Giving away music for free, or cheap, is a creeping threat to the faceless music business. Why would music fans spend $20 on a CD when they can download it for free? Hip-hop artists offer "mixtapes," sometimes full albums, for free download and reach thousands or millions of people before a record company has even inked them to a deal. Why the need for a massive network of executives and meetings and recording advances and lawyers and fees and a Best Buy on every corner, if people can download the latest Lil Wayne mixtape from DatPiff.com for free?
That idea is nothing new — Walmart and iTunes know full well how business is doing for their online music databases. But two local record collectives have perfected the model: Make music available for free, and trust that if people like what they hear, they'll even pay for it.
The long-running DIY clearinghouse for local and national punk bands is Community Records, founded in 2008 by New Orleans musicians Greg Rodrigue and Daniel Ray. The label provides free downloads of all its releases, but it also prints and packages vinyl albums, CDs and other label wares (most bearing a screen-printed cartoon dog).
Its sister, or brother, collective is Chinquapin Records, founded in 2010 by like-minded bands Sun Hotel and Caddywhompus. Artists offer tracks, EPs and albums with options for free download or name-your-own price via services like bandcamp.com, or in digital mixtapes featuring artists from both labels.
Chinquapin's roster has expanded to include a stock of young New Orleans artists, like Native America, Ross Farbe's bedroom experiment-turned-full band, as well as Donovan Wolfington, an upcoming pop-punk outfit. Wild-eyed guitar-and-drum cannonball Caddywhompus, recently named by the Boston Phoenix as the best band in Louisiana, is currently on a summer tour, as is Sun Hotel, progenitors of self-described "post-gospel," preaching both frantic folk and barefoot punk rock.
Other up-and-coming Chinquapin artists include ear-bleeding shoegazers Glish and guitar-pop trio Habitat. Representing both camps are breakneck hardcore punk devotees Choi Wolf and New Lands.
The labels aren't exactly that. Label is a misnomer. Artists aren't "signed" but they share a one-stop DIY home for producing and performing, and a network for tours and album distribution.
Besides Community's album release schedule and its touring pipeline, the collective produces the annual Block Party, a daylong, multi-stage festival held outside 3 Ring Circus' The Big Top Gallery with more than a dozen bands. It also is building a veggie oil-powered van, a converted 15-passenger van that will fit two bands for carbon-conscious touring.
Community Records also is prepping a "school of music," because, "We want to teach people how to play music, whether 6 years old or 26 years old," Ray says. "We want to share that with people."