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The Label Guy
Equal Vision Records cofounder Steve Reddy’s business philosophy: Do what you love, take care of your employees, and don’t worry about success. And at the moment, he doesn’t have to

Photo by:
Joe Putrock

By Bill Ketzer

The new headquarters for Equal Vision Records is like an apiary, bustling with young employees working the phones, hammering at keypads, programming screen printers and labeling skids of product for the loading dock. The air is thick with the smell of ink and cardboard as they hurry by, scribbling into workbooks and sidestepping piles of open boxes that spill from every corner. In the farthest reaches of the warehouse’s labyrinthine interior, owner Steve Reddy shares a laugh with a coworker as he helps load product onto a skid for shipment. He turns, mentally prying himself from the task at hand, to offer a casual greeting.

“Hi, I’m Steve,” he says. “As you can see, we’re just getting settled here.” Reddy is trim, muscular, with clear eyes and a coarse cap of blonde hair, his tattoo ink like friezes of history on his arms as he gestures toward the screen-printing floor, into the whistles and groans of machinery, the thrum of efficiency. In his early 40s, he could still easily pass for 25. If you didn’t know him, it would be impossible to single him out from the rest of his crew, like the young set pulling band logos from gargantuan screen racks to fulfill yet another T-shirt order. His recent move to Fuller Road in Albany from Columbia County effectively tripled his square footage, yet every inch of his new digs remains packed to the hilt with CDs, merchandise, hardware and machinery. One can’t help but wonder how he survived at the other facility.

“Actually, one of the main reasons we decided to move was that we thought it would be easier to hire qualified people if we were right in Albany,” he says. “We have about 40 people working here and we are looking to fill a few more positions right now.” Looking around, however, another reason is more obvious: Equal Vision is growing exponentially. Since he purchased it from Youth of Today/Shelter singer Ray Cappo in 1992, the label has expanded into three separate but interrelated businesses. The record label itself handles A&R, production, marketing and promotion services for EVR bands, while the merchandise company (EVR Promotions) prints T-shirts, sweatshirts and other merchandise for those acts and others through contractual agreement. Finally, Reddy’s Web fulfillment company (MerchNow) handles retail, mail-order and Web sales for his bands and scores of others needing online direct-shipment services.

Reddy pauses as he walks past his enormous collection of multi-armed screen-printing carousels, capable of knocking out thousands of units every day. “The Web fulfillment business has really taken off for us,” Reddy says. “I basically started it up because I had to hire a ton of people for my printing business when the Vans/Warped Tours started happening, as well as Ozzfest. And after the tours ended every year I had all this help, people who I really liked, and didn’t want to lay them off. So now we handle retail online sales for a lot of different bands. If you go to the Hatebreed Web site, for example, they aren’t on Equal Vision, but if you click on their store link, all the merch orders come right to us.”

This growth has been further fueled by the increasing popularity of “emo” or “emotional” punk, and while EVR runs the gamut between brutal noise metal (American Nightmare) and the ethereal (the Snake, the Cross, the Crown), Reddy has also signed a number of bands from the emo genre. Most recently the label has seen increased visibility due to the success of Saves the Day and Hudson Valley’s Coheed and Cambria, who have literally exploded onto the international stage. The band’s latest CD was released on Columbia Records last year and remains in the Billboard Top 100, yet Coheed and Cambria remain faithful to Reddy.

“They wanted to stay, so I entered into a joint partnership with Columbia,” he explains. “They wrote an incredible record and all the majors were after them, so we talked about it and decided that this record deserved a push that I just wasn’t in a position to give. I’ve never had any success at commercial radio. . . . It’s something that is very expensive and almost impossible for indies to do, so we found a company in Columbia where the band would be given a chance to see their potential and Equal Vision could stay involved. The honeymoon’s kind of over with [Columbia], though!”

