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Secretly Canadian
 
 

Secretly Canadian: Mythological Proportions

 

By: Emile Milgrim

2007 is past its midpoint, and thus far has been a significant and exciting year for the Secretly Canadian family. In March, to commemorate the label’s 100th release (although they were actually closer to 200-mark at that point), they issued a 5 year-in-the-making album of earlier-roster Secretly Canadian artists covering each others songs. Meanwhile, sister label Jagjaguwar has continued to grace the ears of listeners with another offering of excellent records including albums by The Besnard Lakes, Julie Doiron, Parts & Labor, and Alex Delivery. And if that weren’t enough, the introduction of a third sister label, Dead Oceans came as a pleasant and well-received surprise in the beginning of the year. Such consistency and expansion are definite indicators that this Bloomington, Indiana-based collective has put in the time, thought and care needed to yield remarkable success on the independent level. However, in the midst of their busy schedules, label partner and co-founder Chris Swanson, and Dead Oceans A&R head and label partner Phil Waldorf recently took time out to speak with Spacelab about the origins, processes and development of their multi-functional family.

“I think our goal initially, maybe intuitively, was to create a catalog that reflected our tastes and seemed as exciting and exhilarating as a lot of our favorite labels,” says Chris Swanson from his Bloomington, IN office and current headquarters of the Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans labels. “We were a bunch of guys who were definitely obsessed with music and record culture and wanted to get more involved than how we’d been in the past…” This “bunch of guys,” consisting of Chris and Ben Swanson, Eric Weddle and Jonathan Cargill, went off intuition, followed through with ingenuity, and over 11 years have staked a claim as a leading purveyors of music that is indeed exciting an exhilarating, facilitated by a fascinating and innovative approach to the business of art.

Whereas many independent labels are run by one or two people, a team of people willing to work toward a common goal provided Secretly Canadian with an immediate edge. “We knew that the bank would be larger with four people. With that in mind, I think we started off very budget-oriented from the get-go.” Beyond actual investments, Swanson says that having multiple partners also enabled compartmentalization so certain aspects such as accounting, promotion and sales could be attended to while an overall focus on artist development was maintained. But despite maintaining intended focus and honing an able workforce, there are certain challenges that most new labels face, particularly in terms of securing distribution. “We would spend a great deal of time getting distributors to order our records,” Swanson says. “Being a small label that only had a few titles, we found it a real challenge to go back to the distributor and get them to respond to us. And so we kind of had this epiphany – if we had more records, they might take us more seriously.” At this point, Secretly Canadian looked at some peer labels (Jagjaguwar, Temporary Residence Limited, Western Vinyl, Megalon), who were no doubt facing similar challenges, and realized they could be of help if they acted as a distribution partner. “They don’t have the manpower to do it, and collectively we’ll have more bargaining power with the people we’re trying to sell to,” Swanson recalls as the thought process. “And then we’ll take a small cut off the top to help subsidize what we’re doing. It helped those labels focus on the hundreds of other things they had to do running a label, it helped us pay some of our overhead, and helped us sell more records because the distributors were more responsive now that there was an actual catalog. And that’s how pretty naturally, S.C. Distribution started off.” Having distribution better settled, the ground was prime for further growth.

As a member of the distribution group, the then Virginia-based Jagjaguwar label, run by Darius Van Arman, worked closely with Secretly Canadian. Van Arman and Swanson were acquainted prior, but their relationship developed further as they worked together. “Darius and I hit it off personally, quickly. There was lots of business to talk about on the phone, but we would spend hours late into the night talking and daydreaming about putting out records, and philosophical things, and waxing poetic about our dreams about running labels. And we started to realize over a couple years that there was a very unique compatibility there.” There came a point where Darius realized running the label would be more feasible with a partner, so upon an offer by Swanson to help out, Jagjaguwar relocated to Bloomington in ’99 to be run side by side with Secretly Canadian.

