Back when searching for music was more laborious than a few clicks of the mouse, most of us depended on labels to encapsulate a movement, a city, a sensibility, a sound. Whether it was Stax, Hi, Dischord, Rough Trade, Cherry Red, or Trojan, we put our trust in music labels and made our purchases accordingly. Now that music seems to be floating on a universal plane out in the ether, and every release has the potential to be on equal footing (regardless of origin), it is easy to overlook record labels. Maybe because mainstream media keeps proclaiming their soon-to-be obsolescence.
In the days of mail order and no preview of the music, I made purchases based on a label's reputation and the descriptive quality of the catalog listing. It's been a long while since I have sought out records not based on genre or artist, but based on the label that releases them. However, in the last year, I have turned my attention to an independent label in Indiana called Jagjaguwar. As far as I can tell, they are adept and inspired curators, and I find myself looking to them for exceptional music.
Jagjaguwar was founded in 1996 by Darius Van Arman in Charlottesville, Virginia. The label moved to Bloomington, Indiana in 1999, when Chris Swanson (a founder of Secretly Canadian) joined the partnership. Recently, two other Secretly Canadian partners (Jonathan Cargill and Ben Swanson) joined Jagjaguwar. However, it is Darius and Chris who continue to make the creative decisions.
Darius kindly answered these questions via email:
CB: The first time I heard of your label it was when I purchased a Black Mountain CD. How did you first hear about that band?
DVA: From demos. Steve McBean had sent demos of his songs to us, based on a recommendation from his friend Dan Bejar (aka Destroyer). Some of the recordings were Steve's solo work, and some were Jerk With A Bomb recordings. My partner Chris really took to the demos initially, and I think Chris and I were listening to some of the Jerk With A Bomb recordings - a CBC-recorded live performance - during a road-trip when it clicked for both of us.
CB: What is it about Canada, or western Canada, in particular that is fostering a wealth of creativity and good music these days?
DVA: I'm not sure, and I would hate to generalize. I don't believe there is disproportionately more musical wealth in Canada than, say, in the U.S., or vice-versa. But there does seem to be a different outlook on what being in a band is all about in Canada, and I can't quite put my finger on it.
I guess if there is an overall environment in Canada that is more conducive to creativity or good music, it is probably due to how the Canadian government is relatively more supportive of the musical arts, how strong Canadian Public Radio is, and how relatively close knit the various musical communities within Canada are.
Interestingly, here is what CBC - the Canadian equivalent to NPR I am told - did for Jerk with A Bomb, the predecessor to Black Mountain:
(1) CBC decided to record a live performance by a relatively unknown band called Jerk With A Bomb
(2) CBC recorded this band well (which is no small feat, as you would probably know as a musician who has been recorded in a live setting)
(3) CBC paid band members handsomely for the honor to do so
(4) CBC broadcast the performance throughout Canada
Then, Chris and I end up listening to this CBC recording during a road trip and get psyched about working with what would become Black Mountain. Perhaps it was public radio that brought Jagjaguwar and Black Mountain together.
CB: Though you have managed to gather a diverse roster of artists, can you pinpoint a common thread or essence to the bands on your label?
DVA: I wish I could. Maybe the music on Jagjaguwar is generally more personal than social. There's a sentimentality there. And a mystic yet grounded quality. Like a well-worn bench in a park, or maybe that one magical tree that is intimidating in its beauty but has a low-lying limb that anyone can climb on. Okay, getting pretentious here, maybe because I'm grasping at straws. Chris sometimes muses that Jagjaguwar is generally "darker" than our sister label Secretly Canadian, but there are some huge counter-examples to this notion on both the Jag and SC rosters. It is basically songs that Chris and I are moved by.
I have a good friend in Charlottesville named Tyler who, in the very early days of the label, used to mockingly describe the music on Jagjaguwar as "the wheezy sounds of male white depression." Ugh. Our artists are not all white males who are depressed. :)
CB: Have you ever signed a band based on a demo or a MySpace page?
DVA: [Aside from] Black Mountain, Okkervil River, Bon Iver, the Besnard Lakes, to name a few. Although, not ever based SOLELY on a demo... usually a demo moved us to see a band live, or get more recordings, or have lengthy conversations, etc., before Chris and I would be into starting a new relationship with an artist.
CB: Is there a label, model of business, or version of success that you emulate or to which you aspire?
DVA: When I was younger and in college, I was really enamored with labels like Drag City, Touch & Go, Siltbreeze, Too Pure, Creation, to name a few. I was also really into the aesthetics of Shrimper, The Communion Label and Independent Project Records. And, before then, growing up in the D.C. area, Dischord, Teenbeat and Simple Machines were great prototypes, that sort of put that notion in my head that starting a label was possible.
Both Chris and I also adopted the profit sharing structure that Touch & Go and Dischord had with their artists (at least what we thought it was; there's no manual out there), and sort of embraced how we thought they did business: timely accounting, transparency, doing what you say you'll do and being what you say you are (i.e. integrity), deferring to artists with regards to how their music is used, treating others with respect, etc.
