Of the 20 bands that Dan McCurry might listen to on a given day, he might find one that he thinks is interesting. And that's being generous. There's usually some kind of deal breaker.
"It can't be too poppy. It can't be mainstream. Obviously, it's got to make me happy," McCurry explains. "I always say it's got to have pop sensibility. It could be slightly folky or electronic, but it still has to have some kind of pop essence pulling it together."
Unlike the typical music fan, McCurry isn't just hunting down new tracks to fill up his iTunes library. As the founder and director of the Charleston-based indie-pop record label Hearts and Plugs, McCurry is also looking for potential bands to sign.
Currently, Hearts and Plugs supports seven acts based in and out of Charleston: Elim Bolt, Brave Baby, Run Dan Run, Black Top Desert, Mr. Jenkins, Ashley Hopkins, and the Lovely Few. Over the past 12 months McCurry has released two albums, and there's at least one more on the way before the end of 2013. It's been a busy stretch, especially considering that a year ago, the label wasn't so much a business as it was an informal collective.
"We're still in that very much infant stage or incubator — or maybe it's a little past that," McCurry says, pointing out that although he has a day job teaching private piano lessons, Hearts and Plugs is by no means a hobby. In fact, it's more like a second full-time job. "It's hard to sit down and track down the hours, because even if I'm not physically doing something for it, I'm probably mentally doing something for it."
Hearts and Plugs isn't Charleston's first independent record label, and it certainly won't be the last. We would be remiss if we didn't mention Shrimp Records, Tick Tock Records, Cord and Pedal, and all the others who worked to set up a local music scene. Still, Hearts and Plugs is having a terrific year, beginning in January when the indie rockers of Brave Baby released their debut album, Forty Bells, to a packed Pour House. Now it's becoming rare to see a monthly lineup at any given Lowcountry venue — from the Tin Roof to the Royal American — that doesn't have a Hearts and Plugs act on the calendar. There have been East Coast tours, Daytrotter sessions, and festival appearances, all from a newly professional label.
Last fall, when preparing the Brave Baby release, McCurry realized he could take the lead and make Hearts and Plugs work as a real business. The label could be something tangible and professional that still preserves McCurry's initial goal of helping out the bands that he thinks are doing something great. As he points out, it takes more than great music to be heard nowadays. You have to make a great record, but then you have to promote it and book shows and make T-shirts. McCurry is working to fill those gaps for the bands he represents.
However, McCurry has only recently come to terms with what it is he's trying to do: run an independent record label. "As things grow, I've been figuring out what do I want Hearts and Plugs to be," McCurry says. "If you asked me that a year ago, I wouldn't have said that. So even just in a year, I've figured out what this really is."
When quirk-pop band Run Dan Run put out its debut record Basic Mechanics in 2007, McCurry was only 21, and he wasn't particularly music-industry savvy. In hindsight, he admits that the band didn't spend enough time in the studio. He even booked a release show before the record was even finished, which he says "is a rule that is pretty well known." McCurry adds, "And definitely don't book it until it's in your hands." Run Dan Run was three days into its release tour before they even had CDs to sell, and they didn't start promoting Basic Mechanics until after the tour was over.
"It was a lot of learning what to do by making mistakes, for sure," McCurry says, and those mistakes have shaped the way that he approaches Hearts and Plugs. By the time it came to put out Normal, Run Dan Run's sophomore album and the first official Hearts and Plugs release, McCurry had a much better grasp on what to do and how to do it right.
Back in late 2011, Hearts and Plugs had a name and a few musicians, but there wasn't much else. It was a collective, not a label. There were three other acts involved at the time. McCurry's Run Dan Run bandmates, the ambient-influenced Nick Jenkins and acoustic-driven Ashley Hopkins, both brought in their solo projects, and Columbia's the Lovely Few also joined up. A year later, McCurry decided to turn Hearts and Plugs into a more professional operation.
"If we stay a collective, I think that people, especially older people, are probably going to tend to view it as these are kids, they're not serious, this isn't a business," he explains. "And I'd like to be portrayed as trying to be a record label, trying to be a business."
It makes sense to have McCurry as a leader. As an indie musician, he has been there and done that. He's released records on his own and doled out huge chunks of money for press campaigns that garnered little attention. Since he's already done the wrong things, his Hearts and Plugs bands don't have to. In return, he gets to do a job that interests him and allows him to be a part of a creative process.
At the moment, Hearts and Plugs bands don't have to go outside of Hearts and Plugs to make their records. The label runs Apartment A, a design-recording-video studio. With help from producer Ryan "Wolfgang" Zimmerman, who also plays drums in Brave Baby and Elim Bolt, and graphic designer Megan Elger, everything — from recording to putting together album artwork to developing merch — is done in-house.
