Last week, a Seattle-based Austin native's latest album marked the resurrection of one of Houston's few non-rap record labels to ever truly get off the ground. The album is Ian Moore's To Be Loved, and the label is Justice Records, active again after half a decade of dormancy as a tiny sliver of RCA's vast back catalog.
Justice is still owned by Randall Jamail, now 50, but the son of legendary Houston attorney Joe Jamail says his role this time around is much more hands-off. GM Jan Mirkin, Moore's former manager, will handle Justice's day-to-day business out of her Austin office, while former Supersuckers manager Danny Bland will coordinate touring out of Seattle. In Houston, Jamail plans to handle A&R and occasional production — but where he once may have produced ten records a year, today he says he'll be content with one or two.
"I started talking to Jan and realized her time as a manager, really what she was doing was interfacing with every part of what a record label does," says Jamail. "I knew I wouldn't be on the same treadmill as before, and the excitement came back."
"Dealing with music is his No. 1 passion," agrees Mirkin. "Justice Records couldn't exist without him, but he's not a control freak.
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"He gives me enough rope to hang myself with," she laughs. "A lot of freedom."
Jamail says he signed Justice's catalog — which includes albums by Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, New Orleans jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and former Houstonians Carolyn Wonderland and Jesse Dayton — over to RCA because after running the label since 1989, he was burned out and tired of watching his three young sons, now 12, 15 and 17, grow up without him. (He also has a 30-year-old daughter in Denver, who recently started working for Justice.)
"This is the kind of business where the minute you finish a production, you're looking for the next record," he says. "I was having lunch with my son, who was four or five years old at the time, and thinking, 'What am I chasing here? I could do another record, but I'm going to look up in 15 years and he won't ever have known me.' I tell him all the time he saved my life."
Because Jamail chose to distribute Justice releases directly to retail outlets instead of through a third-party distributor, the label was hit especially hard when, around 1998 or 1999, the rise of file-sharing and illegal downloading caused an abrupt downturn in music sales. Justice depended much more on its artists' heavy touring schedules than on radio airplay to drive record sales, so when record stores began shipping unsold product back to the labels after about 60 days instead of six or nine months — giving artists a much smaller window to pass through any given market — it really hurt.
"Trying to figure out how to go forward, I realized I didn't have the energy to completely reinvent the company at that point, and continue producing records and try to be a dad," Jamail says.
This time around, Justice is distributed by Fontana, the boutique arm of industry giant Universal. Knowing the widespread availability of studio-caliber technology like ProTools combined with the ease of making music available on the Internet means artists have much less incentive to sign with a label at all, Jamail cooked up the motto "Freeing the Slaves One Master at a Time."
Artists on Justice retain ownership of their master recordings, licensing them to the label for a preordained period of time. Justice does take an administrative fee off the top, but otherwise Jamail says the label and the artist split any money right down the middle, and when their licensing agreement is up, it's entirely up to the artists to re-up or not. If they decline, everything they've recorded for the label goes with them.
"Usually in a recording contract, the label has the unilateral right to decide if the artist is going to do another record, and the artist is compelled to," notes Jamail, who has a law degree from the South Texas College of Law, and once taught entertainment law there for a semester. "What happens is you have a lot of artists continuing to make records for companies when they don't want to be there, and they're not happy with the way things are going. This is supposed to be a team operation."
Does it work? Obviously it's too early to tell with Justice 2.0 — its current roster also includes Willie Nelson's sister Bobbie, whose first-ever solo album Audiobiography comes out next month (featuring two new songs from her brother, a longtime Jamail family friend), and New York-based blues singer and guitarist Greta Gaines — but according to Jesse Dayton, who put out 1995's Raisin' Cain on Justice and played on several other Jamail productions, it won't be for lack of effort.
"He's kinda hardcore," says Dayton. "He expects everybody to work as hard as he works, and if not, he's going to give you shit. He's just real intense, man."
Jamail says he's mellowed out as he's gotten older, but he's no stranger to controversy. Justice's 1995 compilation Hellhole, a sampler of unsigned Houston punk and alternative-rock bands such as Sad Pygmy, the Jinkies, de Schmog, Violent Blue and the Keenlies, was intended as a way to promote a fertile but virtually unknown scene, but was greeted with disdain and derision, both for the choice of bands and the quality of the recording. "Some of the bands asked to participate in this supposed Houston showcase just plain suck to begin with, but it doesn't seem fair to slag them considering how most of these groups have sounded better live," wrote Joe Hon in the Press's review, which concluded, "maybe Jamail just isn't a very good producer."
"I thought he was trying to kick-start the scene, but all [the artists] did was bitch about it," counters longtime Houston musician David Beebe, who had no stake in the compilation at all — in fact, Jamail turned down Beebe's band at the time, Banana Blender Surprise. "I said, 'Maybe you shouldn't get involved with this if you think someone's going to take advantage of you' — which in my opinion he totally didn't."
Finally, there are those persistent whispers rustling the local grapevine that, back in the day at least, wherever Jamail went, a good time was sure to follow. That he, in the ever-euphemistic parlance of the music business, liked to party. He pauses a long time before answering.
"I don't know where that information came from," he allows. "But I've been sober for a while." His recording sessions, he adds a little later on, always had a strict no-alcohol-or-drug policy. "Those are ten- and 12-hour days," he notes. "You show up hungover and it's hard to get through them."
Dayton confirms this, sort of: "We didn't show up to the studio hammered," he says. "We got hammered later on."
Perhaps not surprisingly, after sitting down with the Press in his office for more than an hour Thursday afternoon, Jamail calls back Friday morning. He wants to make sure the record is clear.
"The more the spotlight was on me, I feel like that detracted from the amazing efforts of my staff and the artists on the label," he says. "Oftentimes it became more about me and my personality, and less about what I considered to be pretty amazing artists and an amazing staff. It's important to me that their talents are at the forefront.
"That's why we didn't do a big press release on the relaunching of the label," he concludes. "We wanted the music to speak for itself. Ultimately, it comes down to music and how good a job we do."
Justice Records may not exactly be brand-new, but another Houston label is. Feow! Records, started by Pitchfork darling and recent Houston expat Jana Hunter, Bring Back the Guns guitarist Matt Brownlie and Wicked Poseur's Arthur Bates, is officially up and running. First release War Elephant, from the 21-year-old Providence, Rhode Island, alt-country songwriter who goes by Deer Tick, is due in stores Sept. 2; BBTG's own Dry Futures follows Oct. 4.
"It feels like it's taken a lifetime," Brownlie says.
Brownlie and friends had been talking about starting their own label for about a year, he says, ever since BBTG grew tired of waiting for small labels to make up their minds on doing something with the band. "At a certain point, I realized I had all the resources indie labels need," he says. "Connections with distributors, promotions companies, and a little bit of money sitting around — not a whole lot, but enough to get started."
Feow! will be distributed to brick-and-mortar outlets by Revolver (Young God, Ninja Tune, Smells Like) and online through the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA); therefore, Feow! releases should be available "anywhere you can legally pay to download music," Brownlie says.
Hunter recently moved to Baltimore — arguably the hottest music scene in the country right now — and will act as a sort of national and regional A&R, while Brownlie keeps an eye on Houston. Although he admits that, between the label and planning BBTG's upcoming three-week Midwest tour, he hasn't been able to get out much recently, Brownlie says he can think of about a dozen local bands he'd be interested in working with.
"As everyone in Houston knows, we're being completely overlooked, and it's time for somebody to step up," he says. "We plan to retain as much focus on Houston as we possibly can without overlooking anything from outside."
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