‘We literally cannot sell a band of five dudes’: Dr Portia Sabin on Kill Rock Stars’ success
For a decade, Dr Portia Sabin has been president of legendary indie label Kill Rock Stars.
The label was founded in the early-90s and quickly became synonymous with the fledgling Riot Grrrl movement. Kill Rock Stars released records from bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Huggy Bear, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17 and that strong tradition of championing women in rock bands has continued to this day.
“When I took over the label, over 50 percent of the artists on the label were either female fronted or had women in the band,” Dr Sabin told Double J’s Myf Warhurst.
“And some of the ones in the other 40-odd percent were solo singer-songwriters. It's a massive number of our artists that are female fronted or have women in the band. So, as a result, I think we just do better with that.”
Perhaps key to the continued success of Kill Rock Stars is that knowledge of their strengths. Sabin admits she has discovered the limitations of the label in her time at the top and that such a discovery came as something of a rude shock.
“We literally cannot sell a band of five dudes,” she said. “It's true. Every time we've tried it, it's just completely tanked. It just hasn't happened.
“We just don't have that audience, for whatever reason. That's not who comes to Kill Rock Stars. It's not what they're looking for.
"A couple of times in the past ten years I've fallen for a band that was very traditionally five guys - I grew up with Duran Duran and the quintessential five-dude band era - I thought 'Why can't we do it? They're making great music and they sing really prettily!' But no. Not a thing.”
But it’s not as though this limit has been an impediment. As the music industry becomes more and more equal, more women are starting bands. And Kill Rock Stars are in the perfect position to work with the ones that they love.
“It's wonderful for me,” Sabin said. “Because that's not a hardship. It's not like it used to be when I was a kid, when you would only get one out of every ten bands having a girl.
"Forget it - women are everywhere in the landscape now. We're already listening to those bands, so we might as well find the ones that we can actually work with.”
This also doesn’t mean that Kill Rock Stars is remaining staid in its approach to releasing records. In fact, recent years have seen a dramatic set of additions to their roster: stand-up comedians.
“We were so interested [in releasing comedy albums] but we didn't know how to do it,” Sabin said.
“We didn't really have a model. The only model that we had was Sub Pop which had put out a few David Cross records and some Patton Oswalt records.
“What ended up happening was very serendipitous. We retweeted something that Kurt Braunohler, an alternative comedian, had tweeted and he tweeted My god Kill Rock Stars just retweeted me. My 14-year-old self is freaking out.
“I called him, and about an hour later we had decided to do a record together."
Sabin says Kill Rock Stars have a firm idea of the kind of comedy they want to release, and it very nicely aligns with the label’s original mission from 25 years ago.
“Alternative comics that people don't necessarily know, but should know,” she says of the signings they’ve made. “To me, it's getting back to the punk roots of the label from the early 90s. We were the label that put out Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear and Bratmobile.
“We’re signing people who have something political to say, who are angry, who have thoughts about stuff. That's been such a joy, because we've got to put out albums by Hari Kondabolu and Cameron Esposito, and these people who are just out there speaking their truth in a very powerful way. To me, that really connects with the original mission of the label.”
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