Pravda Records goes the distance

Categories: Chicago Reader
Chicago’s longest-running independent rock label throws the first Pravdafest, celebrating 38 years of rolling with the punches and putting in the work.
Beginning with Napster and continuing through Spotify, the nemeses of independent record labels have been legion over the past few decades. The deaths of brick-and-mortar retail chains, including Tower and Borders, have made releasing new music even more of an uphill climb.Yet Pravda Records has weathered it all and continues to thrive. The Chicago label—which toasts its 38th year with a two-day festival, June 24 and 25, at Sketchbook Brewing in Skokie—has survived shifting public tastes, the rise of online piracy, several changes in dominant format, and the collapse of music sales in physical media.

Even in the years since COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020, the label has prospered, releasing a string of albums from legacy Chicago artists, among them Smoking Popes front man Josh Caterer, rock band the Handcuffs, retro-pop quintet the Flat Five, power-pop band the Hushdrops, singer-songwriter Steve Dawson, and power trio Sunshine Boys. Those records have all been modest hits—Goodman says each sold more than 1,000 copies. The label’s total sales increased about 50 percent.

This flurry of activity puts Pravda at the opposite end of the spectrum from most pandemic-stricken businesses, which have either shuttered or dialed back their output to a glacial pace.

Kenn Goodman, 59, Pravda’s president and cofounder, saw opportunity in people staying home. “The desire for music grew a lot,” he says. “Not everyone wanted to watch TV 16 hours a day.” Nevertheless, he says, the sales boom Pravda enjoyed came as “a complete surprise.”

Fans who’ve followed Pravda over the years could probably see it coming, though. Goodman and cofounder Rick Mosher started the label in their Northern Illinois University dorm room in 1984, the height of the college-radio era. In their early years, they found touchstones in Twin/Tone and SST Records, and for a while Pravda bands such as Green, the Farmers, and the Slugs could count themselves part of the flourishing DIY punk and indie-rock movement. But starting in the 1990s, Pravda became home to a wider range of music: R&B veteran Andre Williams, Seattle art-pop band the Young Fresh Fellows, Feelies front man Glenn Mercer. Remaining genre agnostic helped Pravda outlast trends—though it’s topped by Alligator and Delmark, it’s one of the longest-running independent record labels in Chicago.

“There were maybe cooler labels in town, but it was always about the quality of the work. That seems to have just outlasted everything,” says Dag Juhlin, currently of Sunshine Boys and formerly of the Slugs (among other bands on Pravda’s roster). Goodman, whose father was a Chicago schoolteacher and whose mother is a homemaker and Holocaust survivor, has a “great Chicago work ethic” that has helped him “keep his head in the game and not chase trends,” Juhlin says. “In his own quiet way, he’s super savvy and has a good ear for artists. It’s his blood that’s in this business.”

Pravda has endured with its underdog approach by keeping overhead low, never banking on a single artist or sound, and diversifying its income streams: retail sales, publishing, downloads, licensing, streaming, merch. Its staff at its biggest totaled about 30 people, during the period when Goodman operated a storefront that sold Pravda products along with new releases from other labels. The store opened inside Metro in 1986, an era “ripe for people who wanted to be creative,” says Metro owner Joe Shanahan.

“Pravda was the hub for all of that,” says Shanahan. “I learned so much from [Goodman and Mosher] in understanding what was out there. The music they put out was way under the radar. MTV didn’t even matter. They were putting out indie records for an indie crowd. It was a glorious time. And they were literally sitting in the middle of it all.”

Eventually Pravda moved to a storefront on Southport, steps from the Music Box. Then in 1992 Goodman sold the retail business, bought out Mosher, and consolidated his staff. Today, Pravda has three full-time employees who work out of an office on the northwest side. The label outsources publicity, social media, and radio promotion to third-party vendors to control costs.

Each year Pravda handles an average of eight releases. Just as in the early days the record store helped fund the label, today Pravda is underwritten by the hard work Goodman does to license its music to television and film productions all over the world. This has generated revenue steadily thanks to a diverse assortment of placements: Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, KFC commercials, Beverly Hills, 90210, and more.

Goodman got interested in licensing in the early 1990s, and he says it’s helped Pravda brave the turbulence in the industry as it shifted formats, from vinyl to CDs to downloads to streaming. “There’s always going to be events in the music business that threaten your existence,” he says. “How we always dealt with it was to embrace it.”

What’s also helped Pravda stay the course has been consistent access to established artists whose former labels had either closed or been swallowed up in mergers and acquisitions. In 2016 the Flat Five’s debut was a hit for Bloodshot Records. Then the label ceased releasing new music, and signs pointed toward an eventual sale. The band’s second record ended up on Pravda in 2020.

What Goodman offers is a 50-50 profit split, committed long-term marketing support, and global distribution of physical media. What he gets in return are artists with dedicated fan bases and no problem filling clubs, as opposed to those trying to build audiences from scratch.

“Launching a new band is such an enormous task now. Just because a young band has a good demo—we have to look at the big picture,” Goodman says. “Sometimes that’s not a good business plan for us. We’ve done it.”

