’t involved at all in the music scene, the only time that’s been true since I was in high school. My main source of info during that time was the Aquarius Records updates and The Wire, so it’s no wonder I got deep into the outsider shit. Actually the AQ list is where I found out about Black Boned Angel in the first place.
In 2006 Repugnant’s Epitome Of Darkness dropped and that rekindled my interest in current Death Metal. What a great fucking record. I still listen to it a lot and I keep two copies around in case one gets worn out (as with Teitanblood’s Seven Chalices). So from then on I wanted to do more straightforward music, the kind I liked early on. There’s still been plenty of releases that are more experimental in nature like Wolvserpent, Oranssi Pazuzu, White Mice, Pig Heart Transplant, etc. I’m not a musical luddite exactly. But there has also been albums by Coffins, Vastum, Vanhelgd, Atlantean Kodex, etc. which are more traditional and conservative in a manner of speaking. And I’ve always liked stuff on the fringes of punk, like power-violence, crust, crossover, death rock, etc as can be seen with bands like The Endless Blockade, Stormcrow, Sanctum, Foreseen, Alaric, etc.
I would be bored releasing one kind of music, and it would not be true to my tastes, which are erratic and wide-ranging. I think 20BS was seen as a Doom label early (judging from the demos I always got/get), maybe because of the name, maybe because of some of the releases. It’s never been my intention for it to be one thing. I didn’t even add the word “Records” to the name because it felt limiting (I suffer silently those who say “20 Buck Spin Records”). A label owner should do what s/he wants and not be influenced by outsiders who would project their own aesthetic ideals onto the label. Otherwise why do it?
There’s been a fairly recent critical discussion regarding vinyl and its relevance or at least popularity waning. It’s a discussion that’s come up before, yet it seems like extreme music continues to have considerable success with vinyl, at least in relation to other genres. Is that something you’ve seen, and if so, what do you attribute that kind of exception with extreme music’s fanbase to?
You say extreme music fans, I prefer to say Metal fans, but I believe the answer is simple - Metal fans enjoy the music and all that surrounds it more than fans of any other type of music and are willing to throw down cash in support of that. Metal fans, their love of the music, the formats, all the things associated with it, often trumps the costs involved in buying tons of records (some fairly priced, some not), shirts or plane flights to MDF. They are the most dedicated people to music. They’re like the “firearm enthusiasts” of the music world.
If interest in vinyl is waning you wouldn’t know it if you’re making records. The manufacturing plants are more backed up than ever. It now takes twice as long to get a record made as it did when I started. Despite that, I think overall interest in vinyl outside metal, and maybe within, will start to decline in the years ahead. My daughter is 16 now and she doesn’t have any interest in the physical format of music, aside from a mild curiosity. And I’m not pushing it.
Let ‘em develop their own tastes. She’s never lived in an analog world. Way more 37 year olds (my age) are buying vinyl now than 16 year olds. So the physical form will likely be maintained by an increasingly older crowd as time goes on. Aging alts will still think of themselves as cool, with their tats, craft brew and supposedly good taste, but the youngsters will still think they’re lame, I can attest to that. So I’ll bide my time until I need to get a job as data entry clerk at Spotify.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of running an underground metal label in 2014 to be? Was that obstacle something you saw from the very beginning of the label, or was it more a matter of gradually discovering it through the experience of running the label?
Running a label at this level is like living a working class life, they are one in the same. And that’s always a challenge as far as money goes. You have times when you’re more flush and times when you’re stretched to the max, always with the looming sense of dread that one too many wrong moves will put you out on the street. So if that sounds like your life, then you know the most harrowing part about running a small label or any small business. It was something I grasped from the onset of the label but as it’s grown bigger and become more central to my livelihood, all of those things are more amplified. It’s ever-present in the day to day operations.
What was your first experience in listening to heavy metal and what connectivity do you see between that initial moment and when you started 20 Buck Spin?
Well the pre-cursor was before age 10 hearing “Purple Haze” and “Sunshine Of Your Love” on tapes my Father had. I loved those riffs, still do. They’re the blueprint for Heavy Metal, so it was appropriate that I heard them first. At age 10, probably via MTV, I heard GNR and Mötley Crüe and got one of my parents to buy me Appetite and Dr. Feelgood tapes (this was ’87). So that’s the kindling, but probably hearing Metallica on MTV with the “One” video was the true starting point (’88).
