For more than a decade, Philadelphia’s Get Better Records has been releasing a steady stream of music by punk, hardcore and indie bands, including current artists COWBOY BOY, Potty Mouth and Nervus. The queer-run record label features an ever-growing roster under their overarching umbrella that serves as a haven not only for outspoken rockers but also for underserved and underrepresented talents. The label’s mission is fueled by the desire to reverse that unfortunate and prevalent lull in the representation of the LGBTQIA+ creative community in the broad entertainment spectrum.
Get Better was launched in 2009 by Alex Lichtenauer, along with their friend Nick King, who left the label a year later. Lichtenauer—a drummer whose pervasive and relentless beats set a powerful foundation for bands such as Control Top—had the initial plan to release the music of their own bands. Once things got underway, not only did they do just that, but they saw the value in putting out other artists’ work and building a dynamic community. “If I saw a label like us as a kid, it would have changed my life,” they tell us. “Not that we don’t have our flaws, but I wanted to be a place to help artists grow. We’re often the first label an artist deals with, and we want to help them realize that music can be done sustainably.”
Koji Shiraki—a Get Better artist—has joined the label’s operations team, in a positive union resulting from the effects of COVID-19. Not only were they unable to tour, but they lost their job. Wanting to keep people connected, as a way to both facilitate creative conversation and also weather the challenges of the pandemic, they invited members of their own band and other artists from the label that were also unable to tour to join a weekly Zoom call on Sundays.
Through that regular virtual meeting, they were able to discuss their needs and what they could do collectively to help the community. One product of those conversations is the Sunday, Someday compilation. Including artists KOJI, Full On Mone’t, Solstice Rey, Nervus and Potty Mouth, the record raises funds for top surgery and aftercare while simultaneously raising awareness about the systemic oppression QTPOC (Queer and Trans People Of Color) community members face.
That focus on awareness and mutual aid is indicative of Get Better’s passion for strength through togetherness and omnipresent integrity led by the quest for human rights, equality, equability and justice. We spoke to Lichtenauer and Shiraki about these recent efforts, how pandemic challenges have inspired productivity and some of the new releases we can expect from this potent label.
Get Better started in 2009. Tell us how that ball got rolling.
ALEX LICHTENAUER: So, I started Better in 2009 when I was living in New Hampshire. Originally, I’m from Baltimore. I started the label because I was living in a town with a ton of bands and artists, and I was always a nerd about music and [record] labels. I wanted a home for my own band’s music and to document the scene that was happening in the town I was living in. So, my friend Nick [King] and I started the label together—he ended up leaving a year later. We were documenting artists from the East Coast, and it just grew into what it is.
Were you initially driven by a specific mission?
LICHTENAUER: It’s funny: When we think about 2009, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but the language and terminology has changed so much—via the internet and people coming out and gayness becoming a bigger thing in the mainstream—and Get Better has really evolved since then. It did so as I was evolving as a person. It was always a politically centered label and a place for the artists to feel comfortable with their music and have people working on it that really believe in them.
Your own music was the first you put out. Did you know then what other bands you wanted to work with?
LICHTENAUER: Yeah, definitely. That was always the plan. At first, I wanted to release my own band’s music because I had to start really small. Then it definitely evolved the more we did networking on tour and things like that.
In just a little more than a decade, you’ve had a hearty output.
LICHTENAUER: We’ve worked with maybe 50 or 60 different artists, but then through compilations and such, we’ve probably worked with a couple hundred artists all together, whether they’re on the label or just associated by a concert.
What have been the biggest challenges Get Better has faced?
LICHTENAUER: It’s a challenge being a label that doesn’t fit into the mainstream model. It can be hard getting [the] press to pay attention to us. That’s something that Koji and I talk about all the time because we want to get these artists noticed.
Where do you think that lack of attention comes from?
LICHTENAUER: We are an outspoken label, politically, and we don’t release music made by popular cisgender white men.
KOJI SHIRAKI: I think what’s difficult, with respect to how the label operates, is also its strength. I love the unapologetic nature of how politically outspoken Get Better is. I think the most powerful thing about the label is that it doesn’t force its artists into that diversity inclusion model. It doesn’t make trans people or racialized people perform their identity in a way that capitalism can extract from it. The artist is more than just their identity or injury politics, and their experience is beyond just the violence of the state—which is created everywhere—especially in things like industry.
We’re not asking our artists to commodify themselves. I think that ultimately, over the lifetime of the label, that’s going to be its legacy—that commitment to the wholeness of our artists and really respecting the dignity of the audience [and] not trying to water down what we do.
[It’s] hard for media companies and other gatekeepers who are often straight white people to grasp that complexity. We don’t ask our artists to tailor themselves to what the industry wants.
Artists are often asked to give up a lot, and that’s not how anyone comes to music. Music is a thing that gives to you. When you start to interface with the industry and capitalism, you sacrifice a lot of your wholeness, and that’s just so violent. It’s just so rare to be in a space that’s about music, but anti-capitalist and not about competition but about community. That’s what resonates with anyone who ever fell in love with music—the way you’re able to inhabit yourself and the presence you’re given through music. That’s what Get Better does, and that uncompromising nature is why I wanted to be a part of it. I’m so proud to be in this community. It goes beyond being a label—it’s a community.
This past year has been unprecedented in numerous ways. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected Get Better?
LICHTENAUER: For one, we switched distributors, who have been incredible to work with. We also grew in a lot of ways. It was such a big year of reflection and reassessing everything. Not being on tour gave me a lot of time to focus on Get Better. We picked up a ton of new artists last year.
We’ve gotten to know some artists really well through the pandemic because of Zoom and phone conversations. I think we are way more hands-on now and more intertwined in each other’s lives since people weren’t out on tour and busy. It was a reset for me, too, to know that I always want to be able to connect with our artists in this way and continue to build community. We always have strived to do that, but it’s become more powerful during the pandemic.
SHIRAKI: We’ve been getting together and thinking about how solidarity has to be more than what we say on those stages. We have to do material things in the time that we have while we’re waiting for touring to come back. I think people are going to be impacted by the rush back to touring, and we’re not at that herd immunity point. The people that are going to be affected are going to be Black and Brown communities, indigenous communities, the people that are going to be left behind, our people, undocumented people. We have to think about that as a label. So, it’s just like, we have to reckon as a label. As cultural workers, you don’t want to be a part of this distraction of entertainment to pull people’s focus away from the fact that we’re still in a pandemic.
Since we have this time, we think about how we can make the most of it—how we can serve the needs of our artists, how we can reimagine the live music space. Together with the artists, we are thinking about what we value as a community and what we value as bands and on individual levels. We are building consensus around ways to work together, doing things like reading books together to regionally do first-aid and harm-reduction training. How we can be in solidarity with the struggles of the Black and indigenous communities, trans people and sex workers are among our concerns and efforts.
Can you tell us about some recent or upcoming releases?
LICHTENAUER: One artist we are really excited about is Teenage Sequence from London. The music is totally different than anything we have released before. It’s like electronic, post-punk, disco and dance music. There’s also new Potty Mouth and Nervus records next year. We are also really excited about the King Azaz record that came out [in April].
SHIRAKI: That’s just a short list. There’s so much happening. I hope people check out the King Azaz record—it’s out of control. I’m obsessed with it. Also, Full On Mone’t, whose experience as a trans, nonbinary person is so important to me. People need to hear them.
This interview appeared in issue 395 featuring cover star WILLOW, available here.