Firebrand Records Tries To Rewrite The Music Industry

Ryan Harvey & Son of Nun - Firebrand Records

Music has a long history of association with activism and politics but traditionally when it comes to the ‘music business’ it seems that artists with a political agenda have struggled to find the support that their more mainstream contemporaries receive. Local activist and musician Ryan Harvey seeks to help change that with his new endeavor, Firebrand Records, and to help achieve it, he’s working with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine – one of the few truly mainstream bands who also promote an overtly political agenda. Through the label, they aim to support a roster of diverse, political musicians. I spoke with Harvey at local pub Liam Flynn’s Ale House about the new label, how it came to be, and it’s goals.

Harvey has been involved in activism since the late 90s and music for over a decade, starting with the Riot-Folk Collective, a national group that started in 2004. RFC was heavily involved in going to protests and in his words, “we were singing songs and we felt the politics were very sharp because we were actually involved in what we were singing about, or if we weren’t, we knew about it in a real way.” Around the same time Morello, guitarist for Rage Against The Machine, had started a folk project of his own under the name The Nightwatchman. “He got in touch with us and we kind of had an email friendship, so we met him a year later and we started collaborating.”

In 2006, Harvey’s childhood babysitter was killed in Iraq, which led to him working with the group Iraq Veterans Against The War. “The first thing we did with them we did this tour for a month through the rust belt where we had veterans and student antiwar activists speaking every night and I was playing music… for the the final event in Chicago i had Tom fly out and do two concerts. He was really happy to be part of it,” Harvey recalls.

After a decade playing folk punk for other activists and like-minded people, Harvey had already started to realize that he was seeing the same faces in every town when he toured, but working with Morello and other mainstream artists like Eddie Vedder brought access to new people. “It became a strategy of ours, using mainstream musicians and the forums that they’re able to create through their music to connect with people who might agree with the ideas that we were talking about,” he says, noting that “The underground is cool, you kind of have the moral high ground… but on the other hand you’re like – ‘man, there are a serious amount of people you’re able to access when you are in that mainstream world.’”

While touring in 2011, Harvey started meeting artists from around the world who were not satisfied with their reach and the idea for a different kind of record label started to coalesce, one that would be designed to help artists gain more attention (and sales) without compromising their politics or ideals. Last summer, he brought the idea to Morello, along with a list of artists who had already expressed interest and Morello was instantly on board. Firebrand was officially a go.

To facilitate their mission, Firebrand started with the standard (and much maligned) industry instrument, the record deal, and rethought it. “We took the regular recording artist agreements and we hacked them to pieces, trying to craft an artist agreement that underground artists want and need.” Harvey and Morello strove to end up with a record contract that protects the artist, which is the opposite of a normal recording contract which generally exists to protect the label’s interests.

One of their first signings was Son of Nun (aka Kevin James), a long-time Baltimore-area conscious rapper, activist, and former public school teacher. I spoke to James about signing to the label, which marks a return to music for him after a several year hiatus. “I don’t have a lot of experience with contracts and record labels, but what I’ve heard that is different about what we’re doing is the flexibility in terms of what the artist can and can’t do.” A consistent theme when James speaks about Firebrand is that he refers to the label as “we”, which is not how most artists tend to reference their record labels.

When asked what he thinks Firebrand is doing differently, James breaks it down for me: “honestly, the main thing that keeps me plugged in and makes me excited about doing this project is the fact that its a label thats explicitly about supporting music that’s trying to change the world. That’s what it’s about for me. And the fact that the people that are leading the label are artists themselves and have been in this movement for years lends credibility and a lot of trust on my part to their behalf.” He adds with a chuckle “I definitely read the contract, too.“

Since Harvey and Morello are activists as well as musicians, they are also aware that sometimes artists want to release music as part of current events. As Harvey explains, “someone might write a song about Baltimore Uprising – and they don’t want to wait three weeks for a promotion plan and for emails back and forth with their management and whatever. They might just want to upload it overnight.” Firebrand allows their artists the flexibility to release music this way, which also acknowledges the changing ways people discover music in 2015.

Though the goal for Firebrand is to spread ideas and viewpoints through music, Harvey stresses that “we are trying to be a very real record company.” They have contacts with artist management through Morello’s ties to the industry, and are working with Anti-Flag records for vinyl pressing and distribution, though Harvey predicts most sales will be digital, and any vinyl releases will have modest volume to start.

The label’s first release, a sampler entitled “A New World In Our Songs”, is available now via their web site as well as iTunes and Soundcloud. It has tracks from Harvey and Son of Nun (his track,”It’s Like That” is the bracing highlight of the album), as well other Firebrand artists like bell’s roar, Lyka Till, Built For The Sea and the Egyptian musician Ramy Essam, who was arrested by the Egyptian government, tortured and eventually driven to take asylum in Sweden as a result of his music.

