We delve into the world of Grimalkin Records, a Richmond, Virginia-based collective with a mission that goes beyond music. In this interview, you’ll meet Eli Owens and Grim, the driving forces behind this nonprofit endeavor, and explore their inspiring journey from humble beginnings to a certified 501(c)(3) organization. They’re amplifying Trans and Queer voices, fostering artistic growth, and creating a welcoming community. We’ll also delve into the upcoming Grimalkin Festival 2023, a celebration of music, diversity, and advocacy.
Todd Raviotta: Thank you both for spending a little time and talking about the record label and the collective. I’d like to talk about the festival that’s coming up in October. First, how did Grimalkin get started when and where?
Eli Owens: You want to start? I’ll let you.
Grim: Initially, it was more or less a passion project. I have a background as a special education teacher. And then I moved into vocational counseling and as a disability advocate for seven years. During that time was when Grimalkin got started. Initially, we were using a different name and just doing some local shows, some benefit shows, and we did a couple of compilations just digitally and it just kind of progressed over time. That was around 2015, 2016, and then we moved into “let’s see if we can actually make this a label.” In 2018, we started using the name Grimalkin and we did our first physical release, which was Eli’s Coming of Age album. And then over time, things just progressed.
Eli was in the beginning, supporting the idea. And then they got more and more involved as we formed into a collective of different folks. We say we’re Richmond based, but technically, I’m out in Surry County, a really rural area a little more than an hour south of Richmond. But, I’m the only Grimalkin person that’s out here. So we started with mainly just some Richmond artists, but it quickly expanded to folks in other states in the United States and also in other countries. We were essentially like a DIY record label.
Then March 2020 Pandemic came, I lost my job of seven years and at that point that was a turning point. Not just for me, but also for Grimalkin. I had to rethink a lot of things financially, because I had been putting a majority of my free money from my jobs into the label to be able to make physical releases and things like that. Obviously that was no longer a possibility to be able to financially support what I was doing. There wasn’t work in my field at that point. I got unemployment for a year and I had intended to stay in that job until I retired. So it kind of was sort of this, “okay, what am I going to do now?”
Essentially I was like, “okay, I’m just going to put all my time and energy in Grimalkin.” As a DIY label, we weren’t initially doing any of the things we’re doing now, just a few releases a year. Some shows occasionally, that’s about it. I wanted to do more with advocacy and education. For a brief time, we were an LLC right after the pandemic mainly because the nonprofit art route is much more complicated and actually more expensive.
We started doing workshops, developing a mentoring and production network trying to do more than just be the label. So we’ve kind of gotten away from calling ourselves a label and I actually think of the word Records more as like a documentation instead of a “Record Label” in terms of what we really are doing, which fits in more with our mission.
Eli got more involved, developing our website, designing our logo. We had a different logo initially and then Eli came up with the Black Cat, which is definitely more fitting. Eli and I collaborate pretty well, we complement each other in terms of what’s needed to keep things going.
As we were growing during that time of uncertainty at some point we got some grant funding from the Trans Justice Funding Project they’re one of very few organizations that will grant organizations without being a 501c3. I was doing a lot of research trying to figure out what kind of funding we could get from doing this. I joined Start Out, which is for LGBTQ entrepreneurs, and I also did some mentoring with the Arts Business Collaborative. Both of those are pretty important in terms of giving me guidance on where we were going. We heard back from different people “if you were a 501c3, we’d be able to support you”. The whole thing was very daunting, the whole process.
We had been giving the artists like 100% of their proceeds from Bandcamp. And then, audio tape sales typically go to a mutual aid need, organization, collective, or nonprofit because part of what we do is collaborate with other organizations and make those connections so that folks can have services that are outside of music like health care or mental health services and whatnot. We’re encouraging artists to also get more active in their local community.
I asked everybody “what if we keep 25% of the digital sales on Bandcamp?” That can help us continue making physical releases, especially when they’re not selling because some releases we just never know. Sometimes they all sell. We make that cost. Sometimes they just sit.
Everybody got on board with that. And so since we started doing that, that kept us going at least financially with the physical parts of stuff. We’ve been building our Patreon, which we really need to continue building. And then of course like I’m applying for grants. We did four workshops last year that we didn’t get any funding for. Then I was able to apply for funding by showing what we could do without any support. We did get funding to cover the last three workshops of last year and the first three workshops of this year.
TRav: Did you succeed in getting the 501c3 status? Or is that still pending?
Grim: February of 2022, we finally got the letter in the mail. Which is why we were able to apply and get some funding for our workshops from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. There were a couple of Grants we applied for last year that we didn’t get, but we did get this year. A lot of folks are like, “come back to the table” or they give you feedback.
