Bettina Richards founded the Thrill Jockey label in 1992 and has successfully led it through to their 20th anniversary celebrations taking place later this year in London, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The transatlantic parties are well justified given how well Thrill Jockey has managed to export acts from its American homeland as well as snap up talented artists from around the globe. With a recent release schedule that includes names like Alexander Tucker, The Sea & Cake, Liturgy, Wooden Shijps, Barn Owl and Man Forever, Thrill Jockey are still one of the most wide-ranging indie labels out there, constantly surprising their fans in the best way possible, proving that there really is only two kinds of music, good and bad. Richards remains at the centre of things day-to-day, proving just how much passion and guts it takes to steer a ship like this in the dangerously choppy waters of the modern music industry.
What’s a typical day like in your life these days?
Get up at 6, get my 4 year old twins up and dressed and off to school. Go for a run or swim. Walk the dogs. Go to the office, work till 6:30. Walk the dogs, go home- have dinner with the kids and get them to bed. Read a really great book with them. Current favorites include 13 Words, anything Moomin, Uncle Wiggly, Awesome Man. Do some more work, perhaps go to a show, if not read I’ll read a book, currently reading Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
You must have been one of the first notable labels to offer full streaming of every new release? What led you to that decision in the first place and do you think it has paid off in the years since?
We believe in the musicians we advocate for and we believe that the music is unique and delicious. We did it because we think that if people have access to hearing it they will want to own it. I think that works in the majority of the cases. We think it helps our artists in many ways- so we keep doing it. While there are probably people that just listen and do not buy- even if they enjoy it – they might go to a show and/or even buy some merch at the show. There are of course people that are not interested in the economics of a typical artist, who are only interested in their own very small world- and getting what they can for themselves. If they want to just listen to our site and not buy, – and/or download illegally – I am not going to be able to change their mind. There was a great band from Columbus, Ohio, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apts, they probably said it best: “You Can’t Kill Stupid”. The large majority of fans of what we do are music super fans and we think they get it.
We thank them for being informed and thoughtful listeners.
You’ve probably been asked this a million times but do you think your time at Atlantic has had much of an effect on the way you run Thrill Jockey?
It was so long ago that it could have little bearing on how we currently do things. I learned a lot of things there and most of it really served to strengthen my personal politics and they way I view that one should work with artists (i.e. as equal partners, not as product). People that worked there were very professional and music fans indeed so I am sure there were positive things that I learned there as well – especially from the Press agents, etc, from whom I really learned how to promote releases. When I started the label I did it all myself so it would be inaccurate to say that experience was not helpful. It gave me some solid knowledge and some solid resolve towards my views of the appropriate structure of a record label: 50% profit share, limited agreements, clear and respectful partnerships that come from open and direct dialog.
How do you stay on top of things, musically? Where do you go looking for new music, or does it just find you?
I am a hopeless record addict. Today I got in three mail orders, I know I have about 6 more coming. I still go to record stores as well. I find music either just via this excessive consumption, or when I see a band live, or very often it comes to me via the network of musicians on the label. Our artists are our best ambassadors it seems – and often encourage bands they like to reach out to us – or they might just say, ‘Bettina, you should check out………’. All pretty organic.
How important is Chicago to what you do now? Do you still find it an exciting city to be in and to be a part of? (Sub-question: have you seen ‘You Weren’t There?’, the documentary about early Chicago hardcore? It’s one of my favourite music docs.)
Chicago is a great city. The relatively affordable nature of Chicago is essential to what we do.
It is a diverse musical city and while we do not work with that many new artists from Chicago that does not mean the city is not still important to us. I can not separate the city from Fred Anderson and he was not only a great musician, a dear friend, he was a big inspiration. Still is.
How did you feel when you opened your London office? Transatlantic offices are very rare in the indie label world these days! What kind of opportunities do you think having that office offers you?
The UK, Ireland and Europe are very important to Thrill Jockey. Not only are the critics supportive but many of our Artists it is the strongest region for them sales wise. While it is a considerable investment- it allows for us to serve those records needs to the best of our ability. It would not be impossible from the US, but it would not be as effective at this point.
How important is the network of smaller labels you provide distribution for? Is that something you still try grow? What do the smaller labels get out of it and what do you get out of it?
It is important, for both Thrill Jockey and the labels. We provide them with very affordable access to retail accounts both in the US and in Europe in the US they help us with our direct store accounts. They allow us to offer the indie retailer more for an order, this helps them offset the cost of shipping. The more they can order the better for the store, the more often they order, the better for Thrill Jockey bands and for the distributed labels.
I am a super fan of the labels we distribute so it is not only good for work it makes me exceedingly happy (just like supporting a musician we love) to support what we like.
Beyond, “do it for love”, what advice would you have for someone looking to start a label now?
I would recommend that they have a clear idea of why they want to do this and what they want their record label to mean for them personally and for them financially. It is VERY difficult to make any money at this – getting harder all the time – and it is even more so when you are just starting out. That said if you are clear on why you are doing it then you will have clear goals and you will be rewarded many times over having achieved the goals, be they personal or creative. I would also advise to budget very, very conservatively and work hard to do better than what you budget for.
Do you have any idea where you want to be for the Thrill Jockey 40th anniversary?
Ha, yeah, sure! I want to be as happy doing what I am doing as I am sitting here writing to you today. Golden Void just turned in some special bonus tracks and they SLAY!!! We got a great new video by Matmos the other day. I am in discussions with a band that I hope to work with next year that I am really excited about. Matt Friedberger just came by the offices and was really stoked about the Baseball Cards we made for his record (they are really murder cards!). He is about to go on tour with the Sea and Cake. We are a couple weeks away from a pair of killer 20th anniversary show in London and Portand. We are finishing the mix on an Arbouretum live video from the 20th anniversary show in Baltimore, that I am sure will get those going to our London show pretty excited. Sidi Toure is about to tour Europe for the first time (support this amazing man from Mali!).
In short there is a lot happening and while some of this many not seem like big events on the face of it, imagine For Sidi, he has won two national arts awards in Mali, he had never toured out side Mali when we started to work for him and now he has two large tours of the United States under his belt- and is about to finally tour Europe. This is a big accomplishment and we think long long overdue for him. Through his touring he has not only brought his music to many new people, he has also partnered with Oxfam to help raise awareness of what is happening to the people of Northern Mali. I could not be happier to support him in all our artists in their efforts.
Tomorrow we’ll be running you through our favourite Thrill Jockey releases to date with a feature on The Essential… Thrill Jockey.