Local Current Blog

Minneapolis record label Forged Artifacts is creating community through cassettes

l-r: Bree Meyer, Danielle Cusack, and Laura Larson of Scrunchies at First Avenue on Jan. 18, 2019, celebrating The Current's 14th birthday. Scrunchies are reissuing their debut album 'Stunner' on vinyl via Forged Artifacts. (Mary Mathis | MPR)

When he graduated from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in journalism, Matt Linden had no intention of starting his own record label. But after a few years of writing about music, he realized that he wanted to become more involved in helping connect musicians with their listeners. Now, Linden runs Forged Artifacts, an independent record label based in Minneapolis. Since launching in 2012, Forged Artifacts has worked with over 60 bands (local, national, and beyond) and has put out nearly 85 releases on cassette tape and vinyl.

I figured, I don’t want to write about music all the time. It’s not as fulfilling to me as doing something more concretely with bands,” said Linden. “I wanted to be more hands-on in the process of releasing a record. I had no idea what that meant, I had no idea how to do that.”

The label’s first release was the album Slumber Girls by Minneapolis rock group Nice Purse, which came out in 2012 as a vinyl LP. The first five releases that Forged Artifacts put out were all on vinyl, but after being slowed down by the lengthy production time and high costs involved in manufacturing vinyl, the label pivoted to cassette tapes instead. Now, Forged Artifacts primarily produces cassette tapes and digital downloads.

The recording industry has changed tremendously over the past few decades, and labels no longer hold as much power as they used to — but even today, independent labels have a lot to offer bands, from industry expertise to a sense of community. Running a one-man label is no easy feat, but over the past seven years, Linden has built a self-sufficient and community-centered record label — the result of long work weeks, collaboration, and a passion for helping artists share their music.

What is a micro label?

Linden describes Forged Artifacts as a “micro label,” because of its small personnel (Linden runs the entire label by himself) and the limited funds that it can provide its artists. Forged Artifacts also operates as an independent label, meaning that it isn’t affiliated with any major labels.

“Forged is a micro label, and that means micro funds that can be put down up front,” described Linden. “I think bands at our level are looking for more of a community rather than thousands of dollars in an advance. They just want someone who’s going to care about the music, champion the music, and get it to as many people as possible, which they might not be able to do by themselves.”

The main services that Forged Artifacts provides its artists are producing and distributing physical music, and promoting its artists by getting their music featured in publications like blogs and magazines. This means that Forged Artifacts handles the “business” side of things like placing order forms for cassette tapes and emailing press contacts, leaving bands more time to focus on their music.

Jeremy Warden, singer and guitarist of Minneapolis band Double Grave, says that before working with Forged Artifacts, his band’s process for releasing music was mostly “trial and error.”

“Knowing that somebody is out there helping to spread the workload out is a huge relief, even if it’s just emailing people and making sure that the tapes are on-track,” he said. “A bunch of little anxieties can pile up really quickly.”

Bree Meyer, who plays bass in Double Grave and Scrunchies, explained that a label can also be a source of encouragement to “push bands beyond their comfort zones” and “uplift” its musicians. “Labels also keep you accountable to working hard towards your shared goals, which is probably more valuable than anything else,” said Meyer.

The Artifacts: Producing cassette tapes and vinyl

In 2019, cassette tapes may not be the first format that comes to mind when thinking about music. Linden says that even now, he fields questions from family members asking why he is investing in an outdated technology.

After pressing Forged Artifacts’s first releases on vinyl, Linden realized that switching to cassette tapes would allow him to work with more artists at a fraction of the cost. “I realized, I want to release more bands at a faster clip, and it’s harder to do when you have that kind of investment,” said Linden. “Pressing a vinyl record versus doing a run of tapes costs literally ten times more.”

“I can work with more bands, release more music, and help out more people if the financial burden isn’t there,” Linden continued. “We want to give bands the opportunity to have something physical, and tapes allow you to do that at a fraction of the cost of vinyl.”

Why produce physical music at all in 2019? According to a chart from the RIAA, digital downloads of singles and albums accounted for 84.4% of all music sales in 2018, with vinyl making up only 3.1% of sales, and cassette tapes not even making it onto the chart. While these numbers paint a grim picture for physical music formats, many artists and fans still see value in producing vinyl and tapes.

There’s so much music out in the world, like online, and that’s amazing in itself, but can also be overwhelming,” said Meyer. “Having music in your hands, in front of you, is a way to narrow down the noise and support what people do.”

In addition to providing a physical keepsake, selling tapes and vinyl can be a main source of income for many bands. “The profit margin on a tape is only a few dollars, but the money you get for a single Spotify stream is less than a cent,” said Warden. “Even just spending five dollars on a tape is doing a lot more, financially speaking, for a band than if you were to stream that same EP a hundred times.”