TRav: Does the 501c3 have a window of time or is it now you’re established and you don’t have to reapply?
Grim: We don’t have to reapply, but there is paperwork we have to do every year to pay the Commonwealth of Virginia. We pay them to be able to collect donations. We’ve got to pay them every year. We also have to file taxes, a form 990 yearly. We did our first one this year. We were able to do a shorter form called the 990N since our budget was under $50k. Shout out to Carla from CJ Strategic Solutions. She does our accounting and files our 990 and has been instrumental in us progressing forward. She helps us with applying for the Trans Justice Funding Project grants.
Eli: We’ve got to report everything. We have to report the success of events. So that they see that we’re actually doing the work we promised we would.
Grim: And there’s GuideStar, Candid runs GuideStar It basically rates nonprofits. I’ve been slowly filling in all the paperwork I have to fill in there. Platinum is the highest you can get. We had gold status for a while because we couldn’t we couldn’t yet file our first 990. You have to wait a year, we just did that.
Eli: We’re still not making enough to support Grim or I, just for context.
Grim: My biggest struggle, concern really, is getting to a sustainable place where not only can Eli and I make a living wage, but we have enough money to hire other folks. I’m doing a gazilian things. I’m wearing too many hats, grant writing, that in itself can be literally a full time job. There’s all these things I’m doing, when you’re in a situation where you’re doing too many things, you can’t really give all 100% focus on any one thing to really help yourself. And number two, I also know I am not the best person to be doing all of the things either.
I have plenty of strengths and there’s things I’m really great at. But it’s more or less, well, I’m the person that’s going to do it for nothing. That’s why I mentioned building our Patreon is going to be essential. It’s basically stayed at the same level now for a year or two. We get about $500 a month, which without that I wouldn’t be able to pay myself anything.
TRav: Eli with the first album being released Coming of Age in 2018 and then sort of falling into active label collaboration can you speak a little bit to that first release and then your involvement coming into where things are today?
Eli: Like Grim said, before we officially started going by Grimalkin we were Friends for Equality, which was something that Grim had started with another collaborator that involved benefit shows and zines, largely in response to 2016 and that election. I was wanting to be involved in all of that because one of my dreams in life—that I’ve had since probably high school—has always been to somehow make and share art and build community and advocacy into an art making organization.
I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I was talking to Grim and said “Hey, I feel like you’d be a really good manager. Do you want to manage me as an artist?” And then that snowballed into Grim saying “I think I want to start a Record Label” at some point. I was like, “that sounds like a really great idea…”, we went with it and used the Coming of Age release show to fundraise for the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, which Grim has been involved with for a long time. We always try to fundraise for it. That’s where it kind of started on my end. Of course we had been friends and performing, doing benefit shows together for a little bit beforehand.
TRav: When I first was able to catch the two of you performing at the Camel, which I guess was in 2022, maybe just following the nonprofit status then again just a couple weeks ago looking at the Bandcamp, the roster or releases has grown dramatically. In the past year have you seen that? Have you seen the first year of being a nonprofit and into this year artists working with the label have grown?
Grim: I think it has continuously grown. I don’t think being a nonprofit really has had any affect on that. One thing that did have an effect on the Bandcamp is that it probably looks like we’ve grown just because some of the releases were only on our Bandcamp and not on the artist page. We were paying Bandcamp $20 a month for a label account. It’s like a lower level label account, but it only gave us 15 artist slots. We were trying to just kind of reserve those for collective members. Then I pitched to Bandcamp that “we’re a nonprofit now, and is there any way you’d give us the same deal but give us the, the next level?” which is typically $50 a month. It gives you unlimited slots for your artists. And it’s just much better for artists because when you have an artist connected to your label account, when someone clicks on the album on our Bandcamp, it goes to the artist’s Bandcamp. It’s just much better, they can see their own stats. They actually gave it to us for free.
TRav: That’s good news. And that’s part of the “worth it” to go through the hoops to be recognized as the 501c3. Is there a number of artists associated with the collective?
Grim: I know that there’s somewhere between 40 and 50. And then on top of that, I would say we probably have about 70 to 80 people that are like a part of our community in some way and might be releasing with us in the future.
Eli: On the count, it should be 47 or 48 by now. I can’t remember, with the artists I haven’t added yet. (ed. note: you can see those HERE)
TRav: How many different sorts of genres or styles of music do you think are sort of associated?
Grim: We really appreciate all genres. I always say probably the thing that might tie the artists releases together is that most tend to be on the experimental side in some way. Or maybe they’re blending different genres. But we are yeah, we’re definitely not genre specific. Country, Rock, Folk, Pop…
Eli: …Noise, EDM, Hip Hop, Rap.
