The director of the annual Troika Music Festival. The founder of 307 Knox Records. The former heavy-hitting drummer of The Dirty Little Heaters: Since moving to Durham seven years ago, Melissa Thomas—or Mel, as her friends call her—has become an anchor of the local music scene. On this Wednesday night, though, she's fighting the 10-degree air of Philadelphia, 400 miles north of Durham, on the way to her sublet apartment on 22nd Street.
"For now, this is what I have to do to make it all work," says Thomas, who took the job earlier this year. Each week, she travels from her home in Durham's Northgate Park to Philadelphia to work as a software consultant to Medicare and Medicaid. And on Friday evenings she returns south, joining her 9-year-old son, Zachary, and her partner, Michelle. "I don't really know anyone here in Philly, so I go home and do label work at night."
Thomas and 307 Knox have certainly done a lot of that in the last five years. Since 2004, the imprint has released 31 records—a compilation full of Bull City bands, full-lengths by Midtown Dickens, The Future Kings of Nowhere and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan and a series of 7" vinyl singles. This year alone, the label's released five albums, including a Christmas record that's being sold as a handmade ornament inscribed with a code that allows the customer to download the music. Each project costs $3,500, Thomas estimates, and breaking even on any of them is a new commodity. To keep it going, then, she has to go where the money is.
"We put funds from our own paychecks into records—multiple times—to get the records out. I'm not sure people realize that. Sometimes the artists feel that we're rolling around in dough and buying ponies," she says, her momentarily rueful tone broken now by a laugh. "We're not at that point yet."
Shortly after relocating from Washington, D.C., to Durham in 2002, Thomas—a former punk rock drummer who says she likes slashing genres for the hell of it—found herself looking for a new gig. "I put music on hold for about 10 years, and in D.C., the community was hard to break into," she says. She found a local group of moms and musicians from a newspaper listing. After bonding with other mothers and discovering a strong network of female drummers ("I've never lived anywhere with so many female drummers"), Thomas picked her sticks back up. She started The Dirty Little Heaters and started going to shows. Zach—ears protected by oversize headphones—accompanied her to gigs by bands she was hearing for the first time.
"He's a big fan of what I do," says Thomas. "He's heard everything from The Moaners to the Dickens, though we're on a Weezer kick right now."
Thomas wanted to help push the music beyond the boundaries of Durham. She'd start a label, and give it the name she'd been reserving since childhood.
"I decided when I do something I wanna really do, I'll call it 307 Knox," she says, referring to her address back in Jersey City, N.J. Her first record, The Durham Rocks Compilation, came out the summer of 2004 and featured local, unsigned artists from the Triangle. The compilation was given out at the Durham Music Festival. The next year, 307 Knox began to put out records in earnest.
In 2006, Thomas' best friend, Alicia Loggie, visited Durham to witness Troika, the music festival that came from Durham Music Festival and that Thomas has led for several years. "By day two of Troika I had fallen in love with Durham," says Loggie, a freelance Web developer. She and husband, Scott, left Los Angeles for North Carolina. She joined 307 Knox as co-owner soon after arriving. Loggie provided an important jolt for the label.
"The glass isn't just half full, it's about to be filled to overflowing," says Loggie, a self-described "super crazy optimist." "Five years means to me that we're just looking for bigger glasses and more water. It's just so satisfying when you're cracking open that box of CDs or vinyl, and the smell of the ink hits you, and you realize that you just added more art and beauty to the world."
But, of course, the numbers are still important for such a small business trying to find footing in such a volatile industry. Though art and community inspired the labor, a certain amount of math is needed to power it.
"We call every record a project. We give it a budget. We look at its sales—digital and physical, and we keep track of all those figures, and once we break even we do like a 60/ 40 split with the artist, the next year, 70/ 30 and finally the third year 80/ 20," says Thomas. And surplus money? Any spare change left over goes right back into the label. "Surplus is simply new record release money."
And, at last, that model has started to work: A limited-edition split between Baltimore bands Future Islands and Dan Deacon nearly sold out, while the LPs by The Future Kings of Nowhere and Midtown Dickens both broke even. The label's hardest days are really hard, Thomas says, but the success of those albums and any recognition for the bands on the roster offer the moments of grace that sustain 307 Knox.
"When I turn on WKNC and I hear a Birds and Arrows song, it all just melts away," she says. "And I feel excited all over again about what we're doing."
After all, she's got dreams as a label head. Though 307 Knox has released 30 albums, they've never used catalog number 15. It's Thomas' favorite integer, and it's being reserved for Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson, who many might remember from her tender little song in the movie Juno.
"We're great friends," says Thomas, who calls the bond a mothering thing. "We started comparing parenting notes, and that's sorta how we bonded." Dawson lives in Olympia, Wash., has a two-year-old daughter, Panda, and visits Thomas when in town. Thomas admits record number 15 might just be the test of the friendship. "We'll see."
Either way, she insists that she's got a label plan ready for the next five years, and she'll do what she must to execute it—even if that means more Philadelphia.
"I'd love to chill out and be a bartender or ride my bike to work," says Thomas, "but I have this five-year plan to grow this label, and I am committed to that." —Rebekah L. Cowell
307 Knox throws a birthday party, "Cinco de Knox," Saturday, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m at The Pinhook in Durham. The party is free.