It hasn't taken long for Bladen County Records to become a regional touchstone. The label's commitment to its indie-folk roster has been turning heads for the majority of its yearlong existence as it releases LPs from such outstanding local artists as the Builders and the Butchers and Oh Captain, My Captain.
Now heading into its second year of operation, Bladen County has plans for adding even more artists to its fold and expanding its roster along with its local presence. In addition to a slew of post-holiday releases, the label has a showcase tonight at the Holocene, featuring Oh Captain My Captain, Autopilot is For Lovers and an impressive slew of the label's more recent acquisitions.
I was able to talk earlier this week with label owners/default spokesmen Matt Brown and Joe Bowden about their plans for the next year, running a record label in a shaky economy and what it feels like to have “the man” know you're putting out indie rock.
I think we last talked about nine months ago. What has been the biggest development with the label since then?
Matt Brown: I feel like a lot of our goals last year were specific to a record label and getting up and running as a business.
Joe Bowden: Yeah, it was more getting the machine up and running. Calibrating it and stuff like that.
MB: Busting our ass last year to get out all our releases. We had almost ten in our first year and that was pretty scary so this year we've been wanting to make sure that we can do all of the things as a record label that we need to do.
JB: And do each one effectively.
MB: We didn't have a distributor until this year and now we have three. Nail does physical, Iota does digital and we actually do a lot of our sales through CD Baby.
So it looks like you'll probably be putting out fewer records next year?
JB: Probably fewer, it's hard to say.
MB: Next year we're coming out of the gates with three releases, right away. This year we wanted to get everything in place and little things like dealing with accounts. Kind of the last thing you want to think about really, the really un-fun shit. Like actually looking at a tax ID number and being like, ‘Oh my god, I'm actually held accountable for something now.' The ‘man' knows I'm putting out indie rock, now he can come fuck me.
What's been the most surprising thing you've had to deal with in the past year in terms of setting up the label?
MB: Everything [laughs].
JB: I feel like we've all been kind of open-minded about not really having a specific idea of what we were gonna do. I feel like that was a definite point we had, that we wanted the label to be very movable. You know, making money in this industry can be so difficult so we want to be able to adapt. So, we weren't sure what we were gonna do, we ended up making lots of mistakes and throwing a lot of money away on it. But not making money was never surprising.
Are you guys close to breaking even at this point or is there a five-year plan for that or some such?
MB: Well, we put a lot of money into the label so that's really the focus. I doubt we're anywhere close to breaking even, we can't be anywhere close to breaking even. Joe [Bowden] is setting up accounting right now and it's one of those things where whenever we do get a look at what the actual picture looks like it will probably change our opinion of how this business runs. We haven't really gotten a saline, real take on it where you put it into a spreadsheet and it spits out these numbers and you sit back with your cigar and go, ‘Fuck. I should've got a cheaper cigar.' But yeah, that hasn't been surprising. It would be nice to not have to blood sweat and tears this thing at some point in the future but that's the way we roll right now and it's fine. The only surprising stuff really comes in people and people can be surprising sometimes but we haven't had anything awful happen.
We did start using contracts this year. Love Language is our first band that we signed a contract with. That was another one of our big things this year. You know, it really defines you, the kind of legal representation you use. I've seen deals from other labels and I always tell bands, ‘Read into the deal and it'll tell you the kind of people you're dealing with.' We struggled with that, we got contracts from several labels, we bought a contract online.
JB: We basically just backed up and looked at everything to see where the really sharky parts of the business were.
So you aren't working with a lawyer or anything of that sort?
MB: No, that shit's ridiculous. We've got a friend who works at a record label and he's a lawyer and I bought him dinner before to read a contract with me. So we'll sit around at dinner and he'll read a contract with me and say ‘Don't do that' and show us the language to avoid. And Joe and I can efficiently read a contract now and see what language to avoid. Being a little label, our distributors don't call us and say ‘Bladen County you're the shit, send us some more records.' We still have to beg for business and be easy to do business with.
JB: We have to be very careful with all our contracts and stuff.
In the past nine months since I talked to you the economy kind of heaved and fell over sideways. How are you guys adjusting to that? How do you see music in general adjusting to that change?
MB: It doesn't really affect us. Honestly, we are lower middle-class people.
JB: For the record label it doesn't really affect us. I bet in general though there's somewhat of an effect.
MB: I bet in general too. But we all work in bars, we don't own houses.
JB: People are still getting drunk so the label's all right.
MB: So as far as our life experience, we exist in a class that, it sort of doesn't really affect us. The bars are all right so our livelihood is fine. As a records label, I don't know. We aren't selling any less records than we normally do.
JB: I'd say if anything as the economy gets worse our records are probably going to be easier and easier to get. More and more available and more easily available. We're doing our first experiment with that with this winter comp we just released [“A Movable Feast” available for download at bladencountyrecords.com] so we'll see how many people actually go and download it.
So it seems like being on a tighter budget has forced you come up with more unconventional marketing methods.
MB: You know, what works with us works with anybody and that's if a band gets out on the road and plays shows then they can sell records.
JB: Although we do pretty good as far as stuff as well, I think.
MB: The right digital representation does represent the potential of explosive growth ala Blind Pilot, have you heard of them?
MB: They got featured as the iTunes download of the week before they ever even toured. Half of Portland didn't even know who they were. And that's just a model, it's the ‘get lucky' model. The right digital representation can just explode you without the traditional models of touring or whatever.
JB: But that doesn't happen very often.
MB: Right, that's pie-in-the-sky, it's like the licensing deal. That was another thing we did this year is get into some licensing partnerships and the first licensing partner, the way they put it was, ‘Don't ever expect a dime from us, but when it does fall out of the sky it's amazing.' Bt you can't budget yourself for that. Everybody wants in the licensing business though, that's where the real money is if you can get it.
What have you got planned for the next year so far?
MB: Love Language will be our out of the gate, first release next year. Mid-January The Love Language will start touring, we met a great booking agent who's out of their home state [North Carolina]. We'll build up momentum heading to South By Southwest then hopefully hit up South By with a couple of choice shows. According to the classic model this is exactly what you do. It's nice when a record comes along that represents itself really well and you can go ahead and get relationships together like a really solid booking agent and a really good PR partner. When you get all that together before the record comes out, for a small record label that's killer. For a normal record label like Merge or Touch and Go or whatever, that's day to day. But for us it's just awesome, it feels like coming across the finish line or something.
The Bladen County Showcase is this Thursday, Dec. 11, at The Holocene. Entry is $5. The show starts at 8:30 pm and features Oh Captain My Captain, Autopilot is for Lovers, The Love Language, Ritchie Young, Kurt Hagardorn and The Skinnyz.