Willamette Week: What was the impulse to start the label in the first place?
Bettina Richards: I’ve always been a record geek and music fan. I sort of stumbled into a job after college working at Warner Brothers. I moved to Australia because I didn’t know what to do, so I just packed up and went. I got a job there at Warner Brothers, and when I moved back to America a year and a half later I got a job at Atlantic Records, and from there I went to London Records. I learned a lot there, but I also learned a large corporation wasn’t really compatible with how I viewed music and treatment of musicians and the general way to approach the art form. It taught me a lot of nuts and bolts kind of things, but mostly it taught me what I didn’t want to do. So I decided to forgo the nice paycheck and follow what I believe in. Labels like Touch & Go and Dischord really inspired me and I wanted to follow their model, so that’s what I did.
What specifically did major labels teach you not to do?
It’s certainly different now, but at the time, you have a structure and push the artist through that structure. By its nature, a large corporation really can't flex to the individual artist’s needs, so the artist often has to hire managers and spend all this money just to navigate the system. Even what you're going to potentially earn depends on what kind of lawyer you can afford. I’d worked with Eleventh Dream Day—who I still work with today and who later became members of Freakwater and Tortoise and other things—and I also worked for the Lemonheads and the Meat Puppets, and witnessing their treatments through those systems at various labels—it was always trying to force them to be what some guy in a suit’s vision of their music should be. Well, that’s not what drew you to them. They didn’t have you around when you decided they were great. So I'm much more into letting the artist take the lead on what they want to do creatively, and trying to find a way to maximize that, to take their unique vision and be able to share with the world in the way they envision it, and treat them equitably, financially and in every other way.
There was a book I read around the same time I started the label by Joseph Beuys, an artist from Germany I really like, called Energy Plan for the Western Man, and he talks about artists being really revolutionary, because you create your own demand, you create your own economy, you create your own set of rules—you’re not beholden to anyone. And that really addressed the core of my beliefs, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with people making challenging new music, who would be making it regardless of who was watching. I've always been slightly repelled by people I perceive that have the willingness to do whatever it takes to make it. That’s what I wanted to do, advocate for people who are pushing boundaries and doing something different. On paper, an instrumental band like Tortoise, no one would ever think they would sell 100,000 records on their third album. That happened, and we pushed for it, but I don’t think it’s anything anyone would’ve anticipated.
How did H.P. Zinker end up being the first band to put out an album on the label?
They were really an amazing live band. In hindsight, I don’t think they could deliver the power they did live on record. They were great and really heavy, and I liked it, so…
So it was really just, like, “Here’s this band I like, I’m going to ask to put out a record on my label”?
Yeah. And it was pretty easy to ask them, because they were living in the White Zombie squat at the time, and there were rats in it and stuff. I knew them, so I asked them, “Come stay at my place until you find something better.” They were in my living room, so it was pretty easy to ask them.
What was it like being a woman running an independent record label back then?
It’s still pretty unusual. Sometimes people call here and ask for the head of sales, and there are definitely times where I can tell they think I'm a receptionist when I answer the phone. But I never really encountered that too much, probably because I wasn’t of the mindset about it. It wasn’t weird to me. I don't know if that makes me remarkably un-self-reflective or what, but I never dwelled on that. I certainly had encounters with bands who maybe thought I was just a super-fan, geeky girl, but I am, in fact, a super-fan geeky girl. I just happen to be a hardworking one who can hopefully help you. I probably got over it when I worked at Atlantic and went to the A&R meetings there with [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun and I was the only woman. And there were some conversations in there that were more uncomfortable, about when they were deciding what might be appropriate for Atlantic and speaking about female artists. I was kind of like, “Oh, god.”
What do you think are the uniting traits of Thrill Jockey bands?
I think they all would be doing what they’re doing regardless of who was paying attention. I think there’s a certain abandon to what they do—reckless abandon, perhaps. They all have a love of melody. Pretty much everyone I work with, you can find melody. It might be more obtuse, in something like Radian, but it’s certainly there, to me. So definitely those things are a common thread. And a lot of really great drummers.
How have the operations of the label changed with the advent of the Internet?
Oh my God, in every way possible. Aside from our core politics, of 50 percent profit share and respectable treatment and creative freedom, pretty much everything is different. The way you do distribution, the way you do everything is totally different. But I know we don't use the court of public opinion to decide what to put out. We don't cruise YouTube hits or stuff like that.
In what ways has the Internet made it harder to operate an independent label?
If you look at my release schedule, 10 years ago we weren't putting out the volume of records per year we put out now, nothing close. In order to maintain all the services we provide for our artists and cover our bills, we have to put out a lot more albums. But I feel like our core audience understands what they're doing, if they download something for free from some site. I have to believe the majority of them then will support the artist by, if they like it, buying the vinyl or going to the show and buying a shirt. If they don't, then they really need to study how these artists survive and feel crappy about what they're doing. But there isn’t any way to stop them, so to me, it’s a waste of time to focus your energy on that. I’d rather use the positive aspect of that and try to use it to your benefit.
What is the role of labels today in the indie music landscape? Do they hold the same position they did 20 years ago?
I think so. As much as the numbers are depressing, if you want to talk about the kind of numbers that make a top selling Billboard record—the economy of it is very challenging, but on the other hand, there’s an extremely active and exciting underground, and there’s so much going on and people are pushing boundaries in so many ways, it’s a great time to be able to advocate for some of those artists. The challenge is making the record make money for them and for you, but additionally, it should provide a platform for them where they can achieve more opportunities in live performance, where their income potential is higher. For most people, it’d be very challenging to live off their record earnings. While we have some artists that are able to do that, of course, that’s not the general rule. So it’s got to perform a platform for other things, be it placement in films and television, opening avenues for live performance, helping them access booking agents—different ways of gaining revenue from their music. I don’t think that’s any new idea.
What’s the worst album Thrill Jockey ever put out?
[Laughs] I don’t think that’s fair to whomever I would say. There are certainly records where the artists have tried to do something, and maybe they weren’t able to realize their vision as they were on other records. I’m really good friends with one of the Dans who run [fellow Chicago-based label Drag City] and we laugh about certain records where things didn’t go as we planned, but it’s really only funny after the passage of a huge amount of time. It’s really pretty disappointing for us and the artist at the time. It’s kind of like laughing about the time you were so epically sick: It’s not funny when it’s happening, but in retrospect, if you’re talking about lying on the bathroom floor with food poisoning, you can make it funny.
Ultimately, what to do you think is Thrill Jockey’s legacy?
Really, I hope it goes back to that core we talked about with the writings of Joseph Beuys: empowerment through independent thinking, hard work, sticking to your principles, having principles. I hope our advocacy for artists that are both highly commercially successful and those that are critically acclaimed and not yet had commercial success will demonstrate the value of both. Sometimes I’m disappointed that people look back on history and will only speak of the most commercially successful bands as impactful when often it’s the people who came before that led them there. I think for a lot of our artists who are door openers, like Trans Am, you see it when bands like Tool take them on tour because of how much they inspired that band. Tool is much more financially successful, but I think if you ask a lot of members of Tool if they were they inspired by Trans Am, they’d say yes. I think things like that, I hope people can see and understand the value of that. You have to advocate for what you believe in, and stick to it. And the repercussions are many—though it’s not always tangible on the balance sheet.
SEE IT: Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary Show, featuring Trans Am, Liturgy, Eternal Tapestry, Barn Owl, Mike Scheidt, Golden Retriever and Jason Urick, is at Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi St., on Friday, Nov. 9. 7:30 pm. $12. 21+.