Hopefully, the kind of support Firebrand plans to offer will translate into more musical output reaching more ears, as the ultimate mission of the label is to help the ideas and perspectives of their artist’s reach a broader audience. Harvey feels the label’s support could be instrumental: “Underground musicians can make money on tour, typically- you make t-shirts, you make CDs, you go on tour, you have a good time, you eat and drink, but once you get home you have to go back to work. What if we could sell even a couple thousand albums a year through digital promotion for these artists? That could be thousands of dollars that they weren’t seeing before. That could pay for your recording. That could fund a tour.”

Check out Firebrand Records: SOUNDCLOUD | TWITTER | WEB | FACEBOOK

Ryan Harvey & Son of Nun - Firebrand Records

Ed Schrader, Kevin Sherry & Cats on the Lake.

Ed Schrader & Kevin Sherry making Cats On The Lake shirts
Ed Schrader & Kevin Sherry making Cats On The Lake shirts
Ed Schrader & Kevin Sherry making Cats On The Lake shirts
Ed Schrader & Kevin Sherry making Cats On The Lake shirts

This was a fun shoot. Ed texted me to ask if I wanted to take photos of him and Kevin making ‘Cats on the Lake’ shirts for a City Paper story. Since that’s not the norm, the subject assigning you the photo, I cleared it with the paper and – yep – it was indeed a story. So one afternoon I went over to Kevin’s house/studio and hung with them as they joked, made shirts, and Kevin’s roommate made dinner. You can see his legs in a few of the photos.



I Used To Be Darker poster

I Used To Be Darker.

Stoked to be able to announce my photo of lead actress Deragh Campbell is being used for the festival poster for I Used To Be Darker, the new film from Baltimore director Matt Porterfield. You might know Matt from his previous films Hamilton & Putty Hill. It’s great to be a part of this project, which has just premiered at Sundance as I type this.

Some coverage of the film at MovieScope and MovieMaker, and you can also read Matt’s journal from Sundance here at Baltimore Magazine’s site.
Continue reading

‘Street Soldier’ City Paper cover story.

City Paper Cover "Street Soldier" feature story

This was a challenging assignment, as we didn’t have access to the subject and instead had to take a last minute photo illustration approach. I think it came out pretty well, all things considered. Read the story here, or read on for outtakes from the session that didn’t make it to the paper… Continue reading

The Last Night At Sonar.

War on Women.
Simon, looking out of the former bathroom.  Tim.

Sadly, Sonar is no more. Sonar was a very special place, and had a great staff. Thanks to the club and staff for all the wonderful memories! The last night, in traditional Sonar fashion, was two very different shows, one a Millionaire$ show in the Club room, the other an Unregistered Nurse punk show featuring War On Women, Tacocat, Slutever & Guantanamo Baywatch in the lounge aka the Talking Head Club.

You can read the Baltimore Sun’s story on this here, read about #SonarMemories on Twitter, and see all my photos that are fit to print here.
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Trayvon Martin rally at Baltimore City Hall.

Baltimore Trayvon Martin rally.

Photos from the peaceful Trayvon Martin rally at the steps of Baltimore City Hall. This event took the city by surprise, but they treated everyone well, at least from what I heard. This happened right as the national outcry over the handling of the case was peaking.

I liveblogged some of these photos previously, but here are the real deal photos.

Thaddeus Logan, author of Hey Cabbie!

Thaddeus Logan

The other week I spent an afternoon with Thaddeus Logan, author of the book Hey Cabbie! and it’s upcoming sequel. A cabbie in Baltimore City for more than 30 years, his books tell stories about the city, his experiences, and some of the more notable experiences he’s had behind the wheel – some sad, some exciting, some scary.

Thaddeus and I drove around to locations he talks about in the book, taking his photo for a City Paper article about him and his books. The image above is what ran, but click here to see other photos from our shoot.

Maryland Film Fest 2012 – my picks.

May is one of the most CULTURAL months of the year in Baltimore, with both Maryland Death Fest AND Maryland Film Fest… this year I will be attending both. I always end up missing alot, so this year I decided to make a little cheat sheet for myself with the films and events I wanna attend at the Film Fest. I figured I’d share it with the Internet, why not. Post a comment if you think I missed something!

ALSO: Once the Film Fest starts, check out my Liveblog & my Twitter. I’ll be posting pictures & commentary from the fest!

Here goes: Continue reading

SXSW 2012: Day 1 – Mean Jeans, Night Beats, White Mystery.

Mean Jeans @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
Mean Jeans @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
Mean Jeans @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
Mean Jeans @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
The Mean Jeans

The Night Beats @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
The Night Beats

White Mystery @ Trailer Space - SXSW 2012
White Mystery

See more photos of these bands and more here!

Three fun bands at one of my favorite places to see shows in Austin, Trailer Space Records. Trailer Space is my FAVORITE place to see shows at SXSW – always unofficial, always cool bands, always a chill/fun vibe, always no bullshit. This year I was there for the Burger Records Fest on Wednesday and it was great – flying beer (at one point a store worker/owner/person came up to the mic to declare “we sell records, so do not pour beer on the records”), fireworks, a dancing dog, tons of kids having fun and great music. So awesome.