Another advantage of working with veteran artists is that they tend not to take for granted the work labels do. “A lot of people say, ‘We don’t need record labels anymore,’ but I think they do,” Goodman explains. “A lot of bands don’t want to sit around and run a business. They want to make music. To do that you need a label and partnership with people you have a good relationship with.”

Shanahan says what makes Goodman “unique in the record business” is the “trust he built with bands and touring musicians,” in part because he’s a musician himself. As a keyboardist, Goodman has been a member of several Pravda acts, including R&B collective the Imperial Sound, long-running rock trio the New Duncan Imperials, and the Service, one of the label’s earliest garage bands. Mosher has been his bandmate in all three.

“The fact that he’s run a business for nearly 40 years while never having worked another job in the music industry—while also working as a musician? You have to be a pretty balanced person to make it a sustainable situation for yourself and for other people,” says Melissa Thornley, Goodman’s romantic partner and Pravda’s marketing director.

Susan Voelz, a singer-songwriter and violinist who performs with Poi Dog Pondering, released her first solo album, 13 Ribs, through Pravda in 1993. She says the label’s support “was pivotal” to moving forward with her own music. “It validated me. It made me believe in myself to keep evolving, keep writing,” she says. “They let me do exactly what I wanted to do. I would give them a finished record. And I could go anywhere I wanted with it musically.” She’s returning to the label now, with two new albums on the horizon.

Goodman started piano lessons at age five; by age 12, he was a working musician in a teenage band he booked at social events around Skokie. Not long afterward he got a fake press credential that let doormen all over the city know that he was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine (“I had just gotten my braces off,” he says). Soon Goodman was slipping into punk shows all over the city; at the same time, he was playing professionally on the region’s lounge, resort, and supper-club circuit as part of Keith Miller Featuring TCB, a popular Elvis Presley revue. He was 16.

Goodman’s chutzpah aligned with the creative ethos fueling independent music culture in the mid-1980s. He began Pravda (Russian for “truth”) as an entirely DIY project while still in college. The record that earned the label its first national exposure was the 1991 compilation 20 Explosive Dynamic Super Smash Hit Explosions!, a snarky homage to K-Tel collections that showcased covers of mossy 70s hits from up-and-coming Chicago bands: Material Issue, the Slugs, and Smashing Pumpkins, among others. Two more volumes followed.

Goodman realized he could play a wider role outside Chicago, helping revive the careers of musicians who’d fallen away from the spotlight. The first artist he worked with was also the greatest: Andre Williams, an R&B performer who had a string of chart smashes in the 1950s and wrote hits for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Ike & Tina Turner.

By the time Goodmen met him in 1998, Williams was fighting drug addiction and living without a stable home. Goodman and Thornley helped him get clean, resuscitated his career, and put together a band that he used to tour the world. Maybe most important, they acted as his friends, doing simple but important tasks like driving him to doctor’s appointments.

Williams died in 2019. Goodman has helped several other artists in similar ways, including Syl JohnsonRenaldo Domino, Tiny Tim, Archie Bell, and Hasil Adkins. He assembled each one a band and gave them a touring life, licensing income, and the chance to record new music for new audiences.

For Goodman, the effort was worth it for the stories. He met Tiny Tim at a gas station in Ames, Iowa, when Goodman was on tour with the New Duncan Imperials and Tim was playing comedy clubs with Jerry Mathers of Leave It to Beaver fame. Goodman stayed in touch and eventually brought Tim to Chicago in 1993 to record a live album at what’s now Martyrs’. The New Duncan Imperials backed him on tour, which removed Tim from the comedy circuit and put him in music venues, where Goodman felt he belonged.

One memory that sticks in Goodman’s head is the time he invited Tim to his parents’ place for dinner. “He was hitting on my mom while my dad took photos,” he says. “They remembered him from Johnny Carson and couldn’t believe he was in their home.”

“Tiny Tim was so interesting to me. We’d have long discussions in the car about the history of show business,” says Goodman. “He was also into religion and philosophy. He was a serious musician and serious music expert. He knew so many songs from the 1910s and 1920s and was educated in the history of vaudeville. He was much more than ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips.’” Tours, however, could be a struggle. “He would give us a list of songs to learn, and then we’d get to the gig and he’d say, ‘We’re not going to do that, tonight we’re doing all the hits of 1910,’” Goodman recalls. “Which was fine. But we didn’t know any of them.”

“I’ve always been drawn to outsider musicians,” he says. “A lot of people I worked with had long, amazing showbiz histories and life stories. To me, they were fascinating, and deep down, were very beautiful people to work with and just be around.”

In Pravda’s next phase, Goodman expects to release a solo album from Nora O’Connor, formerly of the Blacks and currently in the Flat Five. He also may break from his current business model to release new music by one or two younger bands he’s talking to. But the weekend of Pravdafest, he intends to spend his evenings listening to the label’s artists—and because the Service are making an appearance, he’ll be playing onstage as one of them.

“I’m proud of the catalog and I’m proud of what we’re doing now,” he says. “We’ve had a really good ride.”

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