Founded in 1982 by Beat Happening guitarist-vocalist Calvin Johnson, Olympia, Washington’s K Records has been a fixture of the independent music scene for more than three decades, playing a crucial role in the punk boom of the 1990s. However, lately, some of the label’s disgruntled artists are upset about Johnson’s alleged financial mismanagement and questionable bookkeeping practices, and they’re taking to social media to voice their complaints. These sad events are detailed by writer Dave Segal in The Stranger in an article worryingly titled “Is K Records A ‘Broken, Sinking Ship’?” The article begins with the story of Kimya Dawson, a popular solo artist as well as a member of The Moldy Peaches, whose music was used prominently on the soundtrack of Juno. Dawson says that Johnson owes her hundreds of thousands of dollars, and she took her grievance to Facebook. Johnson says he has paid off some of his debt to Dawson, but Dawson counters that the money she has received comes from the Juno licensing deal with Rhino Records, not from what K Records truly owes her.
As Segal’s article points out, talking about money is something of a taboo in the independent music scene, especially in Olympia. Some of the other K Records artists he contacted corroborate Dawson’s story and say that they, too, are owed money by Johnson. But the situation is more complicated than that, because Johnson says that the label is actually owed money by many artists. Experimental musician Arrington de Dionyso is one of those artists paying off a sizable debt to K Records and says that the real problem here may be that Johnson simply is not a businessman. “He’s far too generous to be very good at playing that game.” Still, the legacy of K Records is substantial, and Johnson wants to keep the label going as long as he can. He says he’s currently liquidating assets in order to pay royalties to his artists, including Dawson. But he dismisses Segal’s suggestion of selling the label’s catalog: “Are you offering to buy the K catalog? Do you have a buyer in mind?”