That same year, the partners began to address another challenge, this time regarding manufacturing prices. According to Swanson, “When you’re not a sophisticated label, one of the most significant expenses is really manufacturing.” They realized that in order to have more royalties to share with bands, manufacturing costs needed to be cut. “And so we were constantly trying to get better prices and we started to see that the same way distribution improved when you had more volume, the same thing [went] with manufacturing; the more volume you have, the more bargaining power you have. So in ‘99 we started thinking that if we not only started to negotiate pricing on behalf of Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar, but also the other labels we distribute, saving them time on the negotiating, giving them the lowest price we’re able to get, then we might be onto something. And from that we started this company called Bellwether Manufacturing, totally separate from the labels and the distribution so that we would have the freedom to not have any sort of aesthetic criteria or sales-based criteria with whom we work.” Bellwether served as another revenue source for the partners and enabled them to heavily focus on artist development, which Swanson says was always their real passion.

This intense focus on artist development has contributed invaluably, leading Secretly Canadian and ultimately Jagjaguwar to work with artists ranging in genre and accessibility, taking time to create the best-suited approaches for each release. “Early on Songs:Ohia was really the first band that really took off for [us], but we try really hard to put as much energy into each band, and to try to find the ‘specialness’ of every project and try to come up with a campaign that’s tailored to each record and try to do it in a unique way so you’re not just pumpin’ out records like some ‘record machine’. But I think at the same time it’s not always just numbers-based. We’re all kind of record nerds and some of our favorite records are not these ‘blockbuster’ records. Some of the most special records are the ones that maybe only found like 900 fans, and it’s just aesthetically and mythologically very important to you. So it’s really important to us that we put out records of all shapes and sizes and that we treat them all in a really important way.”

Surveying the catalogs of both Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar definitely reveals a range of taste and musical styles. The process for determining which bands to sign and who ends up on which label is something Swanson says has also developed over time. “At any moment there are things we believe would make Jagjaguwar feel more interesting or make Secretly Canadian feel more interesting, or things that are really good that might make it feel less interesting. We don’t really try to define it too much, but there’s this kind of strange language that we all speak when talking about things, you know, trying to figure out how we can make a really interesting, creatively fertile roster that seems to make sense but not make too much sense.” “Creatively fertile” is a certainly a dead-on description of the rosters. For example, in addition to label-mainstays such as Magnolia Electric Co. and the Impossible Shapes, Secretly Canadian’s current roster boasts artists such as bar-blues rock outfit Catfish Haven, alongside Swedish pianist/singer-songwriter Frida HyvÖnen, and somehow both make sense there, despite their objective disparity.

Swanson recalls that while he was co-music director at WIUS (now WIUX) with Eric Weddle (who now runs Family Vineyard Records) during their years at Indiana University, they applied a similar approach which eventually contributed to the label’s eclectic leanings. “The really cool thing about working at WIUS was that at any given moment there’s 50 obvious records that people want to hear and want to play and that the whole world is playing at that moment. But it’s always fun to try and force some weird records. Like Eric and I would always push early Atavistic records on the DJs and like, push people to play Jandek and weird stuff. And in a small way, in our small community, [it was] trying to canonize an artist amongst a small community or break a band in that small community. And that really lent over into Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar, like ‘we want to work with bands that are working really hard and building a name for themselves and creating a career... but then you like to throw that monkey wrench in and put out weird records too. Early on we were so excited. We put out June Panic and Songs:Ohia and Ativin - they were a local rock band, and Panoply Academy, and we thought we were so decadent when we decided we were going to put out the Japonize Elephants, this acid bluegrass band. I still love those records, and they were a great live band, but we just thought it was the most punk rock thing in the world to put out this weird, acid bluegrass band. That kind of thing is totally fun – to do weird stuff like that.” Accompanying their penchant for finding the “weird stuff,” the labels also have a knack for putting out albums that have reached wider audiences and received considerable acclaim, such as efforts by Antony & The Johnsons, Danielson, Okkervil River, and Black Mountain.

February 2007 saw the newest addition to the Secretly Canadian family in the form of a third sister label, Dead Oceans. Phil Waldorf, former label manager for SC-distributed Misra Records was named as head of A&R and says that developing Dead Oceans was essentially a natural progression. “I don't think there was a singular day when the idea for Dead Oceans came about. It was pretty organic. I had worked with SC Distribution through Misra for years, and over that time I became really tight with the partners in Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar. Aside from becoming great friends, we also shared a lot of ideas about what kinds of records we wanted to put out and how we would go about putting out these records. This connection led to the desire to work more closely together, and Dead Oceans was the inevitable conclusion.” Upon the official launch announcement, it was stated that “Dead Oceans will focus on bold and timeless recordings, not emphasizing a particular genre or scene, but instead fostering a diverse stable of sound-creators," resonating with the focus of both Secretly Canadian & Jagjaguwar.

