A local institution for almost 30 years, Bar/None Records was founded in Hoboken by Tom Prendergast in early 1986 and is now based in Weehawken. The company has released multiple titles that have sold in the hundreds of thousands, making Bar/None an important New Jersey-based record label and one of the most important indie labels nationwide.
“Tom started the label to put out an album I made with my band Rage To Live,” said Bar/None owner Glenn Morrow recently. “I’d already been in bands for about 10 years at that point, and I realized I didn’t want to go on the road anymore. I suggested we become partners in the label and work with a band I had recently met.”
That band was They Might Be Giants.
“Bar/None is the ‘Little Engine That Could,’ ” said Jamie Kitman, long-time manager of They Might Be Giants. “Combining long hours with sensible frugality and zero ostentation, plus – most important – great taste, they have succeeded where most others fail. In their quiet but tuneful way, they have made the world a better place.”
Kitman managed TMBG during their Bar/None tenure, as well as the The Ordinaires, Edwyn Collins, Yo La Tengo, Freedy Johnston and Oppenheimer.
“In the late ’80s and ’90s, Hoboken was a big music town. It was like the Brooklyn of that time,” said Richard Jankovich, who later signed to the label as leader of The Burnside Project. “I was a kid from Wisconsin who was a huge fan of The Feelies, TMBG and Yo La Tengo.”
“We don’t rest on our laurels.” – Glenn Morrow
Jankovich, who now operates the successful Shoplifter In-Store Radio Promotion – of whom Bar/None was one of the first clients – wasn’t the only person of note to intern at Bar/None.
Graduates from the label
“Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend was an intern when he was in high school. He painted an office wall orange for us,” said Morrow. “We paid him to do that!” Painting aside, Morrow did see plenty of talent in Koenig. “I offered him his first record contract, but the big labels were already sniffing around.” He admitted this to be a regret of his, yet he is glad Koenig “ended up at a label that shepherded him to a successful career, and in the end, that is really what it is about.”
As a bit of further trivia about Koenig: “He made some great mash-ups of Bar/None artists that I still have.”
Another young talent that Bar/None was instrumental in aiding was Rocky O’Reilly, formerly of the Northern Irish duo Oppenheimer. O’Reilly was 21 years old when Bar/None first called. “I was in my first band, with only five songs written. They signed us on those songs, and put plans in place to make a full record.” Following this, Bar/None helped Oppenheimer plan their first U.S. tour. “I gave up my job as a post-production engineer, and I’ve never had a ‘proper’ job since.”
O’Reilly, who is currently opening a “new residential multi-studio set up in Belfast,” recalled insight he heard from Bar/None’s Head Of Marketing, Mark Lipsitz. “One phrase I heard from Mark early on, and many times after, was ‘proactivity breeds proactivity.’ I wouldn’t be doing any of this if Bar/None hadn’t picked our demo from a box and called me up full of passion, joy and belief.”
He said Bar/None relocated from Hoboken to Weehawken due to economics.
“After 9/11, our building seemed to be getting filled by a large corporate realty firm,” Morrow said. “We were feeling like we were going to get squeezed out. My neighbor Rob Harari, who is a music producer, told me about a building with a bunch of music-related companies in it, and I realized it was time for a change.”
Fortunately, it is a “great building [on Willow Avenue] with great people.”
Around that same time, Morrow became the sole owner of Bar/None. “About 15 years ago, Tom decided to leave the label and move back to Ireland to study painting and get a degree. He sold me his share for a dollar, at a time when the label was probably overvalued!”
Always moving forward
Like any indie label that is reliant on new releases to stay afloat, plenty is on the books for Morrow and Lipsitz.
“We don’t rest on our laurels. It would be safe to let the catalogue sell.” That catalogue has included titles from J-Pop stars Puffy Amiyumi, Of Montreal, Juliana Hatfield, Big Star’s Alex Chilton, The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, The Replacements’ Chris Mars, The Spinto Band, Tindersticks, Architecture In Helsinki, and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players.
