If you were to write a book about the history of music in Indiana (someone already has, and someone will again), you’d have to include a chapter or two on not just the much known Secretly Canadian, a record label based out of Bloomington, but also one of its many brother businesses.
There’s Jagjaguwar, a label started by Darius Van Arman that eventually merged with the Canadians in 1999. The label has released an impressive number of acclaimed albums, including the entire catalog of Okkervil River, a band already considered by many to be one of the best of their generation. After a solid start in Charlottesville, Va., Van Arman settled into Bloomington with the three core Canadians, brothers Ben and Chris Swanson and Jonathan Cargill. Four big brains, many big ideas to come.
Next came Bellwether Manufacturing. “We started Bellwether in 1999 as a way to pay the bills,” explained brother Ben Swanson to NUVO in a recent interview. “The labels weren’t bringing in enough to pay the four of us, the rent for the house we were working out of and everything else. We had worked with several different vendors over the years and knew that if we could get our volume up we could get better rates — so it helped make [the production of] our SC and Jag projects cheaper.
“We’d also realized how unorganized and weird these companies could be, sort of preying on customers’ inexperience,” Ben Swanson explained when asked about the idea for Bellwether, a company that helps other record labels and independent artists — anyone who wants to release a record, really — with every step of the manufacturing process of putting out albums. “We wanted to build a manufacturing company with the same ideals as our labels: one that thrives on transparency and long-term relationships.”
Sounds, well, Canadian.
Bellwether is now regarded as one of the best businesses of its kind, offering just about every album manufacturing service under the sun.
With a recently expanded workspace and an ever-growing staff (many of whom acquire jobs after paying dues as interns), the honest, positive principles Swanson speaks of seem to be working well for this Bloomington music family. So well that, in addition to Secretly Canadian (the record label and the distribution company, which works with no less than 17 other labels), Jagjaguwar and Bellwether, label directors took on another project recently, a third record label called Dead Oceans.
“We had been working with Phil Waldorf for years while he was running Misra Records,” Swanson explained. “We all got along great. We loved to talk about music and how to put out records and work with bands. We were always looking for a way to work closer with him, so when he left Misra it felt like a natural move to start Dead Oceans with him.”
Though just over a year old, Dead Oceans has already seen a great amount of success, releasing albums by artists with familiar names — at least to record store lurkers and indie-minded audiophiles — such as Phosphorescent, Bishop Allen, Dirty Projectors and Bowerbirds. A first year most labels could only dream of, and another success for Bloomington’s golden-eared network o’ sound.
“Dead Oceans has the same staff as SC and Jag, except that Phil is the head of A&R,” Swanson explained. “Other than that it utilizes the same staff and infrastructure as SR and Jag. It’s worked out as sort of a ‘If I only knew then what I know now’ situation.’” Swanson says that they all feel as if they’ve been able to skip over “six to eight years” of the trial and error experimenting they went through while working to establish their other endeavors.
Fargo, indie-rock capital
Swanson, who — along with his brother — grew up in Fargo, N.D., says that they made a lot of mistakes along the way. “We just learned what we were doing as we went. It’s more fun that way. I don’t think that business school necessarily applies to what we do. But it was scary for a while; we got into fights and were insecure about whether or not we could do what we were trying to do. Usually some combination of us would get really pessimistic, but the others would give a pep talk.”
But wait, Fargo? Indie-rock?
“Chris originally came to Bloomington in 1994 for the business and journalism schools at IU,” Swanson said. “I came in 1996 for the music school and Jonathan came for the recording program. Like most students, we all graduated with different degrees than we had anticipated. Anyhow, we spent our early days in Bloomington going to basement shows, wading through the CDs at WIUS [the university’s student-operation radio station, now known as WIUX] and immersing ourselves in as much music as possible.”
Before Ben Swanson could even dig into his first freshman semester, he was spending time fumbling through the day-to-day specifics of running a record label with his brother, Cargill and original founding member Eric Weddle, who eventually left to start his own label, Family Vineyard.
“When I was in high school Chris would send me all this great music that wasn’t available in Fargo,” Swanson said about the label’s groundwork days. “Somewhere along the line Chris met Jonathan while they were working together in a dorm cafeteria. Eric and they got the idea to start a label. We had no idea how to do it, but there were all these great bands in Bloomington being overlooked.”
Through it all, Secretly Canadian, the record label, has remained the major focus. “It was our focus from the beginning, but it took three or four years to really make it a sustainable entity that would allow us all to work full-time,” Swanson said before being asked if they ever wonder how “big,” relatively speaking, they could grow one facet of their business if they pared down their sprawling vision. “We question that from time to time. We look at who we consider to be our peer labels and wonder how well we could do if we just focused on a dozen bands. I think there’s a certain lack of will power to our growth … but it’s just been more fun and rewarding to have several things going on at the same time. And we’ve been able to employ 30 people in Bloomington, which is a town that’s traditionally very tough to find a good job in.”
That said, the label does continue to grow, adding new bands when they hear something they love and releasing more albums in 2008 than they ever have before. Before the end of the year, for example, the Bloomington camp will release new albums from The War on Drugs, Oneida, Damien Jurado, Okkervil River, Windsor for the Derby and, most notably, Antony & the Johnsons, whose last Secretly Canadian-released record took home the coveted Mercury Prize.
As for their reputation for being the only major indie-label on the planet that listens to every demo sent to them? Well, despite busier times than ever, they do still do that. Call it their lifeblood. “It’s really overwhelming how many packages we get,” Swanson said in closing. “But it’s a really good problem to have!”