Friends Records' growth spurt could mean more exposure for Baltimore music

Friends Records now has the resources, so can the local label bring Baltimore music to the masses?

Five years into running Friends Records out of his Owings Mills basement, Jimmy MacMillan came to the conclusion that his label — arguably the most influential DIY operation in Baltimore music at the time — had run its course.

He had released records by artists he admired and provided an outlet for local acts hoping to be heard, but MacMillan couldn’t help but feel he had reached a dead end.

“I couldn’t find a reason to keep going,” he said earlier this month. “You get bored doing the same thing, over and over.”

A year and a half later, such thoughts are a distant memory. With the backing of a local music industry veteran, MacMillan is now fully committed to transforming Friends from a boutique entity into a widely recognized label with a burgeoning roster, international distribution and enough cachet to appeal to music fans and critics alike. In the process, Friends looks to tap into a worldwide market it didn’t even realize existed until recently: Baltimore music — and not just a certain strain, but practically every type of music made here, from guitar-drenched pop to danceable alt-R&B and all the difficult-to-categorize sounds in between.

Essentially, the 41-year-old said, it came time to see if Friends could graduate from a one-man hobby to a company entrusted with the careers of its artists and newly hired staff. The stakes are exponentially higher, which MacMillan hopes will drive Friends to heights that were once beyond its reach.

“I decided to try and make a real go of it,” MacMillan said, seated in a conference room inside the label’s new Barclay office. “The big thing that it’s about now is careers. … I’m pursuing career-minded musicians.”

The goals were much more modest in the beginning.

In late 2009, MacMillan met local music blogger Brett Yale through a mutual friend. Their love of Baltimore’s outside-the-mainstream music eventually led to an agreement: Let’s put out a few records, and if we make enough money, we’ll release a few more.

In the back of his mind, MacMillan had always thought he could properly run a DIY label, at least the type more concerned with fostering an arts community than making money.

“I was like, ‘I think I can put records out without screwing people over,’” he said. “That was my main motivation: To see if you can, and if you can, how long you can do it for.”

Friends quickly built a reputation around Baltimore for its discerning and eclectic taste and eye-catching aesthetic, releasing CDs, 7-inch records and cassettes by locally grown indie-rock artists like Microkingdom, Weekends, Flock of Dimes and more. Projects by established acts like Television Hill, Celebration and Future Islands brought more attention to the label, earning Friends status as a bonafide tastemaker of cutting-edge Baltimore music. Since 2010, the label has released more than 100 projects. Despite limited runs of production, Friends has sold more than 12,000 vinyl records and 14,000 cassettes.

Yale left Baltimore in 2011 to take a job unrelated to music in Seattle, leaving MacMillan to keep the operation running. (Yale said he was still financially invested in Friends until earlier this year, when he and other early investors were bought out. Yale will “continue to root them along from afar,” he said.)

For a couple of years, MacMillan continued on, widening Friends’ sonic parameters with releases from Baltimore artists like the garage-pop quintet Surf Harp, rap act Height with Friends and instrumental side projects from members of Future Islands (Peals, Moss of Aura).

Though the label had become self-sustaining, MacMillan didn’t see opportunities for much growth.

“I could keep making basically the same thing over, but I don’t like to repeat myself,” he said.

As MacMillan considered wrapping Friends up, a Pikesville native named Bruce Gearhart was searching for a way to immerse himself in Baltimore’s music scene.

Gearhart had lived in Los Angeles, working his way up sales and marketing roles at Polygram Distribution and EMI Music Distribution over a three-decade career.

He eventually moved back here for a different challenge — Gearhart is the current president of alcohol distributor Bacchus Importers Ltd. — but wanted to find a promising band to invest in.

“I wanted to give back to this dynamic culture we have here,” Gearhart said.

A regular shopper at the Fells Point record shop Sound Garden, he asked around the store for suggestions. Marc Miller of Microkingdom pointed him to the manager: MacMillan.

They quickly bonded over their mutual appreciation of all music, from Top 40 classics to the esoteric.

“Jimmy understood I wasn’t just some aging, ex-industry suit who just wanted to find a toy to play with,” Gearhart, 62, said. “It was really built on my passion and love of music and Baltimore. I knew right away that he was a special guy, and that I’d love to be able to provide him that partnership and support.”

