Kill Rock Stars: We Wanted Everything to ChangeApril 25, 2017
“The music they wanted to hear arguably was under-represented, so they set out to solve the problem.” George Howard, co-founder, Music Audience Exchange and founder of Slow River Records
Kill Rock Stars is one of indie rock’s most respected record labels, known by fans for its superior taste in music, and by musicians for its ethical approach to business. Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith all have roots at the label. But there are a lot of bumps on the road, as you take a business from a one-bedroom apartment to the big time. Follow founder Slim Moon and current label president Portia Sabin, who happen to be married, as they face personal tragedy, their personal demons, and a massive change in their industry’s business model. Through it all, it’s a story about making a space for yourself, and putting people before profits.
This episode features:
Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars
Portia Sabin, president of Kill Rock Stars
Corin Tucker, co-founder of Sleater-Kinney
Cameron Esposito, comedian
Rhea Butcher, comedian
Sean Nelson, arts and music editor, The Stranger/member of Harvey Danger
George Howard, co-founder, Music Audience Exchange and founder of Slow River Records
Jessica Hopper, executive editor of MTV News and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Songs and Audio featured in this episode include:
“Conflict Free Diamonds” by Kinski
“Feels Blind” by Bikini Kill
“Die” by Bratmobile
“Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill
“Tip Toe Blues (Instrumental)” by Michael Smith
“Mean” by Slim Moon (spoken word)
“You Speak Jealousy” by Unwound
“Reject All American” by Bikini Kill
“Miss Misery (Early Version)” by Elliott Smith
“Howl at the Moon (Instrumental)” by Werwulf
“We Think She’s a Nurse” by Kinski
“Arresting and Existing (Edit) (Instrumental)” by Keen Collective
“Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith
“Steady Waltz (Alt. 1) (Instrumental)” by WZRDS
“Automatic Music” by Stereo Total
“Real Butcher” by Rhea Butcher (comedy)
“Fremm” by bed.
“Illegal” by Stereo Total
Check out our Spotify playlist inspired by this episode, including many songs you heard in this story:
To learn more about The Venture, go to virginatlantic.com/theventure
Sean Nelson: I was walking down the street in Seattle, downtown and a car kind of screeched up to the curb next to where I was walking and it was Slim and he rolled down the window and said “Hey I just heard your song on the radio it sounded great” and I was like “great, want to put it out as a single?” And he paused for a second and said “Yeah absolutely.” And so that’s how we got signed to Kill Rock Stars.
This is The Venture, a branded podcast from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative, about pioneering businesses and the people who made them possible.
Each week we’re going to meet innovators, artists, and risk takers who prove business is an adventure.
I’m your host, Ashley Milne-Tyte. And we’ll be taking this journey alongside Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson’s transatlantic airline, a company that embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates challenging the status quo.
We’re excited to bring you these stories of visionaries and makers who changed the face of their industries, but not in the ways you might think.
Rachel Ward: Sheep!
Ashley Milne-Tyte: Oh yes!
RW: And a llama! Yeah …
GPS: In a quarter mile your destination will be on the left.
RW: This is it! Okay!
My producer Rachel Ward and I are just over the Oregon border, driving through a forest in rural Washington State. We pull up a driveway into a clearing in the woods. It’s a big cedar house with a patio with a fire pit and a little Zen garden. We give the door a knock ….
AMT: [Door knock] Maybe they’ve changed their minds. I can see a little boy in the back…
And then a harder knock …
[big door knock]
PS: You found it!
AMT: Hi, I’m Ashley!
PS: Welcome to the weird middle of nowhere where we live!
AMT: Thank you!
This angular modern house DOES feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s no cell service. Head down the driveway and turn left, and the road dips down into a valley, then climbs up a giant hill.
We’re let into the house by Portia Sabin. She introduces us to her husband, Slim Moon, and their six-year-son…
Portia Sabin: This is Slim, and this is Finn
Finn has a mop of curly dark hair and his dad, Slim is wearing jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt. The family has been sitting at the kitchen table, playing a board game.
AMT: Hi! How are you feeling?
