BALTIMORE CITY PAPER | 7/30/2003

No Cover
Label Maker
Morphius Records and David Andler Celebrate 10 Years of Keeping the Music Coming

Review by Bret McCabe

Sitting in the conference room of the 12,000-square-foot lower Charles Village building that serves as Morphius Records headquarters, label founder David Andler doesn’t look like the average small-business executive—whatever that may be. Wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and a shadow of stubble—having just returned from an all too brief beach day trip—he looks more like the guy who grew up playing drums rather than the businessman who has turned a label into an independent-music hub. But he’s learned that the business keeps the music going, like it or not, and that means these days Andler oversees a decade-old small business with 12 employees that puts out its own Morphius releases, distributes itself and other independent labels, and manufactures CDs.

“I didn’t want to supervise a bunch of people,” Andler says. “I don’t really like the aspect of it that has to do with how much of a numbers game it is. I came into doing the business end out of necessity because the art end of it couldn’t continue to exist without the business end of it.”

Balancing the two has turned out to be the reason for Morphius’ longevity and steadily increasing business success—often despite prevailing winds in the indie industry. Andler started the label in 1993 as a 24-year-old drummer who just wanted to put out music by bands he or his friends were in. So from his Venice, Calif., home base and with a $4,500 line of credit, a royalty check from a stint in a band that went major label, and about $900 saved from living at home and temping, Andler put out Is This a Dream or Just Random Sounds of Awakening?, a compilation of 19 bands culled from the various cities where Andler had spent time—Los Angeles, Washington, and Minneapolis—and Germany, where he had toured extensively.

Of course, hindsight is a bitch: Andler had inadvertently decided to start a label right in the middle of one of the most tumultuous periods for indie rock. You know the story: By the early ’90s, the 1980s college- and punk-rock circuits had blossomed into a healthy infrastructure. Almost simultaneously, major labels started using small indie labels as A&R scouting grounds, and some independents formed various relationships with majors (see Nirvana, Sub Pop, and Geffen; Liz Phair, Matador, and Capitol).

“1993, ‘94, that really was the onset of major labels co-opting the indie scene,” Andler says. “We saw bands try to use independent labels as steppingstones to major labels. And it never really set well with me, having been through it as an artist. I lived it—I recorded at Paisley Park with the guy who produced Purple Rain. I had been in that setting, but it didn’t seem like a place where music was done. It felt like a place where dentistry was done.”

Aside from the incessant (and, in the end, pointless) punk infighting that accompanied this period, the real tragedy of the situation was not artists selling out (to be eventually dropped later on), but that the indie market became tied to the major market and its seismic market shifts. The differences in scales—where an indie album selling a few thousand copies could be considered a success vs. a major label moving 20,000 copies a failure—affected the indie market dramatically. Some labels folded, some were absorbed by majors to remain in name only, and others went bankrupt.

Morphius was too small and new to be directly affected, but it was indirectly fucked. When its Minneapolis-based exclusive distributor, TCI, was restructured, it broke its contract with Morphius—probably defaulting on its small accounts—shorted them for any of the CDs it sold, and didn’t return its product. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but it was all that the company had.

Andler at least eventually got Morphius’ CDs back, but it was also time for a change. He moved to Baltimore in February 1994 and turned Morphius into a more local entity, focusing on putting out Baltimore bands. He also started handling his own distribution and learning how to do more things in the production process—learning what he needed to do to make artwork camera-ready for production, determining how to replicate CDs more efficiently. Anything to cut down on out-of-pocket expenses to put out records.

Soon, these skills became a more prominent part of the Morphius name. “In ‘96, I learned really quickly that either I had to make money with the label or I had to quit doing it and get a job because I had to pay for a kid,” Andler says. “So I sort of reshaped the financial model of the company so that it could survive and be a job for at least one person, because that was the only way that we could keep doing it. At that time we started doing distribution for other regional labels, and shortly thereafter we started handling manufacturing for those same other labels.”

Using the Internet to reach out to indie labels around the country, Andler made Morphius’ distribution network and production expertise a marketable item. And it provided small labels with something they didn’t really have up to that point: choice. Now other indies had an option: Go with a company that was going to charge them more to make a small run of CDs (10,000 or less rather than 100,000 or more) and then with a large distributor to get those CDs in stores. Or go with Morphius, who had learned to work with a smaller scale out of the necessity of cutting its own costs.

“We still didn’t have any money when we started,” Andler says. “But it just made perfect sense to increase distributing and manufacturing and let them feed each other. We were manufacturing for bands and we made distribution open to them, and we were distributing for bands and made manufacturing open to them. It’s very synergistic. And, of course, because we were making more CDs our production costs went down. And as we started getting more and more CDs to manufacture, we started getting really efficient without sacrificing quality. And that was one of the things that, from the beginning, I felt we could do better than a major label.”

In the seven years since starting Morphius as a one-stop indie CD shop, the company has grown from its two-person staff to its present 12 members, and moved from a 1,500-square-foot office to its ample new home. The label may not be Morphius’ big moneymaker, but the company is in the enviable position of not having to sell hundreds of thousands of records to sustain itself to put out the artists in which it believes.

“I don’t think I thought about what I’d be doing in 10 years when I started,” Andler says. “I certainly don’t think that I would have had any idea that it would grow in the way that it did. I just wanted to play drums. But I knew that playing drums was not what you’d call a secure career choice. So I wanted to do something that would at least give me the ability to do something else.”

Edited by EmilyRabbit on 10 May 2006, 15:48

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