Inside The Label: Queer Control Records

Despite the never-ending apocalypse that has consumed the music industry, record labels seem to be as multitudinous as ever. Sure, some of the flagship indies have died off – cough, Touch and Go, cough – but they’ve been replaced by a fleet of champing-at-the-bit music lovers and/or entrepreneurs who are happy to do the steering.

More than a few of these labels are run by people who are totally new to the game: those with no prior experience working for a label, and who don’t know which rules should and should not be broken. They’re launching ground-up, certified-organic labors of love that may or may not make money. If common wisdom proves correct, the coming years will see many more of these DIY labels.

Many of those them will die off, too. It’s a statistical likelihood that a lot of labels won’t be run for the right reasons. Greed and ego – not to mention more practical matters like book-keeping, promotions, production, ad infinitum – will do in many of them.

The best record labels, like most media companies, survive because they successfully serve the needs of communities that were previously lacking a voice or adequate representation. In other words, they find a niche and do good by it.

From all indications, that’s the trajectory being correctly charted by San Francisco’s Queer Control Records, a label that is being built to last. Its niche? Specifically, music fans who haven’t stopped mourning the demise of the riot grrrl movement, and more broadly, LGBT bands that need a boost. Queer Control has found a gap in the landscape, and if it gets filled, we’ll likely have the label to thank.

Yes, this is a company with all the right motives: Not only is Queer Control serving a specific community, it’s also a nonprofit run by unselfish people who appear to have music notes, not dollar signs, running in their brains. The folks at Queer Control know to keep costs under control but not to cheat their bands of any TLC in the process.

You’re probably guessing that the label started as a seemingly unrealistic pipe dream, and you’d be right. You’re probably also guessing that someone finally said, “Screw it, let’s do it,” and you’d be right again.

Box Squad

That person is Marlene Melendez, the CEO and president of Queer Control – and an all-around champ who is as approachable as she is enthusiastic about what she does. Melendez is in love with her artists, and it shows.

She’s also in love with queer rock. Scrolling back a few years, it was around the time Le Tigre broke that Melendez and partner Jocelyn Wong noticed a mass exodus from rock to electro in the queer community. And they weren’t having any of it.

“We want to bring [queer music] back to rocking out again,” Melendez told me recently. “We wanted to get people more involved with actually playing instruments and performing. That scene sort of died in our community.”

With that budding mission in mind, Melendez powwowed with some pals and pitched them the idea of starting a label geared toward queer bands that rock.

“My friends were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea, but I don’t know what to do …’ I was just like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do it.’ ‘Cause I’m that kind of person. [But] it was really hard to convince people we were serious.”

A self-professed “label virgin,” Melendez hit the books and started doing research. She tapped friends and musicians for advice, and always kept her ears open wide. And soon, the pieces started falling into place. Her partner, Jocelyn Wong – they’ve been together for about five years – took on the dual roles of VP and director of finances. And, with the help of one or two more amigos, they started signing bands in the SF area.

Once a Pawn

That was 2007. But it wasn’t until the following year that the Plinko chips began tumbling into the right slots, in a manner of speaking.

With eyes bigger than their stomachs, Melendez and Wong had started pursuing bands beyond their ‘hood. They had put out a call for submissions. They had assembled a package tour, flying around bands on the Queer Control dime. Stipends? Sure, why not. After all, Melendez wanted bands to know that they were making a dedicated commitment.

” ‘We’re going to pay for you to go into a studio and record your CD,’ ” she recalled telling musicians. “We had to offer a lot of stuff at the beginning for anyone to take us seriously at first. So, financially – and just in general – it was a risk. … It was like, ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens and take our losses if we have to.’ And the economy has gotten even worse since then …”

And then the Queer Control operators began pumping their own money into the operation. They also began getting nervous. That was when Wong – who has an extensive background in nonprofit development and fundraising – came up with a pretty novel idea.

She said, “‘You know what? This could be something different,’ ” according to Melendez. More than just a label, Queer Control could be a nonprofit group dedicated to serving LGBT musicians at large.

With that in mind, Melendez and Wong started hooking up benefit shows, setting up performances at youth centers and getting involved with other public performances.

Nancy Fullforce

“That changed everything,” Melendez attested.

Now they could underwrite expenses. They were freed up to do fundraising. And as a nonprofit, it would be clear to all parties involved that the label wasn’t about the almighty dollar.

Married to the nonprofit model was another crucial concept in the development of Queer Control: creating a national network of artists who could support each other as the label and its community grew.

“We have artists from all over the country,” Melendez said. “The reason behind that was to create little pockets all over the U.S., so when other bands wanted to tour, [they] know people in this city and that city. It gives bands this awesome exposure that they probably never would’ve gotten. And that’s the whole point of everything. The whole purpose of the label in the first place was to create a community.”

Fostering this community, Melendez has learned, calls for the patience and care normally reserved for gardeners or bomb-defusing experts. Some bands don’t require much attention, while others require a lot (Box Squad, a band that features Melendez, requires very little). Pretty much everyone involved didn’t know what they were doing in the first place, but instead of a sink-or-swim mantra, Queer Control’s modus operandi is “we’re all in this together.”

“My motto to everybody, before we ever sign them, [is]: I’m always here for you guys,” Melendez declared. “If you need something, I’ll do my best job ever to make sure that I can help you get it done in any way. My door’s always open. You can always get a hold of me.”

Likewise, Melendez is up front with Queer Control artists about what their contracts entail: The label covers all promotional costs, no questions asked, and will loan bands money for studio time, production, manufacturing costs, etc. The bands keep profits after Queer Control recoups those costs.

And wouldn’t you know it: Melendez’s honest sensibility, practical approach and fair gamesmanship have cultivated more than just a community: It’s grown into a family, even. “A little queer family – with a couple of straight people involved,” she quipped.

Beyond Melendez and Wong, that family also includes two directors, Amber Charlick and Jeremy Alva, as well as ancillary volunteers.

Pariah Piranha

And then there are the bands. As it stands, the Queer Control roster has five acts: grungy alt-rockers Pariah Piranha, indie-rock unit Once a Pawn, singer/songwriter Shenandoah Davis, screamerrrs Box Squad and rockabilly/ska fusionists Nancy Fullforce.

Melendez said she hopes to grow the family by a band or two this year, depending on how the label’s resources shake out. Like a parent, she wants to be careful not to “neglect” any of her acts. Especially when they’re as busy as the ones on Queer Control.

This month, Box Squad busted out their debut, Our Heroes, to be followed February 13 by Once a Pawn’s third album, Mission: Accomplished. Shenandoah Davis’ follow-up to her 2008 record, We; Camera, is on the way too, while Pariah Piranha’s People People – produced by ex-Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone – dropped late last year. And Nancy Fullforce, who issued The Official Nancy FullForce Handbook last summer, more recently snuck their way onto “Guitar Hero 5.”

Shenandoah Davis

Stop the press on that one.

“I’m not sure how they hooked that up,” admitted Menendez, as perplexed as the voice on the other end of the phone. “[Frontman] Jasten [King] lives in L.A., he knows a bunch of random people. We’re psyched about it. Everything works out.”

Also in the works is a Queer Control Records tour of the East Coast that is slated for May 28 through June 4.

For Menendez, the goal in the coming months will be the same as it’s been all along, and the same as it will continue to be: for Queer Control artists to get a fighting chance.

“I’d love to see all of them succeed,” she said. “That would mean we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. And that would mean we gave [the bands] some chances someone didn’t, for some unknown reason. I want to see that happen.”

For more on Queer Control Records, check out the label’s recent podcast, MySpace profile or Web site.

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