Notes From Middle America - Bloodshot Records Turns 15: A Conversation With Label Founder Rob Miller

Notes From Middle America is contributor Danny R. Phillips monthly column. You can read past installments here.

In light of Touch and Go's recent decision to shut its doors, Bloodshot Records may not be Chicago Illinois’ longest standing label, but at 15 years old, it might now be the "new" reference point for venerable Chicago indies for years to come. Founded in June of 1994 by Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw, the label is home to many acts and genres; whether it be surf lounge (The Dex Romweber Duo), rock (The Detroit Cobras, Firewater), Latin (Cordero), country (Justin Townes Earle) and nearly every other music type you can think of. But while Bloodshot could be called many things, there’s one tag in particular that seems to bother Miller.

“When we got going, someone called Bloodshot an alt-country label and that really made my head hurt. It’s more than that, we’ve tried to cover the entire spectrum of music as well as we could.”

Mr. Miller, talking to me from Bloodshot’s Chicago office, said that a combination of boredom, naiveté, a healthy love of music and not knowing any better, were the reasons behind starting the label. Here is how the rest of our conversation played out.

TW: When the label started how many employees did you have?
Rob: When we started it was myself and two other partners, one of which left pretty quickly after it started. Our first paid employee was Kelly Hogan (she went on to record for the label), that was a solid three years into it and we didn’t start paying ourselves for another year after that. It was a very time consuming, bank account draining hobby.

So, for the first three or four years you were doing it for the love?
Sure, but that why we’re still doing it. It’s the only reason to do it. That’s the only reason we’re still putting up with all we have to put up with. The money is icing. And at this point I’m practically unemployable in the real world.

Have you always been based in Chicago?
Yes we have.

Why not put out a label on the East or West Coast?
We didn’t live there. [laughs] Plus, I don’t think we would have thrived in any other city. Chicago has been incredibly supportive; there’s an unbelievable supportive organic underground community that exists here between all the labels that exists non-competitively, intelligent writers that work for the major newspapers as well as the fanzines. You know, there’s a reason why things like Pitchfork, Touch and Go and Thrill Jockey came out of Chicago. Because of great clubs willing to take chances, the bands aren’t clique-ish, musicians are anxious to move here. Chicago doesn’t have that pressure to succeed, there is a freedom and openness, people help each other's labels, a lot of playing on each others records, a lot of honest handshake deals. It’s not to make it big, it’s to create art.

Honestly, one of the main reasons I wanted to do this Midwest column is the number of great bands looking for exposure. I’m not running out of material any time soon.
Exactly. Back in the cave days before the internet, bands came through here on tour. If you wanted to hear a new band you had to go see them and the best part about that was there was exposure to an eclectic mix of music and your mind would be blown. And shows are very affordable here. You can see good bands on any given night for very little money.

Name one band you had a chance to sign, you wish you did, but didn’t.
I’d rather not say. [laughs] There are some that in my dark moments I sit alone and say, 'What was I thinking?'

Nothing you want to state for the record?
Exactly. There’s been a couple of them that have gone on to make really poor decisions and implode and there’s some that quite frankly wound up in a better place. So, I don’t hold any ill will against anyone. It’s no one’s business but my own.

That’s a very diplomatic answer.
Well if nothing else, in this business you become a good diplomat.

[Rob Miller in the Bloodshot offices]

What was the first band that you signed to Bloodshot?
The first band we signed to a contract was The Waco Brothers featuring John Langford and that was a handshake deal. The Old 97’s was the first one we had that really exploded on us.

You seem to have a very diverse mix of talent on your label. When you started out did you intend on having such a broad roster?
Well, there is a thread of appreciation for American roots music in one form or another. It’s kind of the gravitational pull that holds it all together. I can see how all the bands relate to one another, but I think the diversity is greater that what people give us credit for. We were lumped in quite early with the whole alt-country thing. It kind of makes my head hurt. So we decided to sign Robbie Fulks and people said 'That doesn’t sound like Bloodshot.' Then came Neko Case and people were like, 'hey, that doesn’t sound like Bloodshot.' We’ll what in the fuck do we sound like? I see the diversity, but sometimes I forget that not everyone likes the broad range of music that I do. Like, I go through life thinking everyone likes The Misfits as much as they like Howlin’ Wolf as much as they like Peggy Lee.

If someone held a gun to your head and said, 'Ok, this is Bloodshot’s fifteenth Anniversary, put together a compilation of your favorite artist you’ve worked with, who would be on it?
Not only can’t I answer that, I won’t answer it. Because over the 160+ releases, there are maybe four that are unbearable and I’m not gonna tell you which ones those are. Look, there are two partners in Bloodshot (Miller and Nan Warshaw) some of the records are hers and some are mine. The label is a music geeks dream come true, I get to produce my own record collection so there is something I love about each and every one of these bands. It’s hard to say which one of these bands is my favorite because some of the best ones in my opinion are the really weirdo niche records that may only sell a couple thousand copies and I’ll go back to those more then some that have sold fifty thousand copies. For our tenth anniversary, we did a comp called A Decade of Sin: Eleven Years of Bloodshot. That’s how on top of these things we are around here. There are just so many variables that go into something like that.

How has the economy affected your business?
It’s affected us like it has everyone else. If somebody can’t make their rent the last thing they’re thinking about doing is going out and buying records; people prioritize. It’s harder to buy new music, it’s harder to go out to shows. It’s tougher for bands to take time off of work to tour, to pay for gas, for hotels. It’s never been an easy business, but it’s even more difficult now.

What’s a typical day at Bloodshot like for you?
God knows it’s not glamorous. Order filling, website maintenance, lots of spreadsheets, time on the phone. I handle all the statistics for production and manufacturing; Very rarely does it involve being in the studio helping with the creation of a record. There is a lot of desk time.

What do you think about the so-called “vinyl resurgence” that going on right now?
Anyone that says that they can’t hear the difference between an MP3 and vinyl just doesn’t listen to music. I can stand on a street corner on my soap box all day long and tell people LPs sound better, but you can’t argue with the convenience of a download. Around 30% of our business comes from downloads. But with the so-called resurgence -- it’s not even so-called -- it’s a fact that records are coming back, which is great. I think some people just got sick of have 9 million songs on there hard drive. The format has no soul. When you take a record home and play it, you make more of an instant connection with the artist that you perhaps don’t form through an MP3. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that vinyl will be a dominate form of media, because it won’t, but Bloodshot is pressing more vinyl, I like to take records home and play them. They look great and they sound great.

Where do you think Bloodshot will be in the next fifteen years?
Hell, I don't know. People couldn't believe it when we made it to a year, then five, then ten, let alone fifteen. I'm not even going to try and predict where we'll be in the next fifteen years. We'll just have to wait and see.

Notes From Middle America - Bloodshot Records Turns 15: A Conversation With Label Founder Rob Miller