Independent Study: Mexican Summer

From left: Mexican Summer co-founders Keith Abrahamsson and Andres Santo Domingo at the label's modern Brooklyn headquarters (Kate Glicksberg)

Label: Mexican Summer
Founded: 2008
Location: Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Number of Employees: 10
Number of Active Artists: 15
Biggest Release: Best Coast, "Crazy For You" (SoundScan 108,000)
Next Release: Happy Jawbone Family Band, S/T, Oct. 15
Distributor: ADA

"When does EDM end?" asks Keith Abrahamsson, co-founder and head of A&R at Mexican Summer, mostly rhetorically. "Pretty soon, all people are gonna wanna hear is guitars again."

He's talking about cycles, seated in a generously windowed corner office in Mexican Summer's spacious, converted warehouse headquarters on a tree-lined street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The building, modernized with white brick walls, wood flooring and steel accents, has been through a few cycles itself- once a cutlery factory, then an electric supply company and now the home of the 10-person staff and large in-house recording studio of the midsize indie label, currently celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Mexican Summer HQ with Co-Op 87 record store and Gary's Electric studio on the ground level (Kate Glicksberg)

"Any sort of trend, whether it's in music or art or fashion, happens because people are feeling and experiencing a similar thing," adds Andres Santo-Domingo, also a co-founder of Mexican Summer and co-owner of its parent, Kemado Records. "Some people get onto those things earlier than others, and I think that's what we strive to do."

Since it launched in 2008, Mexican Summer has been at the forefront of at least two cycles in indie music, helping to define the conversation with releases that reverberated well beyond their modest spheres of origin.

In 2009, the nascent label put out "Life of Leisure," the critically acclaimed debut EP by Georgia producer/singer Washed Out, aka Ernest Greene. The EP crystallized a broad movement toward nostalgia-tinged, bedroom-produced electronic music, subsequently known as "chillwave," and turned Greene into an indie star.

Mexican Summer followed up on that success the following year with "Crazy for You," the debut album by California rockers Best Coast, which launched lead singer/songwriter Bethany Cosentino to even greater levels of stardom. "Crazy for You" has sold 108,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and an appearance by the band in a Microsoft ad last year -- for which the label earned a $75,000 payday -- marked the commercial apex of the breezy, lo-fi, '60s-inspired rock era.

The two lightning-in-a-bottle successes helped put Mexican Summer on the map as an important new breeding ground for a diverse spectrum of independent artists.

"I'm never driven by whether or not something has commercial appeal," says Abrahamsson, asked about the label's brushes with the mainstream. "If it does, that's a happy side-effect."

Uncle Ahmet

Though it's now the flagship company in an indie empire that includes Gary's Electric -- the recording studio, named after the electric supply company that used to occupy the space -- and Co-Op 87, a popular record store next door, Mexican Summer was initially a small, subscription-only sub-label of Kemado, the first label started by Santo Domingo with partner Tom Clapp in 2002.

Mexican Summer's main office space (Kate Glicksberg)

The son of Colombian brewing magnate Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Andres grew up around the music industry in New York thanks to his father's close friendship with Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. Though Ertegun never allowed the younger Santo Domingo to work for him, he nevertheless became enamored with the business, opting to spend his summers interning for the dance label Astralwerks and away from his comparative literature studies at Brown.

It was at Astralwerks that Santo Domingo met Abrahamsson, an A&R intern and former rocker from Connecticut who had worked "every cliché New York job you can think of" while attempting to break into the music industry. When Santo Domingo left Astralwerks at the age of 23 to start Kemado with Clapp, a friend and music producer, he took Abrahamsson with him.

"The internships made me feel like I knew something about how to release records," says Santo Domingo. "I was wrong, but that was enough of an impetus to take the leap."

Kemado benefited in its early days from its relationship with Palm Pictures, a film production and distribution company owned by Island Records legend Chris Blackwell, another friend of the Santo Domingo family. Blackwell gave Kemado a desk in the Palm Pictures office and provided distribution for the label's early releases. Among them were "Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid" by the post-punk band Elefant and "Age of Winters" by heavy metal stoners The Sword, both of which sold well and helped established Kemado as a viable young business.

But as the nature of the industry changed amid the upheaval of the mid 2000s and the digital revolution, the Kemado partners sought a new label model that would allow them to sign more artists, pay smaller advances and release music more quickly.

"The way the industry and consumers evolved forced us as a label to change the way we worked and the way we looked at things," says Santo Domingo. "Mexican Summer is the result of that."

Welcome to the clubhouse

Mexican Summer is distinguished from many of its peers by its high-volume approach to releasing music. The label schedules 40 releases in a calendar year, with between 12 and 15 of those being full lengths and the rest made up of 7-inches and EPs. There are currently 15 active artists on the label -- including Autre Ne Veut, No Joy, Tamaryn, Light Asylum, The Fresh & Onlys, Ford & Lopatin and Connan Mockasin -- most signed to contracts that include one full-length album with the option for a second. The label additionally releases the occasional one-off LP or 7-inch from bands it has no continuing relationship with.

Santo Domingo says such volume is necessary to cover overhead expenses, including, primarily, the 10-person staff. For an indie label, Mexican Summer maintains a relatively deep bench, with in-house departments for publicity, synch licensing, retail and other functions.

