Interview: Bruce Licher Talks About 40 Years of Independent Project Records

When Bruce Licher launched Independent Project Records by himself in 1982, little did he know that the label would still exist in 2023—and that it would be more popular than ever more than 40 years later. He is the little engine that could, still chugging along, hauling some hope for music lovers that digital tracks won’t completely eradicate records.

Licher’s staying power is found in his fierce devotion to craft. Automation is taking over, as it is in practically every other industry, but it’s acting like a foil compared to Licher’s personal touch. His hand-numbered music packages are so aesthetically beautiful and intricately designed, they’re destined to be discussed among the friends of whoever bought one. And, as we all know, word of mouth is priceless.

“I was an art student at UCLA, and I loved music, and I loved buying records,” Licher recalled in a recent interview. “I wanted to make a record as an art piece. The idea was, like, if somebody is flipping through the [record] bins, they would come across one of our releases, pull it out and go, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ That’s always been the goal: to create beautiful physical objects of music that are meaningful.”

Licher’s model is somewhat similar to that of Steve Albini, who packages vinyl releases by his band Shellac with bonus goodies and CD copies of the same record. But IPR’s founder came up with an idea that even Albini probably hadn’t entertained: As one strategy, Licher put a reply card in with some of his releases, asked listeners to jot down what they thought about the album and mail the card back to him.

Funny story: One of those reply cards led to a friendship between Licher’s band Savage Republic and Camper Van Beethoven. Victor Krummenacher, bassist/singer for the latter band, mailed back the reply card he found after buying the first edition of Savage Republic’s 1982 debut, Tragic Figures.

“We started corresponding,” Licher recalled. ”Eventually, [Krummenacher] said he had a band he was working on and offered to send me a demo tape. I said, ‘Sure.’ The more I listened to it, the more I thought, ‘This is something I should work with.’ [It was Camper Van Beethoven’s 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, that] became so popular that IPR was too small to properly promote it. But if we had a record of that magnitude right now, we could handle it as a label.”

Shouldering all the challenges that come with running a record label — and strapped for cash — Licher essentially stepped away from the music industry for nearly two decades. IPR only put out two releases from 2001 to 2020, while Licher focused on his graphic design business. But IPR found new life in 2019, after Shiva Burlesque frontman (and Licher’s friend) Jeffrey Clark wanted in.

Licher and Clark turned IPR into a partnership, with Clark also acting as a creative partner. With Clark in the fold, new opportunities went on the rise at IPR. When we spoke with Licher, he said the label acquired three new music projects the day before. But thanks to a new world distribution deal with MRI/The Orchid reached last November, IPR can handle the load.

A far cry from the one-man operation that sustained IPR in its early years, the label now has four part-time employees, a worker in Italy who handles the label’s social media, a rep in L.A. who manages and coordinates production, and a team that handles marketing and promotion.

But IPR’s biggest “get” might be veteran publicist Josh Mills, who was recently named IPR’s publicist and label manager.

“The label has more behind it than ever before,” Licher said.

The label’s first comeback release was, fittingly, 2020’s Tape Excavation — a collection of Licher songs from across multiple projects. During our conversation with Licher, he seemed even more excited about an upcoming release from another member of Camper Van Beethoven, Greg Lisher. The guitarist will issue an electronic-music effort through IPR later this year, and it will feature him playing keyboards and synthesizers for the first time. Meanwhile, expect IPR to reissue some Savage Republic releases and put out material by Licher’s current main project, SR2.

“Even though most of the releases we’ve issued so far have been archival releases, we are keeping our eyes open for new music,” he said.

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