Interview: Mike Folker

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

One of his pursuits has been booking concerts like Saturday's multi-venue extravaganza Broken Hearts and Broken Strings. Two Cow Garage, Earwig, Chelsea Automatic, The George Elliott Underground and more will be on hand at The Basement and A&R Music Bar in the Arena District, starting at 6 p.m.

A brief snippet of my interview with Folker ran into today's paper, but I typed up quite a bit more of it to run here on the blog. I didn't get around to typing up the bit about his new record label, Secret Song Records, but suffice it to say Folker hopes to cherry-pick his favorite recording clients at Rokcity Studios to release them on his label.

For everything else, follow the jump.

Alive: It seems like your involvement in local music might have actually increased since CD101 cut you loose.

Mike Folker: It changed a lot. I worked at CD101 for seven years, so people knew me from that. I had played in some bands around town. I think the only pseudo-notable one would be 99 Heartaches, which actually we have a reunion show on the 17th. That was the biggest thing where I was actually out playing.

A couple years ago I opened up a recording studio, Rokcity, with some friends of mine, Oscar and Crystal Harris. Then it was like, OK, we’re going to do this recording thing, and I was like, if I’m going to be producing bands, I want to release some too, my favorites, I want to help the bands I can help. I’ve always been the sort where if I can help a band, I will. It’s kind of hard because I feel like I can never do enough. There’s only so many hours in a day. It kills me. Especially since I’ve not been in the air anymore, I’ve actually had a lot of time to help promote.

What were the circumstances of you getting let go?

The economy hits broadcasters really hard. CD101 is entirely supported by revenue, and the local revenue is great, but a local client is going to spend in the four figures a year on advertising, but a national client is going to spend six figures. The first thing when there’s a recession is they pull back their advertising. And that really, really hurts a station like CD101.

How hard was it to leave?

It sucked because I mean I was there forever. I worked there longer than any other job I ever had. And it’s the most fun you could ever have at a job. You know, it is what it is. There’s no hard feelings. Everyone’s cool. I still feel like they’re my family.

Matter of fact, Joe and Andyman are great. I still talk to both of them quite a bit. Joe helped out with the (Haiti) benefit at Ravari Room, had us bring Phantods on the air and come down and talk about it. He helped us promote it quite a bit. And also I was down there for the Andymanathon. Helped out. Did some engineering and generally hung around and had fun with my friends.

Have you been upping your involvement at the studio since you left the station?

Recording is weird. That’s one of the things that’s entirely based on bands’ budgets. That’s another thing that you wouldn’t think slowed down. We assumed when we opened it, we were like, “This thing will be recession proof.” Because we were thinking we’re probably due for a recession. The next year it came, and yeah, business slowed down. So the amount of time I put in, I try to spend as much time as I can promoting and just getting the word out about it, but as far as recording, you never know. It comes in streaks. For two months I’ll be literally sleeping there, and then for a month I’ll be there a couple times a week and that’s it. It’s the oddest thing. Actually we’re on a nice little upswing. My next couple of months are going to be really, really busy.

Any projects you’re particularly excited about?

Yeah, I’m working on a thing with a band called the Matte Black Silhouettes, which I think are my new favorite thing in town. It’s two guitar players, drummer and Krista, their singer, is super talented. No bass. So it’s fun, and the sound is really cool. It’s real dark and dirty and spacey and pretty much everything that really gets me into a band.

You work with a lot of bands I’ve never heard of before. Is it important to you to work with bands that haven’t been established?

I try. I really go and I try to go to shows, I try to see new bands that are just starting and try to work with those bands as much as I can. I don’t know why. I think maybe it’s more fun for me to try and find new things. I’ve worked with some bands that really have been around for a while, like The Slang’s got a record coming out. A lot of people don’t know the band Yellow Light Maybe, but their CD’s coming out on the 27th. I think at the time maybe people weren’t aware of Karate Coyote when I recorded those two EPs.

That’s part of my goal, too. The bands I record, I try to promote them too. I like to see those bands go on and do something bigger after they record. You hope that’s the point of the recording: OK, you can take this and hopefully take a step up in your career with it. I figure if that’s what’s going on, then I’m doing something right. Of course you never know.

I do a monthly night at Circus that’s not like a giant thing, but then I do try to periodically do the large-scale shows like RCS Fest back in August and Broken Hearts Broken Strings. I’m really curious about shows like that, if they can shoot energy into the scene. That’s something I want to see. The bands we have in Columbus are great. I mean really, really great. I don’t think they get the support they need as far as people just coming out to shows. For the most part they’ll go see a band if they know somebody in the band, but you don’t see as much of people you don’t know coming out to shows. And I’m curious to see if doing shows like this, these sort of big true events, will bring new people out to the scene that haven’t been out to see some of these bands before.

