Olympia’s K Records puts building up for sale to pay its debts

FILE PHOTO: K Records founder Calvin Johnson (left) says K is selling its headquarters to “get back to break even.” The building, at Eighth and Jefferson, is listed at $399,000.
FILE PHOTO: K Records founder Calvin Johnson (left) says K is selling its headquarters to “get back to break even.” The building, at Eighth and Jefferson, is listed at $399,000. Staff Photographer

Olympia’s K Records, long a mainstay of the independent music scene, is in debt to many of the artists who’ve recorded for the label over the years.

Since that news went public earlier this year, K has been selling some recording assets. Now, it has put its headquarters, in the former home of Temple Beth Hatfiloh, on the market.

The label isn’t in danger of closing, said owner Calvin Johnson. “We’re here,” he said.

Asked about the extent of the label’s debts, he said, “We’re hoping that with selling the building and some of the equipment that we’ll be able to get back to break even.”

The building is listed at $399,000.

“They owe me in the range of $90,000,” Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson of Seattle said in a phone interview. She said the label has been making small quarterly payments since early 2014, but before that, she received no payments and no statements for years.

“Some are owed $100; some are owed tens of thousands or more,” said Eric Williger of Seattle, a former K employee whose responsibilities included accounting.

“In recent years, it’s definitely been a concern to Calvin and to everyone involved. But before some of the artists got together and really put pressure on the label … it wasn’t talked about.”

Dawson is just one of nearly 100 artists to whom the label owes money, Williger said.

Another is Phil Elverum, of the bands The Microphones and Mount Eerie. K owes Elverum of Anacortes about $63,000, Elverum said in an email this week.

He and his wife, Geneviéve, are struggling financially in the wake of Geneviéve’s diagnosis with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. They have a GoFundMe campaign to help cover medical bills and living expenses.

The label has been making payments to Elverum regularly since 2012, though payment was sporadic before that. “They’ve been making some legitimate efforts finally this year,” he said, “but it is pretty late.”

“When I found out about Geneviéve’s cancer, I was heartbroken, and also angry,” Williger said. “It made me so mad that K was not paying Phil all the money he was owed immediately, making sacrifices. That was so much more important than anything else, dealing with that kind of tragedy.”

Williger worked for K from 2011 to early 2014, when he was laid off amid Johnson’s concerns about debt, and he was laid off again for seven months in late 2015 and early 2016, when he quit, he says, because of the stress of both the commute and the job itself.

Accounting was among his responsibilities during his second stint there.

“Calvin doesn’t do his own accounting,” he said. “There is always an accountant on staff at K, but Calvin isn’t necessarily going over the books with them — at least as far as I ever saw.”

Williger said he enjoyed working at the label before he felt the stress of the debt.

“When I came back recently, the whole tone of the office and the company was just a lot darker, bleaker,” Williger said. “Things have really changed.

“I had a lot of good experiences at K, and I find it to be really unfortunate that such a historic and incredible label is crumbling in such a way,” he said. “I wish that different decisions had been made over time to save it. It’s sad.”

Johnson said, “I’m not making any excuses for any shortcomings. We’re trying to make things right.”

Traditionally, K artists would take records to sell while on tour, Johnson said.

“Some of the artists, they’re touring a lot, and we owe them money, but then they take records to sell on tour, so it all gets evened out,” he said. “But when artists stop touring, and they’re not taking records, then we realize we owe them this much money.

“It can sneak up on you pretty fast.”

Dawson said she asked for statements of what she was owed for years before receiving them early this year.

“I have eight years’ worth of emails that I have not deleted of me begging them for statements saying what they owed me,” she said.

Dawson and Elverum are among the artists whose work is no longer distributed by the label.

In recent years, K has been working with fewer artists, Johnson said. This year, the label will put out four albums — including one by Johnson’s own Selector Dub Narcotic, due to drop in August.

In busier times, the label regularly released 12 to 15 albums a year. Johnson said he is happy to be narrowing his focus.

“I just don’t want to make commitments to people that I can’t keep,” he said. “I would like to be more committed to my own work. Those things come together.”