Billboard’s third annual package spotlighting the independent music business opens with an inside look at the Phoebe Bridgers’ run label Saddest Factory Records.
Just before the pandemic, when indie-pop singer-songwriter Claud got coffee with Phoebe Bridgers to discuss signing to Bridgers’ new label, they talked about Nickelodeon’s iCarly. In a 2008 episode of the show, about a teen girl with a popular web series, a high-powered network executive picks up her program and, little by little, changes it beyond recognition. Claud wanted to know: “Are you guys going to do that to me?”
Bridgers had little interest in that approach. The first time she listened to a Claud song, she was so taken with the music, she texted her manager to ask if Claud was signed before the track even finished. “The weirdest part about having a label is being like, ‘What you’re doing is so awesome that I want to mess it up! Let me fix something that’s not broken for you!’ ” jokes Bridgers. In the end, her pitch to Claud was simple: “I think I could amplify what you’re already doing.”
That ethos underscores Saddest Factory Records, the label Bridgers unveiled in October 2020, with Claud as her first signee. A stand-alone label within Secretly Group — home to Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans, which signed Bridgers in 2017 — Saddest Factory marks a new chapter in the career of one of indie rock’s brightest rising stars and pandemic success stories. Since releasing her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, the 27-year-old has steadily built word-of-mouth buzz thanks to her intimately detailed, quietly devastating songwriting that, following 2020’s Punisher, deeply resonated with a grim national mood — to the tune of four 2021 Grammy nominations and a February performance on Saturday Night Live.
Now, with her own label, Bridgers is offering artists a chance to similarly grow at their own pace, with little interference and all the resources of the Secretly Group team. “If I had put out my first record on a major label, I think I would’ve immediately gotten dropped,” she says. “Dead Oceans had to twiddle their thumbs until people gave a s–t about my music — and they weren’t going to give up on it. That’s how I would describe the deal [with Saddest Factory].”
The label’s roster — which also includes alt-pop trio MUNA, chamber-rock project Sloppy Jane (led by Haley Dahl) and singer-songwriters Scruffpuppie and Charlie Hickey — also benefits from Bridgers’ creative savvy, on display in her inventive, early-pandemic remote performances, during which she turned a skeleton onesie into a fashion staple, and tongue-in-cheek merchandise. (One sweatshirt features the hand gesture for a certain uncommon sex act.) “She’s a marketing genius,” says MUNA vocalist Katie Gavin, who compares Bridgers to Lil Nas X.
It’s partly what motivated Dead Oceans to sign Bridgers in the first place. “We loved the music, but there was something more,” says Phil Waldorf, Dead Oceans co-founder and head of global marketing at Secretly Group. “It’s the way Phoebe knows exactly what she wanted and how she wanted to show it to people. She had a really clear approach to a 360-degree presentation.”
And while Bridgers says “a lot of labels have become totally irrelevant” in the Bandcamp era, she notes that watching the work Dead Oceans has invested in her own projects — “The five-hour marketing meetings, where everybody comes with a trillion ideas, are a big selling point to me” — showed her that having dedicated support in areas like distribution and promotion could elevate the careers of even the most determined self-starters. Exact terms vary, but Saddest Factory contracts typically cover three albums in a profit-split deal, and the label only has rights to recordings; it doesn’t take a cut of publishing or live revenue, for instance.
Such resources were important to MUNA, which signed with Saddest Factory in May and later collaborated with Bridgers on its anthemic new single, “Silk Chiffon.” (When asked what kind of career help they sought with Saddest Factory, Gavin deadpans, “Money.”) After releasing its first two albums on RCA Records, the group appreciated the lack of red tape and Bridgers’ willingness to take risks. “The main thing we wanted in a partnership was a more creative relationship in terms of us having an idea and that idea being taken forward and fully executed,” says MUNA’s Josette Maskin. (Even silly ideas — the group announced its signing with a droll press release and a photo of Bridgers handing the band a giant check for $10 million.) “We just wanted to feel like we mattered.”
“We are evidence of the amount that you can do just by directing people’s attention toward things when you have a platform,” bandmate Naomi McPherson says of Bridgers’ support. “It’s just very cool vibes to leverage your platform and not pull the ladder up behind you.”
And while Bridgers is in her element when helping artists with music videos or kooky promo ideas, she’s perhaps most vital when acting as a kind of artist-to-executive translator. “I don’t talk to [Secretly Group staff] that much,” says Claud. “I’m like, ‘How did they just know that’s what I was thinking and I didn’t even tell them?’ But now I realize it’s because Phoebe has been telling them.”
Bridgers talks about her leadership as almost haphazard — every signing was “weirdly serendipitous,” the roster’s large number of LGBTQ+ and nonbinary artists is “a total accident.” (“Queer people are making the coolest f–king music by leaps and bounds, to me,” says Bridgers, who is bisexual.) But her self-deprecating comments about not reading spreadsheets or understanding budgets bely the very intentional community she has created — a place where artists are free to be themselves and can focus primarily on making art.
Before signing with Saddest Factory, Claud, who is nonbinary, had met with labels occasionally, but nothing felt right. “I think they were a little scared, maybe, of my queerness or my transness,” they say. “Phoebe really was one of the first people to look at my project seriously and say, ‘I see this as something that you can do for a long time.’” Gavin calls the video shoot for “Silk Chiffon” — an homage to the queer cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader — one of the highlights of her professional life thanks to the inclusive atmosphere on set; at other video shoots, she says, the band sometimes got “feedback about our physical appearance, and you wonder whether it’s about whether or a certain demographic is going to find you attractive.”
Now, with Saddest Factory just over a year old, Bridgers is relieved to see all the effort start to pay off: Sloppy Jane and Scruffpuppie are readying new albums, while Hickey released an EP in February that will get a physical release in November; Claud is touring with Bleachers (frontman Jack Antonoff tweeted that they are “one of the best new artists”), and “Silk Chiffon” recently became MUNA’s first hit on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart.
“We haven’t even had a true label party yet,” says Bridgers. “I can’t wait to get everybody in the same room.”