exotic Fever Records

on starting your own label

katy otto.jpg


May 7, 2016
Katy Otto for Women in Sound

In addition to drumming in multiple bands, like
Trophy Wife and Callowhill, serving as Director of Communications at Juvenile Law Center and on the board of directors of New Paradise Laboratories Performance Theater, as well as being a mother, D.C. native Katy Otto has been running Exotic Fever Records since shortly after its inception in 2000. Fresh off their 56th release, she shares some of her experiences and what she has learned.

On starting Exotic Fever Records:
Technically, my dear friend and the first person I ever played music with started Exotic Fever. Her name is Bonnie Schlegel. We had a band together for about five years in DC called Bald Rapunzel. She is one of my favorite humans in the world and one of the most gifted musicians I have ever known. She started EXF to put out an EP of our friends' band The Halo Project. She made about 50-100 copies and began selling them at shows. She asked me if I might want to join her. We had no idea what we were doing, but thought, “why not?” Our band was active at the time and we were meeting lots of folks that we wanted to help with their music.

At the same time, our friend and my housemate Sara Klemm was putting together a benefit compilation for the DC Books to Prisons Project. It made a lot of sense to all work together, so she joined forces with us. The BTP comp, along with a zine including artwork by incarcerated folks was the third release on the label. It included some tracks by bands like Beauty Pill, Thursday and Zegota, and garnered some good initial attention in what we were doing.

Some of those initial releases also included a full length from the awesome political punk band 1905 from D.C. and Richmond's Light the Fuse and Run.

We loved working on the project together and were thrilled by the attention the label got early on. Living in DC, we also had access to a lot of mentors and help. It was especially awesome to live somewhere where women like Jenny Toomey, Kristin Thomson, and Kim Coletta were running labels. We got a lot of ideas, help and encouragement from them as well as the Dischord family as a whole.

On her responsibilities as label owner and manager:   
I have amazing help from a few people. Kathy Cashel is a musician whose releases we have put out and she is also an awesome web developer. She designs and manages the Exotic Fever site, and I am endlessly grateful. My friend David van McAleer also helps with graphic design and layout.

At this point, beyond that, it's just me. I choose releases, work with bands on manufacturing specifics, reach out to radio and press, run mailorder, and run our social media platforms. We just put out our 56th release, but I should note that Bonnie and I both assigned our children release numbers. Those were creative projects, so it made sense!

on how labels have changed since Exotic Fever’s inception:
The biggest change has been the internet. When we started this label, people bought physical releases at a larger rate. CDs were a more viable vehicle for selling music. Digital music sales happened, and were beginning to catch some interest, but were nothing like what they are now. Music didn't get ripped online at the same rate. For these reasons, it's more financially challenging than it ever was to put out music from a small label such as mine. Additionally, there isn't the same role for a label there was once. People ask me to put out music frequently, and a lot of the time it would probably make just as much sense for them to self-release. Bandcamp and Tunecore make this so easy. The role I see labels playing still, though, is that of curator. That's a big part of why I still like doing mine. Additionally, I think it's important that record labels exist that are run by women. There are very few. People get confused a lot, and think I just put out bands with women or gender non conforming folks. That was never the goal or point of the label, though I do put out a lot of artists who aren't cis men - but because I like them, I meet them, and I am moved by them artistically.

It's exciting to me in many ways that we live in this digital age, even though I think it's driven many labels out of existence. I like the artist-controlled elements it provides. I do miss some of the ways in which touring used to happen, though. I liked calling people on the phone, meeting them later on the road, then hosting shows for their bands. I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages asking for shows now with barely an introduction, often in the form of a mass email or spam style message. When you had to call folks up for shows, as I did on my first tour, you really couldn't do that. I've been in self-booking bands for the entire time I have played music - two decades. It means a lot to me. I like feeling hands-on in that process. I am sure there are opportunities I have not gotten because of it, and I certainly understand why it's not for everyone, but it's a part of my history that still feels relevant to me.

I don't use contracts, per se, but I do construct letters of agreement/understanding so that there is a written document that both the label and the band can refer to and hold one another to. This prevents a lot of conflict and misunderstanding, and the bands seem to appreciate it. It's just good to have something to refer to in order to stay on the same page.

On taking the first steps:
I think to reach out and ask for help when you need it and to start with something small! For me, I probably would never have taken my label this far if I had not done it with friends.

On what she wishes she would have known from the start:
I wish I had known to make a budget and track expenses and income for each release. I am better at long-term financial planning now, but it could have helped a bit. Also, I try to have honest conversations with bands I invest funds into about how much they plan to tour, whether or not they think the band has longevity, etc. so I am not left with a pile of merch I can't sell. That can financially devastate a label. I feel proud of every single release I have put out, which is a wonderful feeling. The label tells a story and is a lens through which I have viewed music. It's harder to invest money in now as a new mom, so I am careful about the projects I choose. I have to be.

I welcome conversations with anyone interested in starting their own label and can be reached at katy@exoticfever.com. Thanks for the space to talk!
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Since this piece was published, Exotic Fever now totals over 60 releases. Check out their website for their full discography.


Katy’s band Trophy Wife performing at Angler Movement Arts in 2013

- Women in Sound 2019 -