Bloodshot Records: Still Breaking New Ground at 25

In an era where every corner of the mainstream music industry from major labels to radio and retail is dominated by billion-dollar global brands—and in which, thanks to digital streaming, everything is free—the life of a local independent record label is inevitably precarious. Yet Bloodshot Records has survived a quarter century, growing from a scrappy insurgent on the Chicago scene into an institution respected by adventure-seeking lovers of roots, rock, and twang everywhere. On the eve of the label’s 25th anniversary—marked by the release of the compilation Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots—we sat down with founder Rob Miller at a neighborhood corner bar to talk about the new collection, navigating the digital age, #MeToo and staying passionate after all these years.

ESTHETIC LENS: Too Late to Pray is a varied collection. It’s all Chicago artists, but not everyone is a Bloodshot veteran.

ROB MILLER: Our compilations all have a theme, whether we do them for fun or to mark an occasion. But we never repackage old stuff. And when we were talking about what to do for this one, there were a lot of ideas being kicked around. A lot of people from all over the country, a lot of bigger bands and artists wanted to help us. But I really got stuck on the idea of returning to the initial Big Bang, where we started, to acknowledge the city itself and show that this music in this city wasn’t just a flash in the pan. This is happening all the time, just in the shadows. None of these people are stars. Most of these people will not get rich. You may never even hear from them again. But this is happening all the time in a city as amazing as this, with all the neighborhoods, all the different clubs, all the different scenes. I didn’t know a lot of these bands; I’d never heard of them, and then the staff—who are there out there in the clubs way more than I am now—they’re the ones going, ‘Have you seen these guys? Have heard this?’ So very quickly I was like, Yeah, there is still this incredible breadth of talent in the city that we can get behind. I think ROOKIE is fantastic. I think Sima [Cunningham] from Ohmme, my God, what a voice. The Saluda Moonlighters, that’s a band I’d never heard of. Now I can’t wait to see them live.

EL: Then there are several pillars of the insurgent country sound, folks with a long association with your label like Jon Langford, Kelly Hogan and Robbie Fulks.

RM: It’s an obvious privilege and honor to be entrusted with so much of their material over 25 years. [Bloodshot’s 1994 debut For A Life A Sin: Insurgent Chicago Country included] Jon Langford’s Hillbilly Lovechild, the Handsome Family, Robbie Fulks. Those were the first recordings by them, and here they are, 25 years later. You can’t think of the history of Chicago music without throwing those names around. And it speaks to either their trust—or their laziness or their idiocy [laughs]—that we still get to work with them.

And the talent pool is just constantly being replenished. There’s always something interesting happening out there. You juxtapose that against other scenes and other cities at certain periods of time: They blew up, they got big and then they collapsed. But here we are this scene is still as vibrant if not more vibrant as ever.

EL: Another strand in this collection is folks like the Hoyle Brothers, Lawrence Peters and the Western Elstons who’ve been part of the fabric of the local scene for years without traveling far beyond that. To put it in terms of Chicago history, we’re the city of big shoulders, the city of the stockyards, the birthplace of the American labor movement, these are our music scene’s working class, the constant, dependable folks who are always there, doing it out of love.

RM: They want to play at a club as many nights as possible, every week, to people who enjoy music and a night out. Chicago is not a company town. We’re not New York, L.A. or Nashville. You don’t particularly have to worry about failing or making an ass of yourself in front of an A&R goon on any given night. You can just be free to create and hone your craft and enjoy the community.

Again, it just speaks to the variety—you know, it’s the people who think, ‘Well, I don’t like insurgent country,’ or alt-country or roots music. Then you’re an idiot. You’re just dismissing this whole range of amazing music, out of some preconceived notion of what it should sound like, which I have as much tolerance and patience for that as I did 25 years ago.

EL: And whether it’s the Laura Jane Grace record or the Four Lost Souls with Langford, Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsome, you continue to challenge those notions.

RM: I can tie it all together in my head. It makes sense to me. But people are frequently uncomfortable with un-pigeon-hole-able music. That has always been vexing to us and it’s also been what set us apart.

EL: It’s 2019. What does it mean to run a record label when the most basic product of your business—the record—is a fetish object at best? To most people, physical product no longer exists nor would they actually, you know, pay money for it.

RM: It means saying ‘algorithm’ a lot [laughs]. I think what we offer artists is a conduit to their fans. Rather than being this monolithic entity, like a gatekeeper, now it’s more of a team. Artists should create and perform. They do not have the organizational je ne sais quoi to set up interviews and get the metadata to the DSPs in a timely fashion and do all the things that all of us do every day to make their jobs easier. So if you want to think of it in terms of a staff rather than a label, then I’m good with that.

