Interview with Kill Rock Stars’ Portia Sabin

Hello, Vicky here.

Some of you may know me from a hot-new-hip organisation called Girls That Gig. You may recognise me in various coffee shops around Leeds, furiously texting and looking stressed at my own events. This is because as well as co-running this operation with fellow business bitch Megan, we’re both failing at University.

I study music business, so naturally I am all about the people that are working behind the glitz and the failure of the industry.

Earlier this year my lecturer told me about one of the few record labels in America that was run by a woman. I can’t remember how we knows her now but he said just email her and ask her some questions. So I thought fuck it, why not. And she replied!

I’m hoping that from this interview, you will gain some insight and be inspired by this awesome woman. So read on!

Portia Sabin runs independent label Kill Rock Stars; she took over from her husband Slim Moon in 2006 and is responsible for releasing albums by dozens of artists including Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Bikini Kill, The Gossip, and Linda Perry.

Here’s a cool quote from their website: “KRS’s mission is to continue putting out exceptional records by important artists, and our tradition of being queer-positive, feminist, and artist-friendly continues as well.” Very cool.

Image: Katie Day

From your experience, out of the three identifiers of your label – queer-positive, feminist and artist friendly – which do you think gets the least recognition in the industry as a whole and why?

Good question.  I think the problem with the industry is that straight white dude bands are aggressively the norm and everything else is constantly marked as something else.  Like for some reason there keep being articles about “women in rock”, so just being a woman in a band isn’t normalized; it’s constantly labelled and noticed, making it impossible for it to become the norm.  And in general the only women with large-scale attention are pop stars, which is its own problem given the emphasis on looks and sexuality and such… I think the question of artist-friendliness might be the least recognized, but that’s mainly because people don’t understand how the music business works anyway, so trying to talk about artist-friendliness wouldn’t make sense.

What does KRS do on a basic and also on a big-picture scale to help raise the profile of queer-positive, feminist and artist-friendly labels or industry professionals? And why is this important to you?

We put out records by feminist and queer bands and “normalize” it by putting them into the marketplace.  We don’t trumpet this, we just market the bands they way they are comfortable being marketed, and if being queer or feminist is important to them, we talk about it.  I think because we tend to prefer artists with something to say, we’re naturally drawn to more marginalized people because they usually have a perspective.  It feels more important today than ever since we’re looking at a time when there might be even more oppression of the traditionally oppressed.

What do you think are the reasons behind there being so few female-run indie labels?

Independent labels are about one person’s vision, initially at least.  To start an indie label you have to be convinced that your taste in bands is important and worthy of not only your own time and money, but other people’s as well.  I think that historically we haven’t encouraged women to have this kind of confidence in themselves in the same way as men.  There are a lot of female-run businesses in the music industry, notably PR companies, so I wouldn’t say that we don’t encourage women to be entrepreneurs or run companies, but I think there’s something about that extra mile of running a label – sticking your neck out and being stubborn that you are right about what bands are good and what bands aren’t, that creates a hurdle.  Lately I’ve seen a lot of labels spring up with women and men starting them together and I think that’s a step in the right direction.  I’m not saying women don’t believe in bands as passionately as men do – when I was a kid I’d refuse to be friends with people who didn’t like certain bands – but I think we train (white) men in this culture to be absolutely positive in their convictions in a way we don’t train (white) women to be.

You encourage a do-it yourself attitude; what challenges do female and/or queer artists/managers face when getting onto a label or starting one up from scratch?

I know it sounds like a cop-out but the true answer is that EVERY band has the same challenge, which is to be a great band and play great music.  KRS has been lucky over the last 25 years to be in a position to know about so many great female and queer artists and to be able to work with them.  So I think great female artists and great queer artists are out there, it’s maybe a question of whether the label is attuned to that scene.  If they don’t know about them they can’t work with them.  And then of course there are the sheer numbers: there are literally thousands of bands made up of straight white dudes in every city in America.  Overwhelming numbers.  And most of them suck, so for them the same is true: you need to play great music to get a following and a career, but there are more labels who are used to looking for white dude bands than there are KRS type labels.  In terms of starting a label from scratch, I encourage people to put out their own records for the first few releases, until they get good enough and are making truly great music, but starting a label is a full-time job and your job should be being a musician, so I’d say do it yourself in the beginning but look for help from a business-minded friend and keep your own eyes on the prize of becoming the best musician you can.

