The Tallahassee independent music scene continues to grow and evolve as new bands come and go. One recent local staple has been Cat Family Records. As a local record label and art collective, Cat Family has expanded with a number of local bands, local shows, and a yearly festival. I sat down with Scott Bell, President of Cat Family to talk about where he sees them in the local scene and how they got started.
Could you just start by telling me a little bit about yourself and Cat Family as a whole?
Okay, my name is Scott. I usually don’t get asked questions about myself during interviews. I moved to Tallahassee with my brother seven years ago for graduate school. I was a political science PhD student for a while; taught some classes at FSU. My brother and I moved to do music though, and about three years ago after struggling in the Tallahassee music scene, we started Cat Family Records.
We had been playing for a while and, back then, the scene was a little different. There was only, like, one promoter in town and you didn’t really get paid. You had to sell your own tickets. On top of that, it was difficult to record. There’s some bigger, better studios in town that are still around but they’re expensive and that’s tough for an up and coming musician—especially if you’re a college student. We were just tired of relying on other people so we said “fuck it” and decided we’d do it ourselves. We had to learn how to produce, but we had been booking already. So now, Cat Family is a three-year-old nonprofit record label with a goal of getting artists paid as much as possible and toppling the barrier of entry into the music industry.
When you started out did you expect to become a bigger art collective instead of just a record label? Was that the original goal?
Sometimes there’s a benefit in not knowing what you’re doing when you start something. Had we really known what a record label was supposed to be doing, we would have started very differently. Our strengths are now things that record labels aren’t traditionally doing and I don’t think we would have developed those skills if we would have followed an archetype. Another benefit is that we’re really open to evolving.
As a volunteer organization, though, we’re at the mercy of student rollover; the ebb and flow of FSU scheduling. An early benefit was that we’ve been this amorphous blob over time that just adapts to our environment and we’re constantly improving. We’re open to being more than a label. And I have no clue what that looks like in a few months, let alone a few years.
On your website, part of your mission statement is to “help create the middle class of music scenes.” Can you talk about that?
Basically, the music industry has become very fragmented thanks to the internet. There’s a lot to go around. People have this idea that you can’t make any money unless you’re really making it, but there’s plenty of people making a decent living doing something they love and that’s something we want to contribute to. There’s outliers: you have musicians making nothing, most musicians, and then a select few, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, making everything. It’d be nice to sort of narrow that gap and bring up people in the middle.
In your opinion, what is the role of small record labels?
People have this negative stigma associated with the words “record label” in the general public and among musicians. It’s difficult as an artist to manage yourself. You could be the musical Van Gogh, but no one’s gonna care if you don’t market it well. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the music industry and it’s always been that way. Labels can help small artists, though. We’re helping them help themselves so they can focus more on creating. Not all record labels are evil.
Having lived in Tallahassee for a while, how have you seen the D.I.Y music scene change over time?
At first, my impression was that there was a strong DIY punk scene and lots of house venues. A lot of that was contingent on particular college students and whether they’re in Tallahassee, though. There’s significantly less house venues today than there were a few years ago. That scene has just evolved because there are more “traditional” venues allowing for a platform that supports local music now. So even though we’ve lost some venues, I feel like the Tallahassee music scene in general is the strongest it’s been since I’ve been here. I’d say that evolution is a mark of progress.
How has Cat Family shifted over time to lean into the “art collective” idea?
Tallahassee’s a small city and you get to know everyone pretty quickly when you do anything that requires social or political capital. We’ve met lots of artists and galleries doing shows so it’s just a matter of connecting, but it’s also a necessity. We need art. There’s an obvious connection with album art, t-shirt design, posters, so we reach out to the community to find people to do that work and support them. It makes sense that over time we’ve absorbed that as well—especially in a city like Tallahassee where the music and art are so intertwined.
Cat Family throws a yearly festival, “Cat Fest,” with local bands and on-site pet adoptions. How did that come about?
Very early on, before we were even an official label we had talked about doing a festival. Once we took the dive, I thought it was an obvious connection: animal adoption and music. People had consistently confused us for some sort of animal rights record label. But I wanted to do something that paired local music and animal adoption and it’s really helped with growth, too.
There’s a trust mechanism with industry relationships and it helps when people know you. We just want to give back to the community with it. Plus, it gets good press coverage every year and lets us connect to local businesses and nonprofits.
Where did the name “Cat Family” come from?
My brother and I remember it differently, but there was a psychoactive element involved. We were hanging out with this guy, Paul, at the time, and there was a herd of cats on a roof that ran by. Paul pointed it out and called it a cat family and I just made a mental note like “wow, that’s a great band name.” We kept it as a potential band name for several years after that, but it felt right when we started the label. When I first told people about the idea for the record label I was telling my friends “guys, I have a dumb, ambitious, idea and I know just what to call it.”
What are some things to look forward to in 2019 from Cat Family?
We have a lot of good releases and we’re trying to become more and more of a legit organization. It’d be nice to actually be able to hire people and pay people for work internally and not be entirely volunteer driven. We want to set ourselves up in 2019 to be as legit as possible. We’re doing a spring festival this year too, as well as the fall festival. It’ll be smaller than Cat Fest, but it’ll be a fun experiment.
We’re always pushing, but like I said, we never really know where we’re gonna be in the next few months. It’s just really inspiring to have so many good people committed and connected to what we’re doing and it’s been amazing to see the growth. I think we’ve set ourselves up to do some big things in 2019 and beyond.
Check out the newest release from Cat Family Records from Man-Moth.