Independent Study: Dead Oceans

Dead Oceans co-founder Phil Waldorf (Callie Richmond)

Label: Dead Oceans
Founded: 2007
Location: Austin, TX and Bloomington, IN
Number of Employees: 26, incl. sister labels
Next Release: Julianna Barwick, Nepenthe, Aug. 20
Distributor: Secretly Canadian
Twitter: @DeadOceans
Website: DeadOceans.com

"Independent Study" is a new column that will profile a different independent label every other Tuesday. Its focus is on companies less than a decade old that are defining the DIY era.

Billboard.biz: So, Dave Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors] comes to you and says “Hey, I have this idea to reinterpret Black Flag’s debut album, but only based on my memory of it.” And you say “Sure, sounds good?”

Phil Waldorf, co-founder Dead Oceans: Dave is not someone who has ever been shy about ambitious concepts. He knows exactly what he’s trying to get across with his music, which isn’t true for every artist. I think it would be a fool’s errand to go to someone like Dave, as a label, and try and talk him out of it. In a case like that, you’re much better off figuring out how to present the project in a tasteful and dignified way than trying to get in and influence the end result, which, with Rise Above, turned out to be amazing.

Dead Oceans isn’t the kind of label that fits well in a box. The baby in the Secretly Canadian family of labels, also including Secretly and Jagjaguwar, has put out the experimental art rock of the Dirty Projectors, the shifting indie pop of John Vanderslice and the Rwandan love songs of The Good Ones -- just to take a few examples -- since being founded in 2007. For Phil Waldorf, co-founder and general manager of the label, more important than sticking to a particular sound or image is assembling a stable of artists with a strong point of view.

“If you’re not reliable for a particular thing, the challenge is to be reliable for great things,” Waldorf says. “We look for artists who we believe are iconic and that have a really pronounced vision of whatever they’re trying to do. That’s the most important thing to me—that their vision is refined and bold and innovative and inspiring in whatever sort of subgenre that you might place them in.”

Radio Roots

Long before teaming with the Secretly Canadian partners -- Chris and Ben Swanson, Darius Van Armen and Jonathan Cargill -- Waldorf had his first encounter with the music business as a college radio DJ in Athens, Georgia during the mid ‘90s. As music director for WUOG at the University of Georgia, he met Kris Gillespie -- then in the radio department of Matador, now general manager at Domino -- when he came to the station accompanying the singer/songwriter Barbara Manning. It was the first inkling Waldorf had that it was possible to build a career in the music business.

While the main campus of the Secretly Canadian group is in Bloomington, IN, Dead Oceans is based out of Waldorf's home in East Austin, TX. (Callie Richmond)

After graduating with a degree in political science, Waldorf hung around Athens for a year immersing himself in the city’s burgeoning indie rock scene. He hosted a series of shows with friends in a house that they shared, the highlight of which was a set by a young Neutral Milk Hotel during the summer of the “On Avery Island” tour.

“I remember it was incredibly hot,” Waldorf says. “So hot that the PA blew out and they had to play a few songs acoustic with just Jeff [Mangum] singing by himself.”

In 1998 Waldorf moved to New York and got a job working at the record store Other Music, where he would remain for five years in various capacities. In 1999 when a friend from school asked him to help run a new record label he was starting, Waldorf leapt at the opportunity. The label, Misra Records, released albums by Phosphorescent, Destroyer and Shearwater among others during an initial run that lasted until 2006. But after a few years, and leaving Other Music to run the label full time, Misra wasn’t growing and Waldorf became restless. He started to talk with Secretly Canadian, Misra’s distributor at the time with whom he had developed a rapport, about starting a new venture in which he would be a partner.

“From Misra I learned to be more artist driven,” Waldorf says. “[With Dead Oceans] we focused from the beginning on signing artists that we were all not only passionate about, but that we thought could actually contribute something to the label and its basic functions, including marketing and selling the music. Not every record that you love is a record that you should put out. That’s a lesson that takes a while to learn.”

