In a city where all-ages concerts have fallen out of frequency, making it as a young band in Portland can be a tough endeavor. There’s this strange age gap where some musicians are too old to get help from youth organizations like the Maine Academy of Modern Music, but not old enough to usher in the majority of fans at local Portland clubs because of age restrictions. And it’s considerably more difficult in the Portland music scene where connections can mean everything.
This is what Jordan Stowell, 20, says he’s up against as he operates his own record label, Nice Friends, and fronts the indie-pop band In The Audience.
Originally started as a side-project in 2008, In The Audience struggled to find permanent members until Stowell was recommended to Cam Jones as a drummer in the summer of 2009. “It didn’t really click that much at first — and Cam went away for a few weeks — but I didn’t really have many prospects and Cam seemed pretty skilled, so we gave it a shot again when he came home,” Stowell said in an e-mail interview.
After self-recording an EP and seeing some radio play on local stations, they decided to record another EP — this time in a professional studio. It started with a single called “Shine,” and right after the recording session they received an e-mail that changed everything. It was from a record label in Japan called MOORWORKS that wanted to release In The Audience’s first full-length album. Suddenly Stowell had funding and distribution for an album from the other side of the planet, but that meant he needed a way to bring the album to the States.
At the same time, an online contact of Stowell’s, Sonia Sturino, was trying to find a more legitimate way to promote and release her own music (under the name The Box Tiger) in Toronto. Stowell discovered Sturino’s music online and wanted to see if she could perform backing vocals on some of his songs. But from there, a greater musical relationship developed. It was this mutual desire to market and produce music that led Stowell to pitch the idea of running a record label together. It wouldn’t be anything complex, but it would be a means to helping each other out, along with other musicians in the future. Sturino agreed to the idea, and they set up shop as Nice Friends in December 2009.
As a record label, they began working on various releases including the forthcoming In The Audience album, the debut Box Tiger EP, an EP by Cam Jones, and a small Nice Friends compilation. The label didn’t have any funding besides the advance from MOORWORKS, so most of the money was coming out-of-pocket and from various shows the bands have played. Since the label is still in its infancy, they have yet to see any big results, but Stowell has been happy with progress so far.
“The releases we’ve done so far have been free digital releases for the most part,” Stowell said, citing “Drum Keys & Cymbal Trees” by Jones. “We’ve done these with little [to] no advertising and we’ve been pleased with everything so far.”
In addition to the recording projects, Nice Friends has been working on small marketing campaigns to increase the visibility of their artists. This includes more than just plastering the town with posters for upcoming shows. In The Audience played at a Maine Red Claws game to celebrate their first single, and a few months later they played on FOX 23′s Good Day Maine to promote an upcoming show with Canadian buzz band Land of Talk. “Doing things that are a little bit unusual can help spread the new and expose the band to audiences that might not normally attend a show,” Stowell said.
But despite the marketing and recording efforts being pushed by the label, Stowell feels that Maine’s music climate can be rather exclusive and hard to penetrate. “I started the label with no connections and it’s taking a long time to finally start making some,” Stowell said. “ A lot of people don’t care about what you’re doing and what you’ve done.”
He also envies other local bands that get larger opportunities, but never properly capitalize on them. “For young artists and people who really are trying to advance themselves and take becoming a professional musician very seriously, it’s endlessly frustrating. It’d be nice to see the big opportunities go to people who are looking to go beyond Maine and make a name for the state,” Stowell said. “It may sound very petty or obnoxious, but I feel it’s a very real issue.”
Notwithstanding Stowell’s pessimism about the local music scene, he has already accomplished a great deal as a 20-year-old musician and entrepreneur. With In The Audience’s debut album coming out in August and a set at the upcoming KahBang Music Festival in Bangor, Nice Friends might see some greater opportunities coming their way. After all, this is only the beginning.
Dylan Martin is a Media Studies student at USM and a staff writer for The Free Press. He also writes a blog on MaineToday.com called Geek Street.