After a Junior High flirtation with rap, I delved deeper back into Metallica when I started high school in ‘91. From there onto Testament and Sabbath and then into the Roadrunner stuff like Sepultura, Deicide and Obituary, followed right after in early ’92 by Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Cathedral and Entombed’s Left Hand Path, which remains my favorite Death Metal album to this day. Even at 15 I had the sense that Thrash had already happened and Death Metal is what’s happening now so it became my thing. I bought tons of tapes and shirts at Rasputin Records in Pleasant Hill, CA. The other kids getting into music at my high school were getting into East Bay Punk, which for the most part I didn’t like (Neurosis being an exception), it was way too weak, even for punk. So I was somewhat alone in my interests.
All of that directly leads to the formation of 20 Buck Spin years later. From the Death Metal interest I joined my high school radio station in ’94 and did an underground metal show for two years, I did a zine in the late ‘90s, got a label job at Necropolis Records from 2000-2001, went on hiatus a few years, then got a job at Alternative Tentacles in 2004 and around the same time started 20 Buck Spin. So one thing led to the next and here I am.
You obviously have a great deal of respect for print as you offered to jumpstart Chips & Beer Magazine. It’s an outstanding publication primarily because it’s deliberately removed from the glut of the pandering blogosphere. I’m curious to know if as a label owner you’ve seen that dynamic of critical perspective in heavy music change significantly from what it was when you first began 20 Buck Spin.
Yeah I think things have changed. There are too many voices now. Most of which sound the same. The hive mind. You could compare a multitude of reviews of the same album without knowing the byline and it would not be possible to identify who wrote it or see much difference of opinion. Love them or hate them the Chips & Beer writers have style, recognizable voices and perhaps most importantly, a contrarian attitude that is painfully lacking now. I miss bad attitudes and absurdity and lament the straightforward nature of the times. To paraphrase Justin Osborn from Decibel recently, rock n roll used to be badass, it isn’t anymore.
I don’t expect everyone to like Chips & Beer Mag or even get it, but those who do appreciate the alternative critical perspective it provides. It’s entertainment first and foremost, it’s visual, it’s absurdist, it’s mean and it paints a picture and you can’t say that about most nowadays music writing and publications which seeks merely to inform. I don’t like that things in the underground so closely resemble and aspire to the same things we see in the mainstream. Isn’t it supposed to be willfully different? That what I always thought but the times they are a changin’. I’m glad to hear you dig the mag, Jonathan. Truthfully it’s the other guys involved who deserve the credit, they’re the band and I’m just the label in this equation. Chips & Beer is more uncompromising than 20 Buck Spin if it even makes sense to compare them. One is idealist and one is pragmatic.
Do you see those changes as potentially having an adverse effect on mass perceptions of experimentation in music when both acclaim and dismissal are equally as immediate and widespread?
Yes it’s a problem that there’s not enough honest feedback. It allows mediocrity to fester and be accepted. There’s no lack of experimentation in music, and experimentation on its own is not a sufficient reason for praise. However I see a heavy bias toward experimentation and “pushing the boundaries” in current music “criticism” that writers insist on despite the fact you don’t see anything like that in the writing itself, which is again, now merely a source of information, lacking something more that I am looking for to keep me interested.
Everybody can hear the music for themselves now at any moment so someone’s written opinion about an album in a straightforward way isn’t interesting to me unless they’ve been known to me a long time and earned my respect. I need more, I need to be entertained, and I’m not finding that. So that was part of the impetus for Chips & Beer. I wanted Chips & Beer to be something akin to Forced Exposure with writers in the Byron Coley and Steve Albini mode. Thanks to the creativity and uncompromising attitude of its staff it became something entirely its own.
You’ve already had an incredibly impressive year with releases from Dead in the Manger, Vanhelgd, and Mournful Congregation just to name a few. What lies ahead for 20 Buck Spin this year?
Things in the second half of the year haven’t gone exactly as planned. There’s nothing new about that really but the second half of 2014 won’t be as full of releases as I had intended for a variety of reasons. For this year what remains is the new Foreseen album called “Helsinki Savagery”. It’s one of my favorite albums I’ve ever released. Raw, tough Finnish Crossover, every song an anthem. I’d compare it to something between Vio-lence, Exodus, Cro-Mags and Leeway. Also Pallbearer’s 2010 Demo will be released on vinyl, which is something we’ve been planning to do for a couple years and we finally got around to it. Releases are planned in 2015 from: Ævangelist, Obsequiae, Dead In The Manger, Crimson Scarlet and Abyss (from Toronto #NoTagtgren). There are several others too that I can’t really mention yet but it’s gonna be a killer year. It’s only September but I’m already looking really forward to 2015 which will be a busier year release wise for 20 Buck Spin.
Thanks to Dave for his time.