A Sponsored Story from the Northfield Entertainment Guide
Northfield musician, songwriter, producer, promoter, and record label owner Michael Morris does it all … so why haven’t you heard of him yet?
A profile by Rich Larson
Hunter S. Thompson once called the music business the place where “thieves and pimps run wild.” It’s always been a dirty industry, but it’s also one that’s undergone a transformation during the last decade. As the internet has shrunk the world, so has it made the monolithic record company a relic. Today, there are thousands of independent record companies who find and release artistically vital and commercially viable music and, while there’s still a lot of low standards and practices in the industry, the door has opened to people who truly have the artists’ best interests at heart.
Which brings us to an apartment above Bridge Square in Northfield. This is the home of Michael Morris. Michael does just about everything a guy can do to make money in the music business. He’s a talented musician and a great songwriter who plays in multiple bands (around here, you might have heard of The Rice County Roosters or Dewi Sant ). He’s a music producer and promoter. And he’s the head of one of those upstart “indie” labels, Plastic Horse Records. It’s the little company that might actually change the world, and that’s a direct reflection of Michael’s personality. “Growing up, the music that has always appealed to me was music that I felt was honest. Not somebody trying to write a hit, but somebody trying to tell me something that they feel. To me, that’s true art. That’s the kind of music we want to help people put out.”
Keep in mind that Morris isn’t some bedraggled hippie whose only business acumen comes from selling incense in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show. After he graduated from St. Olaf College, he spent six years working for a major advertising agency in Minneapolis. He’s seen American capitalism and the big corporate machine from the inside out. But it was a world he wasn’t necessarily taught to accept. “My dad grew up as a poor farmer, and he always had this sort of – not suspicious – but informed distrust of big companies.
“He explained it to me once when he got a job offer that would have paid him more money than he’d been making. He turned it down. I asked why, and he said ‘because that company takes money away from farmers.’ That’s how I feel about business. I’m not naïve, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the record company taking a percentage of a record. But I think the creators of the product should be getting the money. I have a business model set up that funnels money to the performers. All of my friends that are on labels tell me that this won’t work, and that I can’t take such a small percentage of the records we’re releasing. But, I really think things should be this way. If it fails, it fails, and if it needs to be adjusted along the way, we’ll do it.
“But, I’m not interested in compromising my values because people say it can’t work.”
It’s that Midwestern work ethic – an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work – that, in part, drew him back to Northfield. “There would be obvious reasons to be in Seattle, or Portland, or Minneapolis. I just really want the ethos of the way business is handled to be 100 percent reflected in the art we make. If you want a record label to be about heart and honesty and hard work and respect for each individual’s uniqueness, then what better place to headquarter than Northfield? In a lot of ways, because of the colleges, we’re far more connected to the entire globe than any other Minnesota town of our size. So, you have a town with a bunch of resources, but it’s a small town that doesn’t have a bunch of distractions. The bands on Plastic Horse want to work. We take on bands that are serious about making music, that aren’t on some ego trip and aren’t playing as an excuse to drink beers. We want to be defined by making music that we believe in, and by putting our own elbow grease into promoting it. We want to connect to the rest of the world. And we want to have a good place to come home to. Northfield filled the list for everything I wanted.” He says that he’s been rewarded for coming to Northfield by the support and encouragement he receives from people in town, which is hardly surprising. It’s hard not to root for this to work. If the Plastic Horse model is nurtured, and allowed to operate under Morris’ philosophy, then who knows what could happen? One major hit from this little company could change the way the music business works.
His goals aren’t quite that grandiose, however.
“If a band gets famous, that’s welcome. But there are a lot of bands from Minnesota over the years who worked hard and influenced culture even though they didn’t have the comforts of fame and fortune supporting them. They must have been making records and playing shows for other reasons and finding ways to make their music without big label and radio support. I admire that, and I think that’s what artists should be willing to do. But if any or all of the Plastic Horse bands get famous while living working and creating that way – well, that might be great.”
It might be, indeed.