Elger can take a band's vision for a record's artwork and make it a reality, shooting photos, editing them, drawing graphics, and laying out the packaging. Recently, she worked on T-shirt designs for Brave Baby, and she's even taking a screenprinting class. By having a single artist working on the aesthetics for all the Hearts and Plugs records, McCurry thinks it gives the label a cohesive look.
As for McCurry, he handles the tedious task of dealing with the press, developing relationships with local and national media and sending anywhere from dozens to hundreds of e-mails to blogs and publications to promote tours and new releases.
McCurry believes these in-house resources have given Hearts and Plugs what he thinks is a major advantage over similar imprints. "I would guess that just based on what I've seen is that a lot of the other labels probably aren't doing that," he says, or they hire someone outside of the business to pick up the slack.
For now, Hearts and Plugs' support is less financial and more physical; it takes up McCurry's time, not his money.
Hearts and Plugs has a lot in common with many of Charleston's other musical cliques who share bills and trade bandmates and so on and so forth. But the label's crew approaches their relationships from a business standpoint too — they share the mentality that if one Hearts and Plugs act does well (and brings in money), it'll help out all of the others in the end.
"Once it's a label and we have a business model where we're actually trying to make money so we can put more stuff out, that's a huge help, because at that point it's not just friends helping friends, it's kind of a business, and it just makes more sense," Johnnie Matthews says. He's the frontman of Elim Bolt, Hearts and Plugs' slacker-rock/nostalgia-pop band.
Matthews was halfway into recording his debut Nude South with Zimmerman when McCurry expressed interest in putting out the album on Hearts and Plugs. McCurry eventually took over production duties, and Matthews says McCurry's added attention helped a lot once Nude South was ready.
"If I would have released it myself, maybe like 50 friends would have bought it," Matthews says. "But [McCurry] was able to get national press and things that were out of my reach."
Thanks to McCurry and his flurry of press e-mails, Matthews has picked up clippings throughout the region, whether it's in Charlotte's Creative Loafing or Athen's Flagpole. Largehearted Boy and Delusions of Adequacy, two of the web's oldest and most credible music blogs, both plugged Elim Bolt tracks in the last year.
Brave Baby's Keon Masters echoes Matthews' sentiment. His band is grander and more Arcade Fire-esque than Elim Bolt, but it still shares that pop quality that McCurry looks for. Brave Baby thought about putting out its debut Forty Bells on its own, since Masters and his bandmates had been sitting on it for a while. McCurry offered to release it instead. He even created a separate YouTube clip for each song on Forty Bells. While Masters admits that isn't a revolutionary tactic, it's still cooler than anything he would have done.
"We are consistently on the radio on this one station in England all the time," he adds. "I don't know the station, but there are some losers out there listening to Brave Baby."
Meanwhile, Lovely Few frontman Mike Mewborne has known McCurry since 2007, and Hearts and Plugs was first forming just in time to re-release the Lovely Few's The Perseids LP. The glitchy Columbia electro-pop band put out its first album, The Limited Abilities of Man, on its own earlier in the decade. Mewborne considers it some of his best writing, but after a two-year recording process, it was released to little fanfare. The band played a house show and that was it.
Now under Hearts and Plugs, Mewborne has put out two records in two years, and the Lovely Few just went back into Apartment A last week to start a third.
"The goal is to make an album that people will hear, so the album still has to be good, and it still has to have our hearts in it, but it also needs some publicity, some planning, and a sense of urgency," Mewborne says. "Dan is more than a producer and engineer — he's the momentum guy. He wants to generate buzz on the album. And he's not always doing the legwork, but he does push you to get it done, which I need and appreciate as an artist."
Secret Wave , the first album from Black Top Desert, will be Hearts and Plugs' sixth official album release when it comes out this fall. "I figure it's not every day that something just shows up on your doorstep that you are 100 percent in love with," McCurry says of the record, and he didn't even have to go hunting for it. It fell into his lap.
If Hearts and Plugs is going to succeed as a label, it has to expand — that's why McCurry goes on his Bandcamp hunts. But he thinks it's important to grow in a way that doesn't negatively affect the bands he already has.
Hopefully, McCurry will be able to provide Black Top Desert and any bands that follow with the same services that he does his current roster. It's hard to argue that McCurry's hours of attention haven't paid off for Elim Bolt, Brave Baby, or the Lovely Few.
"Whenever Brave Baby plays now, it seems like 200 people come out," he says. "And it's not like 200 of their family members. It's real people. Real people actually like it. We didn't pay these people to be here. So that's cool."
And that will put McCurry one step closer to another goal: turning Hearts and Plugs into a label that has as much of a cultural impact as it does a musical one, kind of like Sub Pop or Saddlecreek. Even if that does take a while.
"Sometimes it's easy to get down on it," McCurry says. "Those people, they seem like they're in the stratosphere. They're so beyond what you are right now. But I always try to keep in mind that's it's very likely that all those labels started in somebody's bedroom with a few friends and maybe it wasn't serious at first, and then things kind of evolved and people started taking it seriously. It took years to get there, for sure."