These are tough times for the struggling musician. Independent labels -- safe havens for musical creative freedom and DIY ethics -- are finding themselves increasingly caught up in the corporate structuring and subsequent artistic politics laid out in the shadow of the mass-marketing major labels. Not so for John Janick and his impressive Gainesville-based imprint, Fueled By Ramen. Launched on little more than ingenuity and a lucky string of college connections, the close-knit Fueled family is crafting a new breed of promotion far beyond the humble noodle beginnings of the label's namesake.
"Because when you're living in a college town, that's all you can eat," jokes Janick.
Janick and Vinnie (drummer for national punk-poppers Less Than Jake, no last name please) became musical bedfellows in the former's North Florida college days, following his fledgling high-school project with a small vinyl imprint of his own. Citing Vinnie's national connections, and Janick's seemingly unstoppable cleverness, the two decided to move forward as FBR, operating initially out of dorm and apartment situations. They've since moved into two-office digs. Remarkably, their street-level intentions are paving a successful path all their own.
"We're obviously not a big profiting label, but we do well," says Janick. "I think from where we started five years ago -- in my dorm room and having my records in my closet, then my apartment, then our first small-office space -- it's a pretty impressive operation for a guy who's in a band and a 23-year-old still in college."
In fact, Janick's working on his MBA at University of South Florida in Tampa, squeezing as much as he can out of his days to be both a successful full-time student and a record-label head.
"Graduate school is crazy," he says. "I had a midterm and a final yesterday. I had a midterm last Monday. I have a research paper due Thursday and a presentation to do all by myself on Friday. I'll be done next week, so I can concentrate on the tour."
The tour in question is the first of Fueled by Ramen's package treks, the "Family That Plays Together, Stays Together Tour 2001," complete with several of the label's front-line bands hitting the road in a sort of FBR campaign. One such act, The Stereo, a sort of one-man band fronted by Jamie Woolford, and fleshed out with a host of rotating supporting musicians, is more than happy to lend his support to the FBR cause.
"Well, for the artist, the people who work for Fueled by Ramen are just really laid back and mellow about everything," says Woolford. "They want to make everybody happy, and put out quality music. Those are rules to live and die by at Fueled by Ramen. The bottom line: It has to be good."
Which is exactly what The Stereo's current platter, "No Traffic," is. Packed with rollicky, loose rock & roll, The Stereo comes off as a thinking-man's punk-pop act, but with the clarity of skilled musicianship. It's a surprise, then, that it's a perfect fit for that same sort of ethic that powers Fueled by Ramen.
"We try to make it seem like a happening or an event, something the fans can take part in," Woolford says. "Not just like: We're a label selling something to consumers. Yeah, we are that, but at the same time there's an ulterior motive to put out good music and up the ante when it comes to the music industry."
The inclusiveness that brings the "we" from an artist when they're talking about their record label isn't just an inspired camaraderie. At FBR, the bands are the label.
"I've known John for a long long time," says Woolford. "He originally signed my first band, Animal Chin, to the label many years ago. Now I'm kind of part of the label, I do most of the graphic design work there. It really does have a family feel."
Those familial tinglings naturally extend to the fans that support Fueled By Ramen via a website that doubles as fan-club headquarters -- right down to enlistment in the "Fueled By Ramen Army." This street-level effort encourages listeners to spread the word on FBR.
"Obviously, being an independent label, you have limited resources," says Janick. "But we try to do as much as anybody else, as much as any big independent like Epitaph or Fat Wreck. We try to compensate in other ways. If you can't spend tens of thousands of dollars on ads, what's the difference in having a kid take fliers to shows or having a street-team member take it out to shops or hand it out in schools?"
Five years ago, at the outset of Fueled By Ramen, the label kept things simple, putting out split seven-inch singles and collectible merchandise mostly surrounding Vinnie and Less Than Jake. Vinnie's extensive touring and respect level among musical peers eventually drew other acts to the label, sometimes even just for a one-off surprise release. Janick cites one of their biggest successes to be an early, self-titled EP by current radio winners, "Jimmy Eat World."
"The Jimmy Eat World EP has done really well, because they're getting bigger every day," he says. "I'm glad that we were able to work with them."
But with things getting bigger everyday, will there be any pressure to expand away from the peripheral leisure market of Florida? Probably not.
"As long as I have high-speed Internet access and a telephone, I'm usually OK," says Janick. "We talked about moving it to Tampa or a bigger city, but it seems like the only places you can move are like New York and California. I like Florida. You're at a little bit of a disadvantage, but you have to make what you can."
Meanwhile, the bands seem pleased enough with things just as they are right now -- even with all eyes eventually on the major-label prize.
"If that doesn't happen, we're very very happy on FBR," says Woolford. "Nobody's ever been mad at Fueled By Ramen."