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.”