By Tom Lynch
Record labels aren’t supposed to change lives. That sort of creative responsibility is usually relegated to artists, not to the channel that brings the artists to our headphones, speakers and stages. This has only become more evident in recent years, with the staggering boom of the digital age and the hit, financial and otherwise, that the traditional music business has taken as a result. Just last month we witnessed one of most beloved bands in the world, Radiohead, opt to release its new album to the public sans label, and without a price no less. Granted, only a select few bands have the global status of the British quintet and could contemplate such an approach, but if such a critically and commercially successful act decides to make this move, who’s to say what will follow? (The band’s decision to eventually release “In Rainbows” in hard-copy form through certain outlets is an afterthought, really.)
This makes the survival of independent record labels all the more impressive. Last year we saw Chicago’s own Touch & Go label celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary; Ian MacKaye’s D.C.-based Dischord is in its mid-twenties as well. And, as of this season, Chicago’s Thrill Jockey, founded by Bettina Richards, turns 15.
A year-long stay in Australia after graduating from Tulane opened up a door for Richards at Atlantic Records in New York, where she worked as an A&R exec, courting bands, finding new talent. “I certainly could see the power of the machine,” she says, sipping a latte amongst the bustling noise of a Friday afternoon chat at Wicker Park’s Earwax Café. “There’s no doubt what a corporate bank account can do for you, but I also saw that, by its nature, a multinational corporation like that, it’s largely inflexible. It was hard for something that big to adjust at any kind of speed.”
But her distaste for the machine didn’t end with its inflexibility. “It was the fundamental way of approaching things—the artist is really a promotional tool for the product. That fundamental way of approaching things, for most artists, really repelled me. It didn’t seem right. Certainly if you make a company like that big money, that dynamic changes, you start working together, but so few people are able to achieve that kind of leverage. So it really was that in most cases you were working for a big company, and that doesn’t really work with the kind of music I like, or the kind of musicians I tend to work for. That really bothered me.”
She accentuates, “It was the most money I ever made in my life, but it was the most unhappy I ever was. I hated it.”
So in 1992, after about three years at Atlantic, while still living in Manhattan, Richards bowed out of the corporate-music world, took a job at a record store in Hoboken and, with the savings she had in the bank plus some help from family members, launched Thrill Jockey, the name a reference to an obscure B movie. She adopted the code of other independent mainstays—like Touch & Go and Dischord—as her own, which is based on a fifty-percent share of profits between the label and the band, after the record breaks even. There are no traditional record “contracts”; deals are often done by handshake, and it’s entirely up to the band if it wants to return for another round. “I was a really big fan of Touch & Go and Dischord,” Richards says, “especially their ethos. You don’t see it written about much these days, but it still means a shitload to me—the open relationship with the artist, that fundamental thing. I was lucky enough to know some people, I knew Corey [Rusk, T&G’s founder] a little bit. I had met Dan [Koretsky, of Drag City]; I had friends at Caroline Distribution. So I had access to all these information networks. And just having someone to call [was a big help], even to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make posters,’ and someone’s like ‘You should try these guys, they’re a lot cheaper.’”
Thrill Jockey started releasing records by bands like Tortoise and Freakwater, and for the first couple years, Richards ran the label by herself. “I worked on the label every waking moment I wasn’t at my job,” she says. “I took orders from stores, I would have to go box up records in my apartment, go out to Brooklyn to borrow my friend’s car, bring all the records down, hope they didn’t get stolen as I was loading them, drive over to UPS to deliver them, drive back, return my friend’s car and go back home. Logistically, it was too much.”
The pressure and high cost of New York living became too difficult, and Richards looked to relocate. She had been traveling to Chicago for some time through her work with Atlantic and local band Eleventh Dream Day. She was offered a job bartending at Ukrainian Village’s Rainbo Club, she wanted to get distribution through Touch & Go and, most importantly, many of the Thrill Jockey artists were based here. The move “became logical,” she says.
The fact that the label’s roster was heavily Chicagoan was not a coincidence, but it wasn’t as if Richards purposely sought that out either. “It really happened through the Eleventh Dream Day conduit, traveling to Chicago often for a long time. I just became aware of this network of musicians that I enjoyed, and a lot of them happened to be from Chicago. It kind of happened organically.”
