CHIMP Correspondent, Anthony Musiala, interviews Erv Kawelis, founder of Idol Records. They discuss topics ranging from the specifics of Idol Records’ history to the complexities of the music industry as a whole.
Idol Records is an independent label and music publishing company founded in 1993 by Erv Karwelis. Erv grew up in Rockford, Illinois, moved out to Los Angeles to work for Triple X Records (then home of Jane’s Addiction, Dr. Dre, The Dickies, and many others), moved to Dallas to work for Sony Music, then Chicago and back to Dallas for a stint at Universal, He started Idol Records as a moonlighting gig during his time at Sony. Idol releases music in the indie rock, rap, country, and metal genres. Some of the most popular Idol Records releases are Old 97’s, Sponge, and Flickerstick.
Esthetic Lens: You grew up in Rockford, IL. How did Rockford shape your label’s music taste?
Erv Kawelis: There was a great music scene in Rockford while I was growing up. My dad was a musician, so I was exposed to music at an early age, and I started collecting records (45s) around the age of 5. Rockford was a blue-collar factory town and had a strong local underground punk/metal scene that reflected that environment. It also had more mainstream-leaning rock and pop bands, the most notable being Cheap Trick who rose to worldwide fame. I was exposed to a diverse bunch of music growing up, and it shaped the label’s taste because the roster of bands on the label is very diverse.
EL: You started Idol Records label in Dallas, TX. Why did you choose a compilation as your first release?
EK: I had been working for Sony Music as an Artist Development Manager and they relocated me to Dallas. I was going to shows of the artists that I was working with 5 or 6 nights a week and started seeing a lot of great unsigned bands. I started talking about putting out some 7” singles with a few of the bands. I eventually started up Idol Records as a way to help some of these bands get some exposure. I decided the best thing to do for the debut release would be a compilation CD (they had become a popular way to discover bands in the early ’90s). I recorded tracks from 11 bands from the Dallas area and released the compilation, and we did a bunch of shows with the bands where you would get a copy of the CD with your cover charge.
We got a good amount of press and were getting airplay on a number of college and commercial stations. Within a year of its release, 3 of the bands on the album had signed major label deals.
EL: Your second release was a split with the Old 97s when you moved to Chicago. How did you find the Old 97s and why were they a good fit for Idol Records?
EK: Old 97’s were a great local band in Dallas, they played all the time and were an incredible live band with great songs which is what I wanted for Idol. Rhett Miller, the lead singer of the band was roommates with Clark, the guitar player for another great Dallas band Funland that had just released an EP on Arista Records, but their relationship with that label ended after the EP release. Rhett thought it would be fun to do a split release with Old 97’s and Funland where each of them would record an original song and then do a cover of the other band’s song. We did the deal and then I relocated to Chicago and brought Old 97’s up there to record their tracks. Chicago ended up becoming their 2nd most popular market. Clark from Funland eventually joined platinum-selling band, The Toadies and their drummer Will Johnson started the prolific indie rock band Centro-matic who released 5 albums on Idol.
EL: What is the story behind the bands Sponge and Flickerstick signing to Idol?
EK: Sponge is a Detroit based band that I worked with as an Artist Development Manager at Sony. I worked with them from the start when they were playing to empty clubs across the country up to playing sold-out tours including Lollapalooza. Their debut album had a few hits “Plowed” and “Molly (16 Candles)” and went Gold [selling over 500,000 copies]. After their 2nd album didn’t do as well, they parted ways with Sony. I had family in Detroit that I would visit and the band and I kept in touch, and we decided to continue working together and they released 2 albums on Idol. Flickerstick is another great live band from Dallas, and they got a break when VH1 contacted them about being on a new reality show they were doing called Bands On The Run. Where 4 bands would tour across the country and compete against each other. The band had recorded an album and I helped distribute it for them. The TV show was crazy and had a big audience and was nominated for an Emmy. Flickerstick was the breakout star of the show and won the competition. Sony ended up picking up the album and re-releasing it. Unfortunately, it was released on 9/11 and their sold-out release show at Irving Plaza in NYC was canceled, along with a CMJ Idol Records showcase the following day at Knitting Factory. After that, the album didn’t seem to get a solid push and the band quickly parted ways with Sony. Idol then signed the band for their 2nd album Tarantula. Flickerstick frontman Brandin Lea is now in a new band, Jetta In The Ghost Tree that is signed to Idol.
EL: How has the pandemic changed your business in the last year?
EK: The pandemic brought live shows to a halt, which is the lifeblood of bands and how we promote our releases. Most of the record stores around the country and the rest of the world were also closed down for several months. The biggest change we made was switching to more digital releases, and instead of releasing physical albums, we started putting out a string of singles and promoting them digitally and via streaming services. We will follow up by releasing albums of the tracks when live shows resume.
EL: With numerous platforms available for artists to make their music available for sale and to connect to their fans, why do they still need a record label?
EK: I think all successful bands still need a team behind them. Record labels have relationships with press, radio, retail, streaming services, music supervisors, booking agents, and venues, etc. that have been developed over many years, that are essential for a release to get the exposure that it needs to reach an audience and be successful.
EL: What advice can you give to new artists who want to have their music released by a label?
EK: The most important thing is to have great songs and the ability to perform them well live and in the studio. They should also have a strong work ethic and the music should be a priority for the artist. Most labels are not interested in investing in an artist that has other obligations that prevent them from being able to perform or effectively promote their releases. It’s also important that an artist has a strong social media and online presence.
EL: What is a common mistake new artists make?
EK: In the case of bands, it’s important to make sure that all members are equally committed to working and achieving success together. I’ve seen many cases where after a band releases an album and one of the members is holding everyone else back. Also, when a new artist doesn’t stay active.
It’s important for an artist to keep communication flowing on your social media so your fans stay engaged, and to release new music and play shows consistently. Fans have short attention spans and will forget about you if you disappear for a year.
EL: What is some of the best advice you learned from someone in the music industry that you would like to share with someone wanting to get into the industry?
EK: You really have to be willing to work hard. This business is long hours, late nights, weekends, and non-glamorous travel. You also have to be able to stay optimistic and positive in the face of constant adversity and change. It’s good to be able to get along and work with a wide range of personalities and egos. Most importantly is to have a strong passion for music.
Anthony Musiala is a record label manager, music business & broadcasting educator, and an avid record collector.