PravdaFest celebrates 38 years of Chicago indie record label

Kenn Goodman is the CEO of Pravda Records.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

When Kenn Goodman was enrolled as an art major at Northern Illinois University in 1984, he and roommate Rick Mosher figured it’d be a sound plan for them to form their own independent record label — expressly to put out vinyl discs and cassettes by their brash guitar-pop band, the Service. 

Nearly four decades later, Pravda Records is among Chicago’s longest-running, most indefatigable indie imprints. Sporting a multi-artist, multi-genre talent roster and a voluminous library of titles, the label celebrates its 38th year of continuous music June 24-25 with PravdaFest, an outdoor celebration on the grounds of Skokie microbrewery Sketchbook Brewing Co. 

“People are asking me, ‘What’s with this 38th?’” Goodman noted with a laugh. “Well, we’d planned to do the 35th — but it was sidelined by the pandemic. And we don’t want to wait till it’s 40. So, Pravda 38. We like the sound of that.

Pravda Fest

PravdaFest

When: June 24-25

Where: Sketchbook Brewing Company, 4901 Main St., Skokie

Tickets: $30-$75

Info: pravdamusic.com

“[And] What’s a music fest without beer?” Goodman asked rhetorically, noting that Sketchbook will unveil its all-new brew, Pravda 38 — characterized as an “indie-rock lager” — at the anniversary festival. 

Pravda’s longtime art director Sheila Sachs, who met Goodman at NIU in the mid-’80s and has worked with him ever since, crafted an intricate, organic design for the can label. It incorporates the names of the 37 artists who have recorded for Pravda.

Eight of those artists, spanning the label’s impressive timeline, are set to perform at the festival; four different bands per night. Venerable punk-fueled brother act the Slugs, Pravda’s second signing after the Service, are reuniting for the occasion, as is the Service. 

Josh Caterer, idiosyncratic crooner of ’90s lounge-punk combo the Smoking Popes, fronts his own band (which, according to Goodman, dishes up plenty of Popes amid punched-up vintage standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “At Last”). Caterer tops the bill on Friday night. And Goodman’s “brand-new signing,” the Handcuffs, will be showcasing the provocative, gritty glam-punk of their just-released second album, “Burn the Rails,” which is the Chicago quintet’s first full-length for Pravda.

Sketchbook Brewing Co. has released this commemorative lager for the 38th anniversary of Pravda Records.

Courtesy Pravda Records

“Putting music out is always exciting, always something to look forward to,” Goodman said, reflecting, “When I started the label, I was 22 years old, really just figuring life out. It became a way of life for me – and I’m lucky, because I love it. There isn’t anything else I can think of that I would have rather done that lasts 38 years.”

From the outset, according to Joe Shanahan, founder of premier live music venue Metro Chicago, “Kenn and Rick had a basic understanding of DIY, bonding together the elements of the ecosystem that’s so important to the lifeblood of indie music.” 

Beginning in 1986, Metro’s lobby housed Pravda’s newest venture: an actual physical record store whose entire inventory was of independent provenance: recordings, t-shirts, additional music merchandise. 

Artists playing the Wrigleyville concert venue would make pre-show appearances at the Pravda store, which also served as Metro’s ticket office, and then everyone would hang out there post-show until they closed up shop at 2 a.m.

“Kenn and Rick were stewards of the message that the indie spirit clearly had a home in Chicago,” Shanahan stressed. “We all wanted to be part of the commerce that was the engine behind the DIY scene: for a touring artist, [cash from] ticket sales and merch sales was your money to get to the next city.”

Even after it relocated from Metro’s ground floor in 1991, the Pravda Records store continued to provide day gigs for a number of the label’s artists, including the Slugs’ Dag Juhlin and Mike Halston, along with the late Rob Warmowski of surf-punk band the Defoliants.

Over the decades, Goodman says, the Pravda label has managed to stay afloat, and even thrive, in an ever-morphing industry. As vinyl and cassettes gave way to compact discs and then streaming, Pravda has diversified through licensing its music to film, television and commercials. 

“You hit a low point, like finding out that one of your distributors is going bankrupt,” Goodman related. “Which they inevitably do — everybody and you don’t get your merchandise back.

“Then sometimes, out of the blue, you find out one of your songs is gonna be used in a film, and there’s gonna be a sudden inflow of money that you didn’t expect. Kind of makes up for the other stuff that happens.”

This transpired recently with label act Diplomats of Solid Sound, whose song “Soul Connection” Pravda originally released in 2008. Goodman said, “It was in several shows and films” — among them the 2011 rom-com “50/50,” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick — “and it ended up on various Spotify playlists. That turned into 25 million plays. And that actually turns into revenue.” 

Diplomats of Solid Sound perform at Pravda’s 38th anniversary festival on Saturday night, just before the headlining Handcuffs.

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