There has been another tragic death in the music world.
Hydra Head Records, a boutique label that specialized in bringing you genre destroying, envelope pushing, parameter annihilating music ranging from the bracing pop of Torche to the brutish heaviness of Old Man Gloom as well as the experimental avenues of Jesu, Cave In, Isis, Boris, Kayo Dot, and so many others is shutting its doors after nearly twenty years. They were a label that understood what music could be and, in many ways how it should be.
The man standing atop this mountain was Isis frontman and label-head Aaron Turner. Turner began Hydra Head in 1993 in his hometown of New Mexico as a simple distribution company. When Turner moved to Boston to attend art school, he released the first Hydra Head seven inch from local band Vent. From that small beginning would blossom a label that would be ahead of the curve when it came to experimental and underground music.
What made Hydra Head stand out against other labels was the complete lack of rules or guidelines behind what they would release. One month they would unleash the savagery of a band like Botch then offer the wayward sounds of Cable or the completely unexplainable Oxbow. It seemed the only key to the entire industry was that you had to be good and you had to be interesting. While other small labels focused their power on doom metal, black metal, experimental offerings or any niche market, Hydra Head became a way station for all those genres and more.
For myself, I was made aware of bands that would become a huge part of my musical identity. Harvey Milk, Dalek, Torche, Boris, Lustmord, Pelican, the list is extensive. Hydra Head was a benchmark for me, if they were releasing something then I had to hear it because I knew, like it or hate, I was going to respect it. I also made some friends along the way. I had long known Mark Thompson from my days in Boston and recently worked closely with Turner himself in hopes of bringing even more attention to the label.
So what happened? The new dawn of music happened I suppose. The bread and butter of labels like Hydra Head is the constant selling of product that will then be recycled into the company. As people began to enjoy the ability to download records for free, those profits dwindled quickly. Hydra Head even offered some of the most unique and gorgeous packaging a collector could want, especially in their vinyl section. Collectors and music lovers flocked to these items, but your standard record buyer, if they were interested at all, simply clicked a few buttons and enjoyed the work for free.
Outside of the download issue, Hydra Head also never veered from their course in order to sell more records. In my early days at MTV I helped one of their bands, Scissorfight, by putting them on the channel for You Hear It First. The world was not ready for a large bearded man singing about a planet of ass. Nothing Hydra Head released was easily marketable mainly because it was coming from a vantage point of music as art not commodity. To my friends, bands like Isis, Jesu, Torche and Cave In were big artists and had huge records. Sadly our view of the world is seen from the underground and while these bands did sell better than others, they were still too far out of the box to keep a record label afloat.
Costs rise, live music tours are harder to get going because gas is $4 a gallon, younger kids without the collectors’ mentality speed right towards the Internet for their musical fix and when you create art there is usually few around to really appreciate it, much less buy it. Those factors mounted too savage a hill to climb and, effective by the end of this year, Hydra Head Records will close their doors. They will remain open to sell their back catalog but the days of looking forward to what they would serve up next are gone.
As with any label, problems arose and feelings were hurt. I know not everybody loves Turner or the label but nobody can say anything about their catalog. For nearly twenty years Hydra Head has challenged us, prodded us and forced us to look at music in a much deeper and more artistic fashion. They will be sorely missed.
Thank you Hydra Head Records, for everything.