A Label Man Who Defies One
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Polo shirt, cargo shorts, an orderly coif of commas and twists. Todd Hyman looks like someone you'd trust with your income taxes. But your iPod? Erm, no thanks.
But perhaps you should. The 35-year-old has been releasing some of the most wildly experimental and widely celebrated indie -- as in independent, noncorporate-produced -- rock albums of the past few years through a triad of record labels he quietly operates out of his Chevy Chase home: Carpark Records, Paw Tracks and Acute Records.
And 2008 is apparently a good time to be peddling weird rock music. As bloggers continue to blush and gush over Carpark and Paw Tracks artists Panda Bear, Beach House and Dan Deacon, Hyman's labels continue to win new ears -- no small feat as the record industry continues its free fall toward extinction. "Surprisingly, we're kind of the reverse," he says. "Our business doubled from 2006 to 2007."
Wait, was that a boast? Hard to say, as Hyman, shy and dry, speaks almost inaudibly. Plopped on the living room couch of his comfy house near Connecticut Avenue NW, he recounts the history of his label in soft, measured tones, completely devoid of the wild-eyed enthusiasm you'd expect from a young label honcho. His office, just off the living room, is painfully ordinary -- a hulking oak desk, a sofa and a few CD shelves, as if to remind him that it's a record label he's running.
But Hyman's vision is anything but plain. His omnivorous ear, and the success it's brought him, hint at the triumphs of Sub Pop, the mega-indie whose wide-ranging aesthetic helped midwife the likes of Mudhoney, the Shins and those disheveled punk cinderellas, Nirvana.
The closest Hyman has to a Nirvana is Panda Bear, whose lush and dizzying 2007 album "Person Pitch" sent the indie bloggerati into lock-step hosannahs. Crafted by Noah Lennox of the experimental pop group Animal Collective, "Person Pitch" injected abstract arrangements with enough Brian Wilson sunshine to land the top slot on Pitchfork's "Top 50 Albums of 2007." (Hyman says the endorsement from indie rock's critical kingmakers has helped push the sales of "Person Pitch" to an estimated 80,000 copies.)
"There's something about the sound of that record that's very comforting and easy to like," says Mark Richardson, managing editor at Pitchfork. "It just makes you feel good when you listen to it."
Hyman didn't set out to release feel-good tunes. He founded Carpark in 1999 to showcase IDM, short for "intelligent dance music," a heady genre defined by its electronic gurgles and digital scrapes. Supporting himself as a record store clerk in Manhattan, Hyman had high hopes, not only for his new venture, but for the genre he hoped Carpark would spearhead. "I thought it was going to be this great thing that was gonna take over like punk rock did," he says. "But it never quite had the mass appeal. I guess the performance aspect had a lot do with it. . . . A dude hunched over a laptop."
With a liberal arts education but no business expertise, the Kentucky native still managed to keep Carpark out of the red in its early years. But he quickly grew tired of working exclusively with electronic music and branched out to form Acute Records in 2002 and Paw Tracks in 2003. Acute -- a partnership with New York DJ Dan Selzer -- would reissue obscure post-punk albums, while Paw Tracks, a label co-curated with the members of Animal Collective, would serve as an imprint for the band's solo projects and friends' groups. In both cases, Hyman was enlisted to help these dudes get organized and stay energized.
"You get a lot of people in the indie world who are really flaky," Selzer says. " I'm very flaky, and I never would have gotten Acute off the ground if I hadn't hooked up with Todd. I can barely make it to the post office without having a nervous breakdown."
Brian Weitz of Animal Collective appreciated Hyman's dedication from the start. "We knew he had seen us live and was enthusiastic about our music," the Washingtonian says via e-mail from Georgia, where the group is working on new music. "That goes a long way with us. We don't want to be involved with a label who just puts out our music because it's popular or because they think the kids will be stoked. We need them to be psyched to be a part of the process."
In 2005, already making his living from his labels, Hyman relocated to Washington after his wife accepted a job at the National Institutes of Health. The move plucked him away from the ceaseless musical energy of New York but dropped him in a town that had proven itself a fertile spot for niche labels -- punk stalwarts Dischord Records and Thievery Corporation's Eighteenth Street Lounge Music, among them. More importantly, Hyman's new environment gave him the head space to bring Carpark into its own. "Honestly, I was pretty tired of living in New York. I was just looking for a quiet place to live," Hyman says. "Corresponding with our move here, I just decided to start putting out what I like."