Three’s Company

At the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans label group no individual person out of the company’s 26 employees works for any one label exclusively. This means that depending on how and when you ask the question, Dead Oceans has anywhere between 1 and 26 employees to its name. A rotating cast of project managers oversees label functions for each release across the three labels, with dedicated marketing, production and publicity staff serving the same functions irrespective of what label the release is under.

Despite the communal approach to staffing, each label maintains a distinct identity with its own release schedule, budgets and accounting statements. Waldorf says that pooling resources allows for a high degree of specialization that wouldn’t be possible at any of the labels were they to stand on their own.

“It allows us access to more experts,” he says. “If each of these labels were functioning individually, everyone would have to wear so many hats. By working together, people can really dig into whatever their expertise is, which is good for us and good for our artists.”

Waldorf's vinyl collection, the spoils of five years at Other Music (Callie Richmond)

Dead Oceans’ retail split is 65 percent digital and 35 percent physical with a growing minority of sales taking place internationally. The Swedish folk singer The Tallest Man on Earth and the veteran British singer/songwriter Bill Fay, both of whom are signed to Dead Oceans around the world, sell many more records overseas than they do in the States. Fay’s 2012 album Life is People has sold 6,000 copies in the U.S., for instance, but nearly 30,000 globally. Waldorf, who now lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, has taken a lead role in continuing to expand the label group’s international prospects. In April he went on an export mission to Brazil that was sponsored by the American Association for Independent Music and the National Trade Administration.

“We’re focused on master-side revenue, and that revenue comes in many different shapes and sizes from many different corners of the globe,” Waldorf says. “Whether it’s CD sales or LP sales or streams or synchronization and whether it’s happening in North America or Europe or Japan or Australia, it’s all a piece of a puzzle.”

For licensing, a revenue stream that Waldorf calls important but unpredictable, Dead Oceans uses Bank Robber Music. The New York-based company has lately helped land placements on “American Idol” and “Nashville” for the label’s most recent breakout band Phosphorescent.

Phosphorescent is the project of folk rock singer Matthew Houck, who has released four albums on Dead Oceans since 2007 and before that worked with Waldorf as an artist on Misra Records. Muchacho, Houck’s latest album released in March, has been his most successful at 30,000 copies sold to date.

“I think Phil has learned a lot over the years and the whole label has just gotten better and better with time,” Houck says of the experience. “It’s a complicated terrain these days and there aren’t any hard and fast rules about how to run a label or put out music in the world. The whole team at Dead Oceans is just really thoughtful and flexible with their approach.”

New Business, Same Values

Dead Oceans will release eight full-length albums in 2013, a relatively modest number that Waldorf says has deliberately been held constant over the years.

“I think giving each record enough space for it to have its own creative voice is incredibly important,” he says. “I would rather serve one record really, really well then serve two adequately. And I think if you take that approach it will affect your bottom line favorably. It’s better to be really profitable with one record than to break even with two.”

 Indie dolls (Callie Richmond)

The label’s next release will be Nepenthe on August 20, the new album from experimental ambient artist Julianna Barwick. Barwick, a new artist on Dead Oceans, is also signed to SC Publishing, a new publishing arm of Secretly Canadian that was started by Chris Swanson last year. SC Publishing administers the publishing rights of select artists in the family of labels, including Dead Oceans’ Night Beds, Brazos, Barwick and Fay.

Waldorf, who said there are currently 10-12 artists signed to the publishing group, called it a nascent but important new business for the label as the future of master-side revenue remains unstable. Like everything else he’s involved in, Waldorf wants SC Publishing to be tightly curated and reflective of a wide range of styles -- from art rock to hardcore punk and everything in between.

“I grew up with a passion for a diverse collection of music, whether it was at college radio or at Other,” Waldorf says. “That’s something that I really want to transmit in a label; that it can be a place that’s really diverse, where it’s not always obvious what the next thing is going to be. We just want to work with people with great ideas.”

Previously on Independent Study: Cascine