The label’s sound—which is in direct correlation to Richards’ personal tastes—is rather vast. From the label’s flagship artists like beloved instrumental post-rockers Tortoise and country crooners Freakwater, to the eclectic jazz of Jeff Parker or Fred Anderson, to the frenzied rock of Trans Am and Nerves, to the softer indie-pop of Eleventh Dream Day and The Sea and Cake, Thrill Jockey has always been unpredictable. “People who enjoy our label are really into music,” she says. “We don’t get affected by huge trends—we might if we were trying to be a trendy kind of label. But we don’t really care. We do what we think are really challenging records, records that we love. That’s kind of the only criteria.”
Rick Rizzo, leader of Eleventh Dream Day, remembers meeting Richards after an EDD show at Metro in 1989, when she was still with Atlantic. “She was a fan of music,” he says of his first impression of her, “and that enthusiasm was definitely [affecting]. You could see it—you knew that she loved music, and for us to sign to a major label, it made it easier since she was doing it. She was instantly trustworthy.”
The band eventually hooked back up with Richards once Thrill Jockey was launched, a decision Rizzo notes was a “no-brainer.” “Bettina adopted a structure with bands that was extremely fair. It encouraged people to be loyal. There was an understanding that, ‘You’re the ones putting a record out, you know what you want to do.’ She’s extremely tough and opinionated—if she doesn’t think you have a good idea, she’s very honest and blunt. But at the same time, we’ve had such a long relationship with her, that there’s nothing she doesn’t have an open mind to. The fact that she’s a fan of her bands and she has a passion about doing it—she’s in it for all the right reasons.”
Tim Rutili, leader of experimental folk band Califone, which has released a handful of records on Thrill Jockey, agrees. “She’s pretty damn hardworking, pretty honest, and that’s a rare thing. She’s really committed and has a genuine love for music. That’s what keeps the whole thing going—times are changing, and it seems that Thrill Jockey is kind of doing the best they can. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
The times are indeed changing with the substantial growth of digital consumption, but Thrill Jockey has maneuvered through this drastic change with grace. The label’s Web site offers streams of every song from every release on its catalogue, sells music through sites like the all-purpose iTunes and the decidedly indie eMusic and, most ambitiously, oversees fina-music.com, a download site that works directly with multiple labels from around the world, including Canada’s Arts & Crafts and local label Bloodshot Records. Obviously, ignoring the digital blitz would be quite irresponsible, but Richards still admits the medium’s not exactly her cup of tea.
“It’s not how I consume music personally,” she says. “But I also think that it’s the way people like to listen to music and acquire music, so if I want to represent my artists I better try to embrace it.” She also looks on the bright side. “There are positive things about it—people can have more music during the day, you don’t have to carry a bunch of CDs in your backpack. You carry more music with you so you can spend more time with music, and that’s cool. But I’m too old school for that. If I have a record that someone has been like, ‘Check this out,’ and I like it, I’m gonna go buy it. It doesn’t feel like I have it, to me, unless I have it.”
She also says she’s never been overly concerned with file sharing. “I’ve never gotten super-paranoid about it. I think a lot of people are pretty obsessive, and if someone shared something with them and they really love it, and maybe they can’t afford to buy everything they love, they’re going to go to the show, maybe buy a t-shirt, maybe buy two out of three of the band’s records. And the bands and the label do okay from that.”
Richards grew up in Delaware, and she remembers seeing R.E.M. at a young age, as well as the B52’s, with the help of her “excellent fake I.D.” “I don’t think I ever knew I wanted a career in music,” she says. “I was a music fan, a record geek for as long as I can remember. I had my grandmothers 78s, my dad’s 45s. I stole all my [older] sister’s records. And then I really just always had this obsession.”
That obsession has fueled her small empire to grow, now aged at fifteen. The label celebrates with a two-day blowout December 14-15 at Logan Square Auditorium, with performances by Califone, The Sea and Cake, Adult. and many more. What does it mean to Richards that the label has thrived for a decade and a half?
“It’s a very nice compliment from record buyers, that they will stick with us, that we haven’t bored them yet,” she says. “As far as the bands, none of them are obliged to return. I don’t have any contracts with them where they have to make another record, and the fact that some of them come back, and that some of them have chosen to come back for fifteen years, that’s an extreme compliment, because they have choices. They all have choices. And they’ve chosen to return. That means a ton.”
She continues, “I’m most proud that I’m a girl in a boys club. That hasn’t made a bit of difference—it wasn’t hard at all, I never had any problems at all, but one would think you would. There aren’t too many women doing it, and there were even fewer when I started. But the bands keep coming back, and they’re happy. It’s pretty amazing to think that I’m still working for Eleventh Dream Day. It’s a thrill for me.”