The death of the music industry is breathing new life into the music business, especially when it comes to labels.
While independent record labels have been around since the turn of the last century, they've been multiplying like fruit flies over the past decade or so. Vinyl, cassettes, free downloads — even paid downloads and CDs — all factor into the best-laid plans of countless (though it's easily over 9,000) boutique labels worldwide.
Some provide livings for several people. Some, for one. Some are strictly labors of love.
The last category fits Nero's Neptune like an XS leotard. And that's exactly how label boss Mark Trehus planned it.
"I didn't start Nero's Neptune with the intention of making money," said Trehus, expertly making himself heard above the friendly din at Common Roots Café, near his Treehouse Records shop in Minneapolis. "For me, the label is just a way to make sure that work by artists I respect reaches the audience it deserves. In that sense, it's a success."
The stuff that Trehus releases — mostly artfully packaged vinyl LPs in editions of 500 — might seem exotic to the casual observer. But Nero's Neptune, named for a Bob Dylan lyric, is one of a brace of Twin Cities record imprints (see also: De Stijl, Taiga, Amphetamine Reptile, Innova, Profane Existence, Roaratorio, Housepig, Phage Tapes, Small Doses, A Terre) that use the Web to connect with mainstream-indifferent music lovers scattered all over the globe.
Owning the brick-and-mortar Treehouse Records gives Trehus a leg up with distribution. But with its product spread around at least 20 online retail sites, the label depends on the Internet as much as any of its peers.
"I'm hardly the world's most digitally adept person," Trehus said. "I don't even own a cellphone. That's one reason I brought Paul Metzger on as the label's first employee earlier this year, as webmaster and art director."
Metzger, the Minneapolis-based experimental guitarist and banjoist, came aboard just in time to help usher in Nero's busiest year since its launch in 2005, with albums by country blues legend Spider John Koerner, noise rock pioneer Michael Yonkers with the Blind Shake, avant-punk institution Pere Ubu, free-jazz iconoclasts Peter Brötzmann/Hamid Drake and Detroit garage punk luminaries Danny and the Darleans. For a label with fewer than three dozen releases in its catalog, this year's total of seven new ones is a lot.
The label will start 2014 with what promises to be its most remarkable titles to date: two LPs and a CD of sacred music by the Congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ With Signs Following of Jolo, W.Va.
Part of what makes this raw, down-home rockabilly unique can't be heard — these are the first-ever albums by a snake-handling congregation. Even minus visuals (check out YouTube), something about the music gives it an air of strangeness.
Maybe it's just the potential for mayhem. But more likely it's one of the featured vocalists — a dude named Tim who sings like a lady and wields the most bloodcurdling vibrato in the history of air. In any case, Trehus and Nero's Neptune are about to claim a patch of ethnomusicological turf worthy of the Smithsonian.
"I decided at the beginning of the year that I was going to finish as many projects as possible," said the silver-haired 58-year-old. "I'm at an age where I have friends who are dying. What's going to be my legacy?
"Am I just going to be remembered as some [jerk] who slung records on the corner of Lyndale and 26th? I'd rather that I be remembered as somebody who helped put new art out into the world."