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DIY Ditty: Controlled Burn Records blazes a trail past the hobbyist/careerist duality

Last updated on January 6, 2022

Controlled Burn Records

Who: Nonagon (Tony Aimone, Robert Gomez, John Hastie); The Austerity Program (Thad Calabrese, Justin Foley)
What: Controlled Burn Records, their new artist-run label
When: Formed 2013
How: The Austerity Program, formerly of sadly defunct Hydra Head Records, was looking for a label; Nonagon was looking to expand their reach. Cousins Foley and Hastie decided that their two bands could throw their hat in the ring together.

Why: Now here’s where it gets interesting. Controlled Burn Records isn’t out to move either band up to a major label or engage in any sort of careerist acts. The members of each band have jobs, families, and rooted lives that they very much enjoy. So instead of folding the bands or trying to make a poor label match work, the two bands decided to collectively make a system that worked for their needs.

Nonagon. Photo by Jonathan Ferris-Bohorquez.
Nonagon. Photo by Jonathan Ferris-Bohorquez.

“We didn’t really feel like we were a good fit for [other labels]. We have to do things in a sustainable way. We have to fit our bands into our lives in a way that may not fit with a record label that says, ‘You need to go on tour to support this record,'” said John Hastie, member of Nonagon and thereby co-founder of Controlled Burn. “Hydra Head was incredibly patient with The Austerity Program and all the restrictions that their family and jobs brought. Their situation became part of the solution.”

But they also didn’t just put up a website and call it a record label. Controlled Burn is legally incorporated as a general partnership, securing distribution for its bands, and organizing releases like Nonagon’s recent The Last Hydronaut EP. The five members of the two bands have capitalized on each of their strengths to create a division of labor that everyone benefits from. It wasn’t something that happened overnight; Hastie stressed that there were a lot of late-night phone calls trying to hammer out all of the details. In other words, this is serious, actual stuff.

The Austerity Program. Photo by Justina Villanueva.
The Austerity Program. Photo by Justina Villanueva.

Controlled Burn Records is not an organization bent on getting bands to major labels, but it’s also not a hobby project. It’s a third way: talented, passionate musicians who are seeking to increase the amount of people who enjoy their music via a non-traditional system. In an Internet era that allows worldwide exposure without having to tour your physical presence all over the world, this sort of creative end-run on traditional methods is important and vital. Many people still want a career in music; adapting some of the principles and methods of Controlled Burn can indeed help move bands along in that endeavor. But CB is also a refreshing example of how the Internet can allow a different set of goals not just to exist, but flourish.

“We made a decision a long time ago, which is we decided to keep this extremely important thing to us–this creative endeavor–we decided to keep it at arm’s length from how we earn our food,” Hastie said. “Am I a ‘hobbyist’? I’ll be a hobbyist. My output keeps getting better and better, and my happiness level has kept getting higher and higher.”

Controlled Burn–what a perfect name for the label. Nonagon and the Austerity Program are both able to keep the fires of their artistry burning, exactly under the specifications they want.