Seattle is the best known to the casual music listener; bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam put the city on the map for something other than a lot of rain and the mediocre Seattle Supersonics. But it was a little label that could in Olympia, Wash. that set the stage for the Seattle sound years earlier – and at the epicenter of that was K Records. The Shield Around the K, a reference to the label's insignia, is an interesting look at the formation and early days of the influential label.
While the story is about K Records in general, label co-founder Calvin Johnson gets the lion's share of attention. His band, Beat Happening, was an incredibly influential band in the 1980s, while Johnson behind the scenes was setting up a label, then later a major festival (the International Pop Underground Festival) that would bring together independent bands from all over the country.
At a time before MP3 samples and Internet marketing, it was difficult for a band to make an impact nationwide without the money of a large music corporation behind it. K Records broke through all of that, relying on a group of artists that, while not always the most technically proficient, were committed to making music their own way. With Johnson's guiding influence, the label took chances on artists that otherwise may never have gotten a chance to shine, including bands like twee standouts Heavenly and Lois, along with Built to Spill and Modest Mouse.
Producer/Director Heather Rose Dominic did an incredible amount of work on The Shield Around the K, tracking down 26 different interview subjects, including Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, to chat about the K. In addition, rarely seen music videos for Beat Happening, Mecca Normal, the Halo Benders, Lois and Tiger Trap show up at different points. The documentary is nothing if not thorough.
One major oversight, though, is the nearly-complete dismissal of Kill Rock Stars, the "other" Olympia, Wash. label. Almost twenty-five years after the founding of both, it would be interesting to see how the two labels worked together (or against each other) in such a small music scene.
But otherwise, the exhaustive documentary does a fantastic job of summing up one of the most important labels in all of independent music.