"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.
Jeff Bratton was on sabbatical in Florence, Italy living one dream and fantasizing about another. It was 2009 and Bratton, then 29 and two years sober, was making fitful progress on a memoir about his turbulent youth. This was his morning routine: Wake up, write for a few hours, go out for a run to clear the mind and then return home and try to write some more. During this time he was constantly immersed in music, mostly from the Swedish bands for which he had developed a fondness that bordered on obsession: The Embassy, The Tough Alliance, Air France. After two months, Bratton had about a hundred draft pages, but no memoir. In another month he would have to board a plane back to Los Angeles where a corporate job as a midlevel associate for a public relations firm awaited him. He decided to break the routine. With his remaining time in Europe, Bratton decamped to Sweden in an impractical but sincere effort to be closer to the source of his musical fixation. He reached out to boutique record labels in Gothenburg and Stockholm and, having no experience in the music business, offered his services as an intern.
"I wrote emails calling out the fact that I had a bit of a marketing and PR background," Bratton says. "But really I just asked if they needed any help around the office packing vinyl or something."
Most of the labels Bratton contacted, including Sincerely Yours, Luxury and Labrador, wrote back politely declining to offer him employment. But Ola Borgstrom, founder and owner of Service records, home to The Embassy, The Tough Alliance and Jens Lekman, offered to meet him for a coffee. The two hit it off. Over the next four weeks, Borgstrom introduced Bratton to some of the bands he had idolized and indulged him with long conversations about pop music and the industry. When it came time for Bratton to return to L.A., he did so with a new side job working for Service in America -- managing the label's relationships with U.S.-based distributors, radio program directors and press.
Cascine, the label Bratton founded with Borgstrom's blessing in 2010 as a kind of offshoot of Service, is the closest thing to a Scandinavian pop label that exists this side of the Atlantic. The music is consistently stylish, breezy and optimistic, with nods to shoegaze and '80s dance tracks. Since being founded, Cascine has birthed young acts including Shine 2009, Chad Valley and Selebrities in addition to signing over mid-tier indie pop darlings Kisses and Keep Shelly in Athens.
"Jeff knows what he likes and has a very strong sense of the sound and aesthetic that he's going for, which I think is one of the smartest things a young label can do for itself," says Hugo Manuel, a.k.a. Chad Valley, whose eponymous debut EP was Cascine's fourth release. "People know what to expect from the label and the bands can play shows together and it immediately makes sense."
Bratton built up Cascine's roster while working his PR job by day and for Service by night. The label, which is mostly operated from Bratton's Brooklyn apartment, has one other full-time employee in Sandra Croft- a London-based music PR vet who Bratton met when she, too, was working for Service. Cascine landed its first release when Service passed on Croft's client Shine 2009, a suave Finnish pop duo with whom Bratton fell in love.
In the beginning, the connection to Service (which closed its doors after 11 years in January) was both nominal and invaluable. Cascine received no financial help from the label, but drew on its name and legacy for the purposes of A&R and brand building. Early Cascine emails were consistently sent from Bratton's Service address.
"I was reaching out to all of these bands I was a fan of, but that were small enough to potentially be a fit for Cascine," Bratton says. "To my surprise and amazement, almost everyone said yes. All the planets just aligned."
Manning the Pop Shop
In 2012, Cascine took something of a watershed financial risk on Chad Valley's first full-length album, Young Hunger (released in October). To help finance the project, which owed its excess cost in part to an array of features from artists including Twin Shadow and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, the label took out a $30,000 loan from one of Bratton's record store-owner friends in LA. Bratton says the bet is paying off, and he credits steady sales of Young Hunger (1,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan) and other recent Cascine albums with allowing him to finally quit his day job last fall.
Cascine, which has a production and distribution deal with Redeye Distribution, sells 90 percent of its music digitally, with limited run vinyl LPs (typically editions of 500) comprising the remainder. Bratton is bullish on streaming and says lately he has been pleasantly surprised to see between $200 and $500 per month coming from YouTube streams. Cascine opts not to sell CDs, but uses them for promotional purposes to send to press and radio. On average, it takes between one and two years for one of the label's records to recoup its expenses, the profits of which are then split 50/50 with the artist.
The label's second biggest revenue stream is sync licensing for film and television, which can generate between $2,000 and $15,000 per sync. A breakthrough on this front came last year when the Chad Valley song "Shell Suite" was used in Summit Entertainment's teen-zombie movie "Warm Bodies." Licensing for Cascine is handled by Terrorbird Media, Shout it Out Loud, Lip Sync and Silver Side Productions, and songs by the label's artists have additionally appeared in 90210 as well as ads for H&M and Seven for all Mankind.
"We've had a good couple of months, but that's not to say I don't think about money all the time," says Bratton of recent success. "We've had enough money to do our releases in a good way and to keep the label afloat and self-sustaining, but it's not like cash has been abundant where we've had a ton to throw at marketing campaigns and other initiatives. We've had to be smart about all those things."
Including EPs, Cascine has 16 releases planned for this year, the most in the label's history. Bratton says he's deliberately aggressive about bringing new records to market, each of which broadens Cascine's earning potential. He'll release his most recent acquisition -- an album from Australian bliss pop outfit Yumi Zouma -- in August, having only signed the band two months ago.
"We release a lot of music given our bandwidth," says Bratton with a playfully mischievous grin. "But there's so much rad shit that we're sitting on. There's nothing better than being able to share it with the world."
When he was working three jobs at once, seven days a week, Bratton had little time for anything but work. Now that he works from home running Cascine full-time (and, as of a year ago, managing artists including Korallreven and The Embassy), he still has little time for anything but work. This is his morning routine: Wake up at 8:00 AM; read from a spiritual text (favorite authors include Thich Nhat Hanh, Henri Nouwen and St. Augustine); write a little for reflection; stretch and then meditate/pray. By 9:00, it's time to power on and dive into a deluge of overnight emails, mostly from Europe and abroad.
"When I left my corporate job, I thought I would have more room in my schedule to do what I want, but that's not the case," Bratton says. "One thing that has changed, though, is that everything I do is 100 percent congruent with who I am as a human being. There's no duality where one minute I'm wearing my music hat, and the next minute I'm walking into a client meeting trying to push them on some sort of brand strategy for a cell phone I would never use in the first place. Everything is transparent. There's no more personal snapshot of me than the label."
On June 13, Cascine and the independent online radio station Newtown Radio will host a showcase of Cascine artists including Chad Valley, Kisses, Selebrities, Rush Midnight and Airbird for Brooklyn's Northside Music and Arts Festival. Listen to tracks from those artists and more, including an exclusive premiere of Selebrities' "I Could Change," (taken from their upcoming album Lovely Things, out June 25), in the exclusive Cascine + "Independent Study" mix below.