"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.
The music of Margaret Chardiet, a New York-based artist who records as Pharmakon, is anti-commercial in the extreme. Her songs are dark and pulverizing, marked by industrial drones and modulated shrieks that will reshape a mood as quickly as an eardrum. To hear Chardiet’s music, or, more accurately, experience it, you used to have to catch one of her live shows in the DIY dens of Brooklyn and Queens, or browse their shadowy facsimiles on YouTube. But the first properly recorded Pharmakon material, a 4-track mini album called Abandon, will get a wide release on May 14 thanks to Sacred Bones Records, the Brooklyn based label with a reputation for embracing the dark side.
Sacred Bones was founded in 2007 by Caleb Braaten, a tall, bushy-bearded former punk and goth kid from Colorado who was raised in a record store. Its first releases were by friends of Braaten in post-punk bands The Hunt and Blank Dogs, and the label soon developed a track record of bringing critically lauded, left-field artists to the precipice of the mainstream. The SBR roster, which in addition to Pharmakon includes noise-pop queen Zola Jesus, melodic psych duo The Holydrug Couple and jangly punks The Men, defies easy categorization -- but there’s a barbed through-line anchored by foreboding and dismantled beauty. Last year, the label reissued the woozy, haunting soundtrack of David Lynch’s 1977 cult horror film “Eraserhead” with the cooperation of the director, a personal hero of Braaten’s.
“There’s a certain kinship between the things he puts out, but it’s not always musical,” says Nika Roza Danilova, a.k.a. Zola Jesus, who has been with the label since 2007. “It could be aesthetic, or conceptual or based on an emotion.”
Born in a Record Store
As a child, Braaten’s best friend’s parents owned Denver’s famous Twist and Shout record store. Braaten embedded himself there, absorbing everything from Testament to John Zorn via osmosis. He decamped to New York in 2003, when he was in his mid 20s, and took up residence at Bleecker Bob’s (RIP) and Academy Records, where he worked as a buyer. All of Sacred Bones’ early releases were assembled in Academy’s basement.
“Some of the Academy guys helped me, but none of us had ever put out a record before,” Braaten says of the first SBR 7”. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the songs mastered before I pressed them, which was really stupid. I just said ‘Sounds great!’ and sent a CD-R of MP3s to the pressing plant.”
Braaten may not have known much about mastering records in those days, but he did have a sharp sense of how they should look and feel. He’d always admired the output of ‘60s jazz labels like Impulse! Records, whose album art retained signature aesthetic flourishes from one release to another. To this day, every Sacred Bones record is instantly recognizable -- the company’s logo (a snake eating itself forming a ring around a triangle) rests in the upper left hand corner, while the artist name and album title are written in an elegantly understated serif in the upper right.
Out of the Basement
Up a pale gold freight elevator, above a reclaimed woodworking shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Sacred Bones’ headquarters are in a nondescript waterfront warehouse leased by the larger indie label Mexican Summer. Braaten moved the company here a little over a year ago after it had finally outgrown the Academy basement and its lack of inalienable amenities like windows, Internet and phone service. In the warehouse, light pours in from over the East River on potted desiccants and Braaten’s artfully daggered knife collection. A French bulldog named Carter keeps watch from a plush brown couch.
If Braaten is Sacred Bones’ patriarch, its maternal figure is Taylor Brode, a simpatico record-store refugee who joined the label as general manager in 2010. Brode worked for years in sales and marketing for the distribution arm of Touch & Go Records in Chicago before that segment of the business was folded in 2009. Upon joining Sacred Bones, she secured a worldwide physical and digital distribution deal with Secretly Canadian and has steadily increased the label’s output from 20 releases in 2011, to 24 in 2012 and 28 this year. In Brode’s presence, Braaten reclines twenty degrees and lets her do most of the talking.
“Taylor knew more about a lot of industry stuff than I did,” says Braaten, who first met Brode when he was a buyer at Academy and she was his sales rep. “When she came on, it kind of took everything to the next level.”
Team Sacred Bones is now five employees strong, including an in-house graphic designer and publicist, and does 25 percent of its sales internationally, with bands based in Chile, Australia and beyond. While the label is growing, Braaten and Brode are careful not to grow it too quickly. They’re highly selective about new signings, tending to recruit primarily through an extended network of friends and bands they already work with. Contrary to popular belief, there is no grand scheme or occult ritual behind the music on which the label chooses to focus.
“I think that having an A&R strategy would be completely contrary to how Caleb and I would approach music,“ Brode says. “We go after bands because we love the music and we love the people. And it’s gotta be both those things. We’re friends with all of our bands and I think that makes us work harder and it makes them work harder.”
Sacred Bones is a 50/50 profit split label, meaning that after expenses are recouped on a given release, revenues are split 50/50 between the artist and the label. Rather than owning the master recordings, Sacred Bones leases them, with the terms and lengths of recording agreements varying on a case-by-case basis. In all business dealings, Braaten and Brode are artist-friendly to a fault.
“It’s kind of like a family where under any circumstances we’ll treat each other as if we’re blood,” Danilova says. “Just to know that and deal with someone in business like that is really comforting, because you know they’re always going to have your back.”
A Visceral Experience
In a lot of ways, Sacred Bones is as old-fashioned as the artwork that adorns its records. Known for its sophisticated packaging, designed by David Correll and hand screen-printed by longtime label friend and Crystal Stilts drummer Keegan Cooke, 70 to 80 percent of the label’s sales are physical, a dizzyingly high figure in the age of MP3s and streaming. Each Sacred Bones release has an elaborate limited edition vinyl version that retails for $25 on the label’s website, excluding shipping, while standard LPs go for $15 and CDs sell for $12 or $13.
“A lot of what we do is based on the physical product, being able to hold the object and have an actual, visceral experience with the piece of art,” Brode says. “An MP3 is the exact opposite of that. To us it’s soulless.”
If Braaten and Brode are cold on digital music consumption, they’re even colder on trendy, ancillary revenue streams. Sacred Bones is in the record business in the traditional sense, with no current holdings in or aspirations toward a merch, touring or publishing empire. For the foreseeable future, the label plans to live or die by its sole and essential product.
“I think it’s pretty dark when labels take a percentage of what their bands make on the road,” Brode says of so-called 360 deals. “We’re not gonna start taking a cut of our bands’ fucking merch money.”
As is sometimes the case, Sacred Bones has so far managed to win plenty of business just by being true to itself. The label’s anti-commercial leanings have already drawn the attention of major national brands, including Target and the ABC series “Grey’s Anatomy,” both of which have licensed syncs of Sacred Bones songs (by Moon Duo and Zola Jesus, respectively). The fauxhemian apparel chain Urban Outfitters recently joined the choir of SBR believers when it began carrying several of the label’s LPs on its store shelves.
In August, the next band to get the Sacred Bones treatment will be the Tempe, Arizona-based Destruction Unit, the project of former Jay Reatard guitarist Ryan Wong. Braaten describes Destruction Unit as “desert punk,” which Brode explains means “really aggressive psychedelic music.” As a member of the Sacred Bones family, Wong will enjoy the same careful treatment and extended network of friends and crash pads as every other artist on the label, regardless of whether or not he ever appears in a national ad campaign or on the cover of a magazine. Just by agreeing to have each other’s backs and put out a new record, all parties have already made one another’s dreams a reality.