Finn is a bit shy, so he’s pretending to be a cat.
To warm him up, Slim has him get out his Pokemon cards.
AMT: Oh look at that!
Slim Moon: Are you trying to get all the Pokemon cards.
Finn: There are 150 of them.
SM: The other day he asked me if I collected Pokemon cards when I was a kid and I told him there was no Pokemon when I was a kid and he doesn’t really believe me.
As Portia goads Finn into eating some pancakes, and a large cat sprawls on the counter, it’s a sweet family portrait.
And then something jumps out at me. Slim is wearing sparkly blue polish on his nails … a clue, perhaps, to a punk rock legacy that makes this family stand out among the llama farms and cedar trees.
Then I notice a tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve of the Star Wars shirt. He lifts it up.
SM: This one is a bowl of fruit. This is a rocking chair. And this is a stack of books.
It’s these things that help me connect this 40-something dad to the skinny cowboy boot-wearing punk everyone started calling Slim.
Back when Slim was that skinny punk — in 1991 — he started the record label Kill Rock Stars.
Portia, his wife, now runs it.
Kill Rock Stars was a major launching pad for the Riot Grrrl movement. And the label became a cornerstone of the Pacific Northwest music scene.
Then, and today, Kill Rock Stars is a label committed to treating artists better than major labels — and one of the only female-run indie labels in the United States.
The name Kill Rock Stars announces exactly what it is: It’s the opposite of a big record label.
You won’t find any pop icons on Kill Rock Stars, but you will find artists that all of your favorite bands say are THEIR favorite bands.
George Howard: When I think of KRS I think of credibility.
This is George Howard. He’s the co-founder of the the Music Audience Exchange, a company that connects musicians with advertisers.
I caught him on his cell, heading back to the airport after South by Southwest.
GH: Kill Rock stars is very much values driven. They very much were creating a world in which they wanted to live in. The music they wanted to hear arguably was under-represented so they set out to solve the problem.
Jessica Hopper: They had built like a business model on quality.
Here’s Jessica Hopper. She’s the executive editor of MTV News.
JH: And the fact that you could walk into a store and reliably take a chance on an album. It was a big deal to take a chance on a 12 dollar record. You were like alright, I’ve liked the last four things on Kill Rock Stars … but they became really a label that you could trust.
CT: I think that had an incredible influence on my generation’s, our whole scene of music.
Corin Tucker, who co-founded the band Sleater-Kinney, was an early Riot Grrrl and Kill Rock Stars artist with her band Heavens to Betsy. Sleater-Kinney went on to became one of the label’s breakout artists.
Corin Tucker: The independent music that my generation listened to: Bikini Kill, Nirvana, Bratmobile, Elliott Smith. I mean the music that came out of that label was incredible. And also the ethics that went with it. The politics, the emotion, the cultural scene around it.
It was the early 90s. The place was Olympia, Washington, a magnet for artists and punks , and the center of it was The Evergreen State College.
That’s where Corin Tucker first got to know Slim Moon:
AMT: When did you first meet Slim?
CT: [Laugh] The first time I met Slim Moon I was a freshman at the Evergreen State College and he was wearing a head to toe red full pajamas. Like an old man would wear from like the 1920s, doing spoken word, smoking and drinking. It was like, who is this guy?
Slim’s commitment to partying — but not his classes — quickly got him kicked out of Evergreen. But he stuck around town, to do spoken word and play in bands.
And soon he got a job. A day job, working for the state of Washington, for the Human Rights Commission.
Few of his friends had “real” jobs and he’d grown up poor, so the idea of using his paycheck to buy a car, get a better apartment, or a better ANYTHING, seemed extravagant.
But if climbing the ladder wasn’t something Slim wanted to do, what was he doing?
SM: I mean it’s kind of silly to have a crisis at 22, but that’s what happened. Like I was really freaked out, “What am I going to do?” So I was trying all these different things and one of the things I did was like “I’m going to try painting” so what I did was I took all my rock band posters turned them over and I just painted on the backs of the posters.
His paintings featured words, provocative nonsense phrases slashed out in paint from a craft store. On one he scrawled “Kill Rock Stars.”
