Rockford Rocked Interviews: A talk with Rockford native and music executive Erv Karwelis
By Todd Houston
Rockford native Erv Karwelis has been in the record industry for more than 25 years. He has seen many trends and artists come and go. Karwelis has worked for industry giants such as David Geffen Co. and Sony’s music division. He is now celebrating the 21st anniversary of his own label, Idol Records. Following is an interview with Karwelis:
Rockford Rocked Interviews (RRI): Thinking back, what first sparked your interest in music and wanting to be a part of it?
Karwelis: My dad was a musician and played guitar in a band called The Thunderbirds. When I was still a baby, he was killed in a car accident caused by a drunk driver when he and his band mates were driving home from a gig at the Stardust Lounge in Rockford (Main and Auburn). My mom gave me his guitar, and it was my way of connecting with him and my gateway into music.
RRI: You left Rockford for L.A. in 1990 to try your luck at the business end of music unlike the thousands of people who were going there to start a band. Did you have a game plan, or were you just sort of “winging it”?
Karwelis: A little bit of both. After playing in bands for a few years, I also became interested in the business side. I started a production company, rented PA and DJ equipment, and also booked punk shows at clubs. I decided that I liked the business side better, and after graduating from Rock Valley College, I decided to move to Los Angeles to see if I could get my foot in the door. I didn’t know anyone in the business, and I had no experience other than being an avid record collector and hanging out in record stores all my life. After arriving in Hollywood, I looked at all of the addresses on my records, and I was bold (or crazy) enough to walk into the front door of those record companies and ask for meetings with people like David Geffen. I have a folder full of rejection letters from companies that I was eventually hired into management positions with. So, I guess persistence pays off.
RRI: Idol Records is based in Dallas, correct?
Karwelis: Yes. I was working for Sony Music, and they gave me a promotion and moved me to Dallas to be artist development and marketing manager of the Southwest Branch office based in Dallas. It’s a great city, and it has a great music scene, so I’m still here.
RRI: After working with music industry giants such as David Geffen and Sony, was it scary going out on your own while starting up Idol Records?
Karwelis: I started Idol as more of a hobby while I was working for Sony. The Dallas area had a great music scene, and I decided to make a compilation album of some of the bands that I liked. Half of them ended up signing major label deals shortly after that, so I just kept signing more bands and putting out records.
RRI: What does Idol Records look for in a band?
Karwelis: I look for good songs and great live bands that have a strong work ethic and are willing to tour and play live. Idol has always been a very diverse label, which makes things a bit harder for me, but has probably been the reason that the label has thrived for so many years.
RRI: What are your thoughts on iTunes and downloading music, and does it make you sad that there isn’t an actual “album” anymore to hold and look at while listening?
Karwelis: On a business level, I think iTunes is great because it makes all music available worldwide 24/7, on a personal level. I’m disappointed to see people moving away from physical formats like vinyl and CDs, because the sound quality is much better and the art, liner notes and engagement of opening and playing the records is part of the magic for me. I’m fortunate to work in front of a great stereo system all day long.
RRI: When you’re not in the office, what do you do for fun?
Karwelis: I have vinyl in my blood, so I spend most of my free time shopping for records, scouring estate sales, yard sales, record stores, thrift stores, eBay, etc. I’m also into water gardening and have a pond full of Japanese koi fish and water plants that takes up any free time.
RRI: Your favorite album of all-time is?
Karwelis: That’s a really tough one, and with my diverse tastes, it changes all the time! (laughs) Back In Black from AC/DC has been in heavy rotation lately! Amazing songs, amazing production and the band doing the impossible by rebounding after the death of their singer, Bon Scott.
RRI: Thanks for chatting with us!
From the Sept. 24-30, 2014, issue