Manor Records closed its shop to focus on bigger plans: leveling up Kansas City’s music industry
Kansas City may have a long legacy of jazz musicians, but it’s not known these days as a destination for musical artists. Manor Records is trying to change that by funding local artists and music venues.
Manor Records started like a lot of great ideas: in the basement of an unassuming house.
It was 2012 when Shaun Crowley, just graduated from high school, moved into a 3-bedroom home off Johnson Drive in Shawnee, Kansas, with four bandmates. Before long, Crowley and the others turned the cute, ranch-style home into their landlord’s worst nightmare: a noisy, DIY concert venue. They even built a stage and bar in the basement.
“It's two blocks from the Shawnee Police headquarters and then two blocks from this massive church,” says Crowley. “It's very funny that we got away with everything right there, because we were all really young and doing crazy stuff.”
Crowley says some shows would pull in up to 200 people, who entered the basement through a door in the backyard. Though they mainly booked local artists, Shawnee Manor managed to attract international acts like Glass Animals and Hinds.
Crowley says Shawnee Manor is where his love for local musicians started out. Since then, it’s grown into a nonprofit record label aimed at helping musicians fund their work. It’s a model some say could make Kansas City a destination for musical artists looking to make it big, and it’s taken years of trial and error.
The end of Shawnee Manor came in 2016 when the band moved. But Crowley wanted to keep supporting artists.
“I would kind of just, like, front my friends' releases, money-wise, and help them put it out and, like, put a campaign to it,” Crowley says. “It kind of turned into me supporting artists and having people on our roster and growing a team.”
Crowley also started a record label, and called it Manor Records. Because he couldn’t afford the expanding effort himself, Crowley opened a nonprofit record store and café in Strawberry Hill in April 2022.
The proceeds were supposed to go directly to Manor Record artists, but Crowley says they were barely making enough to cover the shop’s expenses. He closed the shop at the beginning of this year.
“I need to get the f--- out of here,” Crowley remembers thinking at the time. “Because, like, that's not what I'm in this for. … This is going to take me five to 10 years to ever put money back into the artist.”
So Crowley pivoted again, searching for a way to put money into musicians’ pockets immediately and to build a network of investors.
Where is Manor Records now?
Today’s Manor Records team consists of four board members: Crowley, Skylar Rochelle, Kayla Jarrett and Connor Randell. The team focuses strictly on management, and their work remains nonprofit. Manor Records represents nearly 30 bands.
Most bands are from Kansas City and the surrounding area, and they span multiple genres.
There’s Catty Cline, whose bedroom pop is influenced by 90’s girl punk, or True Lions, whose up-beat music is reminiscent of ‘90s lo-fi indie pop. Singer-rapper Khrystal’s music is dreamy and soulful, while some bands, like Blanky, don’t fit into a specific genre.
Board Secretary Randell says, in addition to financially supporting artists and promoting their music, they work hard to expand access to live shows by booking at locally-owned venues.
“Being closer to neighborhoods that maybe people don't have a lot of live music … is really exciting,” he says. “For people, in their own neck of the woods, to (be able to) discover something that may have been out of reach or just unknown to them.”
Unlike bigger record labels that profit off of their artists and can control what they create, Manor does not own the rights to their artists’ music. Instead, Manor bands get to pocket what they make at shows, including merchandise and record (or cassette tape) sales. Manor’s funding policy is pretty open-door: Whatever the artist asks for, the artist gets (within reason).
“To me it has to start from the bottom up,” Crowley says. “If we don't start building our music industry with our local artists first — and just try to do it all … like, shows at Sprint Center and Midland only — then it's not going to be any sort of success.”
The cost of making music
Artists say Crowley’s approach puts more of their earnings right back into producing their art, which can come with a huge price tag.
Kansas City singer-songwriter Kat King is currently working on a six-song album, and says there are so many expenses — including photo shoots, studio time and more — that costs quickly add up.
“And we're doing it, like, pretty DIY,” she says. “An album can easily be like $10,000 to $20,000 at the end of the day, with everything.”
King leads a five-piece indie-rock band, also called Kat King, which is set to take the main stage at the Boulevardia music festival this summer. Still, between performing, writing, and recording songs, King has to keep a full-time job as a videographer and graphic designer to support her goals as an artist.
“It is exhausting,” she says. “Ideally, I will get to a point where I can be on tour and have funding for my music.”
King learned about Manor Records through their Songbird Sessions, a weekly concert at Blip Roasters in the West Bottoms. She says Manor can’t fund her ambitions entirely, but it’s great to have someone else in her corner.
“It feels like just a bed of support,” says King. “The agreement is basically like, they will help us with whatever we want, they don't own anything, we can leave the agreement whenever we want. … I think (it) is super uncommon when you’re talking about a regular record label.”
“So Manor is essentially like the artists’ biggest fan,” she says with a laugh.
Kansas City’s music industry
Joel Nanos is owner and sound engineer at Element Recording Studios in Kansas City, Kansas, who first met Crowley when the future label manager was just a teenager. Nanos says Crowley came to him for help producing music, and Nanos has kept an eye on him ever since.
Nanos, who has worked in music for more than 20 years, says Kansas City needs more concepts like Manor Records, and more charitable foundations aimed at supporting musicians. In his view, better funding for Kansas City’s musicians means more music tourism to the city, and a bigger music industry here.
“Because if you can get that money into the artist's hands, the musical artist's hands — just like the visual artists — you can help them build a career that will ultimately shine a light back on the region,” says Nanos.
Compared to cities like Memphis, Nashville, or L.A., Nanos says, artists often have to leave Kansas City to get discovered or be taken seriously.
“Then Kansas City is like: ‘Oh, that's ours.’ They're proud of it, of course,” he says. “That's great, but it's hard to do it from here.”
Skylar Rochelle, board vice president for Manor Record, says many in the industry consider Kansas City a part of “flyover” country between Austin and Chicago.
“Which sucks because, I mean, people are putting out so many good tunes,” Rochelle says. “So anything that Manor can do to sort of help uplift that is the goal.”
If she, Crowley, and the rest of the Manor Records team have anything to do with it, things in Kansas City might get a little easier.
Crowley says, in the future, he'd love to open a record shop again — though he’ll probably discontinue the cafe part next time. For now, the team are fundraising, establishing regular givers, and gearing up for their biggest fundraiser of the year: a multi-day music festival in Lawrence and Kansas City called Manor Fest, kicking off in late May. The festival will feature more than 50 artists on 17 stages.
Crowley says the money from Manor Fest will go right back where it belongs: into local artists’ pockets.
Manor Fest 5 runs from May 19 to May 20 in Lawrence, Kansas, and May 25 to May 28 in Kansas City. More information can be found on the Manor Records website. Tickets and the lineup are scheduled to drop April 3.