Agreeing to become partners last July, Gearhart and MacMillan started a fresh label under the same name. (Before, Friends deals were solidified with a handshake, MacMillan said, but the new Friends follows the standard label procedures of signed contracts. The roster currently has about 30 acts, he said.)

They declined to disclose how much money Gearhart invested into the label, but it was enough for Friends to rent an office, secure studio time and hire staff members. Gearhart said he was so encouraged by the progress he’s seen so far that he recently doubled his initial investment.

Gearhart also affirmed his role. He was there for advice and financial backing, but MacMillan would still have final say on creative decisions. It’s worded so in their contract.

“I was very clear that artistic control was Jimmy’s,” Gearhart said, adding he acts as a sounding board for him, too. “I’m there to facilitate. I’m there to provide passion and support.”

MacMillan had turned down similar offers in the past, but found a genuine connection with Gearhart in their love of discovering new artists. (“We spent hours just talking about what we love about music,” MacMillan said of early meetings.) He also couldn’t deny the value of Gearhart’s track record.

“Bruce’s connections and his friends, that’s his biggest resource,” MacMillan said.

Those relationships have already led to Friends signing distribution deals with Sony ANZ (Australia, New Zealand) and Sony Red Essential (United Kingdom, Europe) that go into effect in mid-August. The label is close to securing U.S. distribution as well, the partners said. (Sony officials were unavailable to comment as of press time.)

The agreements came easy enough to make MacMillan wonder why international companies would want to promote and sell releases from a small label in Baltimore. He soon learned these label managers had been buying releases by Friends acts like Oxes and Weekends for years.

“Everybody loves Baltimore,” MacMillan said, still surprised. “Apparently, all over the world, it’s a thing, especially with music.”

Discussions with the distribution labels also crystallized what connects Friends’ disparate collection of artists, he said.

“They sold it to me,” MacMillan said. “They were like, ‘You put out hip-hop, rock, jazz and country. You put out weird experimental stuff. You put out folk singers. But there’s no genre to it. Your genre is Baltimore.’”

The label is on pace to release records this year by 28 artists (25 of which are from Baltimore), including new projects from bands like breezy pop-rock duo Other Colors, fuzz-rockers Wing Dam, Ami Dang, who combines lush vocals with sitar and electronic beats, and singer/songwriter Amanda Glasser, among others. More slated for this year and next will be announced soon, MacMillan said.

To execute this busier release schedule, Friends hired Dana Murphy, owner of the Unregistered Nurse booking and promotions company, full-time to handle touring, artist management and shipping. Another full-time employee, Will Pesta, handles art direction and the website. A paid summer intern named William “Wiley” Hopkins helps where he’s needed.

This shift in seriousness has energized the roster. Josephine Olivia of the R&B dark-pop duo Blacksage has worked with the old Friends and the new, and has more confidence than ever in the label.

“Friends really motivated me and helped me believe I could make a living off of this,” Olivia, an Annapolis native, said. “Now that it’s coming to life, I think anything’s really possible with it.”

Despite the fact Friends releases will soon be widely available in places like England and Australia for the first time, MacMillan said the focus would “absolutely” remain on acts either from here or with strong Baltimore connections.

“Anything that we do outside of the city is just to bolster what we have going on in the city,” MacMillan said.

Ultimately, MacMillan’s faith in Friends is a reflection of his faith in Baltimore’s music scene. His goal is to discover and nurture green artists, and provide them with the resources necessary to draw national attention.

“Every year, there’s new bands that pop up,” he said. “It’s the one thing that makes it really hard to think about quitting doing something like this. Every time you think you’ve seen it all, you go out to a show and see a band do something you’ve never seen before. It’s really exciting.”

These recent developments — from Gearhart’s involvement to the Sony deals — have MacMillan thinking about everything but quitting.

“The people who have been following us for a long time, I know they’ve been waiting to see us make some sort of move, to do something more than what we’ve been doing,” MacMillan said. “It’ll be nice to show them, like, ‘Thank you for sticking around. This is what you’ve been waiting for.’”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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