What do you do and why do you do it?

I run the label, which means I sign the bands and comedians and work with them to find a producer (maybe) and a recording studio and engineer, a publicist, and make the release plan with them.  I pay for everything and coordinate the production of the records and the marketing with my staff.  I calculate and pay royalties myself 4 times a year.  I am the face of KRS at conferences.  I sit on various boards.  I try to keep my label afloat and keep the name in front of people by releasing great music and comedy records while maintaining our extensive back catalogue.

How are you different from the other male run labels and why is it important to set yourself apart from them?

We are different because of our history.  We’re different because the vast majority of our bands have women in them or are all-women or female-fronted, and that is because they are great artists.  And because we aren’t interested in putting out yet another 5-piece band of white dudes.  There are enough labels that do that.  We also have a different audience: our fans are interested in political music and comedy, in queer politics and feminism and knowing who is out there with something to say.  And so are we!

What is the next step for KRS? / What are you doing next that you are excited about?

Well considering the fact that Donald Trump was just elected President of the United States, I’m guessing there’s going to be a sharp rise in protest music, as well as a great stirring in the historically oppressed communities that are going to have a lot to say.  It’s a scary time and we’re TERRIFIED of what might happen, but we’re glad that we’re here to give some voices to people who might actually become even more voiceless than before.

What is the dream/long term goal/vision for KRS?

Stay around as long as people need us.  Release great music.  Help the voiceless to get their voices out there.  Make a difference if possible.

What was an important or defining moment for KRS?

Putting out riot grrl bands and being part of that movement.  Putting out important comedians with something to say at this moment in history.

Favourite part of the job?

Bringing what I consider to be an important album into the marketplace and giving an artist I consider to be great support.  If other people love it too, that’s gravy.

Favourite musician you have met:

I love the people I work with on my label, but if you’re talking about a fan situation, I’m usually scared to meet people I idolize because I’m worried they’ll ruin my fantasy.  But I recently met Peter Buck from REM and Scott McCaughey from Young Fresh Fellows and they are both super nice guys.

What are you listening to?

PWR BTTM.  Taiwan Housing Project.  Old Elliott Smith stuff which is making me cry.

Vicky and Annie Hollingworth

Image: Facebook

For more updates on what Kill Rock Stars will be up to in the coming months, check out their website at www.killrockstars.com, and follow them on Facebook.

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2 Comments

  1. Simone February 25, 2017

    Hi,

    I’m not in the habit of leaving comments on articles – or anything at all, really. Usually posts on Facebook are ridiculous, unengaging or irrelevant. Your article, however, is the exact opposite.

    As a girl (and a “queer” girl) with a passion for music, in a band with three guys, and attempting to create my own sounds too, I found your article fascinating.

    In our band we pride ourselves on making interesting, left-field pop music – something a bit different to the “white dude bands” who, let’s face it, are everywhere, and boring. Our songs are thought out and time is taken on the lyrics which deal with different issues in society that are important to us – not just relationships or alcohol or comedowns or sexting exes. We’re pretty good too (and I can say that because I don’t write the songs). We’ve had interest from, and ‘experiences’ with, independent record labels who exemplify everything that Portia said. From our experience it seems that the majority of indie labels just aren’t willing to take a chance on bands who aren’t trying to be like other bands, or if they are they exploit their artists. It’s nice to know that there are actually labels out there who will support bands trying to do something different; bands with girls; bands that include the marginalised; bands who have something different to say, and who ultimately care about music and musicians.

    It’s also nice to know that there are organisations like yourselves who hold the same opinions and are creating content that is relevant and valuable. Thank you. Even better that you’re based in my old home town. Leeds, Leeds, Leeds!

    I’m the meantime, we’ll keep writing, playing as many gigs as possible and trying to release records. If we get support from like-minded labels, even better. Ultimately, we’ll always be passionate about music because we love it! That’s what it’s all about.

    • admin March 9, 2017

      Hi Simone

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment! What is your band called? would love to check it out 🙂
      Couldn’t agree more with your sentiments regarding music and playing, we hope one day that we can be such a label too.
      Keep doing your thing!

      Love,
      Girls That Gig x

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