Around 2006, Mike Sniper and Caleb Braaten both began working at Academy Records Annex at their old storefront on North 6th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, the two of them would listen to music for eight-to-ten hours a day, forging relationships with local musicians and labels, all while carefully keeping track of what sold, what didn’t, and why.
At the time, Sniper was in a band called Blank Dogs, a popular Brooklyn-based post-punk band, while Braaten would head across the East River to bartend at either Black & White or Niagara, two infamous musician watering holes in Manhattan. But when not working or on tour, the two of them started their own record labels in Academy Records’ dark, rat-infested basement: Captured Tracks and Sacred Bones, two imprints that would dominate the Brooklyn indie rock scene for the next decade.
“I still had my day job [at Academy]; I put all of my money back into the record label,” Sniper says. “When you’re just by yourself, you’re like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do it. I don’t have to answer to anyone.’”
Ten years later, they’re both enjoying tremendous levels of success in their corner of the music industry, responsible for some of the biggest and most critically acclaimed indie releases of the last decade. Sniper’s Captured Tracks, perhaps the definitive chillwave label, put out albums by laid-back and atmospheric indie rock artists including Mac DeMarco, Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing, and DIIV, while Braaten’s more dark and experimental Sacred Bones released music from Amen Dunes, Zola Jesus, Marissa Nadler, and even legendary surrealist filmmaker David Lynch. Both were effectively one-man operations at first, the duo flexing their record store experience to create the labels that they’d always wanted to work with, thriving beyond anything they could have dreamed of.
To celebrate their first respective ten years as label heads, Captured Tracks released a double-vinyl compilation of deep cuts, live recordings, and covers and took three of his newer signees, lo-fi singer/songwriter Lina Tullgren, pulverizing post-punk trio Wax Chattels, and British punk rockers Drahla, on tour across North America this past month. Braaten, whose Sacred Bones turned ten in 2017, booked three shows — a low-key date in L.A. last October and two major day-long gigs in Brooklyn last summer in conjunction with Red Bull Music Academy and the Northside Festival, featuring over a dozen acts across his roster, led by Jenny Hval, Marissa Nadler, and The Men.
And they’re not the only indie labels celebrating big milestones – Mexican Summer recently released their own compilation of unreleased music from flagship artists like Ariel Pink and Conan Mockasin for their ten year anniversary. On Saturday (Nov. 17), they’ll be hosting A Decade Deeper, an all-day concert at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works where rostermates Ariel Pink, Allah-Las, Drugdealer and more are set to perform. Bigger “major-indie” labels Mom + Pop and Glassnote also turned a decade old in the past year, with the former organizing an anniversary celebration in October starring Courtney Barnett, Sleigh Bells, Tom Morello and Neon Indian, which sold out the East Williamsburg venue Brooklyn Steel.
With so many notable New York-based, indie rock-focused labels turning a decade old within the last year, it begs the question — particularly for those smaller, boutique indie labels — what was going on ten years ago?
One would think that 2008 would be one of the worst years to start a label; the Great Recession was beginning to nearly destroy the American economy, while the traditional music industry had essentially collapsed in the five or so years prior. Music piracy was at an all-time high and physical album sales, from a macro-perspective, had long been in decline.
But the group of labels led by Sniper, Braaten, Mexican Summer’s Keith Abrahamsson and Andrés Santo Domingo (and Woodsist’s Jeremy Earl) were changing things, selling almost exclusively vinyl records direct to customers, via message boards like Terminal Boredom.
“From my perspective, from Caleb’s perspective, Mexican Summer’s perspective – we all knew that physical and vinyl sales were really good, because we all were in the same pool of talent and people were buying these records,” Sniper explains. “I wasn’t nervous about it, it wasn’t a trepidatious thing — because I knew from my band that I was selling records. I knew that bands like Thee Oh Sees were selling records. I knew that bands like Vivian Girls and Black Lips and all of these bands were selling records. Working at a record store, we were selling a ton of them.”
It was successful right from the start, and the three labels were quickly selling out their first run of records – Abrahamsson mentions that the first Ariel Pink seven-inch record Mexican Summer released “was an edition of like 300. They were small editions and they would sell out in a second.”
“I think that we had a great talent pool of artists who were easy to work with, ready to put out records,” Sniper adds. “There was a whole scene that didn’t require exclusive PR or marketing.”
While new vinyl releases can routinely fetch $25 or more these days, it was extremely cheap to press them ten years ago, right before the so-called “vinyl resurgence” began. That’s why in the depths of the recession, these hyper-local indie labels were still able to quickly sell out of their initial stock, with each unit priced at about $9, less than the going rate of a CD at the time. But those affected by the economic downturn were never really the target audience anyways.
“We weren’t selling to people who had all of their money tied up in the stock market,” Braaten says, noting that the DIY scene was still very into collecting vinyl, something he noticed while working at Academy Records. “We weren’t selling records to people whose houses were being taken away from them. We were selling records to bartenders and service industry people and musicians and artists. These are people that aren’t really affected by the collapse of the financial sector. I don’t remember even considering it when it happened.”
In order to make money primarily selling vinyl, each label had to put out as many records as possible, in order to amass a growing back catalogue. These “label deals” were nothing like what we think of now – “It was very much, handshake, ‘Cool, let’s do it,’” Sniper remembers. “Not something serious, no contract or anything like that.”
