Since the emergence of Sub Pop Records with the Seattle grunge explosion of the '90s, many independent record companies increasingly have become known for championing a particular sound or aesthetic, where the brand is as important as the band.
Chicago's Pravda Records, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, harkens back to an attitude more prevalent in the mid-'80s--a time when dedicated music geeks started a small record company to champion sounds they loved, no matter how diverse, just because no other label was willing to help that music get heard.
"I didn't have a master plan," Pravda founder Kenn Goodman confesses. "Basically, I was in the Service and started touring with that band quite a bit and meeting a lot of other bands who were even more clueless than I was about putting out records. We kind of just became a label by default, learning how to do it by putting out our own records. Then other bands that we were coming across, like in Iowa or Texas or wherever, actually thought we were a real label, and that evolved into becoming a real label just by taking on other bands and learning the hard way how to get things done."
A Skokie native who always seems to be playing keyboards in at least three bands at once--he's currently gigging with reunited punks the Service, long-running local bar-band favorites the New Duncan Imperials, garage rockers the Goldstars, R&B legend Andre Williams and a new '70s cover band called Expo '76--Goodman is famously wry, low-key and laconic. He's never been the sort to trumpet his accomplishments, and admits he basically stumbled into the idea of celebrating Pravda's silver anniversary.
"I don't thrive on stuff like that, but you know, we got the original Pravda band, the Service, back together over the summer to do a gig in DeKalb, where we all met. It was organized by a bunch of people on Facebook called DeKalb Rocks who were doing a reunion of the rock scene there in the '80s. So we did that and had a lot of fun, and then I realized that it was Pravda's anniversary and thought, 'Gosh, that's pretty good, 25 years.'"
So Goodman approached fellow pioneering Chicago punks the Slugs about reuniting for a show. "Then Boom Hank came on board and wanted to do it, too, and I thought that was a good starting point to put a show together commemorating the 25th anniversary of the label: All of the geezers were up for getting back to rocking and doing the catalog stuff."
In a city blessed with a long list of indie labels that have garnered attention around the world, Pravda has always been easy to overlook: It's never gotten a big buzz in the press like Thrill Jockey, or been synonymous with a particular musical community like Bloodshot or Touch and Go. And Goodman says he has no one to blame but himself.
"From the beginning of running the label, I've never had a label sound because I didn't like just one type of music or one type of band. I've always been very diverse in what I like and what I wanted to put out, so people would get confused sometimes: They'd love one Pravda release and hate another one. It was not like everyone bought every Pravda release; every release was individual and had its own style and sound."
Indeed, over the last quarter century, Pravda has issued outstanding discs by the experimental art-rockers Cheer-Accident, psychotic pop terrorists the C*nts, ethereal violinist Susan Voelz, Italian blues-rockers the Black Smokers and the solo debut by Feelies band leader Glenn Mercer, to name just a few. Even more stylistically diverse have been the live albums issued under the Bughouse subsidiary: gonzo documents of Hasil Adkins, Tiny Tim, Cordell Jackson and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. But its bestseller remains the first of three volumes of its "Star Powered Explosive Dynamic Super Fantastic Rockin' Mega Smash Hit Explosions," its original tribute to the K-Tel compilations of the '70s released in 1994.
"It has an unreleased Smashing Pumpkins track on it"--a cover of "Jackie Blue" by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils--"and that kind of helped it quite a bit when they blew up. I got that song when Billy [Corgan] was working in a record store on Broadway; I just walked in and said, 'Do you want to do a song for a compilation?' And it was, 'Sure, why not?'"
Contradicting what some other indies have experienced, Goodman says that for Pravda, the industry-wide decline in CD sales has been offset by the increase in digital downloads, "which I really love, because you don't deal with manufacturing, damaged products or returns, and it's all streamlined and smooth--the best thing that's ever happened for a lot of smaller labels." The company has never gotten too big--it's only ever been a full-time job for him and one other employee, and it's long since settled into releasing only three or four new discs a year--and a big part of its business plan for the last decade has been music licensing and publishing.
"We do licensing for TV, film and advertising, and that's been our biggest growing division. Two years ago, the Service actually had a song that we wrote in 1991 picked up for Kentucky Fried Chicken; it replaced Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama,' and that commercial ran for about a year and a half. Mostly, though, we're licensing stuff to TV and small indie films, and taking the time to work those angles is one reason why we don't put out a whole lot of records.
"It sounds weird, but every release on our label kind of becomes a member of our family. We really nurture it and kind of work with it for a long time, as opposed to giving it a certain amount of time and then saying, 'Well, this failed, let's try something else.'"
It's that attitude that makes Pravda worth applauding Friday night. And if you ask really nicely, the Service may even play "Mine," the song from that KFC commercial.
Pravda Records 25th Anniversary Show with the Service, the Slugs and Boom Hank
The Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22
Tickets $10 in advance, $12 at the door