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Industry Insider: Om Records Label Manager / Partner Gunnar Hissam

We chat with Gunnar Hissam about putting together Om's 25 year compilation and the constantly evolving music business.
Gunnar Hissam

Gunnar Hissam

Om Records-- one of America’s longest running independent music labels, is celebrating 25 years in the business this summer. While the celebration was supposed to be bigger, bolder and grander with parties and other events, which has obviously been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are still looking to mark the occasion. They have released a new compilation Om Records, 25 Years that features 26 new tracks, unreleased material and Om classics. There are tunes from across genres by Kaskade, Mark Farina, People Under The Stairs, Groove Armada, Soulstice and others.

However there is more to the label than just this compilation and struggling through a summer where the music business has been throttled by a pandemic. It has been a stalwart of independent music for 25 years, helping to launching careers like of artists Kaskade, while also pushing underrated underground releases across house, funk & hip-hop.

With 25 years in the business, we wanted to get a better look at the story of the label and chatted with label manager / partner Gunnar Hissam. Hissam has been with Om for nearly 25 years and has become an integral part of the team, doing just about every role one could have at a label. Managing a label during a pandemic with technology constantly changing the way we consume music and shifting listener habits is not an easy task, so Hissam offers some insight on how the label has done that over the past several decades.

For this Industry Insider feature, read on for Hissam's journey through the business, which is a lesson in hustling, taking on new jobs as they come to you and perseverance.

Listen to the compilation and get your copy here.

How did you pick the artists and tracks for the 25-year anniversary compilation? Were there some tracks you wanted to add, but couldn’t?

Over two years ago I started off with the idea to take the original catalog and remix it into 25 songs for 25 years, but that turned into a beast of a concept and if I went through with it I suspect I’d still be waiting on music. So, I went with the simpler and more exciting approach--to get new music from past, present and future artists. I put my list together and started reaching out. There were definitely some challenges but overall, I think the album has the vibe of what Om has been doing over the past quarter century. It’s not all just one note, it’s deep, there’s some hip-hop, electronic pop, and downtempo. Fans of the label are going to enjoy it.

What else do you have planned for the 25-year anniversary?

Pre-Corona lock down, the plan was to throw release parties with multiple artists / genres / etc. We moved the album to July, hoping we’d be able to get out and about a bit more but unfortunately the release parties are going to have to wait until they can be done safely. We’ve got some lovely video messages from the artists that we’re going to be posting online, and it’s been great to see the overwhelmingly positive response from fans for the new music. Some sweet stuff has been popping up on social media and we love reading those messages.

How did you get into the business?

I was doing a radio show in college and my roommate Ryan Thompson had a copy of On The One Magazine (shout out to Andrew Jervis) and there was a review of Mushroom Jazz that caught our eye. Then an issue of CMJ came to the station with Mushroom Jazz listed in the RPM section with contact info for CK Smart for more info. Ryan called CK to ask about getting some tickets for the Tampa, FL date for Mark Farina’s Mushroom Jazz Tour and he took care of us. When we got there to Hyde Park Café, there was a free keg of beer in the outside patio area and Om was doing projections on a screen of the Mixid CD-ROM mixing technology. 

We met Kiri Eschelle and Patricia Ryan from Om that night who loaded us up with t-shirts and vinyl. Free beer, vinyl and t-shirts were all we needed. We were connected with record stores and promoters in the area and we had a radio station that we could promote on, so a light bulb went off to start the Om Rep Program where we could go out and represent the label promoting releases and tours, putting up displays in record store, distributing flyers, putting up posters, selling records, etc. It was the spark to what would eventually become a national and then global program of like-minded people all around the world who became Om reps in their regions. After I graduated college, I moved to SF and interned at Om under the guidance of Kiri, and got a promotions job at KOME radio in San Jose. Fun years!

What has been your favorite part of working at OM these past few decades?

Wow! So many, too tough to pick one so here are a couple. I would definitely say the Miami, WMC parties (especially the early years). Those shows weren’t like anything I’d ever seen. So dynamic and powerful! Watching Ming & FS DJ (on vinyl) will always be a highlight. There have been so many great memories. Mark Farina playing my 30th birthday in a tiny little bar called WISH in SF that we used to do a happy hour at every Friday. I randomly had 2 Live Crew’s greatest hits on vinyl in my car and went out to get it and gave it to him and he played it. So good! Above and beyond those little bits of fun, I’d have to say my favorite part of working at Om has been the community that’s built up around the label. The employees (past & present) and the artists are all family to me and it’s been an amazing experience growing up with everyone. They’ve been some of the most amazing friends of my life.

