All hail the punk “Distro,” the beating heart of the underground music trade.
For bands, it is the great hope for distribution of their labored recordings; and for fans, a music collector’s paradise. At shows, they lure us into the shadows, to their tables with crates, hundreds deep, of rare vinyl 7-inches of punk staples and unknown bands alike, or cardboard boxes filled with stickers, patches and buttons. Their mail-order websites captivate us with a white-on-black visual-sensory assault of flier collages, and tiled album artwork promising a brown box or bubble mailer at our doorstep filled with our countless hand-picked treasures. For those of us not keen on the mainstream avenues — the banal, hygienically streamlined MP3 download world of instant-gratification music purchasing; and prettily packaged cloud storage; for those of us that prefer our music preceded by that needle to the groove rather than the click of the mouse, there is Robert Janis and Rotten to the Core Records.
Janis, 30 had no intention of starting an independent nonprofit punk record label or a mail-order website, but the motivation to expand access to punk music in his native Antelope Valley began in 2003.
“The Antelope Valley didn’t have any record stores, so we had no real access to the music we were into,” explains Janis. “This is when I decided to do something about it.” He started writing to labels to purchase wholesale records and CDs, and soon he was carrying on the time-honored tradition of setting up shop at the shows behind a folding table with records for sale.
“Everything about records are better to me, except moving them,” says Janis. “It’s just more raw, alive and typically not over-produced.”
But when, according to Janis, the shows “just about stopped,” citing numerous issues with local venues — demanding too much money, hostility to the punk culture often prone to property damage, as well as a general loss of scene vitality — what didn’t stop was the constant influx of punks storming his home to rifle through his records. He knew it was time to put all his energies into online mail order. He gave it a name, inspired by “a healthy distrust for the human race” and made fliers to hand out at house parties, shows and record stores with no more than a list of records he carried and a phone number.
“At this time I had no thought of releasing records,” says Janis, whose first unofficial release under the Rotten to the Core label was the The Filthy McNastys/R.A.T.S “split 7” in 2004 as a way to help out some friends. RTC Records now has 13 releases by bands from all over the U.S. and the world, including Canada, Finland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, even Indonesia and Russia, in addition to the hundreds of other labels’ releases he sells online. And he doesn’t make a dime.
True to his anti-greed ideals, the label, which since February 2011 is being run from Janis’ Ventura home, is and always has been a nonprofit endeavor. “I actually lose money,” he admits. Revenues from the mail-order allow him to sustain the label and fund the releases, which, in vinyl record production, includes lacquers, plates, pressing, sleeves, inserts, jackets and shipping — everything short of actually recording the music himself. Then there are the advertising costs in worldwide distributed fanzines such as Maximum RocknRoll and Razorcake, all paid for out of pocket. A true DIY hero.
When asked what motivates all this work and remarkable sacrifice, Janis says that his reasons have not changed since he started the distro more than a decade ago: providing access to the music he and his friends love, but also “spreading and sharing something that has the ability to bring pleasure, thought and possible change to others.” As a politically minded and active supporter of many causes, including human and animal rights, workplace equality, earth movements and resistance to state violence and big business, he tries to maintain consistency in his releases that does not contradict his core convictions. Absolutely no religion, homophobia or racism allowed. In the works is a compilation 7-inch called Action for Animals: The Comp, with 100 percent of proceeds to be donated to local animal shelters.
“Music is our common ground for change,” says Janis, “and it truly has that ability.”
Visit Rotten to the Core Records at rtcrecords.storenvy.com.