SM: That painting phase lasted like a month, and then the next month my phase was “You know what I’m going to start a record label and put out spoken word records.”
SPOKEN WORD: The mean was the second step in the …
Spoken Word — a type of poetry performed live, with connections to the Harlem Renaissance, Gertrude Stein, and The Beats — with a modern punk spin.
SPOKEN WORD: The woman in your life takes you thrift shopping and shows you things to buy.
SM: So it wasn’t, it wasn’t written to be read on a page it was meant to be performed out loud.
But in the early 1990s in the Pacific Northwest, grunge — loud, distorted rock music — was the dominant sound. And starting to break through to the mainstream. No one was interested in putting out spoken word records.
No one except Slim.
SM: I thought the perfect 3 min spoken piece on each side was just as valid as a perfect 3 minute pop song on each side of a seven inch.
It may seem like a strange choice now, but in Olympia’s punk community, it made sense. Slim was becoming a kind of tastemaker. He’d built up street cred, bouncing from parties in basements and dorms. So, when Slim liked something, people paid attention.
CT: His greatest strength is that he’s an incredible ear. But he was so smart, you know, that — that he kind of grew into that role of — of um, developing this really special record label. And that’s because of his ear — because he’s got an incredible ear for music and he just knew right away who the talent was.
After a couple of spoken word releases, he stumbled on a band he really loved. Called Unwound. They were a bunch of high school students, obviously not with a label.
And Slim wanted to make an album with them. Again, here’s Slim.
SM: This band in front of me, of 18 year old were ready to have an album but probably what was going to happen is would be like 7 years until they got their first record that seemed dumb. But if I put out this record of these three 18 year old that nobody’s every heard of nobody would buy it and I’d lose a bunch of money.
So Slim hatched a plan, to put the band on a compilation, to introduce them before putting out a full length.
It would be all hands on deck. A friend — Tinuviel Sampson — would print the album covers in her basement.
Another friend, Calvin Johnson, the owner of another local record label, helped get the records made.
But Calvin had one request. He wanted Slim to name the compilation after one of the phrases scrawled across a painting from Slim’s brief painting phase.
He should call it: Kill Rock Stars.
In 1991, a record label is born.
The compilation put KRS on the map. Slim had managed to get Nirvana to contribute a song, and the record served as a mix tape. It introduced people across the country to an exciting new scene.
And suddenly, the label Slim had been running out of an apartment — the opposite of his day job — was becoming a real thing. Tinuviel continued to help for a short time, recruiting bands and doing production on releases. And the label just kept signing more and more bands.
SM: We were doing surprisingly well, but I was taking every penny that was coming in and putting it back into records.
They would make a record, sell it, and then funnel those proceeds back into more records. Slim’s day job had been subsidizing the label, but when he got laid off, he decided he was making enough from selling records to live on.
Kill Rock Stars signed all kinds of artists — but they were especially excited about mostly female bands — Riot Grrrl bands.
Riot Grrrl wasn’t fun, frisky rock like the Go-Gos or Banarama.
Their art was activism, and they were reluctant to sell out and water down their lyrics about fighting sexism and violence against women, and homophobia.
This appealed to Slim, because he’d grown up around feminism. As a kid, his parents had split up. His mother came out as a lesbian, and she brought him along to protests for women’s rights.
The Riot Grrrl movement resonated with him. So he signed a bunch of bands like Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy, Corin Tucker’s band before Sleater-Kinney:
CT: We wanted everything to change, you know? And I think that having these women that were incredibly outspoken feminists, that wanted to be seen as powerful women and having these men that were incredibly sensitive that were, really emotional people, those were really unusual things. And that was like a huge part of the idea behind Kill Rock Stars.
Slim’s way of signing bands resonated with feminist musicians. It felt more fair to them, like Kill Rock Stars was on their side.
