Like so many 20-somethings, Harith Abdullah bounced around a bit before settling on a profession. He wanted to be a writer and a journalist. For a while, he wanted to start a band. Then he thought of being a pop-culture critic. But instead of taking the role of armchair critic, sitting back and celebrating his own good taste (as so many of his generation seem to be doing), the 24-year-old Abdullah decided to get out and put his experience to use and start a record label. Rev Records has been in business for just under a year, and it’s produced two albums and has three more in the works.
Abdullah gets where he wants to go by refusing to look down. “It’s like that cartoon where the character walks off the cliff, but he doesn’t realize it until he looks down. That’s what we did, we walked off the cliff,” he says, “and I refuse—” Abdullah doesn’t even finish the sentence, as though saying it would be equivalent to the action.
According to Abdullah, it’s this obstinate single-mindedness that has made his whole enterprise work. Business can be learned, but passion can’t, and Abdullah brings a joy to the experience that seems to compensate for any other shortcomings the label may face, including financial ones. By his own admission, he and the musicians are all still kids, and there is time for them to grow up together.
There has always been music outside of Top 40, but during the 1990s, when advancing technology made it possible for individuals to produce, manufacture, and distribute their own work, the Indie—independent—music scene blossomed. The music that emerged has been characterized by a do-it-yourself ethos and a think-local mentality. During the past 20 years, cities across the country—Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Montreal, New York, to name a few—have given birth to new music scenes and accompanying labels. Abdullah says he is particularly inspired by the Saddle Creek label out of Omaha. Established in 1993, Saddle Creek is the home of the bands Bright Eyes, Cursive, and The Faint, who share a moody, pop-punk sound. Abdullah says the Saddle Creek founders all grew up together, and when they started the label, it was just a matter of deciding “whose name to put on the back of the tapes.”
Abdullah, who describes his musicians as “brilliant,” is no less circumspect when characterizing his own acumen. Before launching Rev, he had some previous experience organizing shows, but none as a businessman; nevertheless, he proclaims, “I sort of inherently understand business,” an ability he says he discovered, rather than cultivated. He likens the situation to that adage about the man who never knew he could play the piano until he tried.
When Abdullah graduated from the University at Albany in 2000, he planned to go into journalism, but couldn’t find the right opening. Instead, like so many other English majors, he got a job at a bookstore, where he hosted an open mic night for two years. It was there he realized he enjoyed working with music and musicians. Many of his colleagues were incredibly talented players, but struggled with the business of making music. When he reached out to help friend Krysta Dennis record her January 2006 album Empty Pockets, he realized how satisfying such work was.
“After that,” he remembers, “I said I’m not going to do anything else with myself except run a record label.”
He officially established Rev Records—named for his cat, Reverend—in November 2006. Laura Boggs’s collection Whiskey and Springtime was the first album officially released by Rev Records that same month. In many ways, Boggs was a perfect choice for the label’s premier album. Well-liked in the music community, incredibly talented, and beautiful to boot, the 24-year-old elementary school librarian had played extensively, but hadn’t released an album in more than five years.