Maintain a low overhead. It's a cardinal truth of small business that tops the text of most listicles on the subject. Keep a tight purse and growth can remain steady, hemostatic, whether the project is a coffee shop, car garage ... or experimental music micro label.
Since 2006, Bill Shute has run Kendra Steiner Editions at an astonishingly low cost, hugging the holy zero at every turn. The label's site (kendrasteinereditions.wordpress.com) is without frill, a showcase for its albums and chapbooks available only offline. The CDs are even simpler — clear plastic sleeves with colored paper inserts and unlabeled discs. The top expense making a dent on the budget is shipping, since he sends discs to far-flung enthusiasts as far as Croatia and Korea.
Over the past nine years, Shute has pressed and published nearly 300 editions of avant-garde music and poetry from his home base in San Antonio.
"When I speak with people who are starting up operations, I emphasize to keep the overhead so low that you could sell zero copies of this and still go ahead and put out the next item," Shute said.
The low-budget operation also adds an outsider aesthetic to Kendra Steiner, going in the opposite direction of the glossy trend of physical mediums. With digital copies available with unprecedented ease, many labels and presses are making their mediums into gorgeous, haute items to be purchased and fondled over. For KSE, Shute retains the simple, hand-packaged approach of his early releases, stressing the music over the luxury of the object.
"There's a cool aesthetic thing with Kendra Steiner Editions of really not giving a fuck about any sort of trends going on in the experimental music world or otherwise," said Marcus Rubio, SA native and KSE artist.
On his recent work with the label, Rubio dabbles in musique concrète (only the imprint of an echo remains) and decaying banjo folk (Cities Sinking Down), focusing with Shute to release these experiments free of pretense.
"You get a very pure aesthetic. It's really off the basis of the music," Rubio said.
Since the 1970s, Shute has dedicated his time to the advancement of creative musicians. It all began when he was a teenager in Denver, promoting a concert for piano deconstructionist Cecil Taylor.
"I wasn't even old enough technically to be in the place," Shute quipped.
From that first taste of the business, Shute founded a label in the early '80s, pressing half a dozen records under his Inner Mystique imprint.
In 2006, he accidentally got back into the label and small press circuit when he needed some of his poetry to sell at a reading. He took the name from a family joke about his daughter Kendra and put out a single chapbook, adding music to the project shortly thereafter.
"I didn't intend to start a label or small press," said Shute. "I didn't intend to put out 300 releases, I intended to put out one."
So much for that. But then it stuck.
"I didn't really think about the name too much," he said. "Had I thought about it, I probably would have come up with some pretentious, pseudo-poetic thing ... I think the spontaneity of it makes it better."
The music of Kendra Steiner Editions leans towards the improvisational and experimental, chosen according to Shute's palate.
"It's no different from the entrepreneurs or impresarios whose label represents their own taste, like Alfred Lion at Blue Note Records," Shute said.
Though the biggest name on the label is German improvisationist Alfred 23 Harth, Shute works regularly with a roster of 13 Texan artists, about half of his total clientele.
"When I've gone East and traveled, people view my label as a voice of the Austin scene," he said. "Which is funny, 'cause I only go up there once a month."
With his artists, Shute works on a personal level in a way that's only possible with a label of this size.
For Alfred 23 Harth, who's worked with avant-garde heroes like John Zorn and Sonny Sharock, KSE keeps an open door policy. "I told Alfred I feel like a gallery owner and I have space available," said Shute. "And I have such faith in him as an artist that he can have an exhibition next month, and whatever he needs, we'll do it."
His artists seem to reciprocate that feeling of respect and trust.
"Having Bill's input on the ultimate outcome of a release is really helpful," noted Rubio. "I've found that things I've done on Kendra Steiner have been driven by concept. He helps me to refine ideas and pursue a single idea as opposed to a bunch of things."
Celebrating the label's ninth anniversary in March, Shute is thrilled with his project and the international reception of his weirdo music.
"Through the Internet, you can literally connect with anyone in the world who's like-minded," he said. "And to me that's almost a Gutenberg-level expanding of the whole way of doing things. I think of it as bringing back things from individual to individual, without the middle man."