"If I was only doing five records that sold 3,000 copies in a year, that's just not gonna pay the bills," he says.

Co-founder/owner Andres Santo Domingo's corner office (Kate Glicksberg)

The wide array of competencies held by the label has the benefit of making it feel like a self-contained music factory, where albums are recorded, designed, marketed and sold all under the same roof. Mexican Summer artists enjoy unfettered, 24-hour access to the downstairs recording studio, for example, which pays for itself by renting out to other artists in the neighborhood.

"We always liked the idea of having an all-encompassing music company that feels a little bit more like a clubhouse," says Santo Domingo. "Stax, Motown, Casablanca. Those are the labels we looked at as models for creating good music. Having the studio downstairs and having the people who work on the music upstairs creates a dynamic that doesn't exist a lot in this day and age."

"For me, as an A&R person, you want to be part of the process and have input," adds Abrahamsson. "It's nice for the artists to be able to come up and ask us to hear something and for us to be able to pop down and hangout as something is being developed."

In keeping with its broad ambitions, Mexican Summer doesn't look for a particular genre or definable aesthetic in the music it releases. Instead it cuts a wide birth with records spanning psychedelia and shoegaze; punk rock and electronic. Artists on the label say they feel free to experiment and cultivate their own identity.

"There is no uniform they are trying to enforce," says Tamaryn. "The interest is in the individuality of the artist, great songs and curating an experience they themselves would like to share in."

Like many labels, Abrahamsson and Santo Domingo rely on a combination of the Internet and an extended network of friends, bands and industry colleagues for finding new artists. As for serendipitous bar discoveries and unsolicited demos? A non-factor.

Gary's Electric Studio, a 24-hour recording space on the ground floor of Mexican Summer (Kate Glicksberg)

"Sometimes we'll find things on Soundcloud or YouTube, but it's never that we get sent demo in the mail and are like 'This is amazing!' Who is this?!' It never happens," says Santo Domingo. "We get sent about 150 demos per week and 99.99 percent of them are not good. And it's never that we walk into a bar and are just going to have a beer and then an amazing band goes on. Good stuff rises to the top, and if it's not us finding it first then a lawyer will or a manager, someone with a contact. What I tell bands is, 'All you need to focus on is being good. If you're good, people will find out about you.'"

Building out

With the success of projects like Best Coast and Washed Out, Mexican Summer launched Software, its own sublabel, in 2011. Run by the producers Daniel Lopatin (Oneohotrix Point Never) and Joel Ford (Airbird, Tiger City), Software serves as a home for slightly left-field electronic music within the Mexican Summer umbrella. In two years, Software has built a small but critically acclaimed catalog including releases by both Ford & Lopatin themselves (2011's "Channel Pressure" by the duo and "Replica" by Oneohtrix Point Never) and their associates (this year's "Anxiety" by Autre Ne Veut and "Raw Solutions" by Slava).

Next year, Mexican Summer will add another sublabel with the relaunch of Anthology Recordings, a former cult-favorite digital-only reissue imprint run by Abrahamsson and Santo Domingo between 2006 and 2010. In its new form, Anthology will reissue out of print records on vinyl as well as digitally.

"It's not going to be the most profitable sub label, but if you do it right you can make a little bit of money and you get to put into print these awesome recordings that have been sort of lost," says Santo Domingo. "And financially it's a much less risky business than working with new artists."

Late last month, Mexican Summer also expanded into the publishing business, launching a joint venture with Round Hill Music, the creative rights management company. Under the new company, Mexican Summer will take on the publishing rights of some artists signed to the label and some who are not. Santo Domingo says the company will include a publishing provision in its one-off deals with off-label baby bands as a means of quickly building its repertoire.

Holding both publishing and master rights to songs will allow the label to license them more readily and to reap a larger share of the profits. In the case of Best Coast's Microsoft commercial, for instance, owning the publishing in addition to the master would have doubled the label's $75,000 payday. Currently, licensing income accounts for approximately 30% of Mexican Summer's revenue, according to Santo Domingo.

Co-Op 87, a partly-owned record store (with two outside partners) on the ground floor of Mexican Summer (Kate Glicksberg)

5 Years of 'Summer'

This weekend, Oct. 11 and 12, Mexican Summer will celebrate its five-year anniversary with a two-day festival in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Performers at the event will include friends and extended family like Ariel Pink, Spiritualized, The Fresh & Onlys, No Joy, Quilt, Tamaryn and others.

The label is additionally self-publishing a commemorative, hardcover, cloth-bound coffee table book (edition of 1,000) that will retail on its website, at Co-Op 87 and select retail partners for $80. Along with photos and remembrances from Mexican Summer artists, the book will include an exclusive 10" with collaborations between Jorge Elbrecht and Ariel Pink, Bobb Trimble and Quilt, Autre Ne Veut and Fennesz, and more that won't be made available digitally or anywhere else.

"If you'd asked me five years ago if I thought we'd be where we are now I would have said 'No,'" says Santo Domingo of the anniversary. "But I think consistency has been the biggest thing for us. We try to put our logo on things we believe in and hopefully people trust that logo."

Previously on Independent Study: IAMSOUND Records