Trav: And in that, like you said, the common link is that they might be experimental versions of all those different genres and not a hard line but that kind of is?
Grim: Definitely. I mean most people who we also work with and release, aren’t trying to be like mega pop stars. That’s not the kind of music that we’re making. That’s not to say that some artists couldn’t be that. You know what I mean…
Eli: …it is not their M.O..
Grim: Most people, not all. I’m sure there’s some that really do want to be millionaires, but like most people that we work with, like myself, just want to make a living wage. We want to do some good while we’re here and be able to pay our bills and like to some degree…
Eli: …speak that for yourself. I want to be a billionaire. Okay. (laughing)
TRav: To come back to the workshops, you mentioned that this past year you were able to start getting some of the support funding for those. What are some of the online workshops that either you’ve done recently through the label or have coming up?
Grim: We have a couple of different little series that are happening. We have the label support series that we’re doing with different people who run labels. I just submitted a grant for six more workshops, so hopefully we’ll get it. And those will happen. Eli did one on getting started on Ableton…
Eli: Music recording and Deep Listening, Label Q and A’s, Appropriation of Music…
Grim: That was a panel discussion.
TRav: How did that panel discussion on Appropriation in music go?
Grim: It was really good. We would like to do a follow up. We’re going to wait and see about getting some help with coming up with what we’re going to tackle. But we want to have a second part where we kind of dig deeper into actual different songs and talk about that.
TRav: And with the workshop and the panel discussions, are those targeted to the public or inside the roster for development of artists?
Grim: It’s open to everyone.
Eli: And it’s pay what you can. Also, all the workshop recordings are available on our website so that people can donate $5 to purchase the recording. We have a caveat that “no one is ever turned away for lack of funds” so if you can’t afford the $5 but you still want to access the workshop, you can just email us and will give you access.
TRav: What’s the next workshops for this fall?
Grim: Well, it just depends on the funding because, I need to be sure. The first four that we did, the folks who did them knew they might not get any money and are going to be “pay what you can”. But now that we’ve got some grant funding, I’m trying to move away from that if we can, you know what I mean? Because not everybody is going to want to get nothing necessarily.
Eli: I will say I’m planning on doing a workshop about Teaching Workshops, like a Workshops 101 workshop, a meta workshop.
Grim: We definitely have people like Eli who have experience teaching workshops. But we’re trying to encourage folks who’ve never taught before to get out of their comfort zone. So a lot of my time is spent meeting people over weeks and months to develop a lesson plan, making it, coming up with strategies, and having them practice with me so that they’re comfortable. So there’s a back line that goes into it. But I can tell you Joe from Don Giovanni Records is going to do a workshop with us when we get the funding. That’s going to be amazing because his label is that he’s been around for a really long time.
Eli: And what will that workshop be about?
Grim: We’re definitely going to talk about Label running and his advice on after you’ve recorded an album, now what do you do? Kind of like a step by step, whether you’re releasing it yourself, trying to send it out to a label promoting it. It’s going to go through different physical release options for manufacturing and physical production. An overview from someone who’s got a lot of experience.
TRav: How long has that label been in operation?
Grim: Oh my gosh, 20 years, I’d say. I don’t know the exact number. And then we have Leucrocuta they’re going to do one on sampling in Ableton.
Eli: They’re an electronic artist that we have released with.
Grim: We’re going to have Josh Eastman who did our mixing workshop who’s based in Vancouver and runs Helm Studios. They’re going to come back again and do a follow up and it’s going to be tips for commercial sounding mixes.
TRav: What is coming up with the festival this October? Are there details or information you’d like to share about that?
Then there will also be a virtual lineup the following Saturday, which is the 21st, on our YouTube Channel for artists who want to perform but are not comfortable or don’t have access to perform in person. This is to increase accessibility across the board, for both performers and event goers.
It’s going to be huge. We’ve got a really impressive lineup. Grimalkin artists and Grimalkin adjacent artists will be coming in from all over to play. The full lineup is on the website and there will be all sorts of activities, a costume party, hopefully food trucks — a community-building experience.
Trav: Is there a significance to this festival?
Eli: This is only the second Grimalkin Festival. Last year was our first official one. And this year we’re getting a lot more funding. It’s bigger than last year’s, which was only one day. This year it’s three days and it’s also kind of around Halloween. Last year, it was in August. So we’re going to have costume party drag stuff. It’s going to be a big, big fun thing like never before.
Grim: It’s supposed to be a celebration for Trans and Queer people, for us to share our art with each other. And the goal is to as part of our mission as well, people get paid for sharing their skills. We’re working hard to pay people better this year than we were able to do last year.
