Why you should care
Because good music comes from somewhere.
Sitting on a stoop in Boston in the summer of 1981, festooned in a decidedly non-punk ensemble of denim shorts, sneakers and an ill-fitting white T-shirt, the bespectacled 18-year-old Gerard Cosloy seemed the unlikeliest publisher of a fanzine. Never mind one called Conflict. “Have you heard of Kilslug? Deep Wound? Sorry?” The list of bands went on, and it became apparent that Cosloy was on to some next-level shit.
Today Cosloy is co-steward of Matador Records, a highly respected indie label that’s managing to keep its head well above water in an era when the entire music industry is in upheaval. “I won’t kid — it’s a tough time out there,” says Cosloy about a company that has released a slew of records by critical favorites like Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, Interpol, Belle and Sebastian and Queens of the Stone Age, but didn’t get its first No. 1 until 2013. “And that was after 26 years of fucking around,” he says.
But surviving this long is about way more than fucking around. It requires a bit of real politik to advance musical art paired with a talent for hitting the zeitgeist right when the zeitgeist most needs to be hit. It demands economizing: not spending crazy amounts to sign bands, signing bands that don’t expect crazy amounts of cash and decamping from Boston to Austin, Texas.
It’s not written anywhere that we’re entitled to be in the music business.
– Gerard Cosloy
Good business sense only explains part of it, though. The real key to Cosloy’s longevity is his principle that, since every band is different, every approach to dealing with a band must be different — an idea often lost in a monolithic larger label, but which is in Matador’s DNA. All together, indie labels grabbed 35 percent of the U.S. music industry market share in 2014, marking a third year of growth according to Nielsen Music statistics (which classifies “indies” based on masters ownership, not distribution). Idiosyncratic bands cultivated by labels like Cosloy’s can find bigger audiences now via streaming; they don’t have to fit the mold demanded by commercial radio where major labels still hold sway.
Growth has brought out a few detractors who, in screeds on fanblogs like Swan Fungus, declaim Matador for being greedy and power hungry when they did away with their free MP3 page. “They no longer want to provide free tracks for potential consumers because it has led to bloggers linking directly to their server. I’m calling bullshit on them. Let them recoup their money elsewhere.” To which Cosloy responds, “Please tell Mr. Swan Fungus I am very sorry we aren’t giving away free shit until the end of time.”
Cosloy tried unorthodox thinking, allowing some bands earlier in his career to sign on with no contracts.
Today Cosloy still sports glasses and a low-profile look, with thinning hair and a skosh of heft. When he moved from printing fanzines to running record labels, the year was 1989 and mainstream music sucked as much as it ever had. How much? Goo Goo Dolls, Alabama, Bon Jovi. That much.
The business of music played no small part in this state of affairs, so Cosloy tried unorthodox thinking, allowing some bands earlier in his career to sign on with no contracts, among other moves crazy by today’s standards. Today, Matador does use contracts, but from the beginning Cosloy set a template for doing things differently. “I admire Gerard,” said Steve Albini, a performer and producer. “I think he’s genuinely trying to be a comrade to the bands he works with.”
Cosloy says Matador’s present-day deals with recording artists vary wildly. Good artist relationships, along with a marked lack of competition for many of the bands they had the good taste to sign, paved the way for a long-lived company. Matador started as just Cosloy and Chris Lombardi, then grew to a staff of 31 by 1998, and has now settled to about 14, with two in London as of their 2002 merger with the mighty Beggars Group.
And Cosloy’s music industry foresight would have surprised his parents and professors at Amherst, where he dropped out after one semester of flunking everything. Cosloy grew up with an academic father, a social worker mother and a sister in a household where “you were expected to be halfway conversant with Stravinsky or Lenny Bruce … not the worst foundation for a life in punk,” he says as he lists off prescriptives for years of what formed his punk tastes. “Pre-lameness Creem magazine and ’zines like Skunk Piss, Boston Groupie News and Subway News.”
While acknowledging that tastes can change, Cosloy knows what Matador offers could become obsolete. “It’s not written anywhere that we’re entitled to be in the music business,” he says. Indeed, in an industry that’s seen near-catastrophic drop-offs since the advent of digital file sharing, independent labels can’t rest on their laurels. He admits that he has plenty of records that actually don’t sell well, but in general their bands run successful tours, get press and made a friend of digital early on with easy-to-use download codes.
Still, he won’t disclose his company’s financials, but will say this: “I’ve been lucky enough not to have had to mature into doing shit I really, really hate. And if that means I have good taste? I’ll take it.”
Photography by Courtney Biggs