“You’ve caught me at a milestone in my life.” Meaning the ten-year anniversary of Loud and Clear Records?
No, says label owner Brad Lee. “This is my second day in San Diego without a day job.” For the past seven years he’s worked at Merch Lackey, hustling product for clients such as Jack Johnson.
Lee sits at the console in the Kearny Mesa recording studio he co-owns with Black Heart Procession’s Pall Jenkins and Zach Smith of Pinback. Some studios are sterile; this one is not. For one thing, it has gravitas. As in, “Black Heart Procession made Six here.”
The sound booth is illuminated by the amber glow of a 12-foot neon sign with the word Pharmacy. It came from a drugstore that went out of business. “One night Pall called me and asked if I wanted to do something incredibly stupid.” He did. “So we got ladders and took the sign down off an abandoned building and put it in the van. It looked a lot smaller when it was on top of the building.”
Loud and Clear Records has its roots in Santa Barbara, the founding of which came after Lee was cut from his college water-polo team. “The day after I got cut, I put an ad looking to join a band in the local newspaper.” Next, he dropped out of college to start the label.
“My original business model was to take bands that no one had ever heard of and do the whole full-length release and all the press and the publicity — it was really hard, and it didn’t work.” This was as file-sharing was taking off. “It was a terrible time to start a label. I still have boxes of CDs upstairs.”
He was also working as a deejay on KjEE — the Santa Barbara equivalent, he says, of FM 94/9 — and he played bass in a band that managed to find its way south to a now-defunct club called Dream Street in Ocean Beach. That’s where he first heard the band Comfortable For You.
“I was instantly in love with their sound,” says Lee. Through them he met more local bands, a process that culminated in a Loud and Clear compilation called San Diego Is Burning.
Then came the tipping point that would cause him to move his entire operation to San Diego.
“My girlfriend dumped me, and my band broke up. I said, ‘I gotta get out of here.’” On the drive south he listened to a Three Mile Pilot song called “The Longest Day.” “They were one of my favorite bands, and it was one of my favorite songs. I listened to it intentionally, as it fit the day in my life perfectly.”
The singer was Pall Jenkins. The two would become serious friends, roommates, studio partners, and even bandmates after Jenkins asked Lee to do a tour with Three Mile Pilot. “The things you are drawn to when you put yourself into something completely,” Lee says. “It’s kind of like providence.”
Brad Lee is actually Bradley Lefkowits, Brad Lee being a play on Bradley. He turns 32 in April. Raised in Palo Alto, Lee now lives with his dog in Hillcrest and tours in a band called Album Leaf.
Does Loud and Clear make any money? The answer is an immediate “no.” “This is the record business.”
He describes the past ten years as a guessing game. “We knew things were changing, but nobody knew where things were gonna go. Nobody knew how to be a band in the digital world.” He talks about the illusion of social networking. “There are bands that go from zero to 100 miles an hour by the click of one Pitchfork editor’s mouse. But will they last? How many will write stuff that lasts? A lot of people chase trends. The ability to get music from creation to the public so quickly makes trend-chasing really easy. That’s never been what I’m about.”
One of the biggest changes since Lee started the label? “Gas was a dollar fifty. You want to talk about change? Four-dollar gas has had a huge impact on small-band tours. You want to try and make it to New York and back? Good luck.”
He says it is harder than ever to land a record deal. “Record sales are nonexistent. I know bands that used to sell 50,000 units that now sell 1500. On an indie level, there’s really no need for a label. I’ll still press a 7", but most of my time is spent with bands making a plan, telling them how to spend their time and money wisely — things they need to figure out in order to have any longevity in a brutal industry.”
Any local bands he’d like to sign? Lee says he doesn’t think about business that way.
“It’s always been a natural thing when I put out a record. It always comes up over a beer or somebody sends me an MP3. It feels random and meant to be. There’s never been much of a plan.” ■