Champaign-Urbana, Ill’s strong ties to the independent music scene would have been abandoned long ago if it weren’t for the local record labels that stand as pillars in this musical community. Among these labels, Parasol Records remains a staple for artists and fans who want to break away from the conventional.
Founder Geoff Merritt moved to Urbana from San Francisco over a decade ago and began selling records out of his house. Eventually, Merritt started modest mail order service over the internet in February 1995. “When it started, people would order every few weeks,” said Merritt. “A majority of people didn’t know we exist.”
One word best describes Parasol Records, camaraderie. Parasol houses several labels under its umbrella; including Mud Records, Reaction, Hidden Agenda, and Spur. Each label has their own specialty; local rock, reissues, rock band off-shoots and country music respectively.
A number of great bands, both locally and nationally, got their start from one of these labels. Bands like Hum, Braid and Absinthe Blind broke out onto the local scene in the 90’s, showcasing the best of independent rock at that time. Parasol also reaches beyond North America, with its noteworthy ties to the Swedish music scene.
Among the Swedish bands that have signed with Parasol, The Soundtrack of Our Lives (TSOOL) sticks out as one success story of camaraderie and a labor of love.
The staff at Parasol, longtime fans of (TSOOL), first released three of the band’s full-length CD’s in the U.S. under Hidden Agenda, knowing that the “whole idea all along” was to get them signed to a major label. “We knew we were gonna’ say goodbye after the first three records,” said Parasol employee and Swedish music enthusiast Jim Kelly.
Eventually (TSOOL) signed with Universal and earned a Grammy nod for Behind the Music.
This gateway has opened up many opportunities to find great music overseas, and has led Hidden Agenda to sign bands like the poppy exotic duo Club 8 and postmodern AK-Momo. Jim Kelly is primarily responsible for finding most of these imports for Hidden Agenda.
“There are dozens of great bands. The rest of the world can worry about the world and I’m going to worry about Scandinavia,” said Kelly.
Working with approximately 200 artists in Sweden has its perks as well. “Pretty much everyone in Sweden, who’s in a band, knows who we [Parasol] are,” said Merritt of the phenomenon.
But don’t worry; the recognition certainly isn’t going to the folks at Parasol’s heads. The ultimate goal for them is still finding and producing good music, while not stepping on anyone’s toes along the way.
Independent labels, like Parasol, think of themselves as a small niche that prefers to help out one another.
“We all do a great job at it. It’s not about competing or fighting, everyone works together. We sell to them, they sell to us,” said Merritt. “It’s not Starbucks,” Merritt later added lightheartedly.
Unlike major labels, Parasol and others like them utilize their power to put out what they like to listen to, rather than what’s necessarily profitable. Parasol only puts out approximately 25 records a year, but they do so with enthusiasm.
One band, Menthol, greatly benefited from their enthusiasm. They originally debuted as Mother under Mud Records in 1993. Several years later they changed their name and record label when they were signed to Capital in 1995; however, they found their major label was less than eager about releasing the “electroclash” mix Danger: Rock Science!.
Fortunately for neo-new wave fans, not all was lost. Mud Records was able to re-record the exact same album in 2002, due to a lack of a re-record clause in their major label contract, and they managed to save something that might otherwise be lost in Capital’s vaults forever.
“The main thing is putting out records we like, if we aren’t excited about it, it’s just not going to do well,” said Merritt. Parasol stands behind their artists every step of the way.
Whether its local, national or even Swedish, one thing appears crystal clear, Parasol and its labels appear as a unified front, making their ultimate goal the music.