This story is part of Billboard’s third annual package spotlighting the trends defining the independent music business.
Long before Secretly Group formed in 2013, two of its initial label divisions, Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar, were just getting off the ground in the Midwest in the mid-1990s.
Neither Darius Van Arman, co-founder of Secretly Group and founder of Jagjaguwar nor Chris Swanson, president of A&R and co-founder of Secretly Group, thought they would become label heads: The former was a math major at the University of Virginia before dropping out. Meanwhile, Swanson had become an active participant in his college radio station at Indiana University. As they individually started to lay the groundwork for their labels, they eventually ran into the same issue: distribution.
“That was how Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian became entwined,” says Van Arman. Early on, he had struck up a relationship with Swanson because Secretly Canadian had started a distribution cooperative of five to 10 labels called Secretly Canadian Distribution. “The idea was to get record stores to return calls. That was the Wild West, where stores were very flaky about paying for what they took in, so the cooperative really lifted the tides for all the labels,” says Van Arman, who in 1999 joined Chris and his brother, COO and co-founder of Secretly Group Ben Swanson, in Bloomington, Ind. “I joke with [Chris] I was his best signing ever.”
Looking back, Van Arman counts Jagjaguwar’s relationship with Justin Vernon and the release of Bon Iver’s acclaimed 2008 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, as an early “game-changer” for the label, while Swanson says one such win for Secretly Canadian was selling thousands of copies of Jason Molina’s Songs: Ohia “way faster than we thought it would,” leading to a repressing that became a crash course in exclusivity: “We hand-numbered [the debut LP original pressings], and it’s like, ‘Are we cheating by pressing it again? What’s the protocol?’ ”
Since then, Swanson says Secretly Group has taken more risks, citing the Secretly Canadian campaign for Antony & The Johnsons’ 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now, as a “watershed moment” that required an “outsize budget.” “There wasn’t anyone doing what [former bandleader ANOHNI] was doing at the time, and it clicked in a way that showed us how much bigger the world was than we had imagined,” says Swanson.
But over time, he “noticed a pattern” with Secretly Group’s releases. “We were really proud of it, but there was a big gap between what we released and what we listened to as fans,” he says. During a 2016 road trip with Jagjaguwar director of A&R Eric Deines, driving through the South at a heated political time in the country, “we were like, ‘Why is it that we pretty much only release white music for mostly white people?’ ” recalls Swanson. “We used to joke, ‘Are we the sound of white male depression?’ And then soon the sound of white female depression as well — and could we be more?”
Today, Van Arman and Swanson stress a key component of Secretly Group that sets it apart from competitors: The label group “partners” with artists rather than “signing” them, and while Swanson says Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian (and Secretly Group overall) have always had a “light touch” when it comes to offering input on an act’s music, “when it comes to the presentation of the album, the marketing of the album, that’s what we love to do.” Which is why, he says, “when I think about our present and our future, [I think of] the work we’ve been doing with Phoebe [Bridgers] and her Saddest Factory Records.”
Looking ahead, Jagjaguwar is doubling down on its digital marketing savvy. Van Arman cites new hires in creative director Robby Morris and digital marketing director Steven Pardo, who reports to newly promoted global director of streaming and digital sales Emily Puterbaugh. “We’re investing more into trying to be more predictive with analytics and looking at signs of ways things can go,” says Van Arman. “Trying to put ourselves in a position where we can see something’s happening in the marketplace and we can do something actionable [rather than] just look at a pie graph and go ‘Ooh, ah.’” At Secretly Canadian, Swanson is set on hiring someone focused on merchandise and soft goods. “The appetite is endless for new services or experts to get in the room,” he says. “It comes down to, ‘What can we afford?’ We don’t want to lose track.”
As both labels now celebrate 25 years — during which Jagjaguwar helped launch Bon Iver, while Secretly Group supported bold artists like ANOHNI, among other feats — Van Arman and Swanson look back on their respective label’s history — and reveal what’s to come.
Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian launched in the mid-90s, why was there an open lane to start an independent label at that time?
Darius Van Arman: One thing happened in the 90s that really [changed] the music industry — this was before peer-to-peer and music sharing and the internet really gutted the value of the music industry — and it was the compact disc. It was fairly cheap to make, much simpler than making vinyl and people were buying it like crazy. It was possible as a label to get the $1-2 per unit it costs together to make 500-1,000 CDs and sell them for $8-12 bucks per unit. There was enough margin…to really spark a lot of small labels to try to do the same. There were still challenges, distribution was a challenge, but if you were able to be one of those lucky labels that figured it out, both in and outside the U.S., then you had these partners who were like, “Please give us as many quality titles as you can.” And it helped really drive growth for your business.
Chris Swanson: I am a little more of a realist with it. I don’t know that there was a need, I think it was more selfish. I wanted to participate on a deeper level in the process, I wanted to engage in music culture more than just as a consumer. It was like, “We could do this, let’s be part of this party.” It wasn’t so altruistic like, “Let’s do it for the artists.” We did come up with a rubric for what our altruism was and what we believed in and everything, that did come, but I think I would be lying if I didn’t say at first it was like, I just desperately wanted to participate.
As your respective labels were getting off the ground, what did you do to better yourself as a label head?
