Slim Moon is an influential name in the world of independent music. The label he founded, Kill Rock Stars, has worked with ground-breaking artists such as The Decemberists, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Unwound, and the late Elliot Smith. I remember seeing Slim speak on a panel at the CMJ (College Music Journal) Convention in the mid-’90s as the alternative / indie boom was happening. He was resolute in his conviction of maintaining the label’s status as an independent entity, even as others around him were being gobbled up in joint ventures by major labels and seeing their idealistic roots being torn up in the process.
Several months ago I was surprised to learn from my Portland-based friend Christian Piatt that Slim was now co-hosting Christian’s weekly podcast, the Homebrewed Culture Cast, a heady mixture of pop culture, religion, irreverence, sarcasm and sharp insight into the psyche of culture. I also learned that Slim was serving as a minister at a Unitarian-Universalist church. That being an unexpected development, I asked Christian if he’d connect me with Slim to learn more about his story.
I’m grateful that Slim took the time to share some insights about a subjects ranging from how to know who to work with, to the mundane parts of a sexy job like indie rock record label owner, to his spiritual path and its emphasis on social justice. Please enjoy this installment in the series and the wise words of Slim Moon.
Q: Your time at Kill Rock Stars saw you work with an amazing number of supremely talented artists: Elliot Smith; The Decembrists; Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill among others. What did you look or listen for to let you know you wanted to work with an artist? What gave you red flags?
A: I had two different sets of criteria. Part of my mission was to document the music scene that I was part of. In those cases, the criteria was based on relationships. For the rest of it, which was the majority, I just wanted to put out music that I loved. The biggest red flags, honestly, involved bands who expected a lot more commitment from the record label than they were willing to bring in kind. I was a big believer in touring bands, rather than recording projects.
Q: Having a successful indie label sounds like the coolest job ever. But every endeavor has parts that are less than glamorous that perhaps people don’t really know about. What things do you think people may not be aware of in running that sort of company? Did you ever feel the need to portray a certain image or face of the label in order to be competitive?
A: I really sucked at that kind of marketing – Kill Rock Stars always presented an image that was completely genuine, partially as a conscious decision, but mostly because I wasn’t sophisticated enough to try to project some kind of extra sexy image. The hardest part of running a label was negotiating budgets with bands who were also my friends. I had to be responsible, but that sometimes meant I had to tell people I wasn’t willing to spend as much on their project as they wanted me too, which sometimes got very tricky.
Q: KRS had a model that was built around more equitable deals for artists than traditional label deals. Even in that scenario I’m sure there was conflict with artists. How did you manage conflict and work toward resolution and either compromise or innovative solutions? That’s a question about far more than the music business – how do we handle and work through conflict on a day-to-day basis?
A: My main tool was rigorous honesty. But in retrospect I wish I’d also been more consistently clear about how much I loved and respected each artist and how much I loved working with them. I wish I had the skills I now have about how to own my stuff, and express my feelings rather than less healthy expressions. I do better at NA and at church. If I ever end up in business again, I hope to bring new skills.
Q: What led you to pursue ministry as a vocation?
A: One day we were driving home from church talking about the minister’s job, and my wife said “I think you’d be good at that.” Once that door opened, I wasn’t able to close it, I became obsessed with the thought. I asked myself, “what would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” The answer was clearly ministry. So I have been pretending I am not afraid, and following the call.
Q: Do your parishioners get curious about your days as an indie-rock god:)?
A: Not really. What happens is that they assume they understand my background, and then approach me with information or queries that make it really obvious that they actually have no idea what my life was like or what I did. Which is fine. Also, I disagree with the characterization. The singers and songwriters and an occasional other musician are the gods; curators like me don’t qualify to be indie-rock gods.
Q: As a minister of social justice, what are the things that are most important about generating awareness and then action about issues of justice? Have you noticed that some things actually deliver the opposite?
A: The biggest concern is the phenomena of congratulating ourselves for our awareness, without committing to any change or action. What’s the point of religion if it isn’t transformative?