Old Flame Records might not have the name recognition that independent labels like Sub Pop and 4AD can claim, but if you’re a seasoned Indie Rock consumer, the Cincinnati label’s prolific body of releases has likely crept into your vinyl collection or rotation of playlists more often than you think.
Celebrating the imprint’s 10th anniversary this fall, founder Rob Mason has curated a discography stuffed with sleeper classics: an early Cloud Nothings single that dropped as the Cleveland Noise Rock darlings began to make waves in the blogosphere; a major chunk of Florida Chillwave outfit Millionyoung’s criminally slept-on body of work; and the fantastic debut effort by Massachusetts band Potty Mouth, Grunge revivalists with a penchant for Pop hooks.
Since Mason relocated from Brooklyn to Cincinnati in 2015, the label has played a vital role in the local music scene. Old Flame has scooped up a handful of local acts, including Northern Kentucky’s Frontier Folk Nebraska, NPR co-signed duo Dawg Yawp and Moonbeau, who’ve satisfied Cincinnati’s hunger for nostalgic Synth Pop jams.
“My wife and I had our first child in Brooklyn, and when we found out we were having our second we decided we couldn’t do this in New York anymore,” Mason says of the relocation. “She’s originally from Cincinnati, so that’s how we ended up here. And as someone who’s never lived here until I moved, I love it here. I love how supportive the community is. I feel like I’ve been accepted here, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m here for the long haul.”
Mason has since settled into a job at AGAR, a marketing and events agency based in Over-the-Rhine, where he’s helped organize live music lineups for things like the urban art and light festival BLINK, all while keeping Old Flame active on the side.
“I’ve always been more of a behind-the-scenes guy,” he says. “I like to turn people on to new music, but I’m not the kind of person that enjoys being center stage.”
I ask Mason what he’s been listening to when we meet up at Coffee Emporium (“was dying for coffee,” he texts me), and he immediately begins going through his anthology of Spotify playlists with laser focus — silently at first, considering each track. He’s in his element.
After some deliberation, Mason is ready to give his answer. Though he’s spent the majority of his time listening to recent efforts by Old Flame artists and alumni, he’s developed an obsession with new sounds coming out of Norway, which is “one of the coolest places for tunes,” he tells me.
It turns out that the Scandinavian nation isn’t just represented in Mason’s streaming library. Old Flame also houses two Norwegian bands — The Megaphonic Thrift and Misty Coast — each offering its own vibrant take on ’80s Dream Pop soundscapes.
Mason’s Indie Rock empire now spans the Atlantic ocean, but the story of Old Flame starts just an hour north of Cincinnati, at Miami University of Ohio in Oxford.
While majoring in mass communication from 1999 to 2003, Mason became programming director at WMSR, Miami’s campus radio station. He caught wind that his favorite label, Sub Pop Records, was looking for a connection in the Cincinnati market, and he eagerly reached out to become a street team member.
“If there was, like, a Shins record, they’d send you 30 posters and you’d just hang them on walls around town and take a picture with a disposable camera, then mail it back,” Mason says. “Back then you’d do that, and they’d give you tickets to shows anytime a Sub Pop band came to Cincinnati or Oxford. They’d also thank their people by sending them free, unique vinyl.”
One such freebie, a 7-inch vinyl copy of The White Stripes’ cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Party of Special Things to Do,” is still the most valuable record in Mason’s collection. It sells on Discogs.com for an average of $135.
His foot in the music industry’s door, he interned at WOXY, a larger AltRock station in Oxford, then moved to Cleveland and Los Angeles, before working three years in radio promotion for Razor & Tie, a large imprint based in New York City that specializes in Hard Rock and Country and was responsible for birthing the Kidz Bop compilation series.
“I was doing the opposite of what I was originally doing,” he says. “Instead of programming music, I became the guy who takes artists to radio stations and tries to get records played on the radio. But when you work with records you’re not necessarily passionate about, I needed to have my own outlet. That’s when I started doing my own thing.”
Enter Old Flame. Mason founded his label in late 2008 in hopes of pressing releases that measured up to his favorite music at the time: the anthemic Indie Pop of acts like MGMT, Portugal, The Man and Ra Ra Riot.
“I wanted it to be like, ‘This is a band that I love, no one wants to put this record out, so I’m going to put it out.’ One-hundred-thirty records later, I haven’t really stopped,” he says.
Old Flame launched with three signees: Twin Tigers, a gloomy Post Punk band from Georgia who toured with Interpol and Minus the Bear; a dreamy Boston Americana quartet called Mean Creek; and a Power Pop act called Wintergreen, which attained some viral attention thanks to a short film/music video in which the members search for copies of Atari’s ill-fated video game adaptation of E.T.
Coming out of the gate with bands that were touring and garnering recognition, Mason had the momentum to churn out some singles by already-established acts like the aforementioned Cloud Nothings and Jacksonville, Fla.’s Yuno, a bedroom Pop artist whose latest EP dropped on Sub Pop this summer.
“When I listen to a band I’m going to potentially be working with, I think about whether it’s good, whether it’s going to be good a year from now and whether it’s going to be good 10 years from now,” Mason says. “And signing any band, I have three rules; as long as you stick to these three, you’ll be OK. 1) It’s got to be a great record. 2) The band has to be good live. 3) They’ve got to be good people that you want to work with and are hard-working people.”
Mason has carried that ethic into the present, especially when it comes to the third rule. Take Moonbeau for example. Aside from their Old Flame debut, Mason tells me that the band is sitting on about 400 unreleased songs.
He’s also excited about the debut album by Brooklyn singer/songwriter Elijah Wolf, which he helped put out in early September.
“It’s just a beautiful record about loss. Acoustic guitars, steel slide. I’m really proud of that, for sure,” he says.
In the meantime, Old Flame is also churning out a steady stream of singles, including the first in a series of “Doubles” releases (featuring two new songs) by Dawg Yawp, which dropped Sept. 28.
In addition to his curation role as a label owner, Mason is also happy to share music with his kids, too.
“Walk the Moon’s (‘Shut Up and Dance’) is the No. 1 played song in our house. They love that, they love ‘Uptown Funk,’ they even love some of the Old Flame bands,” he says with a laugh. “Not all of them, though. But they really love music. They’re a lot of fun.”