Hot, sexy, and dead?

Combing music's back catalogs for the next cult star with a distro called Runt

What is Water?

The best reissue independent in the country? A label fueled by Cat Power and other wistful girls strumming plaintive guitars? Perhaps the '60s and '70s reissue imprint — along with Runt, its Oakland distribution parent company, and its associated sister labels — got to where it is because owner Filippo Salvadori had the foresight to put out the first LP, 1995's Dear Sir, by the ageless, Karl Lagerfeld–anointed troubadour Cat Power, née Chan Marshall, foreshadowing Water's releases by femme folkies such as Judee Sill and "Windy" songwriter Ruthann Friedman, once lost but now passionately hailed by fans like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, respectively.

Or maybe the Runt-Water phenomenon all started with a simple scenario familiar to music fans of a certain age when, back in the plastic age before cable, the Web, IM, MySpace, text messages, and the lot, as Pat Thomas — longtime Runt staffer and Mushroom drummer and onetime respected San Francisco folk label Heyday owner, a "detective and general errand boy" who'd track down artwork, master tapes, and families that own publishing rights — puts it, "The only thing to do was smoke a joint and listen to an album. So you really got into your albums. That was your entertainment."

And that was the reason why Thomas and the rest of Salvadori's small staff would later lovingly dust off and rerelease those precious artifacts from the lazy days of endless summer, multiuse gym socks, wood-grain stereo consoles, and just three channels on the boob tube, unearthing and restoring previously unheard gems along the way. As monolithic major labels tighten their catalogs and slap together cookie-cutter reissues with cut-rate art, it's come down to indies like Seattle's Light in the Attic and Coxsackie, New York's Sundazed, and Runt (named after Salvadori's favorite Todd Rundgren LP) and its imprints Water, 4 Men with Beards, Plain, and DBK Works to dig into swelling back catalogs and curate with the care that makes true music geeks and retro hipsters want to snag everything they issue. Those Water releases range, dizzyingly, from Terry Reid, the man who would have been Led Zeppelin's lead vocalist had he been more career minded, to a recent series of majestic Milton Nascimento '70s releases to Sonny Sharrock's screaming early endeavors and the Flaming Lips' Restless albums on pink, blue, and clear vinyl.

"There's not one fucking record on there that isn't interesting," says Patrick Roques, who has worked for Water as well as Blue Note. "Everything on the catalog, you want to have. It reminds me of Factory, growing up: anything you saw with that label, you wanted to buy it. All that music that came out on Water is important."

And in the recent years of industry downturn, the music has gotten lost while major labels have largely focused on reissuing albums digitally — sans the careful packaging and new liner notes that Runt takes pains to deliver — rather than physically. "The way the market is going for all labels and with fewer places to sell physical CDs, we can't put out as many as we used to," says Mason Williams, A&R director at Rhino/Warner Bros., which made its name as an independent reissuer, continues to put out handsome reissues, and now works with Runt, among other indies. "More and more smaller labels have started in the last few years and are working with other labels to reissue deep catalog stuff."

"When I was a teenager [in the '70s]," Thomas continues, "I could go to JC Penney and Sears and buy any album by the Stones or the Beatles or the Who from the classic rock back catalog. Now if you go Target or Wal-Mart, you're only going to get 'Best of's. Even multimillion-selling bands — you can get the best of Led Zep, but you can't get Led Zeppelin IV.

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