Analogous to the other labels, Waldorf takes certain things into consideration regarding potential bands to work with. “When looking for additions to the Dead Oceans roster, there's a few things that come into play. First and foremost, it's about the music. Is it something we believe in? Does it feel timeless? Is it something we would be immensely proud to be part of? Assuming the answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then we start to look at the other side of things. It's essential that the artists are the type of people we want to partner with. We're not looking for a dynamic where we are working for artists or artists are working for Dead Oceans - we're trying to create a partnership where we are collectively working to help an artist attain whatever their vision may be. So, work ethic and creative vision are definitely central characteristics to the artists we work with -- we want them to invest as much as we do. Also, along the same lines as the sister labels, knowing with which bands to work is not a readily quantifiable process. According to Waldorf, “There's no easy definition for what kind of music will work on Dead Oceans. Above all, we are all music fans, and being someone who has collected music of all kinds for almost 20 years, there's no simple way to describe what I love, except to say that I know it when I hear it.” Dead Oceans’ current roster includes The Dirty Projectors, Bishop Allen, Iran, Evangelicals, The Explorers Club, Citay and Phosphorescent, which is a strong and diverse lineup to launch with. Waldorf says he’s excited about the beginning stages of the label, but is equally excited looking toward the future. “I feel like Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar both have released incredible records over the years, and their work ethic and determination is inspiring. It is exciting be part of their family and I hope the Dead Oceans logo becomes an equally reliable stamp of quality.”

As with many ventures, Secretly Canadian began humbly, yet practiced and retained tenacity to reach its current state. If art and business must be intertwined, knowing it is done with the utmost consideration and appreciation of the former renders potentially tumultuous working relationships into those forged on the mutual benefits of creativity and sustainability. And, as Swanson conveys, the participation of all involved is not taken lightly. “It’s amazing. Probably a couple times a week I’ll get off an awesome phone call with either a label we work closely with that’s doing really amazing, inspiring things or an artist we work with that’s doing really amazing, inspiring things and you’re just like ‘Wow, what a cool job, this is so rad!’ When you’re a kid and buying records and there are these mythological proportions you see everything in, this like the same thing. It’s great. You’re part of releasing art that you think is really important and is going to endure in some way. Putting out records, either ones that don’t necessarily find a fan base now, but some day will - like 20 years from now, some crate diggers are gonna find this thing and think it’s the most magical thing ever. Or bands that are just gonna build a career and be 4 times as popular in 20 years because of all the hard work and music they’re making. And they do get their props and that’s a totally fun process to be a part of. And we work super hard and it’s worth all the work.”

 

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   Secretly Canadian videos  
     
     
   
     
  Magnolia Electric Co. -
A Little At A Time
 
     
     
   
     
  Frida Hyvonen -
I Drive My Friend
 
     
     
   
     
  I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness -
The Owl
 
     
     
   
     
  Catfish Haven -
Tell Me
 
     
     
   
     
  Parts and Labor -
Stay Afraid live at Rubber Gloves
 
     
     
   
     
  The Impossible Shapes -
Florida Silver Springs live
 
     
     
   
     
  Danielson -
Did I Step On Your Trumpet
 
     
     
   
     
  Okkervil River -
For Real
 
     
     
     
     
     
  Check out the bands:  
     
  SC100 Compilation  
  The Besnard Lakes  
  Julie Doiron  
  Parts & Labor  
  Alex Delivery  
  Magnolia Electric Co.  
  The Impossible Shapes  
  Catfish Haven  
  Frida HyvÖnen  
  June Panic  
  Songs:Ohia  
  Ativin  
  Japonize Elephants  
  Antony & The Johnsons  
  Danielson  
  Okkervil River  
  Black Mountain  
  The Dirty Projectors  
  Bishop Allen  
  Iran  
  Evangelicals  
  The Explorers Club