BY PETER LILLIS
Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records is known for their eclectic catalogue that feature such FP favorites as Tortoise, Wooden Shjips, The Sea and Cake, Pontiak and Dustin Wong, among others. The independent label–founded by Bettina Richards in 1992–continues to be a major force in the Chicago music scene and beyond. Over the last two decades, the label produced some of the most influential and exciting left-of-center artists in recent memory. Richards and crew celebrated their platinum anniversary with shows in 9 cities, including a free party at The Empty Bottle in Chicago.
The ultimate measure of success in the independent music industry is longevity. Not one entrepreneur in this pocket of the entertainment world has gone in with visions riches and health insurance. It’s about being an integral part in the production and sharing of some fantastic music. You just hope that you can be a part of it for as long as you can.
Below are a few lessons we learned from Thrill Jockey Records and Bettina Richards over the last two decades.
No one would ever consider Thrill Jockey a “safe” label. Sure, it may not be the strangest of most eclectic label of all, but considering their longevity, their reputation as musical risk takers is certainly upheld. Richards’ risk taking began early, signing the equally diverse and prescient Tortoise, The Sea and Cake and Freakwater all within the same year. It’s hard to imagine the foresight that went into signing a band like Tortoise 1994, who have grown to be perhaps Chicago’s most influential act since, save Kanye West. Signing a band of music nerds void of any star power takes serious guts, and the 20th Anniversary Show continued to prove the strength of the decision.
Also, it should go without saying, but forming a label from your apartment is a brash move. Richards deserves to be on L Magazine‘s “Women Who Rock!” list.
Control Your Overhead:
It’s no secret that Chicago is significantly cheaper, and logistically easier than New York. Despite its unimpeachable status on the “Cool City Scale,” New York City is a pretty tough place to open, grow and sustain a business, due to exorbitant rents, a lack of space and a state of perpetual congestion. Chicago—while a few notches below on the same scale—features more space, lower rents and two centuries of being the shipping center for the continental United States.
In a 2007 interview with Chicago Reader, Richards discusses why she moved the label from the Lower East Side to Chicago in 1992: “I mean, just logistically getting records shipped UPS out of my fifth-floor walk-up was like a huge hassle.”
Today, Thrill Jockey is located in Pilsen, an ethnic neighborhood southwest of the Loop (a.k.a. the “Lower West Side”). Recognized as the leading “up-and-coming” neighborhood in the city, Pilsen is a great location for the label because it’s cheap, cool and close to everything. New York only has one of those. Richards’ ability to see the benefits of Chicago at an early point in the label’s growth certainly contributed to its longevity.
Embed Yourself In the Right Scene:
Thrill Jockey’s move to Chicago not only helped Richards’ control her costs, but it enabled her to get in with the local scene, which happened to be at its height in the early 90s. Seminal labels and independent tastemakers Touch & Go and Drag City were the kings of the off-kilter boom of the late 80s and early 90s, on a similar level as the all-powerful Sup Pop. By making nice with Corey Rusk and Dan Koretzky—respective founders of the previously mentioned labels—Richards assimilated into the Chicago scene early on. Moving into the later part of the decade into the new millennium, Chicago endured at the forefront of the independent scene with the advent of Pitchfork Media. It also helped that Thrill Jockey’s two flagship artists at the time were Chicagoans: Tortoise and The Sea and Cake.
Outlasting the outstanding and cemented Touch & Go, the longevity of Thrill Jockey is certainly more than just another case of “Right Place-Right Time.”
Give the People What They Want:
Back in 2005, Thrill Jockey began offering free full-album streams to visitors, years before the popularity of services like Spotify. While today’s streaming ubiquity make a move like this seem commonplace, it was downright radical for the time. By treating the physical product as the end, Richards seemingly leveled with consumers, making the process of purchasing music more democratic, and less mysterious.
“I believe if people can listen to the albums, they tend to buy them,” Richards stated in a 2006 interview with the Chicago Reader.
If longevity is proof of success, her gamble has paid off: seven years later Thrill Jockey still offers full-album streams. Lastly, Thrill Jockey are in the middle of the costly process of reissuing the label’s most revered releases, including Tortoise’s Millions Now Living… and The Sea and Cake’s Nassau.
Toot Your Horn:
Living inside the bubble of the hyper-informed music journalists, it’s easy to forget that Tortoise isn’t a household name. Because their aforementioned risk-taking approach to signing, Thrill Jockey hasn’t released a mainstream breakout album or represented a widely known band (think Arcade Fire and Merge). It’s fair to assume there is a sizable chunk of today’s music listening and purchasing youth that doesn’t know Thrill Jockey or their bands. By planning, promoting and executing their series of 20th Anniversary shows in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Portland, London and Chicago, Thrill Jockey opened themselves to an entire new group of blog readers. Not only are these interested readers introduced to a significantly successful enterprise, but they also have easy access to Thrill Jockey’s 300+ catalogue.
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He hopes you talk about us like this some day.