by Jack Silbert
The legend goes that although the first Velvet Underground album didn’t sell many copies, everybody who bought one started a band. Emmy Black’s experience was just a little different.
“As a kid, 13 or 14, I heard the Velvet Underground and decided, ‘I want to make things sound like that,’” Black tells hMAG. “I wanted to work in studios and be a producer.”
So, while still attending high school in the Red Bank area, Black worked at a recording studio. Later, as her interest shifted to the business side of music, she pursued a degree in music industry and production at Ramapo College.
HEADING TO HOBOKEN
During college, her music education extended to the Mile Square City. “I always loved Bar/None Records,” Black says. So she reached out to Glenn Morrow, owner of the legendary Hoboken-based label. He offered her an internship.
Moving up to Jersey City after college, she once again contacted Morrow, asking if he knew of any area employment opportunities. “At the time, they needed someone out there seeing bands,” Black remembers. “He said, ‘I think you should be doing A&R (Artists & Repertoire) here.’ It really worked out.”
Black hit the ground running; the first act she signed to Bar/None was New Jersey’s own Front Bottoms. Though Black knew the band’s singer/guitarist Brian Sella from Ramapo College, finalizing the deal still took about eight months. First she had to convince her coworkers.
“How it worked at Bar/None, you needed to truly believe in your heart that this is your favorite band,” Black explains. “Glenn always wants you to make sure this is the right band to get behind. Everyone had to be onboard.”
Then she needed to convince the band. Black points out that young artists are often skeptical of contracts. “Brian and I were in the same music industry class at Ramapo,” she says, where they were warned about shady deals. But Black made it clear to the Front Bottoms that Bar/None would be both fair and supportive. The band released their first two albums on the label, in 2011 and 2013. (They’ve since moved on to Fueled by Ramen, where their two most recent albums have hit the Billboard Top 50.)
THE ORCHARD AND NEW PASTURES
Black spent four and a half years at Bar/None, also serving as the label’s digital marketing director. She then moved on to The Orchard, a Sony-owned company that helps independent artists and labels distribute, market, and sell their recordings. There, as a manager in Client Relations, she was approached by a soul band from Houston called The Suffers.
“They were about to be on Letterman, and they didn’t know what they had to do,” Black recalls. “I told them there was a lot you have to do!” The band wanted to bring her into the fold as a consultant. But the only way she could do everything they needed, including physical distribution of a record, was to start a label of her own. The Orchard—or at least the people who mattered—were OK with her doing this while working there. So now she needed a name for her label.
“I had about 24 hours to come up with one,” Black says, as legal paperwork had to be submitted quickly. “And I was re-reading The Phantom Tollbooth at the time….” The two princesses in the story, Rhyme and Reason, provided the label with its name: Rhyme & Reason Records (RARR).
Black spent about a year at The Orchard, while RARR added more bands to its roster. “It just got to a point where I couldn’t give 100% to the label, which kept on growing, and to my job at The Orchard,” Black recalls. “I had to pick one.”
Enter Black’s best friend, Ann Marie Scuderi, RARR’s co-founder. “I never would’ve left The Orchard to do this full-time without her,” Black states. Scuderi hadn’t worked in the music industry, but had significant experience with tech start-ups. “She knows how to build a business, and do everything I don’t,” Black continues.
Now there was the matter of finding an office, and timing was once again on her side. Bar/None was looking to move into a larger space, and soon found one in Hoboken’s Neumann Leathers building, big enough for both labels. “Sharing the office worked perfectly and has proved to be an invaluable resource,” says Black.
Joining the team was Emily Cadman from the Motéma jazz label. She serves as a project manager and also does A&R. “What that means in my day-to-day role is being a client contact for artists and managers,” Cadman explains.
MUSIC BUSINESS TODAY
With a plummeting number of record stores in the past 15 years, and digital sales giving way to streaming services, 2015 was certainly an interesting time to launch a record label. Emmy Black and Ann Marie Scuderi weren’t fazed one bit. “I think it’s a great time to do this,” Black claims. “When you bought a CD, every time you put it in your player, the artist didn’t get a penny. Now every time someone listens to music, there’s a royalty. It’s sustainable.”
That doesn’t mean RARR has turned its back on physical releases. “People want physical. Kids in their early 20s want physical, because they never held anything in their hands growing up. They all had MP3s,” Black states. She also explains that veteran artists and touring groups tend to sell more physical releases.
But, veteran or younger, don’t expect all RARR acts to sound the same. “We don’t really have an overarching label identity in terms of genre, so we work with really disparate sounding artists,” Cadman offers. “Red Baraat is Indian bhangra party jazz. Super-fun live show, very colorful, very big. Sweet Crude is Louisiana creole pop. And they have this academic bent, where part of the project is wanting to preserve the Louisiana French dialect, so they sing in both French and English. Pronoun is Brooklyn indie guitar…”
“Pronoun will make you feel feelings,” Black interjects. “But she’s really good and catchy. We also have SNST, who is Chris Broach from [90s emo stars] Braid, although it sounds nothing like Braid. Indie electro-pop, almost like Postal Service.”
MUSIC BUSINESS TOMORROW
Short-term plans for RARR include the release of Chromium Homes, the debut album from Jersey City rockers Black Wail on December 15. In 2018, prominent singer/songwriter Walter Salas-Humara will put out his new album on the label. (In the 90s, his band The Silos were on labels such as RCA and Watermelon.)
“I hope that we can grow,” Black says. “I want to build a great label that puts out music that helps people, the music that you keep going back to whenever you go through a breakup or you feel happy, music that changes people’s lives.”
Black and Scuderi have another large goal. “We also want to fix some problems in the music industry,” Black says. “We want to find that problem that every label has and fix it, which is what we’ll be doing with RARE—Rhyme & Reason Etcetera.”
The label has already provided some business services to bands, including work on the upcoming They Might Be Giants album (to be released January 19 through that band’s own label). Cadman says, “We’re strategizing for retail, digital retail, and Spotify, and finding new promotional opportunities.” (They Might Be Giants began their career on Bar/None.)
Rhyme & Reason’s spin-off company RARE will take these services to a new level. “We’re going to help with royalties and accounting and keeping the books — all the business part of record labels,” Black says. “Because nobody gets their MBA and goes into the music industry.”
The future is bright for Rhyme & Reason, and they’re happy to have a home in Hoboken. “Number one, Maxwell’s was the place where I saw a lot of important shows in my life growing up,” Black says. “The ‘Hoboken Sound’ and that realm that comes from the tradition of Bar/None, really, is my whole experience in this industry, and what I love.”
Learn about all of Rhyme & Reason Records’ artists and releases at their website, or follow the label on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This Saturday, December 9, you can see RARR’s—and Hoboken’s own—Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help, along with Bar/None recording artists Overlake, at WFMU’s Monty Hall in Jersey City.