Bands on Kill Rock Stars would split profits with the label, 50/50. Here’s Slim:
SM: What I heard from almost every musician in every band on every record label ever, whether they were on a tiny label or a huge label, what I heard from all of them was they had no idea about any aspect of the money. They didn’t even usually know how many records they’d sold. They didn’t know how much money had been spent. They didn’t know how much money was owed to them. They were all in the dark and so I wanted to make sure that the artists I worked with were getting very thorough information from me so that they’d know where we stood with everything.
Major labels would spend so much money promoting and making albums that bands rarely saw royalty profits — they were eaten up by costs. But for Slim, the business choices of the label were as political as the artistic choices. And it was important for him for his label to be different.
SN: Kill Rock Stars is the only label that’s ever paid us a royalty from record sales.
Sean Nelson’s band Harvey Danger put out a release on Kill Rock Stars … long after its big hit “Flagpole Sitta” had faded from the charts.
SN: We put out two records on a major label, one of which was extraordinarily successful, by comparison the record we made that Kill Rock Stars put out, it was more meaningful to get those small royalty checks, than it was to be on MTV all the time.
Running a record label this way wasn’t wildly profitable … sales would spike, and then dip. And increasingly, Slim’s appetite for putting out as much music as he could put a strain on the company.
By 1997 he’d hit a critical point — he’d started to owe record pressing plants money that he couldn’t pay back. So to put out new releases he would switch to a different vendor that he wasn’t in debt to.
It was unsustainable, and after turning it over and over in his head he decided there was only one solution: If he wanted to keep Kill Rock Stars alive, he would have to lay off the entire label’s staff.
But then, this happened:
Madonna: From Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery,” music and lyrics by Elliott Smith.
Madonna — one of the biggest pop stars in the world — stood on stage in Hollywood and announced Elliott Smith as a nominee for an Oscar. His performance on the broadcast was the first time millions of Americans saw him.
Smith had been on Kill Rock Stars for a couple of years, when his song “Miss Misery,” was featured in the film Good Will Hunting.
Matt Damon: Sean, if the professor calls about that job. Just tell him sorry, I had to go see about a girl. – Will
Elliott Smith became famous, and overnight, the sales of his record Either/Or jumped. The Oscar nomination, and Smith’s rising star, saved KRS. Slim canceled plans for the lay off.
Slim had a big hit on his hands and the label stabilized. But in his personal life, he was anything but stable.
And that turmoil would lay the groundwork for another era at Kill Rock Stars.
Coming up, after the break.
You’re listening to The Venture, brought to you by Virgin Atlantic.
Before Virgin was an airline, it too had roots in the record industry. Founder Richard Branson opened up a record shop in London in the 1970s. The record shop become a record label. And then… Richard Branson set his sights on something … bigger.
Richard Branson: “I rang up Boeing and I say I wonder whether you have any secondhand 747s for sale? They say, well what do you do? I said I’ve got a record company, I’ve got the Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones. And they didn’t seem very impressed. I said, I’ve got Genesis, I’ve got Peter Gabriel.
He had the idea to start an airline.
RB: And the guy said well bizarrely we don’t normally sell secondhand 747s, but we do happen to have one. And the rest was history.
From that day forward, Virgin Atlantic has believed there’s no better time than the present for entrepreneurs to take a risk, and let their great ideas fly.
With new Virgin Atlantic nonstop flights between Seattle and London, in addition to dozens of other routes, you can get your adventure started now.
Learn more at virginatlantic.com/theventure.
Welcome back, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte, and this is The Venture, from Virgin Atlantic and Gimlet Creative.
Overnight, Kill Rock Stars went from the brink of shutting down, to having an Oscar nominated artist on its roster. The emergence of Elliott Smith had pulled the label back to financial stability.
But as the label was getting back on its feet, Slim Moon was having trouble staying upright.
He had long known that he a tendency to overdo it. His father had been an alcoholic, and Slim had watched him grapple with sobriety.
That exposure didn’t stop him from becoming a heavy drinker when he started playing in punk bands. Eventually, he managed to quit.
But he would later take up drugs — while he was running Kill Rock Stars.
SM: All the years of using I had a counter-narrative, like “I’m really just alcoholic. The particular drugs I’m using are not the really bad drugs, or look at these punk rockers I’m hanging out with, they are clearly drug addicts but I’m not using in the same way as them.” So you know, I had lots of stories I told myself.
