A profile by Denise Ondayko
(Coming Up! August 1983)
If you're inclined to view with casual disregard any music that
requires thought, defies category or isn't a part of a current pasteurized trend,
excuse me. If you're truly interested in music on a larger scope, I invite you
to further liberate yourselves and discover the wealth of talent in the San Francisco
alternative music scene.
An ideal introduction to our city's underground music world is Subterranean Records,
a small independent record company operating out of a Valencia Street storefront.
Subterranean is run by Steve Tupper and Kathy Hatch, who are in their words "two
people doing the work of several person's full-time jobs." Their extensive record
catalog offers a variety of avenues to explore in adventurous and controversial
The company was founded in 1979 because no one else was doing it. Or until then
the only record companies producing alternative music were based in Los Angeles
and taking full advantage of musicians. Subterranean emerged as the honest alternative.
As Tupper says, "There were few options at the time. It was almost impossible
for bands to find a label to record them if they didn't have an easily marketable
sound or proven commercial potential. And the expense of pressing their own discs
was often prohibitive. Musicians never have any money."
Typically, a band will come to Subterranean with a tape. Subterranean covers the
manufacturing and promotion costs. After expenses, the profits, if any, are divided
between the band and Subterranean, 50-50. The records are distributed through
independent companies - about 20 in the United States and 10 for foreign distribution.
This year the unexpected collapse of five distributors (Faulty, Disc Trading,
Sky Deck, New Music and Bona Part) created financial difficulties. Adding insult
to injury is the Reagan Administration's new 1983 tax law that prohibits a small
business like Subterranean from writing off bad debts as a loss. Tupper said "We
were hoping this year we would break even or perhaps make money. That just isn't
possible now." Money is obviously not the motivation behind Subterranean's existence.
Hatch says they do it "because it's exciting. We like the music we're putting
out and if we weren't putting it out, it wouldn't be heard." Subterranean has
just completed work on their 41st release - a single by the band Arkansaw Man.
Strong rhythmic interaction and imagination make the Arkansaw Man sound which
is often interpreted as jazz oriented only because it doesn't fall under a typical
rock category. About Subterranean, Arkansaw Man guitarist Stephen Clarke remarks,
"they're great! They never interfere. We never have to do anything but express
ourselves musically. The relationship is based on our music alone, not on any
The band that has gained the most notoriety on the Subterranean label is Flipper.
Tupper tells how in the beginning "They were dismissed by all but a few raving
fanatics, one of whom was fortunately Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, who talked
about Flipper all over the country. People paid attention." Steve DePace, drummer
for Flipper describes the band's relationship with Subterranean as "friendly,
easy-going, straightforward and honest. Steve never tries to get underhanded with
us." Flipper is in the final stages of their second album.
Art bands, avant-garde, hardcore or "post-punk" bands; Subterranean has it all.
Favorite releases are their compilation albums. "Live At Target" features four
of the most challenging experimental/post-punk groups on the West Coast - Flipper,
Nervous Gender, Uns, and Factrix. This album is not for the musically timid. "Club
Foot" is a compilation album described as "neo-beatnik meets modern jazz meets
bizarroid pop meets twisted funk meets demented Stravinsky." "Red Spot" is the
anthology of "different" San Francisco bands including Animal Things, Minimal
Man, Woundz and others.
Little money and less time is inhibiting but Subterranean continues to support
and produce music we wouldn't hear otherwise. Their catalog is available through
Subterranean Records at 577 Valencia Street. Take advantage of this vast array
of artists and expand your own musical horizons.
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