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Morphius Records celebrates 10 years of independence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Morphius Records is a label that's not hung up on labels.

The Baltimore-based outfit says it isn't affected or impressed by the "majors'" operations, hipster movements or flashy pop pretense.

"Because we have built a business on more than one foundation, it gives us a unique independence, and it allows us to controvert trends in the larger music business," said Morphius spokesman Steve Janis.

Janis said the company, founded a decade ago, has always wanted to make a place in the world of recording by bringing the music directly to the consumer.

That objective is the ubiquitous mantra of many independent labels, but Janis believes Morphius stood out from the fray because it took the idea of self-determination one step further.

The company, he said, was more confident, more driven and more sure of success. Its real goal was to produce music without any help from or reliance on the majors' business resources.

The label wanted to provide a product that was full of raw energy and talent - devoid of any Hollywood fluff created by major-label executives or marketing-firm big shots.

And after 10 years of business, Morphius is equipped to guide that dream to fruition.

Its 23rd Street location serves as a one-stop shop for both up-and-coming and established artists.

"We're a combination of manufacturing, distribution and label, all under one umbrella. We can take a [local] record and make it international without any intermediary," Janis said.

And with the addition of an in-house recording studio, scheduled for completion this fall, Morphius can provide its artists with a completely personal creative experience - a rare treasure in the fast-paced, revenue-driven music business.

"That changes the process. There's just no way to interact the same way with a phone call ... ideas pop up and things happen. Most labels have sort of a divide between the label and the artists. We don't espouse that methodology," Janis said.

Those benefiting from that unusual face-time are musicians who run the gamut from hip-hop phenom Labtekwon to local ska legends The Pietasters.

"Labtekwon stops by here at least once a week to bother me," Janis quipped while working on projects for Morphius' urban division.

But music isn't the only thing being put out by the label these days.

Four months ago, the company expanded its operations to include a comedy division, and nationally known political comedian Lewis Black has already signed on for distribution.

"How many other labels go from Lewis Black to Labtekwon without taking a breath?" Janis said of the Morphius stable of artists.

Instead of carving out tiny, unchangeable niches in very specific markets, such as labels that produce only all-girl indie-pop groups, Morphius expanded its free-thinking business footprint, welcoming a variety of sounds and ideas into the fold.

"We have direct artists and then distribution labels. It allows us to keep our product mix more diverse," Janis said.

"The point is not to mirror what's going on in the majors. It's to carve out a distinctive voice. That's the whole purpose; otherwise you might as well not be in business," he added.

That independent spirit coupled with a penchant for innovation has kept the unpretentious label afloat while others became mired down in genre snobbery and alt-culture affectation.

"Our business model is informed by the ethos of DIY [Do It Yourself], so we're naturally designed for survival," Janis said.

The company has been celebrating 10 years of scrappy, "counterculture success" with Morphius X, a series of showcase concerts featuring locally and internationally known artists.

"We're trying our best to blend in all the artists that we've had in the past and present, to kind of summarize the past 10 years of Morphius putting out records," Janis said.

Last week, The Pietasters, punk rockers The Shakedowns, Labtekwon and several other acts helped the label mark the milestone with performances in Washington and Baltimore.

And more acts will close the Morphius X showcase this weekend, with two performances scheduled at nightspots around town.

The Uniform, David Thomas, The Animatronics and Paper Jets take the stage tomorrow at the Talking Head Club, and The Oranges Band, David Thomas & The Lost Planets and Slow Jets will rock the crowd Saturday at the Ottobar.

But the shows don't just signify a moment in time for the label, Janis said. He believes the series displays the talent and breadth of the local music scene.

"It's kind of representative of all of the types of music that Baltimore has to offer at the moment. It goes across the board in every which way you can imagine."

The Talking Head Club is at 203 E. Davis St. For more information, call 410-962-5588 or visit www.talkinghead club.com. The Ottobar is at 2549 N. Howard St. For more information, call 410-662-0069 or visit www.theottobar.com. For more information on Morphius Records, visit www.morphius.com.

Other labels

Morphius is just one of many independent labels that base operations in Baltimore.

From dance music to punk rock, they've got every genre covered.

The following is a list of a few that call Charm City home:

Monitor Records

Founded: 1999

Product: rock 'n' roll

Featured artists: Cass McCombs, The OXES

Contact: www.monitor records.com

Reptilian Records

Founded: 1993

Product: everything from punk rock and hardcore to greaser rock and emo

Featured artists: Ironboss, The Dwarves

Affiliated labels: Adversary Recordings, Empirical Recordings

Contact: 410-327-6853 or www.reptilianrecords.com

Basement Boys Records

Founded: 1994

Product: dance/club music

Featured artists: Jasper Street Co., Audra Lomax

Affiliated labels: Elephunk Records, God's House Records

Contact: 410-383-8437 or www.basementboys.com

amBiguous CITY! Records

Founded: 1994

Product: indie-rock, straight up rock 'n' roll and punk rock

Featured artists: landspeedrecord!, Pulaski, All The Dead Pilots

Affiliated label: Noise Box Recordings

Contact: www.ambiguous city.com

And the Washington area is the home of a few notables as well.

Teenbeat Records

Founded: 1985

Home base: Arlington, Va.

Product: indie-rock, quirk rock and all things sensitive and moody

Featured artists: Phil Krauth, Aden.

Contact: www.teenbeat.net

Three Keys Recordings

Founded: 2002

Home base: Silver Spring

Product: jazz, R&B; and soul music

Featured artists: Marcus Johnson, Jaared

Contact: www.three keys.com

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