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Austin Chronicle Chocolate Records

By David Lynch

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  When asked for an epiphany he's experienced since founding Chocolate Records in 1993, Russ Smith replies without hesitation: working with the Naxi Music Orchestra of Southwest China. The Naxi is a unique orchestra, consisting of 20 septuagenarians who have endured China's ironically named "Cultural Revolution." Not only did they suffer the same harsh "reforms" as the populace, the Naxi were prohibited from playing their music.

"The Orchestra had to perform behind the government's back," says Smith, whose father is half Chinese. "Literally burying their instruments to keep them from being taken."

Undaunted, the Orchestra labored on. At one point, their leader was sent to a "re-education camp" for a 20-year enrollment, only to come out still playing the music of his grandfather's grandfather. This is the kind of dedication Chocolate looks for.

The approach of this local eclectic indie isn't, "Are so-and-so Chocolate material?" but rather, "Is the relationship right for both parties?" In a world of lopsided, written-in-legalese, record company-favoring deals, this attitude is unique.

"I try to be as flexible and diverse as I can," remarks Smith. "I see it not just as a record company, but as a service to musicians."

Just as important, Chocolate also looks for intent.

"It has to come from the heart," declares Smith. "That's the best way I can say it. It's a feeling, an intention. Are the musicians doing what they do from the heart, or are they just into another fashion statement?"

Chocolate Records began when Smith, who moved to Austin from Dallas in 1981, was doing digital mastering and production earlier this decade. "My formal education is in molecular biology," explains Smith. "From there I got into computers, and from there I went into digital mastering. And I worked with Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom for several years, doing sound on the road, graphics, whatever."

Gaining valuable experience as a musical renaissance man, Smith was then asked to record the 1992 Austin Acoustic Music Festival, where he was exposed to the Persian stylings of Kamran Hooshmand and 1001 Nights, the Celtic power of the Silver Thistle Pipes and Drums, the emotive Tex-Mex sounds of Johnny Degollado y Su Conjunto, and the pan-drum corps Fungaru. Smith was impressed.

"I was literally blown away by the diversity of talent in Austin, and its ethnic influences," he says.

And after creating a translucent recording of the festival's second year, Smith was adamant about the tape's future.

"I didn't want to see that recording just sit on a shelf somewhere, so I decided to start a record company and put this record out raise money for the Austin Acoustic Music Festival."

And voilà, Chocolate Records and its inaugural progeny, A World Inside: The Austin Acoustic Music Festival, were born. The first track on the album, Michele Solberg's "Frozen Lullabies," and Smith's working relationship with the local singer would prove pivotal to the fledgling label. When Solberg ended up suing one local record label with whom she had worked, her frustrations with the music business reached critical mass.

Russ Smith
photograph by Bruce Dye

"She was so soured from that deal, she was literally talking about not playing anymore," recalls the soft-spoken Smith. "And I thought, I can't let this happen."

With the resources of a new, small indie label, Smith told Solberg he would put her album out. When she agreed, their working relationship became so tight that during production they shared a joint checking account. Then, as now, the important thing for Chocolate was the music.

"I didn't want Michele's record to disappear because of arguments over money, master tapes, etc.," explains Smith. "For me, it's about the song first, then the album, then the artist, and then everything else."

Solberg's eponymously titled 1994 debut was Chocolate's second release. That same year witnessed the label's third release, Shane Cannedy's Tapioca, and it was at that point that Smith realized, "That I had a record company here."

From that point forward, Chocolate released two or three albums for the next several years. While this may not seem terribly prolific compared to other indies, it's important to remember that Chocolate's sole full-time employee is Smith. Yet with his mastering savvy, Chocolate has become synonymous with clear, full recordings such as Laurie Freelove's 1996 release, Songs From the Nineline.

"There was a Billboard review of Songs From the Nineline that commented on how good the album sounded, on the production of it," says Smith. "Half was recorded live, the other half in a small studio!... I may not have albums in the Top 100, but we're putting out good, quality records.

"I do everything: graphics, producing, digital mastering, etc.," continues Smith. "I know how to make a record on every element, so I know how to keep costs down. Turnaround on sales of Chocolate's records is higher, because we don't have to outsource very much."

Chocolate's strong financial situation means the company directs more royalties to its artists. That's why one of Uganda's national treasures, Ndere Troupe, picked Chocolate Records over the much bigger Rounder Records to release their brilliant 1996 Tekwaro. Smith relates the story:

"The percentages we have with artists are quite unique, very commonly --the opposite of most record company contracts," explains Smith. "Rounder Records was interested in Tekwaro, but they made an embarrassing offer of 7% (royalties based on sales), and Ndere Troupe would then be locked into a five-record deal. And even if they signed, Rounder couldn't guarantee that Tekwaro would be released!

"I offered them 80% and a one-album deal and they agreed."

Even with these generous royalty arrangements, incredibly, Chocolate has yet to lose money releasing albums. Yep, that's right -- Chocolate has made money on every release.

"I have never gone into the red with any Chocolate recording," says Smith matter-of-factly. "I attribute it to economical production, keeping as much as possible in house, but also in working with artists who are motivated to push their records, to make their dreams come true."

In addition to the aforementioned, Chocolate's stable also includes local acts like Bongo Hate's twisted pop musings, Govinda's ethereal groove, and Steve Fitch's nakedly honest and humorous songwriting.

What's next for Chocolate? More of the same. The label has four albums due out in the next few months: Naxi Music Orchestra; some Sumatran tribal dance music; a David Sylvian-esque mixture of classical Japanese, avant-garde rock, and classical guitar by Kevin McCormick; and Balinese bamboo music. The company is also expanding into multimedia frontiers.

"Chocolate Records has now given birth to its mother," says Smith, "Chocolate Media -- with DVD, multimedia, and book publishing."

And the company name?

"To me it speaks for itself," answers Smith. "What makes people happy? What's something pleasurable? Chocolate. You take it in, it makes you feel good. It's definitely psychoactive."

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