Reddy doesn’t disclose whether he’s had offers to sell, but feels that the days of major labels eating up the smaller labels are over. “I think they learned a lesson in the ’90s. . . . It’s not the brand of the label but the people that work there and their business practices that are the real assets,” he says. “The hardcore scene has really grown. It’s almost like Animal Farm. Today, I look from hardcore kid to mainstream kid and back again and I’m not sure I can tell the difference anymore. I’m not knocking it, because I’m always for giving bands a chance to make a living with what they love to do. That wasn’t really possible in my day. This indie scene has been brushing up against the mainstream now for a few years. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be searching for my bands in the billboard top 200 and shipping 100,000 records at a time, I would have told you that you were crazy, but it’s happening. We’re doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for years; it’s just that the scene has grown. Hopefully we’ll still be able to cope when the mainstream moves on to the next thing and ‘emo’ becomes the next ‘ska.’”

He doesn’t seem very worried. In fact, he doesn’t seem worried about much. There is a calmness about Reddy as he navigates the still-unfamiliar hallways of his new distribution center, a contentedness that one doesn’t readily associate with any level of the music industry. Talking to him about success is almost like talking to a third party about Equal Vision, someone who isn’t truly privy to its models and secrets. He modestly plays down his business sense and marketing savvy, more content to credit his employees for the fruits of his hard work (several have been with him since the beginning). “I never intended the business to be as big as it is now,” he says. “We just try to give every band we put out a chance to be successful. We aren’t just throwing releases against a wall and hoping some stick; we want to be patient with our bands. I think that’s the main problem with major labels. . . . They want everything to be a big seller right away, so they breed the substance out of rock and roll and all they’re left with is multimillion-dollar marketing. EVR still puts out music that we like and has integrity, instead of putting out something just because it will sell. Hopefully, that matters to someone out there. I know it still matters to us.”

Reddy’s business ethic is trace-able back to his early years at SUNY Albany, where the Fort Plains native met Dave Stein and Pam Lockrow, whose infamous Futile Effort shows at the old VFW Post 481 on Washington Avenue brought the most important hardcore music of the day to the Capital Region. “Four Bands, Four Bucks” was the motto, and on any given bill you could catch bands like Black Flag, the Descendants and Dag Nasty. His first four dollars would turn out to be the best Steve Reddy ever spent. “I went to see Suicidal Tendencies there and I was blown away. . . . I could tell that this was 100 percent do-it-yourself,” he recalls. “It was small, truly alternative and had an ethic. It was cool to be a part of something like that, and everyone who came to shows back then was [included]. That was really attractive to me. After that I just started going to every show in Albany, and Dave and Pam had a room for rent, [so] I moved in. I remember seeing local bands like Capitle, who were awesome, but I really loved Fit for Abuse. I hung out with those guys, and that was the first time I got interested in the workings of bands and making records.”

The VFW shows also were where he met the members of Youth of Today. The New York City powerhouse introduced him to the concept of “straight edge”—a subgenre of hardcore that heralds disciplined self-reliance, integrity and abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and other evils—eventually hiring him as a roadie for their guerrilla-style tours of the States in the late 1980s. Reddy also took regular trips to New York with his Albany brethren to see other straight-edge bands like Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat. He embraced the straightedge lifestyle, but a show at the old Rock Hotel in New York City’s West Side was where his life took another turn, one that informs the basic tenets of his business philosophy to this day. “We would all pile into a van and go to NYC,” he says after responding to a quick intercom page. “We went to Rock Hotel one night and the Cro-Mags were playing, [and they were] beating the crap out of these other guys. I asked someone why they were doing that and they said it was because they weren’t into Hare Krishna. I thought that was cool.”

One would think that this is a bit of a dichotomy, given that one of the basic tenets of Krishna consciousness is selfless love. “Not as much as it might seem,” Reddy is quick to indicate. “You have to understand these guys were total skinheads. And like many Krishnas they saw themselves as warriors. But aside from that, it was really my [first exposure] to it, and it planted a seed. I was 19 years old and searching. While I was on tour with Youth of Today I bought a book about Krishna, read it, and sent away for another one. When we got off the road I went to a Krishna farm in Pennsylvania to study.”