A few years ago, the conversation was, ‘Why bother having a label? You can put your music up on Bandcamp, Spotify, you can do that all on your own.’ But if everyone else is doing that, what sets you apart? How are you helping lead your music to people that will enjoy it and support you?

We’ve always looked at ourselves as working for the artists, not vice versa, so I’m comfortable with the team aspect of it. We’re all working together towards the same goal.

The Bloodshot Merch Table

EL: From where I sit, that aspect of it actually hasn’t changed: People always picked up records they’d never heard because they knew the label and liked its sound, whether that was Stax or Sub Pop or Merge.

RM: Right, or it was in the record store they liked with the asshole clerk who had good taste [laughs]. If you enjoy books, if you enjoy records, when faced with this enormous volume of possibilities, how do you whittle that down? How do you not just get overwhelmed and curl up into a ball? As a nascent record geek myself, yeah, SST, Dischord, then Stax, Sun, Fortune, Vee-Jay, if I saw that label in a record store, I was going to pick that up. So if people think of us that way, if people trust our taste, that’s incredibly flattering.

EL: But I would presume the business model has changed radically.

RM: Ten years ago, a lot of our income came from downloads, and it was like, ‘Okay, this is dreary, but it is what it is. This is how people consume music.’ But people were paying. It seemed at the time to be an unreasonably low amount of money, but people were paying for a download. Now we’ve moved to streaming and boy, it makes those download days seem like fat times.

You can’t argue with the convenience, but you know, you go on to a streaming site and there’s 50 billion songs on it. You have access to every piece of recorded music. So then what do you do? That’s our job, to help people figure that out. To make our artists rise above everything else that’s out there.

The CD days were in retrospect pretty lucrative and pretty easy. It’s a lot harder now to keep the whole premise of surviving in the music business viable, because if everyone does get their music free or treat it as totally disposable, only pay micro-pennies for it, then labels will go away and artists will be unable to sustain themselves [except the ones who] license their music to video games or play giant festivals rather than building stuff organically. Then it just becomes entertainment rather than art. And the depressing thing for me is that we’ve had to pass on a lot of projects. We did a lot of projects early on that were one-offs or collaborations or weird records that were never going to sell a ton. But if they sold five or ten thousand copies, they made some money for us. They made some money for the artist. You didn’t have to tour behind it.  We can’t do those anymore. There’s a lot of art not created because of this new reality of how music is consumed, and that’s sad, because those were some of my favorite records. I mean, they’re oddball, they’re idiosyncratic, but they had their place and they allowed artists to do interesting things about having to worry about, ‘Is this going to make us enough money?’

At Bloodshot we’re not talking about artists living large. They’re taking time away from family and their regular jobs and hopefully going out on tour like two or three times a year because they love what they do. And if they walk away from a sold-out show somewhere and sell $20 in merchandise, that doesn’t get him to the next town.

There has been in recent years a wonderful and creative outburst of the awareness of locality and craftsmanship. Local breweries, craft distilleries, farm-to-table restaurants, clothing that’s sustainably made. All that kind of stuff, people are willing to pay extra for. They’ll pay $15 for a cocktail that has honey in it from a beehive on the roof. But for some reason that mentality has not translated into music. People are willing and eager to purchase music from a handful of giant faceless corporations who have never themselves created their own music. I mean, maybe Jeff Bezos has an amazing folk album somewhere; I haven’t heard it. It’s just weird, but the very people who love independent music are giving their money to algorithms. That doesn’t help the artist organically grow.

And there’s the whole mentality of, ‘So I don’t buy the record. That’s okay because I’ll buy a tee-shirt at the next show.’ That’s not sustainable.

EL: People have to buy the record AND the tee-shirt.

RM: Buy the record and the tee-shirt and go see a lot of live music. It’s a very real economic issue. We just need people to know that their decisions aren’t happening in a vacuum and they do have real consequences for this art form that people purport to love. And that goes for not just music but for writing, for magazines, for books, for photography, for all the arts, to just grab it off the internet and say, ‘I love this. I’ll retweet it.’ You know, ‘I’ll get it for free, but I’ll retweet it.’

EL: Another achievement of Bloodshot over 25 years has been to always be fair to the artists and also to your employees. You’ve been very intentional about that.

RM: It’s incredibly important, but I guess I don’t look at it as I’m working for me. I’m working for them, the artists, and how dare I take advantage of that? Not having had any label experience before this, but having production experience for a promoter, I was privy to every possible way that a promoter could rip off a band and I was appalled at the things I was charged with doing. So when we were setting up Bloodshot, it just seemed natural to be fair about it.

Also, we arose in a community of other labels where handshake deals with 50/50 net splits [were common], so that just seemed right. Thrill Jockey, Drag City, Touch and Go, Minty Fresh. What an amazing time in this city.