A sad note is that I spoke to someone from Trailer Space over email and it seems as though they are in some hard times… so buy records there if you are in Austin! I asked if maybe they would have shirts for sale on their site again and they said they would let me know, I’ll post about it if they do… great place, I hope I can go again next year!

Washington Post Mean Jeans tearsheet Washington Post White Mystery tearsheet

Trayvon Martin Protest at Baltimore City Hall (liveblog).

"This is bigger than profiling." - sign at the #trayvonmartin protest at #baltimore city hall.   Occupying the flagpole at #baltimore city hall. #trayvon protest
On the steps at #trayvon protest at #baltimore city hall   #trayvon protest at #baltimore city hall
#baltimore city hall at the #trayvon protest   Skittles at the #trayvon protest in #baltimore

Today I attended the Trayvon Martin rally at the Baltimore City Hall. It was packed full of people, include on the steps, which surprised me. The overall feel was positive, with everyone I interacted with being friendly. There were a few people with sort of wingnuts signs there, and a surprising amount of t-shirt vendors, but in general it felt like a very honest, positive event. I’m glad I went.

See some photos above and some more photos here.

(Posted via Instagram for sake of being able to post them “as it happened”. Follow me on twitter or instagram at @joshsisk to see more liveblogs when I do them.)

Video Americain Candlelight Vigil (liveblog).

Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore   Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore
Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore   Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore
Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore   Video Americain Candlelight Vigil #baltimore

Last night I went to the candlelight vigil for the Charles Village Video Americain, which closed it’s doors yesterday after years in the neighborhood. Customers, fans, employees, and the owner and his family spoke about how the store affected them over the years.

I decided to just use instagram for these in the interest of being able to post them as it happened, and I will be attempting to do more “from the scene” sort of liveblogging posts on my Twitter (@joshsisk), so follow me there if you are interested! More finished versions of these photos will make it to my site eventually.

(In) Parenthesis photo collective & Fields of Vision photo show.

(In) Parenthesis.

In the past few months I have become involved with (In) Parenthesis, a Baltimore-based photography collective. Our goal is to broaden knowledge about current issues in the field of contemporary photography, and our first curated show, Fields of Vision, is on display now at CaseWerks Gallery (1501 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore).

The Baltimore City Paper (who I work for often) wrote a story up about the show, which you can read here.

Photo L-R: Marian Glebes, Dean Alexander, J.M. Giordano, Jill Fannon, Sean Schiedt, Josh Sisk. By me & Rob Brulinski.

Double Dagger’s Last Show.

Double Dagger's last show.
Double Dagger's last show.
Double Dagger's last show.
Double Dagger's last show.
Double Dagger's last show.

Great show, best night. I stage dove, in fact all the photographers stage dove… wait, EVERYONE stage dove. Denny’s dad held it down at the front for the whole show! So much fun, what a good send off for one of the best bands the city has ever seen. Thanks for the memories, guys.

If you are interested, you can also:

Apartment Fire In Mount Vernon.

Fire in Mount Vernon
Fire in Mount Vernon
Fire in Mount Vernon

The Baltimore City Fire Department responded to a fire in an apartment and pulled a man out of his apartment. I took a photo of the fire fighters trying to help him, but it just doesn’t feel right posting them, so I am refraining. He looked to have some smoke inhalation, I hope he is okay. The BCFD did a great job today, totally stopped it before it got out of control. Massive props go out to them.

Officer William H Torbit Shooting Protest

Officer Torbit Protest @ Baltimore Grand Prix
Officer Torbit Protest @ Baltimore Grand Prix

Officer Torbit Protest @ Baltimore Grand Prix

Outside of the Grand Prix, a group of citizens gather to protest the handling of the shooting of Officer William H Torbit, a Baltimore City Police officer who was shot and killed by fellow police in front of a nightclub early in the morning of January 9th, 2011. Last month, an investigation cleared police involved in the shooting – which involved 42 shots fired in front of the nightclub, of any criminal charges.

Baltimore Inaugural Grand Prix.

Baltimore Grand Prix
Danica Patrick @ Baltimore Grand Prix   Spectators watch the jumbotron @ Baltimore Grand Prix
Baltimore Grand Prix
Baltimore Grand Prix   Grandstands @ Baltimore Grand Prix
Mazda Sport winners @ Baltimore Grand Prix

This past weekend was the first Baltimore Grand Prix event, currently planned to be held every Labor Day weekend for the next 5 years. I was there for the City Paper and managed to try and soak up some of the race, my first. It seemed very crowded, at least on the actual race day, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I heard some grumblings that some of the businesses of the Inner Harbor were seeing less foot traffic due to the race, but it’s hard to say. One thing I can say for sure is that people were covering every possible surface:

Watching from skyscraper @ Baltimore Grand Prix