Twenty years ago, around the time grunge's dirty wave had crested and punk was taken off life support, rock music found itself in something of a power vacuum. Record executives were scouring the nightclubs of flyover country to look for the Next Big Thing, and many had Chicago natives like The Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair in their crosshairs. But while the industry at large searched for the next saviors of rock n' roll, Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw were busy cataloguing an overlooked, burgeoning movement. With the release of For A Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country, Bloodshot Records was born.
Over the next 20 years, the label Miller and Warshaw founded to bring attention to this new wave of alternative roots rock morphed into a DIY success story, launching the careers of Ryan Adams, Neko Case and Justin Townes Earle, among others. Today, Bloodshot sports a diverse roster ranging from rockabilly revelers to soul crooners, each with their own take on the sound of America's breadbasket. We spoke to Miller about his memories of Bloodshot's beginning and the challenges facing a mom-and-pop record label.
Bloodshot Records is run out of a small office on the Northwest side, but 20 years ago, all operations were conducted out of Nan Warshaw's guest bedroom. Did you have any idea you could make this work for so long?
We didn't imagine we would even last one year. It continues to be a surprise. Our expectations at the time were to put out that first record, then maybe get into some shows or get some free drinks. But we never imagined much beyond that. It did provide some relief from my day job painting and drywalling houses for whatever slumlord would pay me. A lot of the first two years were doing that all day, then coming home and writing press releases all night, running to Kinkos at 3a.m. to print materials. It was all very glamorous.
With your debut compilation, you coined the term "insurgent country" to describe the aesthetic of the scene as it coalesced into a movement. Was this style unique to Chicago?
The term itself was something we coined to soften the "c-word," and people had a great reaction to it, it provided an edge we were looking for. While we didn't know it at the time, once that record came out, we started hearing from writers and artists at festivals like SXSW that there were these other scenes percolating all over the country underground—roots artists who shared a punk background. Our second CD was a compilation of bands doing this nationally. We certainly didn't start anything, but we did tap into something and provide kind of a name and a stylistic focal point.
What in particular about these artists resonated with you and Nan?
Nan and myself both grew up in the punk scene. But when you start to get into your middle-to-late-20s, rolling over police cars and smashing the state gets tiresome. Punk had kind of run its course, and the whole notion of alternative rock had been so completely co-opted by the mainstream, so we were looking for something that spoke to the immediacy that punk had provided. It's very populist music, it's the music of everyday life.
Was it frustrating starting out? Does your job still get frustrating or monotonous from time to time?
It's certainly not a regular office job—there are moments of great exhilaration and accomplishment, and also weeks where you feel like screaming into a void. It can be frustrating at every point, it never goes away. It's with me every night. There's no point where you can sit back and kind of coast. But if you believe in what you're doing, there's always some way you can get your stuff out there. A lot of the artists we work with, we understand that they have a limited appeal in the broad cultural sense, many of them are never going to break into wide consciousness, but there's always bands where we think, 'why didn't the world respond to this better?' I always ask myself how I can do better.
On your website's (very thorough) FAQ page, you sum up your feelings on music piracy and streaming services by imploring we ask ourselves, "Do all of us, as a society, value music?" Are you implying society does not value music as much as it used to? Or not at all?
All we can do as a label is try and explain to our fans the simple economic premise of what we do and what the bands do. We're not dealing with people who drive around in gold plated Hummers or anything. We're talking about people who make music for the love of it, and they take away time from their jobs and families to promote it. If we as a society decide that music, or any form of art, should be free for everyone, I think as a culture we are going to be much poorer for it. A lost sale for these artists is the difference between sleeping in a hotel room on tour, and sleeping on a couch in some stranger's house. The audience can and should help the artists they claim to love so much.
Bloodshot Records celebrates its 20th anniversary at Metro on Jan 10, featuring Ben Kweller, Lydia Loveless, Bobby Bare Jr., Rhett Miller, Banditos, and "special secret guests." The label's 20th anniversary compilation album, "While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records," is out now.