The other thing I try really hard is to mix scenes together. Like next week I’ve got four different groups of bands that would never play together normally. Like Two Cow and Earwig are not the oldest guard, but older guard. They’re sort of the classic Columbus cowpunk sound. They’re out of that school and that pedigree. And then George Elliott, Chelsea and Stucco, those guys are newer, but they’re doing that new straight-ahead rock out thing, which I like. There’s a good chance that that’s the next sound. And then my band’s different. We’re a country band. And then Dirty Flaggs and Yellow Light Maybe are real poppy. But it’s all different audiences. Same with The Slang. They write great pop songs. So it’s these different audiences, and I want to see what happens when I put these different audiences together and help everyone make some new fans and maybe sell some more merch ’cause they’ll be playing.

It seems like kind of a gross thing to say, but I really want everyone to make money. It seems like an odd thing for some people because I know no one’s really in it for that. The biggest problem that bands have in town is that they’re not making money doing what they’re doing. They’re working hard. They earn it. But they’re not getting paid. Part of it has to do with the structure of things. But this whole bands not getting paid thing is the reason why bands aren’t getting signed. I mean, honestly, that’s what a major label cares about: Is the band making money? If your band is out making $1,000 a night, then yeah, some major record label is happy to come up and take a cut of that. And then they’ll help a band go national, go to the next level. But if no band in Columbus is making any money, nobody’s getting signed. And that’s definitely not good for our scene.

So you think getting signed to a record label is still a viable business model?

You need a team to help you get out of Columbus, to help you get out and build yourself up in other markets. You need somebody who can help you book good shows. It doesn’t make any sense to try and just go out and we’re just going to go on a tour across the country and do 30 dates. You can get those dates booked, but if you go out and you’re not booked with good bands, you’re not working with a good booking agent and you don’t have good promotion behind you, you’re going to go out and lose money. And that’s not good. That just leads to your band breaking up. You don’t want that.

That’s where even if it’s not necessarily a major, if it’s just a good label or a good management team or a good booking agent, they’re all looking for the same thing. They’re all looking for a band that’s going to profitable. They don’t want to sink their money into a band that loses money. And they always look at what’s going on with the hometown first.

You were at CD101 for seven years. what about before that? How’d you end up there?

I grew up in northern Michigan, and I came to Columbus to go to Capital. I started as a music major for a year, and that kind of took the fun out of playing. After that, I was like, I don’t really want to go back to Michigan. Because who wants to go back to Michigan? No, it’s a lovely place. But I switched to radio. Jack DeVoss, who was at CD101 at the time, was also the radio instructor. I didn’t do well as a music major, but I did well as a radio major. I sort of beat around the bush and tried to get some internships at other stations, and finally I just gave up and asked Jack, and he was like, “I was waiting for you to ask me!” I didn’t want to be like, OK, I’m going to go to the obvious place."

But Jack brought me on and took me under his wing there and really took care of me, taught me the ropes. And slowly sort of worked my way up at CD101. Was hanging around as an intern and did some production stuff and behind the scenes stuff for a year, and then they put me on air, which was cool, like be on air when I was still in college. Eventually ended up as assistant production director, and I was on the music team so I was getting to talk to record labels and help research and find new bands to play. Plus being on the air a bunch. That was a lot of fun. You’re not going to get a better job than that, I think. Being paid to be a professional music snob.

How did you end up playing with Lydia? She told me you kept calling her until she finally caved in.

That’s exactly how it happened, actually. I saw her at ComFest last year and I was like, “Why the hell did I not know about this?” Apparently everyone else did and I didn’t. And I was like, this is amazing. The thing that grabbed me was I’m a massive Neko Case fan. Like obsessive in a creepy way Neko Case fan. And Lydia’s voice really sounds like Neko to me. So I was like, “Alright, I’ve got to record this girl. I don’t care.” So I was messaging her like, “Hey, you should come to my studio.” And she was like, “No, I’m working on a record. I’ve been working on it for like two years.” I’m like wow. OK. And she was like, “Well I do need some musicians.” And I’m like, “What do you need? I got this! I’m a decent guitar player, I can hold my own.” And I just kept messaging her and bugging her until finally she let me try out. It went well, I guess, and she let me in the band.

It’s cool. I think it’s the best band I’ve ever been in. Lydia’s songs are great. I’m looking forward to what she’s going to do. A lot of what’s on her record started when she was 16. You can hear the progression. Some of the songs in it are newer than some of the other songs. And it’s like she just keeps getting better. Every new song she brings out is even better than the last, and I’m like, gosh, where’s she going to be in five years?

You've talked about doing an anti-pay-to-play show. What do you mean by that?

There’s all these production companies—and I guess technically I have a production company. Mike Folker Productions. It’s the official business name for all the crap I do—but there are a lot of these companies around town that honestly are just ripping off kids. They make their money off of getting kids to do things and then basically taking all that money, not paying the bands. You know, dangling carrots out there like we can do this for you, and that for you. But that stuff doesn’t really add up. The reality is if you’re selling $10 tickets, and you’re selling 100 of them, why would you ever hand that over to some production company that’s going to give you back $100? If you’re willing to do that hard of work, book the Treehouse and keep all that money for yourself. You can do it. Don’t give somebody a giant cut. Giving somebody 20 percent for helping you book, that’s a reasonable thing. You taking 20 percent out of some show that you worked your butt off, that’s not fair.