Indie Trailblazer Looks Back on His Remarkable Career

He was a punk before you were a punk. Massachusetts native Gerard Cosloy got into the Boston hardcore scene early, putting together shows and starting the mimeographed fanzine Conflict before taking a grown-up job running indie label Homestead and moonlighting as a DJ at WFMU, while also playing in the Air Traffic Controllers. Cosloy’s profile rose considerably after he co-founded Matador Records at the dawn of the ’90s, as he went on to become one of the quintessential characters of the alternative era, working with the likes of Pavement, Guided by Voices and Liz Phair—he also played with G.G. Allin for a time, so it’s obvious that he has a strong stomach. Whip-smart and highly opinionated, Cosloy doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so it’s shocking to find him slumming in this sorry rag.

Was there something particular about the early ’90s that made your records so successful? Let’s just pretend that it wasn’t because the music you put out was better than anyone else’s. Would they have the same kind of impact if released today? 
Hmmm. Tough question, Karen. For starters, we’ve had some pretty serious commercial success post-early ’90s (some of which you had a hand in). But thinking specifically about the era of Pavement, Liz Phair, GBV, etc., I think it was mostly down to the words, music, performances, personalities and hard work of the artists themselves. But you could also make a case that there were a number of flashpoints where the loose networks of zines, college radio programmers, record-store lifers, DIY gig promoters, small label operators, etc., suddenly saw a few decades of sweat and ridicule reach critical mass. Certainly Matador was a big beneficiary, but we had some role in creating the foundation too (along with stuff we were doing pre-Matador). 

Where is the sweet spot between art and commerce?
I honestly don’t know. I’m primarily concerned with art and have never believed our tastes were so obscure that there’d never be a commercial component to sharing the stuff we cared about. How much of a commercial component obviously varies from project to project. History should’ve taught all of us that many artists who seem to have the lowest of commercial ceilings (on the surface, anyway) can not only fashion actual careers out of music, but sometimes carry an entire label, if not fuck up an entire generation. 

“Other than eschewing Class A drugs and typically being in bed by 3am, I’m still doing mostly the same stuff.”

What inspires you, and how does that determine who you sign? 
I’m still inspired by songs that are catchy. And equally inspired by stuff that’s totally nonsensical and/or bludgeoning. You can find real genius in all sorts of corners. The signing thing is not an exact science. Sometimes it’s the result of months (or years) of label deliberation. And other times it’s as simple as the three of us (or four of us; or five of us; or six of us) all saying at the exact same moment, “Yeah, we have to do this.” If that doesn’t happen super-often, that’s OK. Our bands tend to stick around for a while. 

What do you do differently now than you did in the ’90s/2000s? 
There are certainly things about running the business that we do very differently (neither Chris nor I being based in NYC is the biggest part of that), but other than eschewing Class A drugs and typically being in bed by 3am, I’m still doing mostly the same stuff. 

How have your experiences (in life) changed the way you hear/respond to music? Would the 25-year-old you sign the bands you sign now?
As a listener, I’m probably a little more open to music that’s not typically thought to be in my wheelhouse. But beyond that, very little has changed. Yeah, I think 25-year-old me would be pretty into everything I’m involved with now. 

Let’s revisit some comments you’ve made over the years: “The more the artist becomes part of the environment you walk around in, the less they’re worth.” Does it have the same meaning now, given that people can walk around online in any environment they choose?
I think at the time I was not referring to an artist’s worth in the commercial sense of things, but rather, once a band became omnipresent to the point where they were inescapable, there were no longer any personal moments, no sense of discovery, and it’s very hard to distinguish them from any number of other cultural fixtures. This is a bit of a drag, because most bands—even those who are very good—typically aspire to be as big as possible (which is normal). I might share the same general sentiment, but in 2015—Taylor Swift and Dave Grohl aside—there aren’t many artists that one could call inescapable. I mean, if you absolutely want to go through modern existence never knowing what Death Grips or Sheer Mag or Blake Shelton sound like, you can probably manage it. Of course, you could also go through that same existence never being surprised or blown away by something new, which is not what anyone’s hoping for. 