Eventually, Slim hit bottom. He enrolled in drug treatment and got sober. But his using had taken a toll.
SM: I think that my addiction made it harder. I think I’m actually a warm, emotions-oriented person by disposition, but that my addiction made me a lot more disconnected than I would have been. It really enabled me to throw myself into the — the science of the work more, less than — less than the personal connections and feelings and emotions and bonds of the work.
CT: We had big touring plans, international tour happening, and we could not get a hold of Slim. And it really had an effect on our business relationship at the time.
This is Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. Her band had chosen Kill Rock Stars because the label took them seriously as artists. But sometimes they just couldn’t get hold of Slim. The band was working hard on the road, and when they couldn’t reach their label, it felt like they weren’t playing on the same team.
CT: He really went through a lot with getting sober. I mean I think that was incredibly hard for him. And I really respect him for doing that. I think sometimes getting sober can be a full time job, for someone who has really really serious issues. But you know, to be perfectly honest I think maybe that took away from, you know, investing 100 percent and growing the label. Maybe those things were, you know, two intense things to manage at the same time.
AMT: But you stayed…you stayed with the label for quite a bit longer right?
CT: That’s the funny thing about small businesses and independent record labels, specifically, is that they are a lot of times run by people who have issues. I mean all that angst, all that fuel, all that anxiety, you know, what might drive you to drugs and alcohol is also fuels that drive to be successful.
So even though our relationship was fraught with all of this conflict we sold sold a lot of records and people respected the label.
Sleater Kinney eventually left Kill Rock Stars, in the early 2000s. Slim was sober by this time … but it was too late to save that relationship. Sleater-Kinney signed with a larger label, in Seattle.
SM: I regret. That I didn’t always let the people I was working with understand how much I cared for them and how important the relationships were. And I didn’t always — I didn’t always stay as attuned to their needs and their priorities.
Sleater-Kinney’s departure had come on the heels of another major loss for the Kill Rock Stars community.
NPR: Musician Elliott Smith died yesterday in an apparent suicide, the 34 year old singer songwriter struggled with drug addiction throughout his career …
Smith’s death had a big effect on musicians in the Kill Rock Stars family — and also on Slim, according to Corin Tucker.
CT: Because he fostered this artist and this friend of his that was, you know, one of the greatest talents of our generation. This incredible, incredible songwriter who was also tortured by his own demons. And who everyone tried to help but could not stop him from being consumed by addiction and by his own mental illness.
With Smith’s death, Slim had lost a friend whose career he’d helped cultivate. It could have meant the end of the stability Kill Rock Stars had regained.
But there was a countervailing bright spot in Slim’s personal life.
That bright spot was a Phd candidate he’d met in New York City, named Portia Sabin.
Portia was a punk drummer, an anthropologist, a horse groomer, and a band manager — among other things.
The first night they met, they went out for pierogies. Later that week, Portia took him to the track, taught him how to read a racing form, and bet on the ponies.
Within a week, they were officially a couple.
Eventually, they got married.
And as Slim’s life changed, so did his interest in running Kill Rock Stars. His heart wasn’t really in it anymore.
SM: Somewhere in the middle of the 2000s, I got bored with just running a record label and I started creating other businesses. I opened a record store in downtown Olympia, and I put on a music festival and started to learn about the promotion business a little. I had energy but I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. I wanted to do new things.
He was ready to leave. But he’d promised the Kill Rock Stars bands that he’d never sell out to a big label, the way many independent labels around him had in the late 90s and early 2000s.
SM: If I had stayed in charge of Kill Rock Stars, we would have had to have like, grown into management or grown into publishing or opened a pizzeria or something. Because my wanderlust is super dangerous.
Warding off that wanderlust required a change of leadership.
And Slim realized there was a person right in front him who could run the label — maybe even run it better than he had.
The solution was Portia, his wife.
Portia had been managing a band – the Gossip. And when Slim had needed help in the Kill Rock Stars office, Portia would pitch in.
