Live music performances have been effectively quarantined during the pandemic, but songs are still being written and Reno’s indie bands continue to play and evolve during the lockdown. They need a vehicle with better sound quality than a Zoom session to get their audio art to the ears of audiences.
They need a recording studio; that can get expensive.
Enter Anthony Scott Collyer-Ashworth and Mark Earnest, longtime music fans, friends and band mates in the Reno hard rock group Kanawha. The partners have launched ToneMark Sounds, a new music label that specializes in “handcrafted, heartfelt music of all genres.”
Straight out of Reno
Collyer-Ashworth is also owner and engineer of The Great Divide Den, a new recording studio in Reno that he said is available to all artists who record for ToneMark Sounds, as well as other musicians outside of the label.
“It may seem a bit loopy to start out a label in such a downer climate for music in general,” Earnest said. “Our goal is to truly showcase these musicians beyond our circle of friends, proving that music creation is alive and well and valuable, even in the bleakest times.”
Crossing ‘The Great Divide‘
Earnest and Collyer-Ashworth are life-long musicians and have been half of the four-member Kanawha since 2017. The band plays local venues and has toured the West Coast. Their first album, Kanawha — The Sky Was the First to Fall, was released in May. A reviewer described the group’s sound as “a steady-handed mix of stoner and blues rock, with dashes of doom, psych, and grunge sprinkled in. Think Clutch plus early Soundgarden, but in the desert.”
The band recorded its new single in The Great Divide Den, formally known as Collyer-Ashworth’s basement. “I started recording on an interface using my desktop computer upstairs,” he said. “The basement was unfinished concrete then, but I began building it out with the flooring, paint, soundproofing and the audio equipment.”
The result is a compact studio space that proved its worth with Kanawha’s single. The band plans to produce its future releases at The Great Divide Den.
Kanawha’s single and its first EP got some attention online and sold well both in digital and vinyl versions. That got the band mates thinking about the other indie groups in Reno sidelined by the pandemic, the audiences who miss them, and potential fans who need to hear new sounds.
Four records planned
“There’s great music that a lot of people don’t have the chance to take in and appreciate,” Collyer-Ashworth said. “We are trying to give bands an opportunity to be heard the way we hear them, the way we see them, and the way we enjoy them… The hardest part, usually, for a band to get their music out there to people is finding an affordable studio.”
ToneMark label’s debut will be Eric Stangeland’s “Wake Up,” a diverse rock record that will be available digitally and on vinyl starting Feb. 19. Future releases include Kanawha’s 3-song single/EP, “Ultra Hip,” (March) and as-yet-untitled albums from Reno indie rock bands Heterophobia (June) and Vague Choir (July). There are other bands from Reno — as well as from the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia — who have expressed interest in working with ToneMark, Earnest said. That’s “a contrast to the public perception of musicians cooling their heels during the pandemic.”
The recording sessions are arranged with pandemic precautions in mind. The technicians and musicians playing instruments are masked and socially-distanced. But what about singers?
“It’s true that masks and singing don’t go together,” Earnest said. “You can’t really get the tonal quality required with a mask on. For the vocals’ sessions, we make sure the microphone is sanitized for each singer and that (those tracks) are all done on different evenings.”
Anyone else in the studio wears a mask during the vocal takes and partitions are set up to ensure proper social distancing. Other band members may listen in via phone links when vocals are being recorded and relay their feedback.
A ‘punk-rock’ ethic
The label pays for the recording sessions and related expenses, while the band and the label each pay half the costs for pressing the vinyl records. The profits from digital and vinyl sales of the albums also are split 50/50 as they come in.
“It’s a very punk-rock ethic, even though what we record isn’t all punk rock,” said Earnest, a journalist who handles marketing for the label. “When the recordings drop, I hit up the music blogs, the podcasts, the legit magazines that cover bands, including underground bands.” His job is to secure reviews and notices; to get the music played on podcasts.
That approach, he said, “worked really well with Kanawha. We got airplay in the United Kingdom and our vinyl records sold in the U.S. and in Germany. It worked for us, so why not for a band like Heterophopia, one of our favorites in town. Having a studio right here gives bands a chance to do it the right way.”
Throwback makes a comeback
Collyer-Ashworth said that the resurgence of vinyl records is an unexpected phenomenon of the digital age. Vinyl album sales in the United States have grown for the 15th consecutive year. In 2020, vinyl record sales were up 46% compared to 2019, with 27.5 million LPs sold in the U.S. That’s a more than 30-fold increase compared to 2006 when music fans began the trackback to the 100-year-old technology. “The vinyl numbers keep crawling upwards,” he said.
Earnest said that fans of indie and underground bands especially like vinyl. “You don’t see that with (fans of) commercial rock or country. We saw the preference for vinyl records even when shows were still happening before the pandemic. CDs and tapes would sit on the sales table, the vinyl would move right off it.”
So far, ToneMark has signed up only Reno bands for the label, but Earnest said there’s also been interest from other groups that have shared stages with Kanawha, including Voycheck, a Seattle-based, noise-rock band.
“We’re starting out with a first set of albums by local people we know,” he said. “Then we’ll extend out and see what happens.”