“Imagine being in a band signed to a label that doesn’t really care about you,” muses Portia Records’ founder Marc Rickenbach. “That would drain morale like crazy. The majors are lopsided on the business end. With indies, although smaller and with less financial resources, they are generally able to give the bands more love and support, which is great. Indies are also usually more genre friendly, or at least on the same wavelength as artists. I really love seeing labels like Domino, Sub Pop and Rough Trade, which seem to have the perfect balance of business and art.”
When pulling together a list of respected independent music labels, you can also throw Thousand Oaks-based Portia Records into the mix. Having started from very humble beginnings — the label first saw the light of day as an online store for the releases of a selection of Rickenbach’s colleagues and friends — Portia Records has since developed into a thriving enterprise whose musical charter easily reflects that of the aforementioned mainstays, which, in a day and age where markets are self-assembling around the artists themselves and labels are routinely imploding, is certainly no small achievement.
Having drummed his way around the nation with local ensemble Respira, it was the vinyl release of a recording by Rickenbach’s own band for Grey Flight Records that set his label’s wheels firmly in motion. When two Respira side projects, Tim Wilson and Amestory, emerged on opposing sides of a second homespun vinyl Portia release, the public began to take notice. The release saw Amestory quickly gain momentum and the band was soon overshadowing their Respira beginnings. And the success of Amestory inadvertently laid the foundation for Portia Record’s musical ethos — one based simply around keeping it personal.
“To be quite honest, we don’t have a set ‘mission’ as to what we will or will not release,” Rickenbach says. “It’s mostly based on our tastes at the moment, which could encompass anything. We’re a very small label, and up until a couple months ago it was just me. I’ve finally gotten two people on board to help out … But as long as the music pleases us, isn’t generic, and we have some sort of personal attachment to it and believe in the people who are doing it, we will definitely put it out if possible.”
The benefit of not having a self-imposed musical mission is the freedom it affords for the label to wander. And Portia Records is by no means restricting itself to its immediate circle. In 2006, the label released Berkeley band the Morning Benders’ Loose Change EP, which in turn gave the burgeoning label its greatest critical success to date. And Portia is also preparing to release the full-length debut by Newbury Park’s the Eye the Ear and the Arm, a band Rickenbach enthusiastically describes as “Yes and Led Zeppelin with a modern indie touch.”
As Portia Records learned early on, digital downloading is quickly becoming the preferred mode for most consumers to satisfy their musical cravings. Yet the label has not abandoned those enthusiasts who still yearn to pull out a printed insert and browse the liner notes. To this end, along with full digital releases, Portia also offers limited runs of digipak disks resplendid in their original artwork and hand packaging. For any band seeking to release their music, this serves as the best of both worlds. But in a market that is arguably more competitive than it has ever been, how does releasing a recording with an independent label like Portia Records stack up beside the might and reach of the major labels?
“When it comes to this question, I really believe it’s the deal that makes the difference,” Rickenbach says. “There are some majors who have allowed their artists to be pretty free in terms of what they do which is great. Sigur Ros, for example, is on Geffen. Sonic Youth, too. The difference is, they had a history before switching over. With that, they had leverage and it made sense for them to move up. For new artists, I think majors can pretty much be suicide. I’ve seen it a few times just with local bands in our area who get signed to a major right off the bat and then you don’t really hear anything about them for three years until they break up. Had they gone with an indie, who could really pay attention to them and care for them, I bet their history would’ve been different.”