Here’s another one: “Thanks for the money, Nirvana, but every band we’ve ever worked with is better than you.” Do you still
feel the same way? How did you feel about Kurt’s outsize admiration for you? 
I think it is important to put this quote in some context. It was in response to Ed Rosenblatt suggesting Matador had suitors simply because of Nirvana’s breakthrough. As mentioned elsewhere, there’s more to it than one band’s big explosion; our bands all did their time in the culture wars too. I realize it sounds very arrogant to say all of our bands are better than a group so universally respected and beloved, but yeah, I do still feel the same way. I’d take Bailterspace, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Yo La Tengo, Perfume Genius, Unsane, Come, etc., you name it, over Nirvana. But that shouldn’t matter to anyone out of context, I mean, I don’t honestly want someone who loves Nirvana to feel differently. It doesn’t work like that. By the way, I’m not aware of Kurt having any admiration for me (or anything against me, either). What’s your source for this?

“Does success spell the end of credibility? ‘YES!’” Still? Why or why not?
You know, I did smoke a lot of pot in those days. No, success and credibility are not mutually exclusive; however, everyone has their own definition of each. 

Brief moment of topicality: What are your thoughts on Apple Music, et al?My opinions are not fully formed, but if Apple Music is half as good as WFMU, they’ve got some product on their hands. 

“You can find real genius in all sorts of corners. The signing thing is not an exact science.”

Are your labels making money from streaming?
Matador is. That doesn’t necessarily address the impact on download sales and physical sales, however. I think the questions of whether artists are making money from streaming and whether there’s a level playing field for all labels, big or small, are worth asking. 

Has vinyl’s comeback been a boon?
For the most part, but even the robust vinyl numbers are only making a small dent in the decline of CD and download sales. And you’re talking about inventory that is difficult to manufacture, with so many parts of the process that can and will go wrong. 

Will there be another issue of Conflict?
Last issue was spring of 2014. So maybe. We’ll see. There’s a good print zine revival in motion presently that does not require my approval or participation. 

Another Matador anniversary show? 
It’s possible. We have difficulty reaching a consensus about what to do next time. 

A Homestead anniversary show? 
I think that’s highly unlikely, though if it were to happen, I can promise you I’ll have nothing to do with it. 

Could anyone accurately say you were their mentor? Were you his/her mentor on purpose?
I’m not aware of anyone claiming this. What a terrible thought. If I could give anyone music-business advice, it would be very simple: Meet Patrick Amory in high school, meet Chris Lombardi soon afterwards and ride their coattails for several decades to follow. 

Who do you admire now in the music business?
Chris Lombardi, Patrick Amory, Martin Mills, Corey Rusk, Mac McCaughan, Laura Ballance, Eric Friedl, Zac Ives, Bill and Lisa Roe, Rick Harte, Geoff Travis, Larry Hardy, Tim Warren, Steve Lowenthal, Cory Rayborn, Laurence Bell, Rich Evans, Bettina Richards, Timmy Hefner, Dan Plunkett, Blake Carlise, Todd Novak… That’s off the top of my head. 

As a writer, sports or music?
I’m not any sort of a sportswriter. So music wins by default. [KG note: readers of his blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding would otherwise disagree.]

What’s it like knowing that although 12XU is currently on a roll (Uniform, Obnox, Gotobeds, Blaxxx, Xetas, Flesh Lights) unmatched by any current imprint, independent or major, even after 15 years of awesomeness, the label will never escape the long shadow of Matador (or earn a penny)?
You know, for a friend, you really know how to put the knife in. 

We’ve known each other since you were a teen, and I bought advertising for the A&M Dream Syndicate album in Conflict. I have been an avid admirer of yours for over 30 years. Be honest—is being in HITS the low point of your career? 
Actually, Karen, you and I met for the first time at an R.E.M./Neats show at Queens College in 1983 (though your legend certainly preceded you). And gimme a break—you wanna talk low? I once delivered a speech at the Gavin Convention.

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Who's next?
It's Comic-Con for numbers geeks.
Theories of evolution from 30,000 feet.
A&R in overdrive.

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