In the age of iTunes, GarageBand and Bandcamp, it's gotten easier for budding musicians to get their music out. But these changes have also forced people like Lee to rethink the way a music label operates.
"I've kind of scaled down to do cooler, smaller releases on a smaller budget," he says.
His goal is to "try to keep bands out of debt and focus on more of being a springboard to help bands move on to bigger things, rather than try to be all responsible for their entire existence."
Loud + Clear has never been an especially profitable venture, nor has it been Lee's primary project. Aside from running Loud + Clear, he co-owns the studio Stereo Disguise Recording Laboratories and plays in The Album Leaf, John Meeks' band and Mr. Tube and The Flying Objects (in all, he's played in more than a dozen bands).
This week, Lee will celebrate Loud + Clear's 10th anniversary with shows at The Casbah and Luce Loft. Though he's considered shutting the label down, he can't help but press on.
"It's a curse. I can't not put out records," he says. "I see a band and I love them, and I know how to put out records, and I feel like they should put out a record, so why don't I just help them put out a record?"
Lee's love affair with San Diego music began one night at Dream Street, the now-closed Ocean Beach venue. On tour with his friend's punk band to promote a demo—Loud + Clear's first release—he stumbled across Prizefight (later known as Comfortable for You), a local Drive Like Jehu-style, post-hardcore band for whom he later released two full-lengths. He lived in Santa Barbara at the time, but he started traveling to San Diego regularly.
"One night at The Casbah, it just kind of dawned on me, like, Holy shit, every time I come here, all the bands are pretty fucking good," he says.
Loud + Clear boasts an impressive catalog of local music, ranging from Via Satellite's 2005 electro-rock favorite Cities Are Temples to John Meeks' breathtaking 2010 country album Old Blood. But perhaps Loud + Clear's most prescient release was 2004's San Diego is burning, a compilation CD featuring classic bands like Sleeping People, Goodbye Blue Monday and The Black Heart Procession.
The comp offers a vivid look at the local scene at the time, but it's more than just a historic document. Eight years later, tracks like Kill Me Tomorrow's smoldering "Xerox My Hand" and Sleeping People's spastic "Nasty Portion" still sound fresh.
Nowadays, Lee doesn't have any long-term goals for the label, other than to keep putting out music. He plans to release a new 12inch by The Album Leaf this year, and he's considering putting out digital-only releases, though he prefers the tangible nature of CDs and vinyl.
Still, as many unsigned bands thrive with the help of the internet (and maybe a publicist or booking agent), he can't help but wonder: Are record labels even necessary anymore?
"Put your music out yourself, you know? DIY," Lee says. "Start your own record label."
Goodbye Blue Monday, Via Satellite and Neonthief play at The Casbah on Saturday, Feb. 11. John Meeks, Via Satellite and Rafter play at Luce Loft on Sunday, Feb. 12. Lee also DJs at Starlite on Wednesday, Feb. 8.