But the times where I have come in contact with the music industry writ large, it’s like staring at the sun while standing in a cesspool. It’s disturbing. And the casual way that musicians are treated as a commodity always struck me as just appalling, because none of us would be here without them. You know, Bloodshot has had buyout offers in the past, but I didn’t get in this to work for somebody else or to build the label into something much, much bigger and out-of-control that we could sell out.

EL: You have to look at the mainstream success of people like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlisle and feel a sense of satisfaction, that Bloodshot’s work over 25 years has played a part in making the world safe for them.

RM: That’s very kind of you to say. But I’m not comfortable with such a compliment or that kind of responsibility. I didn’t mean to make the world safe for anything.

It wasn’t necessarily your intention, but this little corner that you built, you can see it reflected now in the larger zeitgeist.

My self-esteem is far too loaded down to think about such things. It’s flattering but I really, honestly, don’t think about it.

There were times when I heard things like Mumford & Sons a few years ago all over XRT, and I was like, ‘Wait, we’ve got bands that are doing this better than them.’ Or there’s bands that really wanted to sign with us that I was just like, ‘I don’t like this,’ and they’ve gone on to be huge. And there are other things where I think, ‘Okay, this has got a genuine chance to dent the popular consciousness a little bit,’ and then it doesn’t, and then I get angry, so I don’t think about it.

EL: Throughout the lifespan of Bloodshot, there are folks who’ve broken through, of course. Neko Case, the Old 97s.

RM: Sure. Justin Townes Earle. Lydia Loveless. Right now, Sarah Shook. Yeah, and it’s great when that happens, but it’s not what drives us. And certainly in any of those instances, when we started working with them, there wasn’t any expectation that this would be something that tens or hundreds of thousands of people would be interested in.

EL: Earlier you said staff at the label brought stuff to you for this compilation. How has the process of discovery changed for you?

RM: Well, I’m old and I’m tired, so I’m not out at the clubs five nights a week the way I used to be. Also, no one wants to hear the kinds of records I like and listen to at home. Hasil Adkins and all kinds of freaked-out rockabilly and punk rock and stuff, Howlin’ Wolf and the Misfits. So I rely on the ears and the passion of the people in the office and of other artists of ours who are on the road.

My perspective now is that, as much and as hard as you try to keep an open mind, you do get a little jaded or a little lazy. And then someone will come into the office just super excited about something, like, ‘I’ve never heard anything like this!’ And you have to fight the urge to go, ‘Well, I have. There was this band 20 years ago … ‘. You know, when I was starting Bloodshot in the mid-90s, if someone from 1972 or something said something like that, I’d be like, ‘Fuck you, old man.’

That well is constantly being replenished. We had a publicist a few years ago, and every day she was listening to John Lee Hooker. After like three weeks I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ She’s like, ‘Have you heard of this guy?!’ Of course I have, you idiot, it’s John Lee Hooker. Oh, right. You’re in your mid-20s discovering John Lee Hooker. That’s fucking cool! That’s great.

You can’t lose that. When I got Sarah Shook’s record, I could not stop listening to it. That kind of spark, that kind of clarity maybe doesn’t happen as much, but when it does, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. And when people start to react to it the way you did, that’s even better. Our new guy, Jason Hawk Harris, holy shit. I’d never heard the record when I saw him live, and halfway through the second or third song, I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ So the discovery is still pretty visceral for me.

EL: Away from the music, the last year has obviously been a tough one for you and for the label. Lydia Loveless came forward with credible allegations of sexual harassment by the boyfriend of your former business partner Nan Warshaw. You responded very strongly in support of Lydia, and that resulted in Warshaw splitting from the label. It couldn’t have been easy.

RM: It was a very personal thing, and because we’re part of a community and what happened was a violation of the ethics of that community, it was heartbreaking. It’s been tough. I think that I’m happy it’s out there. And there’s really not a lot I can talk about other than that. Obviously it was not in line with the mission and the ethics of Bloodshot and our artists.

EL: Twenty-five years is a long time to do anything. But this anniversary and compilation aren’t intended to be an epitaph. What’s next for Bloodshot?

RM: The staff is amazing. Our roster is amazing. I’m excited to just keep being involved in making music. There’s still a lot of interesting work to be done out there, and on the days when you just get ground down by it, then a record falls in your lap that you just feel like you have to work with this artist.

I want to see where Sarah [Shook] is going next. I want to see what happens with Lydia. I am so excited for what these people are doing, it just remains a kick to be a part of it. Just yesterday I was driving around, I was listening to CHIRP and they played a Bloodshot side and it still makes me so happy.

Rob Miller and Anders Smith Lindall

Anders Smith Lindall is a labor union activist and music writer and presenter in Chicago.