“But we are always signing new bands and trying out new marketing ideas,” Morrow said. “The success of The Front Bottoms is a recent collaboration I’m very proud of. They have really struck a nerve with the kids. It’s like Beatlemania all over again!”
New titles from The Feelies’ guitarist Glenn Mercer, Parlour Tricks (who Morrow described as “like Lana Del Rey with three-part harmony”), Teen Men (who “write and sing great but also have an interactive video art component”) and the U.K.-based Happyness are among the titles to look for. Ultimately, Morrow added that he has “few regrets” as he remains “very proud of the quality of the recordings we’ve released over the last 30 years.”
Another major change for Bar/None, which started as a vinyl-only label, is how much licensing has factored into their profitability.
“It took a while for the Bar/None brand and its artists to catch on in the licensing world,” Morrow said. “Tom used to roll his eyes as large boxes of promotional CDs left the office to be pitched to music supervisors. I think our first license was for a Liv Tyler film [in 1995] called Heavy. They used a Freedy Johnston track.” With regards to what percentage of licensing plays into their overall revenue, he joked: “We still do all right but we don’t seem to get as many car commercials anymore.”
But Morrow did go into more specifics about how numbers break down when running a prominent record company. “Depending if we have new releases in a given month, the physical sales will shift up and down. The interesting number is the digital, where streaming is now getting close to 50 percent of all digital revenue.” Likely to the delight of Spotify and Tidal board members, he added: “The download may not be a dominant format very soon.”
Beware of the 360 deal
When it comes to changing with the times, however, Morrow is not in favor the “360 deal” concept that many labels have adopted, which means profit-sharing on all artist revenue streams.
“I think it’s wrong for artists to put all their eggs in one corporate basket. If it goes south, they are tied into a terrible situation where all their income streams are tied to a company that might care less about them.”
The change in the revenue pie isn’t necessarily the biggest challenge for Morrow, however.
“There are so many digital platforms and with all the innovation in social media, you have to figure out where to spend your time and dollars.” In addition, “there’s lots of hustles out there and [it’s] hard to always know what are the important things to get involved with.”
Morrow and Bar/None intend to remain Hudson River community locals for a variety of reasons. “[Being here provides] easy access to New York City, but also a little distance that maybe allows for a slightly different perspective on the musical landscape,” Morrow pointed out. In addition, as a Hoboken resident, he can walk to work.
While many music industry professionals are not likely to pursue music in their off-time, things are different for Morrow.
“I’ve gone back to making music myself. After the Todd Abramson regime sold Maxwell’s and I performed at the closing party with two bands I played in [“a” and The Individuals], it was a very moving experience having been in the first band to ever play the club. But afterwards, I suddenly had a lot of room in my brain…I began writing songs at a furious rate. It took about two years but we are now up and running.”
Getting their namesake from bassist Mike Rosenberg, Glenn Morrow’s Cry For Help! – which also includes drummer Ron Metz and guitarist Ric Sherman – performed at this year’s Hoboken Fall Arts & Music Festival.
As for what keeps Bar/None going in terms of quality control, for some people it’s rooted in their passion as music fans.
“Talking to both Glenn and Mark, you are reminded that some people are in the music business because of a deep love for the art, and a passion and emotion that is admirable. They still talk about new bands with a teenager’s enthusiasm,” Jankovich informed.
For those thinking about submitting a demo to Bar/None, Morrow has some advice to offer.
“Getting signed is not a ticket for success.” Furthermore, it is not only the label that helps make success happen.
“It is really a collaboration between the people at the label and the people that comprise the band or artist, as well as managers, booking agents, publishers, publicists, radio promoters, etc.” Ultimately, earning that record deal “is the beginning of a very long journey for an artist.”
So for those considering a career in music, Morrow encourages a practical yet passionate mind-set. “Don’t quit your day job and have fun making music. You never know where it will lead you but you are guaranteed to have a real good time.”