Original indie rockers
In 1974, four friends from Zion, Illinois got together and started a band without even knowing how to play their instruments yet. Over the next few years, they taught themselves how to perform, how to craft catchy original songs, how to capture them on record, and how to release their own music without the help of a studio or label (fairly unheard of for the mid-70’s).
Since then, Shoes has (besides a 3-album stint on Elektra) independently released music in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. To keep a band together that long, they must be doing something right—so I asked the members of Shoes (Gary Klebe, and brothers John and Jeff Murphy) about their long career as DIY pioneers.
Shoes—the DIY Musician interview
CD Baby: Your early albums, including the breakout success Black Vinyl Shoes— you recorded them in your living room and released them on your own label, Black Vinyl Records. But this was 1977! Did y’all have a model for that kind of Do-It-Yourself approach? Or were you really just blazing your own way? What was that experience like? Had you tried to court a label already at that point?
Gary: We didn’t have a specific model in taking the DIY route. We had never heard of anyone recording and pressing their own records. We just sort of figured out what made the most sense as each challenge presented itself. Due to our ignorance, we viewed everything with a fresh perspective. In the very beginning, we were really just making records for ourselves to prove that we could do it. I don’t think we actually expected to gain an audience.
Black Vinyl Shoes was our fourth album, but all were recorded in the same manner. We were fans of Emmitt Rhodes and Todd Rundgren, who both recorded one-man-band albums. Their approach demonstrated an alternative way of recording; that is building up songs one track at a time. At that stage, we rarely performed live and were literally still learning to play our instruments. Recording in a piecemeal fashion seemed far less daunting.
The production of the first affordable semi-pro four-track tape recorder, the Teac 3340S, made it all possible. Having our own secluded environment with multi-track capabilities gave us the freedom to experiment, learn and sharpen our artistic focus, but most importantly, we could actually make records.
CD Baby: Besides a 3-album stint with Elektra in the late 70’s and early 80’s, you guys have guided much of your own career. How did “running your own label” (and band career) differ from the mid-70’s to today?
What aspects have remained the same?
John: Well we got into this with a simple hankerin’ to make our own music. Our ultimate goal then was to get a recording contract with a major label and that, miraculously, happened. Being on Elektra was like riding a buckin’ bull…we hung on for dear life til we got thrown off.
Once we came out of the other end of that, it was all about survival…from investing in a recording studio to making record deals overseas to creating a label so that we could get our music out. We had to wear a lot of different hats and, even though you have total control, it can tap the band’s energies in a lot of ways. For instance, the more you expand, the more bills you have, so paying them becomes the priority.
We didn’t set out to run a record label per se, but it was a means to an end. Certainly the internet has become an indispensable tool for promotion, selling and networking, which obviously didn’t exist in the 70s and 80s. But it’s always been about reaching your audience and maintaining a level of quality work.
CD Baby: Being indie now and being indie then must have been two very different things. Did you have to combat any kind of stigma around being indie when you were a younger band (right before or right after your tenure with Elektra)?
Jeff: Being indie before Elektra was new and exciting. The whole punk and new wave thing was happening in the mid to late 1970s and we kinda fell into it. It was all new to us and we were happy to see that there was a whole underground movement of music and press to tap into.
Without Internet and social media, it was all done by word of mouth and letter writing. The independent press and fanzines were huge in helping get us a platform. After Elektra, things were much more difficult and bleaker looking. The indie scene of the late 1970s had eroded and a lot of the bands from then had been snatched up by major labels and spat back out. So many of the bands imploded. We were lucky to survive it ourselves. But by the mid-1980s things were looking better, as the new CD medium came around. It enabled bands to present a better sounding product with less defects and returns. It also provided a vehicle for bands to re-issue their back catalogs, which we eventually did.
CD Baby: Early in the life of MTV, y’all had several of your videos in rotation.
Granted, music videos weren’t exactly a new medium even at that point, but did you foresee the exploding popularity of music videos? How did that MTV exposure change your career, if at all?
Gary: We didn’t immediately understand the potential impact of MTV until we began getting letters from fans saying that they discovered us from our videos. Keep in mind that those videos had been produced before MTV went on the air, and were made for the purpose of marketing our first Elektra release, “Present Tense” in Europe. They had never been seen in the USA. By the time we were aware of MTV, we were already in the process of recording our third album for Elektra.
We begged Elektra to seize the moment and back the production of more videos. But Elektra didn’t believe that MTV had any merit and flatly refused. In the meantime, other labels were cranking out videos like crazy, realizing that MTV was better than radio for breaking artists. In desperation, we produced our own video without Elektra’s help and submitted it to MTV ourselves. When Elektra found out about it, they contacted MTV and demanded that it be removed from rotation. They were flexing their muscles in fear of us proving them wrong. What a squandered opportunity it was. It haunts us to this day.