These are the sort of values we aspire to, and, for us, if Jagjaguwar can be around for a few more decades, and if we can continue to make things easier for the artists we work with (if we are doing that now), I think that's the version of success worth hoping for.
CB: Your label is based in Bloomington. Historically, a lot of great labels are based in towns or smaller cities, or at least outside of this country's media centers. What is it about Bloomington that allows you run your label? Could Jagjaguwar exist in NYC or LA, or how would it be different if it did?
DVA: Hard to say, not ever operating out of a bigger city and knowing firsthand the distractions there. But, I think it is safe to say that, for most labels, the early years are financially very tough. And living in a small town makes things way more sustainable (i.e. rent, cost of living, etc.), and, in that way, can be an effective incubator for a music label. And maybe there's less pressure to be successful right away, to force sales to happen, to make aesthetic and ethical compromises that may take you down the wrong road. And maybe if you are in a small town, it is harder to get caught up with group-think or A&R feeding frenzies, that make you like all the other labels.
CB: What is your least favorite trend in the music industry these days? What trend is the most promising?
DVA: Chris and I love albums. We love songs, but really really love songs as part of an album. (And even more so, as part of an artist's "body of work".) This trend away from albums and toward singles is disheartening. And even the way albums are sold, with more pressure to add on bonus tracks here and there. For instance, you can sell more records on, say, iTunes if you add a bonus track to an album, and we've done it sometimes when it has felt right, but there is part of us that's like, wait, what about the album? Would Capitol add an exclusive bonus track for Amazon or iTunes or Emusic to Dark Side Of The Moon, if it came out now, in order to get some special placement or push?
A good or promising trend? Maybe how things are getting more meritocratic. Anyone's record can be distributed throughout the world, because of the relatively low cost of digital distribution, and there is an increasing chance that bona fide word of mouth will have some real impact, aided by things like blogs and bulletin boards. A single champion of a record can go a long way, and it will become easier for artists and smaller labels to get significant attention for their records, if their records are truly outstanding, regardless of the size of their marketing budget. That's the idea, anyways. In reality, there are still some gatekeepers. But these gatekeepers don't seem to be as entrenched, and are more quickly changing... this is a good thing.
CB: There is a consistently gritty, organic quality to the bands and artwork on your label. Is there a style of music you can't stand or a deal breaker when it comes to bands or songs?
DVA: Uff da. It is hard to sell Chris and me on instrumental music, but not impossible. Words with music means so much to us. And artists we work with have to be serious about their music. I mean, they could make goofy music, but they would need to be serious about making goofy music.
Stylistically, I think both Chris and I are open to almost any musical form or genre. And I think there's some basic human things we're attracted to, like bands or artists who are generally respectful to people around them, and who embody endearingly conflicting traits, like those who project humility while secretly having utter confidence and faith in their own work. I guess if a total asshole wanted to work with us, it wouldn't be impossible, but he/she/they would have to be really really talented... and we couldn't live in the same town.
CB: The label name comes from a D&D name generator. What were some other options that it gave you or that you considered?
DVA: No comment. :)
CB: There is a lot of fear, real or hyped, about the death of the music industry as we know it. It reminds me of when electronic music became popular and the media declared guitar rock over. For me, music is about storytelling and people will always want and need to hear stories. Has new technology or anxiety surrounding rapid changes in the industry affected your approach or philosophy to running the label? Or are there better things to worry about?
DVA: I love this question. Yes, music is about storytelling. Even at my most futurist, I can't imagine a world without the need for stories, or stories embodied in song. You take away the need for stories, you take away humanity. So unless robots take over the world, the music industry will never die, although it might change drastically in form.
Chris and I think about this, but don't worry too much about it. We think our existing philosophy of just trying to be of value to the artists we work with is very compatible with whatever may come down the road. Who knows, Jagjaguwar may become touring van mechanic specialists, or entertainment tax specialists. (We'd really prefer the former; there seems to be an art to keeping a van with 400,000 to 500,000 miles on it still humming...)
CB: What perks are there to working in your office? Ping Pong? Liquid lunches? Guitar Hero?
DVA: Some boring, typical things: every month we have PIZZA DAY. And, also once a month, we go out as an office to celebrate everyone's birthday that month. A more exciting thing: the SC Distribution label conference once a year. Everyone gets to go on a pontoon boat on Lake Monroe here and mingle with some of the staff of the other labels, like us, who are distributed by SC Distribution (i.e. Temporary Residence, K Records, Asthmatic Kitty, Mush Records, Tomlab, Social Registry, Table of the Elements, just to name a few).
CB: What is the business attire for Bloomington label execs?
DVA: Label and band t-shirts. Jeans. Some of us are really stylish, and some of us are just schlubby. Some time ago, there was a bad stretch where I was sleeping in the office occasionally, and I'd just raid the label t-shirt bin, so I wasn't completely smelly the next day.
Pictured above are Chris Swanson (left) and Darius Van Arman (right).
Photo by Lucy Robinson.