Van Arman: [I was] totally learning on the fly. We had labels we looked up to and had people who helped along the way. In Charlottesville I kept hustling multiple jobs after dropping out of college. I became close to and spent time with David Berman of the Silver Jews and he helped by suggesting I send the second record I released, A Derby Spiritual by the band Drunk to this writer Jennifer Nine of the Melody Maker. And so I sent it in a mailer and then six weeks later or whatever, opened up the NME and there’s a review of the Drunk CD and I’m like, “Wow. People are actually going to review this stuff.” And then about six weeks after that, I’m checking my PO box for the label and there was a check in there for $350 from a distributor who wanted to buy 50 copies of A Derby Spiritual by Drunk. And so it was kind of like, “Okay, I can see now how this works.” And I was naive, I was like, “So if I send out 300 CDs, I’ll get 300 reviews and sell 1500 CDs?” Which is not crazy, but it’s not always that easy.
Swanson: We were very driven and just sopping up any information from all angles that we could, whether that was as music fans and spending all our hours obsessing about records and shows and stuff, or reading everything we could about labels or even more so connecting with other people in the music industry through our radio jobs at first. We would be on the phone, doing office hours as music directors, Eric Weddle and I, and we’d be shooting the s–t with people who either work for or had started labels and it was invigorating. Every conversation was almost like a little mentorship. And so we were just absorbing everything we could, especially being kind of landlocked in Bloomington, it felt like those office hours were so critical to connecting with the outside world, especially with people who were in more active music markets.
How has the role of an independent label changed over the last 25 years?
Van Arman: I remember being on a SXSW panel discussion with a big, very successful artist manager over 10 years ago and he was talking very confidently about, “Hey, artists don’t need labels anymore. I can fund the releases, I can market these releases, I can hire the publicist, I can provide creative consultation to the artist. I can do everything a label does.” And he was absolutely right. And in a sense, I think what he was getting at is we have these traditional notions of what labels are — and the name “label” came from what’s actually put on vinyl, there was a very conventional approach to it. We started entering a time when it really wasn’t the right way to look at our industry as, “Okay, here’s a recording artist and they’re in this box and they only do these things. Here’s a label, they only do these things.” It started to become better to look at it like, “What are the functions necessary for an artist to have a career, to get music heard, to have cultural impact?” So I think when artists were starting to question what labels are and what is the value proposition — and there’s been a many-decades long tradition of very uneven, theoretically unfair contracts that artists had no choice but to sign in order to get access to some of these functions — I felt like there was a healthy independent movement that started to emerge.
Swanson: Especially now in an era where artists can self-distribute, self-release, release something to their fans overnight through Bandcamp or Distrokid, that’s really attractive. Especially because for artists there is a real desire to have close proximity once you’ve finished creating something to have it be expressed publicly. We’ve had to really drill in and figure out what it is that we want to provide to artists and their managers that is going to differentiate us from other labels and from the self-release [format] or working with the distributor option. I think people love to look at the Chance The Rapper model and be like, “Chance did it, I want to do it.” And what you don’t realize is that someone is providing those label services, someone is doing the work.
Van Arman: Now that artists are in a place where they have access to the marketplace more directly I think that’s a very good and healthy thing. That means that the record labels or distributors or marketing companies that actually deliver value, they’ll continue to thrive and survive. Those that aren’t will go away. The marketplace will become more efficient; for every dollar spent on records, there will be, over time, a greater return. And artists have choices, they can call the shots on who they’re partnering with and how things are getting out there and whatever team they put together or whatever pathway to the marketplace seems the most appropriate for them, it’s their decision. I think that’s good, but I don’t think it’s necessarily [true] that artists being more independent means there isn’t still a very important place for labels like Secretly Group or Jagjaguwar.
What are the most tangible ways Secretly Group helps an act grow while staying true to the label and an artist’s independent roots?
Van Arman: The truth is that you can make great art, but you also have to help people get invested in exploring that art. So we have these conversations with our artists about “What kind of storytelling can we do here? What are you comfortable with? How vulnerable can you be, or want to be, in being a character in this story?” But at the end of the day, we want the artists to have complete artistic control. Nothing comes into the world unless it’s fully approved creatively by the artist — and we don’t strong-arm artists into approving one thing or another. We’ll speak honestly and frankly about what we think is best, [but if] the artist disagrees and wants to go another direction and we say, “We commit to your vision, let’s do it.” And I think that has built trust. An example of that was Are We There by Shannon Van Etten and the song “Every Time the Sun Comes Up.” We’re having a conversation [about] the sequence of the record and I shared an opinion that, “Hey, I love the record except this one track just feels too happy,” and the A&R team always makes fun of me because I’m the one who always likes the sad songs. And so I was like, “It doesn’t seem like it should be on the record, is that crazy to say?” And of course Sharon wanted [it] to be on the record and it’s one of her best songs ever, one of the most successful recordings ever.
What continues to set Secretly Group as a whole apart from competitors in the space?
Swanson: I think we try to remain uncynical. Like anyone who’s been obsessively listening to music and sorting it in your brain and in your record bins and your digital record bins or whatever, it’s not hard to become jaded. And we all have jaded moments, but I think the one thing that we’ve tried to maintain is to not become dissuaded by earnestness. I feel like we have competitors out there that become too easily dissuaded by that. It’s really trying to approach things with the same curiosity as adults professionally as we did as kids when you’re just really starting to stir your early obsessive fandom with music. What sparks the inspiration, what gets you excited?