CD Baby: A study just came out that shows people under the age of 18 prefer YouTube over any other music listening platform, so obviously music videos are alive and well. Do you guys have a “video strategy” today?
John: I think one good thing that’s happened to videos since the inception of MTV back in 1981 is that they’ve evolved to the point where you don’t necessarily need a 5-figure budget to do one. We never got the chance to explore that when we were signed to E/A and I don’t know if we’ll ever get to do the kind of innovative stuff that would interest us. But a clever concept can take you a long way (see the work of Ok Go). Having said that, videos still seem tied to either beaucoup bucks or a lot of donated time by a lot of talented folks. I think there can be a happy medium between how the band is being represented and something that’s visually arresting to the viewer. We’ve been discussing our options and trying to decide where and how to best spend our money, so our video strategy is definitely on the front burner.
CD Baby: You’ve released music in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, and 2010s. Any band that’s been around for 4 decades must’ve had their fair share of fights, successes and disappointments. What’s the secret to keeping a working band together that long? What group challenges did you face along the way and how’d you get through them?
Jeff: We are unlike most other bands because we started as friends that loved music first, before there was a band or before we could even play instruments. We learned how to play together and influenced each other. We had the same musical roots and taste, so we all came from the same foundation and background.
Like family, we have our disagreements and conflicts, but in the end, no one else understands what we think and feel, like the other 2 guys in the band. Without the friendships, there is no band. I think we cherish that even more now, after 40 years together. When Mary Donnelly contacted us about the bio/book she’s writing about Shoes (“Boys Don’t Lie: A History of Shoes”), it underscored how much we mean to each other and what we accomplished from tiny Zion, IL. Who could have imagined we’d still be at it all these years later? We appreciate it and each other more now, with age.
CD Baby: How do you divide the labor of the band? Songwriting, directing rehearsals, booking shows and tours, managing websites, email lists, social media, PR, etc. Do you guys have a team outside the band that helps with some of these tasks?
Gary: We’re very democratic when it comes to songwriting and musical direction. Having three solid songwriters is probably our greatest asset. Jeff and I share most of the technical duties, such as studio engineering, as well as business issues. John’s specialty is graphics. He takes charge of album designs, flyers, ads and anything to do with artwork. More recently, we have been blessed with the help of a friend, Linda Lester, who has taken charge of our website and social media in addition to creating promotional video clips. Cary Baker of Conqueroo has done a great job as our publicist. I guess you could say that we have team, but through the years, the three band members have done the lion’s share of the work.
CD Baby: Without divulging 10 years of your tax records, can you talk a little bit about the finances of a working band? Have you kind of “pieced things together” over the years? Have you pursued other careers outside of music? I know you operated a recording studio for some time in the 80’s and 90’s too, right?
John: There’s a documentary about some German director (Werner Herzog) who’s struggling to get his film made and the doc is called ‘The Burden of Dreams.” To me, that so sums up what an individual or group goes through in any sort of creative field. We maintained a recording studio for over 15 years and we also held jobs outside of music in order to sustain our individual lives and also to keep the band going.
You sacrifice until it hurts but there’s always more you’re asked to give. Gene Simmons once advised us to use ‘other people’s money’ to record with and we thought if we waited for that, we wouldn’t have the back catalog that we have today. Basically, if you believe in yourself and your work, you need to come to grips with the fact that you’ll have to invest in every way imaginable, including money and time,
CD Baby: What roll has CD Baby played in your music career?
Jeff: From the onset, CD Baby gave an outlet for the indie musician and band.
We’ve run our own label since 1987 and even had releases on Black Vinyl Records dating back to the mid-1970s, but until CD Baby came along, distribution was always a “wait and see” proposition. We’d manufacture CDs, ship them out to distributors and then “wait and see” if we were gonna get paid. Sometimes we’d wait for 3, 6 or even 9 months to get paid. Then, dozens of our distributors went bankrupt and we lost tens of thousands of dollars in the late 1990s, as indie distribution collapsed. But when we hooked up with CD Baby in 2005, it provided not only an outlet for hard copy CDs, but also for downloads.
Better yet, we had access at anytime to the inventory levels, money due, sales trends and had direct contact with each purchaser of our music, through email. CD Baby gave the indie artists a way to compete and even beat the major labels at their own game!
CD Baby provided a lifeline at a time when the industry was drowning and directionless. Now, CD Baby continues to serve as a beacon for artists to release material, knowing that it will be available to anyone with a computer, worldwide. Now, artists can steer the ship and control their own destiny.
Well, I won’t argue with their final words. Thanks so much to the guys from Shoes for taking the time to answer these questions.
For more info about the band, check out the official Shoes website.