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Working at one music company for almost 25 years never happens anymore. Do you think that is a good thing or do you wish there was more job stability in the business?

Good question. I always think of baseball when I think about this question. If you look at baseball, it’s very rare for one player to play his whole career on the same team. Very few do it. Why? Well…it’s like DJ Shadow said in his track “Why Hip-Hop sucks in 96” --- it’s the money. Labels come and go, artists come and go, everything comes and goes. It’s the way of life. I will say one of the things a good friend of mine once said about me is “you’re a lifer.” I suppose I am. I can’t think of anything I’d do if I didn’t have music. Maybe help my wife bake cookies?

How has the label tried to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic? What were some things you had to shelve (if any) because of it? Have listening patterns changed for your music?

It has definitely been challenging on the live events side and the clubs / bars are hurting hard. Everyone has been sheltering in place here in the Bay Area for months so it’s tough to think about the fun we had planned. I can say I’m listening to more music than ever now and I think the rest of the planet is doing the same. Some great work is coming out right now.

How have the challenges of being a label in the streaming era compared to digital downloads and the time of physical music?

Streaming is just getting going so I’m constantly on my toes discovering new opportunities in that space. It’s challenging but that’s the biggest take away from the music industry. It never gets old. It’s constantly changing and reinventing itself. I can remember crates of vinyl getting delivered to Om and all of us forming a conga line from the freight elevator into the office tossing boxes to each other one a time. Heavy lifting and dusty! 

When iTunes launched, I remember that being an exciting and really scary time for us. We were dealing with CD burning and sites like Napster, where the value of music was plummeting. It was all moving to the free concept, and the long tail idea. We were one of the first indies invited to get our music up on iTunes and I can remember the feeling at that time was like Steve Jobs had blessed us to be able to keep going. It was hard but we were able to hang in there to see it on the other side. Streaming is refreshing and I love the possibilities of how much still can be done to get good music to as many ears as possible, which has always been the goal.

What is a release on OM that didn’t get the love it deserved at the time, but has aged really well?

When Kaskade’s debut album It’s You, It’s Me was released in 2003, he was the “new school” artist on Om. I can remember him opening up for all of our shows back then. It would be Kaskade going on at 10pm, when the venue was just opening up the doors. Fast forward a few years and he’s selling out the Barclays Center in NYC and Staples Center in Los Angeles. He’s built up quite a legacy and It’s You, It’s Me is now considered the classic that launched his career.

What is an OM release that surprised you in how successful it was?

I expect all the Om releases to be successful but the reality is that not all of them will be received the same way. Also, the challenge with Om is we put out all types of music so our fans need to be super open minded or they risk not being able to keep up with what we’re doing. The one goal we shoot for with everything we do is goosebumps. We want the listener to say: What is that? Who is that? What song is that? Those are the golden questions. As soon as you hear those questions, you know you’ve got a fan in the making. Time to nurture that relationship. We’re at our 700th release with the 25 Years album and we’ve got a bunch of new music teed up for the rest of the year. I’m always thinking in terms of what’s next but I love going back through the catalog and shining the light around to discover stuff. Even I still get surprised by rare remixes or vinyl-only releases popping up on YouTube, or live recordings from shows that I never knew existed. Some are hilarious with good facial hair.

What skills, traits and resume qualifications OM look for in potential new employees?

We’ve had some amazing people bless us with their talents over the past quarter century. It’s always been a bit of an all hands-on deck operation, we all chip in and do what needs to be done. Some of the greatest employees start off at the bottom. Internships are the way in. That’s how I started. It took grinding, sleeping on my cousin’s couch, selling the Om catalog out of my trunk, and going deep in credit card debt to finally get my shot. I think that may be one of the reasons my heart is so in it.

There has been a reckoning in dance music and American society in general over the past month in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. How will OM play a part to help bring the spotlight back on the black artists and cultural figures that created the genre?

I’d like to think we never see color in music because it's always about the music and how it makes us feel. That said, there is definitely more everyone can do. Om fully supports the Black Lives Matter movement and we will continue to shine the spotlight on black artists. It’s about being more proactive about it now. I think society makes small steps and then just falls back to the same old same old. But this time feels different, we want to participate in help making it BE different.

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