In his new book Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music, Mark Baumgarten explores the independent music scene of the mid eighties to the present through the story of Calvin Johnson’s seminal record label. And although he’s only looking a few decades back, it was a different world.
To find music that wasn’t on the radio, you had to search — without Google. You had to go to shows, get mix tapes from cousins, or ask record store employees for “underground” bands. But once you did, there was a whole world to explore. It was the heyday of zines and newsletters, when independent bands toured in vans across the country, blazing trails down the still-new interstate system, winning new fans over one small town at a time.
In Baumgarten’s telling, Calvin Johnson emerges as the enigmatic co-founder/spiritual leader of Olympia-based K Records in the early 80s. The label released albums by acts like Beck, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse. But it influenced countless more — an entire constellation of artists who would come to define the musical underground for an entire generation.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had the label’s shield tattooed to his arm. On the other coast, Washington D.C. hardcore legend Ian MacKaye, who founded Minor Threat and Fugazi, told Baumgarten that when Johnson’s band Beat Happening opened for Fugazi, he witnessed one of the most punk rock moments of his life.
Watch modern K Records band LAKE perform on opbmusic.
We’ll talk with Baumgarten about K Records, Love Rock, and 30 years of music history.
Are you a fan of the label? Do you have a favorite K Records album? What’s your definition of independent music?