Milwaukee label Uni-Fi Records is tryin' to make a dollar out of 15 cents
More than any single artist or venue, local label Uni-Fi Records has come to define the East Side-Riverwest rap scene. In the last year, the label put out new releases by Fresh Cut Collective, Dana Coppafeel, House Of M, and The Lab Experiment, produced videos for Kid Millions and KingHellBastard, and booked tours and promoted club shows on a regular basis. It’s been a momentous run, but nobody’s getting rich; co-owner Dima Pochtarev works construction 60 hours a week to pay the bills while partner Michelle Lopez works full-time hours getting the label off the ground. Lopez and Pochtarev took a break to talk to The A.V. Club about why it’s hard to make money doing hip-hop in Milwaukee, and why the East Side scene might be relocating to Bay View.
The A.V. Club: How does Uni-Fi plan on staying afloat? Is anybody actually paying for hip-hop right now?
Dima Pochtarev: Maybe Europeans? [Laughs.] A lot of the money musicians should be expecting comes from touring and getting bigger gigs. College venues are huge, so is licensing. Artists have to sell their products wherever they can to make a living off of this.
Michelle Lopez: We’re in the middle of a college radio campaign, sending stuff to bloggers for review—anything to get our music out there. We’ve been trying to book a tour with KHB and Akrobatik out of Boston, but a lot of the West Coast venues are having a problem with the audience he would draw.
AVC: You book a lot of local shows. How do you feel about the effort and resources put forth by Milwaukee venues in terms of promotions?
DP: The venues should step up, but they don’t even realize it because people in Milwaukee drink no matter what. They charge you for the sound guy, the doorman, and all of a sudden you’re already in debt and you haven’t made a cent. Sometimes it gets up to $600. It’s crazy.
ML: We work with liquor companies on promotions, and it’s like, when we’re bringing in bottles of liquor for these venues I feel like more needs to be done.
DP: The other thing is the sound quality. There are only a couple places with a reputation for amazing sound. One is Cactus Club, and the other, which I haven’t heard yet, is Club Garibaldi, which is supposed to have even better sound. But everywhere else, the sound quality kind of degrades the artist.
AVC: So do you see East Side hip-hop moving south to Bay View?
ML: Possibly. When people come out, they want to hear the performers.
AVC: Are Milwaukeeans cheapskates when it comes to buying merchandise and records?
ML: Well, record sales suck.
DP: The crazy thing we learned is, you do a show in Milwaukee and sell nothing to the people that know you. Then you go to an out-of-town show, and before anyone goes on, you’ve sold like three shot glasses, five T-shirts, and some CDs. That’s kind of the difference between home and the road. In Milwaukee, people hear your name all the time and I think lose track of what’s being put into it.
AVC: You have a big roster of artists. Is there ever any friction among them?
ML: [Laughs.] Well, there was that whole House Of M thing where people weren’t really getting along, and I don’t need to elaborate on that. We don’t get too involved, but we help them to try and figure out what’s best.
DP: Sometimes we find ourselves acting as psychiatrists, because artists are artists. Sometimes there’s tension between artists who might say, “Are you giving us the time that we deserve?” It’s just something we have to deal with.
AVC: Would you consider yourself successful at this point?
DP: No, far from it. We’ve succeeded at hitting goals, but nobody’s really eating off this. As far as creating a family of artists that work together and do what they want to do, then yes.