After years of releasing only cassette tapes and digital downloads, Forged Artifacts is revisiting vinyl with a new release from Scrunchies. In June 2018, Forged Artifacts released Scrunchies’s debut album Stunner on cassette tape, and quickly sold out.

“We sold out of our first run right away, and then we sold out of our second run pretty quickly too, so now we’re going to put the album out with Matt [Linden] on vinyl,” said Larson. The band pitched the idea of reissuing the album on vinyl to Linden, and despite the challenges of producing a vinyl record, he agreed that the release was an exciting opportunity for the band.

“With this vinyl release, there have been a lot of bumps and skepticism about, ‘Are we really going to do this? This is a big thing,” said drummer Danielle Cusack.

“But [Linden] trusts that we can do it,” added Larson. “He is willing to admit that, ‘Maybe this is a gamble, but I admit that this is something that is good for you.’”

Scrunchies are celebrating the vinyl release with a release show at Mortimer’s Bar and Restaurant on April 25. After releasing Stunner on vinyl, Linden hopes to release more vinyl via Forged Artifacts, and says that if possible, he would like to produce an even balance between vinyl and cassette tapes on the label.

Tweeting, trading ideas, and creating transparency

When he founded Forged Artifacts, Linden had no experience in manufacturing cassette tapes or sending press releases. But after reaching out to other record labels and learning through experience, he built up his expertise. “I reached out to a lot of people that became mentors,” said Linden. “It was a lot of research on my own.”

Now, Linden prioritizes sharing the information that he has learned with others hoping to launch their own labels. “I always tell small labels that they can come to me with any questions as they’re starting out because I want to hear from them, I want to hear their new ideas,” said Linden. 

Scrolling through the label’s Twitter feed, it’s easy to see how freely Linden shares information with other labels and bands. “I’ve done a few how-to threads about submitting to labels or getting cassettes produced, because why not be transparent about this information?” he said. “It doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.”

“Matt is really respected by a lot of other labels, and he is notorious for being informative and transparent, nationally,” said Larson. “He instigates a lot of conversations that bring a lot of people into the world of what he’s doing, and I think a lot of people really respect him for that.”

“I think he’s really supportive of queer musicians and femme musicians, but he doesn’t toot his own horn about it, he just does it,” Larson continued. “That’s what you need in an ally: for someone to support you and help you out and be an advocate for you without making it about them. He’s using his resources and his contacts to benefit people that don’t have the privileges that he has, and he doesn’t make a big to-do about it.”

Creating global connections

Forged Artifacts has its roots in the Twin Cities, but the label reaches beyond Minnesota to connect local artists with bands around the globe. “The roster I always want to be half local to Minnesota and half abroad,” said Linden. “There is so much music out there that I can’t just be in the Cities — that was never my aim to just work with bands here.”

The label’s roster includes local bands like Ahem and France Camp alongside acts like Quebec-based Molly Drag and Fremont, California’s Made-Up. As a musician based in the Twin Cities, Warden says that it’s important for Forged Artifacts to “reach outside of the Twin Cities, and outside of the Midwest at large.

“I don’t see a lot of people locally reaching outside and turning people’s attention to what’s going on here in the way that he’s doing,” he said. “I think that there’s a real value to that, and that’s part of why I wanted to work with him. I think that the local music scene is stellar, but I think that a lot of people don’t know about it, and his work to build this [inter]national community, while keeping half the catalog Minnesota-based and being based out of Minnesota helps turn a lot of people’s attention to the scene.”

A “labor of love”

I’ve always had a full-time job aside from the label,” said Linden. “Even as it’s grown, I still consider it a passion project.” When he’s not placing order forms or reviewing artwork for a new cassette release, Linden works full-time as a business analyst in Minneapolis. Working full-time while also running a one-man record label means that Linden keeps busy — but he also explained that since he doesn’t rely on Forged Artifacts as a source of income, he can take chances on bands without always worrying about making a profit.

“It’s not paying my livelihood; all of the profit that I make from the label goes back into the label,” he said. “I’m at an advantage to do that, because I’m not stressed about making money off of bands and paying bills. On the flip side, I’ve had to be a very good time manager. There are some days when I come home from work and I spend four or five hours emailing, doing various label tasks.”

Linden’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed by Forged Artifacts’ artists, who recognize the sacrifices that he makes to sustain the label. “Anybody who runs a small label deserves credit for the amount of work that they do,” said Warden. “He has another job too, and he is usually juggling several releases at once. I can complain about how much work it takes as an artist to do it, but he is doing it for several people at once.”

“I hope that people on the outside looking in realize that the people that are running these labels, and the bands, sacrifice a lot of time and energy without financial return,” said Linden. “They’re doing it out of love for the music and wanting to advance the careers of the people they work with. They’re doing it out of a pure labor of love.”

Colleen Cowie runs the blog Pass The Mic.