“I just wanted to put out my friends’ records because nobody was putting out my friends’ records…” – Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars
In 1991, a Montana native who had relocated to Olympia, Washington, Slim Moon was looking for a way to release his spoken word performances. He decided the best way to accomplish that was to start his own label. After applying for a business license and coming up with a name, based on a painting that he had done on the back of a poster that was hanging in his room, Kill Rock Stars was born. The first release would be Slim’s own spoken word performance with friend Kathleen Hanna recruited to contribute a piece for the A side. Later that year, Slim assembled a compilation of local Olympia, Washington bands to contribute to the International Pop Underground Convention. The compilation was titled simply Kill Rock Stars and included, among others, Bikini Kill, Melvins, Nirvana, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, Unwound, and Jad Fair.
After the release of the IPU compilation, Bikini Kill (with Kathleen Hanna on vocals) approached Slim to release their record. Slim recalls, “When Bikini Kill told me that they wanted me to put out their record, I wasn’t sure I was ready. I had a secret fantasy of building a record label, but I thought it would take like three years before I had something to offer to a big band. So I was floored when they asked me because it was way ahead of my schedule of how things would go. But they felt they could trust me because I was their friend. It was super exciting.”
According to current label vice-president Maggie Vail, Kill Rock Stars has released everything from punk to hardcore to post punk to noise to folk to spoken work to alt country to Americana to hip hop. This wide diversity of releases has kept KRS from being pigeonholed with a certain type of artist on their roster. However, with the release of the Bikini Kill EP in 1992, KRS would begin a long association with riot grrrl artists that would go on to include Bratmobile, Heavens to Betsy, Huggy Bear, and Sleater-Kinney.
KRS found commercial success in 1997 with the release of singer/songwriter Elliott Smith’s album Either/Or. The Gus Van Sant directed, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck penned movie Good Will Hunting, featured many of Smith’s songs throughout the film. In the same year Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out was also released to critical acclaim. 1997 also saw KRS start an in house, now defunct, sister label for harsher sounding indie rock called 5 Rue Christine (5RC).
In 2003, KRS signed Portland, Oregon band The Decemberists and released two albums with them, before they moved on to major label Capital Records. As with most situations in the music industry, change came to KRS in 2006 when Slim left the label to become A & R representative for Warner Music subsidiary Nonesuch Records. Slim’s wife, Portia Sabin, took over ownership and daily operations of KRS. Under Portia’s guidance, KRS has trimmed their roster and made a conscience effort to release few records in subsequent years, allowing them to focus more attention on those releases. In 2008 KRS moved their base of operations to Portland, Oregon.
Today, Kill Rock Stars has distinguished themselves as one of the few female run record labels in the industry. With only six employees, their mission remains to continue putting out exceptional records by important artists, and our tradition of being queer-positive, feminist, and artist-friendly continues as well. KRS strives to work within the theory of the artists putting out a release themselves, without having to put it out themselves. The artist is allowed a level of autonomy in their recordings that can’t be found within the structure of a major label. Contracts are constructed so that the artist shares the financial responsibility with KRS.
During a 2007 interview, Portia Sabin was asked how the turmoil in the music industry has affected her label and what influence that has had on how she runs things. “…The other problem that I’m finding is that in general people don’t understand what record labels do. And this is a really big issue for me, something I’d like to address a lot in the future, because record labels provide services for artists that they are not able to perform for themselves, and they shouldn’t have to—it’s very difficult to be an artist full-time and also be your own record label. Record labels do provide certain services and I think people need to understand what those services are, because there’s this idea out there that record labels just exist to steal artist’s money and to screw over the artist and they’re just a bunch of fat cats… But it’s funny that lately a lot of people don’t see a difference between the majors and the indies when they talk about it. And indies in general have a different payment deal than majors, which is significant. They might pay lip service to it but when you get right down to it, people are saying all sorts of things nowadays, like why can’t artists’ managers do what their record labels do, why can’t we have a new model where record labels are completely obsolete and the management team does what record labels do, and my argument to that is your manager takes 20 percent of everything you do, whereas labels only take a percentage of record sales. And asking a manager to invest their personal money in the creation, production, and marketing of records is going to result in people taking a lot fewer chances with bands that might not make that money back right away—I can’t see managers wanting to do much artist development, it’s too great a risk.”
KRS continues to release albums on CD, vinyl, and in digital formats. They also run their own mail order store through their website with Tobi Vail (drummer for Bikini Kill) in charge of that department. Recently they have used the new Internet tool Groupon to bring new listeners to their website. Groupon offers customers the chance to purchase $20 worth of merchandise from the Kill Rock Stars online store for $10.
After twenty years in operation, Kill Rock Stars continues release some of the most important, challenging music in the industry. Their do it yourself philosophy is still helping artists realize their visions.