Portia was methodical. Analytical. And didn’t take shit from anybody –
ALT: Portia was methodical. Analytical. And she was matter of fact — which was an asset in the office.
AMT: I’d love to know what – what was that conversation like when you said “can you run the label?”
SM: It was kind of like that.
PS: Well my — my takeaway from that conversation was, “would you take over the label and shut it down?”
Slim took a job at a larger record label to focus more on working one on one with artists.
But the new job didn’t last long – eventually he realized he was done with the music industry entirely. He went back to school to study religion, a subject he’d become interested in after he’d gotten sober.
Portia was now in charge of Kill Rock Stars.
PS: And ended up having a really good time and enjoying it. And I signed three bands that we then put out in 2008 and all of them sold really well. So I was kind of like, well, I don’t think I want to shut this down. I think I want to keep going. But it was kind of funny because it really was a different world after that. We really moved from the physical economy to the digital economy.
Portia was faced with the same challenge that tons of other small record labels were facing: A seismic shift in the music industry. It was a daunting task — but first she had to figure out where money was coming in, and where it was going.
PS: I just took a Quickbooks class because I was like “How hard could this be, right? Like I have a freakin Ph.D. I can do this.” So the company got nice and tight.
But being tight wasn’t enough in the new climate. Slim had founded Kill Rock Stars in one world. Portia was facing a different one entirely.
PS: This was 2009, right when the big recession hit and the music industry really tanked big time. I tend to think, he knew this was going to happen, and that’s one of the reasons he was getting out. But regardless, it happened I was dealing with it
GH: Yeah I don’t think there is a the music industry anymore. I think there’s a technology industry that certain companies are focusing on music.
This is George Howard of the Music Audience Exchange.
GH: The moment music got digitized online, it became information, right. And humans share information. That’s what we do. Napster was never a creation of ok let’s see how we can screw the artists or the labels or whatever. It was just hey I want to share the music that I love and discover new music. That’s a very natural thing.
So in that climate, to help the label survive, Portia had to innovate.
She got involved in the structural side of the music industry. She advocated for independent label interests before Congress, and founded the Liberas, a sort of Grammys for independent music.
And she weighed whether or not to work with the new technology companies that were beginning to replace the music industry.
PS: When I took over the company we were probably making 70 to 80 thousand dollars a month from iTunes, which was really healthy, like that was a very healthy amount. That dropped considerably over time, it really diminished. But it really diminished when streaming happened, because people really changed from downloading to streaming.
She had to figure out how to replace the iTunes income — but she was wary of all of the new streaming services that were coming online. Streaming paid so much less than selling a download on iTunes, it seemed risky.
PS: Then after Spotify had been around for about a year, I had this band Horsefeathers, he came home from tour and he came into my office and he was like Portia, we’ve got to do Spotify. I was like “really?” He’s like “every single night on tour kids would come up and say why are you guys not on Spotify. That’s what that’s how I listen to music. And I want to listen to your music. And I can’t get it because it’s not on Spotify.”
So she gave it a try, putting the Kill Rock Stars catalog up on the streaming service.
PS: And the crazy part is it was kind of like nothing nothing nothing. And then it was like ground swell, and now we make so much money on Spotify. It’s nuts.
AMT: What, more than you made on iTunes?
PS: More than we made on iTunes. Yeah.
And Portia made another big pivot with Kill Rock Stars. She started signing an entirely different type of artist: Comedians.
Rhea Butcher: I also love having this last name because I’m a lifetime vegetarian with the last name Butcher.
That’s Rhea Butcher. Her album “Butcher” was released by Kill Rock Stars.
RB: I’ve had that irony my entire life but not much iron in my diet. Very weak. Honestly my muscles at this point are just made of sunflower seeds and hope.
Comedians now make up HALF the active KRS artist roster.
It turned out to be a winning business strategy. Comedy albums are cheap to make — you just have to record a live show — and they do best on digital platforms.
And comedians noticed that a beloved feminist punk label was doing comedy.
RB: And it was really exciting because I always wanted to be in a band. But I’ve always had severe stage fright playing music in front of other people. And so getting to put out stand up comedy album on a record label that I thought was only for the bands that I love is pretty great.