Mexican Summer, originally an imprint of Abrahamsson and Santo Domingo’s earlier label Kemado Records, needed to hit the ground running in order to quickly find its own identity apart from its parent label. Mexican Summer was founded in part to change the way Abrahamsson and Santo Domingo did things, focusing much more on short-term, flexible, and low-stakes artist-friendly deals for developing bands – the polar opposite of the more traditional Kemado, founded six years prior. Their first two years saw them release 27 records, EPs, and seven-inch singles, initially acting as a subscription-based label.
“I knew exactly what kind of stuff I wanted to work with,” Abrahamsson says. “I think it was easier [to create an identity] because I was able to do a lot more volume with Mexican Summer, whereas with Kemado it was this more archaic kind of deals where it would take sometimes fucking six months to even do the record deal. It was this super slow-paced thing where we would sign maybe two bands a year or something. With Mexican Summer, we’d be like, ‘I love this. This is perfect for us. I’m going to go talk to them right now.’”
It was with this shotgun-style approach of signing and releasing as many records as possible – accompanied by Abrahamsson having incredible ear for new talent – that saw their early work begin to pay off. Mexican Summer had major hits with Washed Out’s 2009 EP Life of Leisure (which spawned Portlandia theme song “Feel It All Around”) and Best Coast’s acclaimed 2010 debut Crazy For You, while also putting out early releases by future indie breakouts Kurt Vile, Real Estate, and Tallest Man on Earth.
Captured Tracks and Sacred Bones took a little longer to take off, but within a few years of their labels’ founding, they each became heavy hitters in the indie rock scene. For Sacred Bones, that emergence began in 2010 when Braaten noticed a lot more attention surrounding industrial goth artist Zola Jesus, a recent signee. Suddenly Braaten’s experiment was becoming more real, expanding well past the confines of Brooklyn or Terminal Boredom.
“That’s when I noticed there was a shift where like, ‘OK, all of these outside things are starting to creep in,’” he recalls. “We didn’t have a publicist or anything. We were just message boards and MySpace posts – our only form of PR. Then there were all of these people – ‘Hey, I’m a lawyer; hey, I’m a publicist.’ That’s when the world got a little bigger.”
Captured Tracks released a steady stream of acclaimed records throughout its first three years, signing Thee Oh Sees, Beach Fossils, Craft Spells, and Widowspeak to early-career deals. But by 2012, Sniper was reaching an audience he never thought possible.
“2012 was a huge year for us,” Mike Sniper remembers. “We had DIIV — Oshin, Wild Nothing — Nocturne, and Mac DeMarco — 2,” adding that “We were the only label interested in these kind of bands. No one was talking to Wild Nothing. No one was talking to Mac DeMarco. No one was talking to DIIV. No one was talking to Beach Fossils – or no one is talking to them seriously.”
Very few, if any, others labels were in contact with these acts, so signing them was relatively easy for Sniper. “There weren’t other A&R people at the shows; it was me and eight other people maybe” he says, thinking back to going to concerts at now-shuttered venues like Death By Audio, Glasslands, or 285 Kent. “It was pretty easy to dip into that and pull out the stuff you wanted to do. People would pay attention on a small scale, but enough to make this little cottage industry at the beginning.”
Soon after the three labels started to grow their individual reputations, Abrahamsson invited Sniper and Braaten to move into a warehouse unit that Mexican Summer was using in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Working closely together – even though their businesses were all separate – allowed the three labels to grow together, constantly learning from each other whenever issues arose with their individual labels.
“We were never really competing for artists, so it was never an issue in terms of a competitive thing,” Sniper says. “It was good to have camaraderie and you could throw ideas back at each other and find out your opinions on certain things, but then of course at the same time, there’s no privacy between the two companies which can be weird sometimes. There wasn’t any kind of “this is going to lead to a label group” [thinking] or something like that. It was all more along the lines of, ‘We all have the same needs for space and all of that.’”
While Mexican Summer, Captured Tracks, and Sacred Bones were all individual entities, Abrahamsson, Sniper and Braaten’s friendship propelled them to new heights, allowing them not only to survive in a harsh industry climate, but succeeding beyond all expectations. Together, they were able to grow out of the dark basement of the Academy Records Annex and leave the shadow of Kemado Records behind in the rearview mirror, seeing their artists headline some of the world’s most important stages and, in Mexican Summer’s case, begin to curate an annual festival in Texas called Marfa Myths, to be headlined in 2019 by Khruangbin and Deerhunter.
A decade after their initial founding, the three labels are all now well established, comfortable financially, and still releasing some of their best music, including critically acclaimed records by Amen Dunes, Jess Williamson, and Molly Burch. Though 2008 was an incredibly rough year for the traditional music industry and the American economy as a whole, Sniper, Braaten, and Abrahamsson found a way to carve out their own niche by selling vinyl direct to customers, eschewing rigid long-term record deals, and making an attempt to work with as many bands that they liked as possible.
“When someone asks me what you’re most satisfied of, is it sales numbers? No,” Mike Sniper explains. “It’s when an artist that I’ve found that had no records out or something, when they headline and sell out the Bowery Ballroom, that to me is success. Being there at the show and seeing all of these people who are enjoying the music and the artist is up there satisfied playing their music, that to me is what it’s all about. That’s the payoff more than anything else.”
And for each of the labels’ ten-year anniversary concerts, there has been a crucial focus on the future, providing a stage for developing acts to showcase how they’ll continue on the legacy started in part by artists like Best Coast, Beach Fossils, and Zola Jesus.
“I think the roster is the best it’s been and we’re thrilled to put out the records that we are,” Abrahamsson of Mexican Summer says. “I’m just hopeful that we can continue to do it. I love it — I still love it, which is incredible to say.”