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Photograph: Christopher KitaharaBettina Richards

Bettina Richards | Interview

Thrill Jockey's boss looks back.


Thrill Jockey, the local independent imprint behind Chicago heavyweights like Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, turned 20 this year. To mark the occasion, label founder Bettina Richards tapped both of those bands for a special anniversary show Thursday 20 at the Empty Bottle. We reached Richards at Thrill Jockey’s Pilsen headquarters, where she weighed in on Spotify and the state of the music industry, and gave us a hint of what to expect at the birthday gig.

When Thrill Jockey started, Chicago acts made up most of the roster, but these days most artists on the label come from other cities, like Baltimore.
We did work with a lot of people from Chicago, especially in the mid- to late-’90s, but we also worked with a lot of people from New York in that time period who were just not as well known. The Chicago bands have done so well. Trans Am was often called a Chicago band, but they were from D.C. at the time. The process of who we work with is pretty organic. One of the ways that things come to us is through the network of musicians we work for and are friends with and respect. Sometimes we start to get these clusters of bands in a city, and it’s not really intentional. I think with Baltimore, it came through my connection to Daniel Higgs, really.

It seems like you’ve been able to navigate the digital landscape rather well, as opposed to other labels that disappeared. Has it been difficult?
It’s really a duality. It’s a great time to work in music, there’s so much going on. I feel like there’s a really vibrant and healthy underground, if you consider something like Pitchfork the overground. People are able to access so many different kinds of music now, because you can post videos all over the place. But conversely, the decline of income from the sale of music is, I don’t know… Epic? Tragic? Terminal? It’s bad. To say that we know how to work with an anemic budget is an understatement. You just have to use creative thinking to solve the problems that money can’t buy.

What are some of your solutions?
A lot of the things that have made it difficult to be an independent record label are the same technologies that have enabled us to deal with that reduced income. Things like being able to record records at home. I wouldn’t equate it to a studio experience because I don’t think it’s equal. But when you have to go that route, it’s much more viable now than it used to be.

Do you find that streaming records online helps sales?
We’ve been streaming our entire catalog for more than ten years on our website. I think people that like what we do, and what labels like Drag City do, are really hardcore music consumers. I think they understand the mechanics of it. So hopefully if they like something they will support it by buying it. Services like Pandora or Spotify, where people don’t actually keep anything, are just radio play that you get paid a tenth of a penny for. [Laughs] On the other hand it’s lost sales. So while that might help in the touring regard, if people aren’t buying records at shows, it’s certainly not helping us.

Tell us about the party at the Bottle.
I just wanted to have a free party and do something totally unique that people wouldn’t have seen before. Man Forever might include some Mannheim Steamroller in their set, or some heavy-metal Christmas songs. The Sea and Cake, I know they’re talking about having the Flea and Rake show up, which is kind of a hardcore version of them. It’s something they did for the comedy show Delocated. We’re going to have a bunch of records on sale super cheap for the Chicago fans. We feel like Chicago is home and people are very supportive of us here.

Thrill Jockey throws down Thursday 20 at the Empty Bottle.

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