Cameron Esposito: Yeah what an elaborate work around, Rhea.
That’s Cameron Esposito, Rhea’s wife. She also has an album on KRS, called “Same Sex Symbol.”
Working with alternative comics like Rhea and Cameron was a natural fit for Kill Rock Stars. They were speaking truth to power the way Riot Grrrl had done in the early 90s.
And Cameron says working with Kill Rock Stars is a good fit for comics.
CE: The awesome thing about working with a music label is that they already understand artist identity so well, because a band has to be marketed as like a full experience.
But aside from the marketing fit, Cameron says Kill Rock Stars’ original ethos — being inclusive, bringing forward female and queer voices, and investing in artists — is a personal fit.
CE: You know what was nice about it was feeling that the label saw me how I saw myself as an artist because when I think about the riot girl bands that they launched, and the queer people occupying queer space, when I think about those artists. That is something that I’m so happy to be in the canon with, like I that’s where I place myself too. You know we’re not like a diversity hires that they don’t believe in. We are the people saying the things that they believe. And that matters so much as an artist but also as a business person. I mean, this is a job and this is my business. And what an unbelievable opportunity to get a chance to just do business with people who you believe in.
It’s all in line with Kill Rock Stars’ original mission. And as Portia runs the label, Slim is living his mission in a different way: After finishing a graduate degree in divinity, he’s building a business doing life coaching for musicians. He’s also working with recovering addicts. And he says he’s becoming an activist, speaking up on issues like racial justice.
SM: Now I’ve been trained to speak theologically. And so I’m willing and ready to be more of a voice than I used to be, more of an activist on my own terms rather than the person that enables other activists.
Which is how he always thought of his job at Kill Rock Stars. And most of the time, he’s looking after his son Finn. For Slim and Portia, their partnership makes it all possible.
PS: When things happen I always want to go home and talk to him about it. I really appreciate that he had this job before me. I don’t feel that he knows this better. I feel like really grateful that he knows what I’m talking about and what I’m going through. He understands my pain, when I have pain, and that I can talk to him about about these issues that come up. And that’s so refreshing, and it’s like refreshing every day.
I was good at growth, and I was good at putting out a lot of records a year. But I wasn’t necessarily that efficient.
The fifteen years that I ran it was this rollercoaster, of feast and famine.
The ten years that Portia’s run it, it’s been a time of economic stability. She’s way better at counting the pennies, where I was more of a dreamer. And the music business is totally different. In a time of plummeting record sales and a real diversification of income streams, she’s kept it unbelievably stable.
“Stable” is a long way from where Kill Rock Stars started. But by sticking to their vision, they’ve made it clear — they’re sticking around.
The Venture is a co-production of Virgin Atlantic, Gimlet Creative, and Figliulo and Partners.
We were produced this week by Rachel Ward, Nicole Wong and Grant Irving, with help from Frances Harlow, Katelyn Bogucki, Abbie Ruzicka, Julia Botero, and Caitlin DiLena. Creative direction from Nazanin Rafsanjani. Production assistance from Thom Cote. We were edited by Wendy Dorr and mixed by Zac Schmidt. Our theme song was composed by Bobby Lord.
Music for this episode is courtesy of Kill Rock Stars, Terrorbird Media and Marmoset. You can find a full list of songs and artists at The Venture dot show.
Special thanks to Ben Parrish, Maggie Vail, Allison Wolfe, Jeanne Smith, Tinuviel Sampson, Steve Fisk, Lars Gotrich, and Shannon Void at Perfect World Productions.
Coming up next week on The Venture: a woman who is making waves and challenging the norms of a male-dominated industry, in the cutthroat business, of fine dining.
NIKI: There’s all these myths that go on with why women can’t be in the kitchen. And I think it’s just made up by men who don’t want women in the kitchen.
If you like The Venture, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts! And please, leave us a review to tell us why you like it! It helps other people find us. To learn more about the show, go to theventure.show
I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks so much for listening!
Subscribe to The Venture
RSS for your podcatcher