Thrill Jockey’s Bettina Richards Salutes the Mighty Intern

October 4, 2012
By Travis Bird

Twenty years into its run, it would be hard to find any Foxy D. reader who hasn’t encountered several life-changing albums through Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label. From its origins releasing Chicago bands like Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, and Freakwater to its current guise as an ur-indie label releasing – in 2011 alone – records by Liturgy, Wooden Shjips, Barn Owl, and Future Islands, Thrill Jockey has grown to be an almost freakishly productive part of the independent music scene, branching into distribution, the U.K., and other avenues while continuing to release loads of quality, challenging music.

Last week, I posed some questions to label originator Bettina Richards, currently busy with the Thrill Jockey 20th Anniversary concert tour. She expounded on why she releases what she does, her optimism, and the role of bands and labels nowadays.

Thrill Jockey has maintained a torrid release schedule in recent years, and it’s harder than usual to pinpoint what makes “a Thrill Jockey album.” At this point in the label’s existence, how do you decide what gets released? With such a diverse roster, do you look for any themes that tie together the projects you release?

The process of deciding what records to release is no different today then it is was on day one. I am most often compelled to release a record. I am so enamored and so struck by the music and I believe in the musician, so it just seems the only thing I could do is advocate for them. As any active music listener’s would do, my tastes have evolved and changed and that is reflected in the releases. I don’t look for themes, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Each band is a distinct group of individuals – what we do for them is tailored for them specifically and doesn’t affect the way we think about another band.

As a former Chicago resident, I recall seeing you regularly at local shows as an enthusiastic audience member. Especially now, is a band’s ability or desire to play live something that factors into your working with them?

I love going to shows so your observations are correct. I still love going to shows – although since having twins it has been more difficult to go to as many as I would like to. I still like to get up close where it’s nice and loud and where the energy is better. I like to support the bands if I can by getting something at the merch table to help put gas in the tank.

There is no mandate about touring to support the release of a record. The important thing is to make sure that both you and the artists are clear on what is going to happen around the record. Information is the key – and as long as you know what will or will not happen, you can adapt. I will be honest with them and say that touring is going to be one of the key ways to not only expose your music but earn money. It would be next to impossible to make a living purely from your record royalties.

How do you feel that being based in Chicago has shaped the trajectory of your label?

When I first moved to Chicago, I got to work with Touch and Go for distribution. That was a really great help, as we were in our second year as a label and Touch and Go had much more experience and more extensive distribution. They were a great partner.  We parted ways with them as soon as we were able though, because that has always been my approach to do it yourself if at all possible. The other big factor of being in Chicago was working with Fred Anderson. He is missed greatly and serves as an example of commitment and energy put into advocacy for a musical form that I try hard to emulate.

You are by all accounts the driving force behind Thrill Jockey. What do you think is the role or value of collaboration – with bands, distros, and the like – in running a business like this? Do you think this role has changed over the past 20 years?

While I love what I do and have to actually work at not working so much, I would be a fool to think that I could do it all alone. I am really fortunate to work with a great group of people, both in Chicago and at our London office.  Some of them show serious signs of being a lifer like myself. Ha! We are all thankful for the army of interns who help us each day. Let’s all give a toast to the mighty intern.

The role of distributors really depends on the distributor and how they function. As the retailer landscape has drastically changed the role of bigger general national distributors has changed greatly and I would say the biggest changes for them (and how we deal with them) are in front of us.

In addition to being a label, Thrill Jockey also functions as a distributor of dozens of smaller ones. Is distribution something you intended to get into? What led you to pursue this path?

We sell direct to a large number of independent retailers, and by offering distribution to labels that we admire, we not only help to get them into key stores, but we help our own records get there because the greater the volume of the order, the less per unit the shipping burden is on the store. It works for everyone.

Thrill Jockey was affected by the August 2011 UK warehouse fire that wiped out stock for several independent labels. How have you dealt with major unforeseen events, good or bad, in the label’s history?

Since you brought up the London riots, I’ll respond with a quote from Winston Churchill: “When you are going through hell, keep going.”

This problem was a pretty bad one because the fire destroyed thousands of Wooden Shjips records that were shipping all over England the next day – we had to really scramble to get the stock back to the UK to take advantage of all the press that was running and their impending tour, and when that was sorted, we had to jump through too many hoops to recount to get the insurance payments.

This, however, was not as bad as when our CD plant in Canada was bought out – and closed with absolutely no notice. They lost about 35 or 40 masters and thousands and thousands of pieces of print. We were never compensated for this. We are good at adapting – and we are very conservative with our funds so that has allowed us to adapt to these kinds of things thus far. But that doesn’t mean that someone could not deal us a fatal blow. It could happen, but we’ll fight to the death, that’s for sure.

Perhaps I’m just an optimist. I always believe there’s a way out of a big mess and each spring I always believe that this will be the year that my Pittsburgh Pirates will go to the World Series! (I say this in the midst of a total collapse. C’mon fellas! )

Obviously the Internet has transformed how labels and bands proceed. In what other ways do you think the industry has changed since you began?

Hmm, you’re asking me in what other ways things have changed besides the total collapse of traditional ways of selling music and of music sales in general – besides the fact that music criticism is nearly dead (and sadly for those writers that we love to read, devalued) and it is all about placement of tracks and videos.

Well then, I guess not much, except cassettes are back!

Is the job of a label or band the same as it always has been?

I try to concern myself with only those things to that I can effectively control and or personally care about. The music business at large is for sure something that I do not care about. A large portion of the records that so-called big labels release, I have absolutely no interest in. While I would surmise that their basic premise is no different then ours, their method of execution is of little consequence to us because what they are selling I see as having little to do with what we are selling. What it takes to sell say, as an example, Vampire Weekend (aside from an ability to swallow your pride), has nothing to do with selling the music of Barn Owl, Glenn Jones, Guardian Alien, or Sidi Touré.

I pay attention to what is happening at our global distributors – and what those trends are – and try to stay ahead of them as best we can. In Europe, for example, for the first time in a long time, because of the economic climate on top of the decline in music consumption, we’ve been consolidating our distribution – putting more market share in the hands of fewer distributors – to try to again give them more incentive ($) to sell our records.

As far as Thrill Jockey, our job is basically the same. We must try to advocate for our artists and try to get them in exposed to as many people as possible so that they can not only sell records, but can hopefully have access to opportunities in performance or otherwise that they might not have had before. They way we execute the job is a process of continual evolution (devolution?) that we are always reevaluating. One of the benefits of being a smaller company is that we are able to adapt fast to changes. That ability to adapt is a key to our longevity.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the label’s past, present, or future at the 20-year mark?

We really appreciate the music fans that share our joy in listening to music made with abandon and we hope that they continue with us on this adventure – for a long while to come.

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