Eli: All performers are Trans, Queer, or Disabled, in that umbrella, and they’re all being paid for their performances, they’re all being lodged, or they have the option of lodging. So it’s all about supporting our community in that way, in ourselves.
Grim: Definitely celebrating our progress, so far as a nonprofit and collective.
TRav: That’s excellent. With that, in terms of proud moments and and celebration out of the different sort of struggles you’ve outlined. Are there other highlight moments from the past two years that you think are particularly iconic for Grimalkin?
Eli: So many.
Grim: We just got an employer intern award from V-Top. I think they use the acronym V-Top and that was really nice because we just started internships last year. We have partnered with VCU KI department and we also had a student from ODU get credits for doing internships. That was a really recent, really cool award. We also just joined the Southern Arts & Culture Coalition, which we’re excited about. We are having our first meeting or covening that takes place in Richmond from September 8-10.
Eli: We awarded the Google ads grant for nonprofits, which gives us $10,000 a month of Google Ad Words that we are still struggling to spend all of…
Grim: …trying to figure it out.
TRav: Was that MacRock 2023?
Eli: Yeah, that was this past Macrock. Oh, we also started doing partner workshops with VCU libraries that actually started in 2021. We launched Grim Works in 2022.
Grim: That was a big deal. I already did submit a grant asking for some funding for our mentoring and production networks. It takes a lot of time to show over the years what kind of support we could give and build the networks. They can see where people are located and that kind of thing.
We got that grant and they’re going to provide us with technical assistance. That’s going to be really helpful. That was a grant we got for the first time that last year we didn’t get. Also, we got the Looking Out Foundation grant, which is really also a situation where we applied once, but didn’t get it. They told us to come back.
Eli: So we have all of this info on a page on our website. We got 15,000 from the Abbey Fund.
Grim: That was a huge deal. The person who is running that organization without my knowledge or anyone’s knowledge has been a fan of ours since they found us, on Bandcamp and have been supporting us as a supporter on Patreon and it had been watching us for a while. And then last year reached out to me and said, “Hey, I run this foundation, send in some of your budgets” we did that. Then we met and then they’re like, “We’re giving you $15,000.”
TRav: Where are they out of?
Grim: Missouri. The other cool thing is they just want a letter just saying what we did. It’s been a little refreshing with some of the grants we’ve gotten where they’re not giving you elaborate reporting like the Looking Out Foundation doesn’t require elaborate reporting and neither does the Trans Justice Funding project, which is a huge relief on, you know, on like the amount of work I have to do, but mostly you do have to report it.
TRav: It’s a whole other sort of production of a record of sorts. I love what you were saying about the “records” being a larger term than just like an LP, really a beautiful notion. But it’s clear that it goes in many different directions. The music itself, what goes on behind the music, and then what goes into interfacing with the networks of the world that need some sort of archive evidence, some sort of artifact. It all ties into both the mission and then the mission at hand. Is there a defined board of advisors?
Grim: It was easy to form a board. I know some organizations struggle, but we had so many people with us for a long time, it was just kind of nice that way. Our board chair, Tiaira Harris, who makes music, as Berko Lover. She has been with me since the beginning. Then there’s Savan DePaul, an artist that’s been with us for quite a while in our collective. They’re the co-chair. Eli is our secretary.
Basically our board is our collective, obviously not all of them. I’m technically the executive director but I rarely refer to myself that way. I do have it in my signature just because when you’re reaching out to people, that means something. But when I refer to myself in public, I always call myself a founder and a facilitator. And facilitator, that’s in my opinion the best an educator can do is, facilitate. Not that you can’t teach people skills because you need to do that. But you’re kind of helping people facilitate their own learning and love of learning and growing and making things happen, but not necessarily telling people what to do.
TRav: Are there any other ways that readers might get involved or help you guys grow?
Eli: Please, please be a patron. It’s probably the biggest thing. Please like us on social media, share our stuff, you know, listen to our artists. Like the whole point is that we’re sharing our voices. That these voices are heard and that we’re building community together. So don’t be afraid. We don’t bite, get involved. Everybody should be more involved in their communities.
Grim: If anybody wants to be a part of our mentoring or production network, they can get in touch with us. You don’t have to be queer or trans necessarily, you know, we need good allies, If anybody has workshops that they would like to share with us, that’s another way folks could get involved. Volunteering at our events. We need some volunteers right now for our festival. Please volunteer.
Eli: We need volunteers, Grim and I cannot do it all by ourselves again!
TRav: I really appreciate getting to hear some of the story today.
Main photo by Randy J Byrd