After his experiences there, the young Reddy began building Equal Vision with Cappo, who initially started the label solely to release albums by his post-Youth of Today band, Shelter. Reddy then purchased the business and relocated to New York City when Shelter struck a deal with Roadrunner Records. Initially, he planned to release only Krishna bands. “My vision for what the label is is always changing, which means I’ve probably never really had a vision for it,” he explains. “But it started as a label to release Shelter records and then other “KrishnaCore” bands. Originally that’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t see it as a money-making venture or a career path. I more or less wanted to use the label to introduce hardcore kids to Krishna-
conscious philosophy, although I don’t really proselytize on the teachings of Krishna now. Shelter moved on and I got married, so I went to New York City and tried to make a go of it.”

More than a decade and several relocations later, the label has approximately 20 bands on its active roster and another 35 or so with releases still in print (including earlier material from H2O, Snapcase, Sick of It All and other popular groups). Although spreading Krishna consciousness is no longer the main goal of the company, Reddy feels that his beliefs have enriched his business and made a big difference in the loyalty of his friends and employees.

“Krishna consciousness is my overall philosophy, so I don’t see how I can really separate it from my business philosophy,” he says. “I think it helps me. The record industry can be pretty bewildering and I can get caught up in it. . . . The competitiveness, the quest for fame and the impelling desire to do everything bigger and better seem to be the driving force in the music business. According to Krishna philosophy, we are spiritual beings and won’t be satisfied by any level of material success, so I try not to get enamored and look within for my happiness and piece of mind.”

It seems to be an infectious ideology, spanning the breadth of his business, and is particularly evident in Reddy’s hands-on approach to signing new bands. “Most of our signing still comes from (unsolicited) demos,” he says. “Coheed and Cambria came from a demo. . . . They had never played outside their home town before we signed them. Basically, we look for bands that are doing something slightly original. We usually try to see them play and hang out with them. I want to make sure we are on the same page before we start, because nothing is worse than being in a three-year commitment with someone you can’t get along with or have no respect for. The money isn’t worth for it for me.”

Taking it one step further, EVR also helps bands get a leg up on the road—something many independents aren’t willing to do to any substantial degree. “We want all our bands to be given a chance to realize their potential, and we know from experience that it’s hard to go on tour, make $75 a night, pay for gas and make enough money to come home with rent,” Reddy explains. “So we help bands get going and then hopefully they get to a level where they are self-sufficient.”

Such dedication is not without its downside. The long hours he logs at the office each day prevent him from pursuing outside interests, especially his passion for sports. “I’m more into sports than music,” Reddy confides. “I’ve always liked punk-rock music, but I was more attracted to the DYI ethic. It was like, ‘Hey, this is a pretty cool scene, can I get involved?’ and the answer was always like, ‘Sure, just join in.’ As much as I liked the Knicks and the Miami Dolphins, I didn’t really see a way for me to be involved in their ‘scene.’”

Until a few years ago, Reddy coached high-school sports at Hawthorne Valley, a private school in Columbia County that balances artistic, academic and practical work to educate the whole child, following the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. “I started a cross-country program at the school and also coached high school basketball,” he says. “I loved that, but when things started to grow here, I was informed by my employees that I had to give it up.”

One last time, he mentions the importance of the people, his people, the ones who take the orders and ship them out. As he rises, ready to return to unfinished business, it is 5:15 PM. Quitting time for most, but not one employee has left the building for the day. Reddy smiles. “Somehow, I’ve got a bunch of people here that bust their asses for this label. I’m not exactly sure why, but I know I owe everything to them. So I hope in 10 years they’re all still here and don’t look back on the day that they started working at EVR as the day they ruined their lives.”

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