It probably isn't a coincidence that my conversation with Terrible Records co-founder Ethan Silverman is soundtracked by jazz. During his Yak Radio program on web station Know-Wave, Silverman and co-host/signee Dev Hynes share pleasant banter about topics like Black Twitter, Oscar nominations and Ethan’s favorite labels, all behind a soft jazz score that feels like listening to Sunday afternoon NPR. I meet Silverman in a corner booth at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, where he's, in his own words, “having a Friday." He sits relaxed behind a platter of various cheeses and a glass of Rosé, as quintessentially New York jazz tunes play from the restaurant’s loudspeakers. Standing in the heart of the commercially “cool” Williamsburg, the Wythe is nearly empty—in a nearby banquet room that feeds into the restaurant, a bohemian-looking wedding party prepares for a reception.
Silverman sits both in contrast and in concert to this shiny new vision of Brooklyn: with his shaggy beard and relaxed t-shirt and jeans, he looks more like the global fantasy of Williamsburg than its buttoned down reality. But reckoning image and substance has long been Silverman’s hustle: in between sips of Rosé, he explains how in industry being hell-bent on reinventing itself, his approach has always stayed the same.
Since its launch in 2009, the Brooklyn-based Terrible Records has released a slew of improbable indie crossovers, creating micro-celebrities like Dev Hynes and Twin Shadow and lending cool to Solange Knowles, all while keeping an ear in the clubs and in the street. One of their latest signees, new wave band Public Access T.V., just released their debut EP Public Access to sweeping accolades, with critics across the genre asserting that the band's quick hit post-punk is what New York rock should sound like. Most of the artists on Terrible share a certain spacedust—there’s something pure and exciting about them that’s missing from the current music landscape. Consider Le1f’s elastic, neck-snapping flows, Moses Sumney’s shape-shifting productions, or Empress Of’s mystic swan-songs, and a clear if intangible throughline comes into vision, making the small label a unique force in a music industry that, to put it simply, can lack direction.
But then again, labels have always spoken to Silverman. His Yak Radio show was initially centered around his favorite labels, he tells me, and on the inaugural episode you can hear Ethan pledge his allegiance to the DC punk label Dischord. When he was 15, Silverman was a fixture at a record store in his hometown of North Carolina called Manifest Disc and Tapes. After the store’s manager put him on to Dischord, Silverman had something of an epiphany. “When I heard Rites of Springs, I think I almost evaporated,” he says. “I couldn't believe that the singer of Minor Threat/Fugazi [Ian MacKaye] also represented a whole scene of incredible bands and seemed really hands on in all aspects of the label. I wanted that.“
“Bands are always gonna be bands. There’s more great bands here and more shitty bands here than anywhere else.”
After finishing school in NC, Silverman moved to New York and started tour managing for some friends’ bands, eventually landing a gig on the road with pop duo Chairlift. But in late 2008, after touring for eight months and deciding he’d prefer a more predictable lifestyle, Silverman started thinking about applying to label jobs. “I like being at home,” he says with a mouthful of cheese. “I remember thinking, ‘4AD is cool, maybe I’ll just apply there.’” It was when he mentioned this plan to his close friend and Grizzly Bear guitarist Chris Taylor that Terrible Records was born. “Chris was just like, ‘Well, I’ve always wanted to start a label,’” he says. “So we figured it’d be a good idea to go in together.”
Back then, Terrible worked with a handful of bands started by close buddies. They put out releases sporadically and booked smaller shows in New York for bands like Class Actress. In 2010, when Terrible released Twin Shadow’s first LP Forget, things picked up in a big way. Glowing reviews gave way to a packed show schedule and TV appearances, and for the first time, Silverman saw his label as legit—by 2013, they'd signed a distribution deal with XL Recordings. “We started to feel like, ‘Okay this is a thing,’” he says. “We can find someone who's just playing shows in Brooklyn and help them tour and put out an album.”
That very simple goal is what fuels Terrible Records today. When I fumble over a question about how how his label has managed to pick up so many exciting under-the-radar acts, Silverman looks at me confused. “I don’t know if it’s a strategic thing,” he tells me, laughing. “It’s a really organic process. It's never anything like, ‘Oh, we need a hot act for fall’—it’s just like, someone tells us about an Empress Of, we go see her live, and we just open up the conversation from there.”
In April, Honduran singer-songwriter Lorely Rodriguez, b.k.a Empress Of, hosted a weeklong residency at the East Village venue Elvis Guesthouse. The performances were tangibly electric, fueled by a sense of family amongst complete strangers in the crowd—as if being witness to Rodriguez’ contagiously sparkly performance was some sort of birthright. I noticed Silverman at the shows, pacing around like an excited party host. Empress Of’s debut album comes out on Terrible this summer, and the crew were preemptively celebrating: according to Silverman, just about every Terrible artist and their friends were in attendance across the five nights. One Wednesday, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig performed with a Cuban mariachi band, while a who’s who of roster artists laughed and danced in the crowd. It’s the kind of dream scene that still beckons kids downtown from around the world: imagine Lorely Rodriguez, Porches, Moses Sumney, Le1f and Dev Hynes all hanging out at a bar with Ezra Koenig and Bjork, because that's exactly how it happened.
Silverman explains it all like dating. “We want every one of our boyfriends and girlfriends on Terrible to get along with each other,” he jokes after saying yes to another glass of wine. The idea of existing in any sort of “scene” doesn’t sound very appealing to him; instead, Silverman just wants to like the people around him.“I don’t know what any scene is,” he says of the Elvis Guesthouse nights, with as much self-awareness as I'm able to wrangle from him throughout our talk. “But I know that felt good.”
In 2015, recording and releasing music in Brooklyn seems like an uphill battle. As the borough of old gives way to a less interesting Bethesda, Maryland-style playground for the rich, it’s easier than ever to feel discouraged from doing anything that doesn’t have an immediate financial upside. Silverman is far less pessimistic, though. “Bands are always gonna be bands.” He tells me. “There’s more great bands here and more shitty bands here than anywhere else.” He’s even this relaxed when it comes to the hot button issue of music streaming. “As a label, it's harder to commit as much money up front as you would have five years ago, because you can’t depend as much on sales—it's not like we’re going to start selling a bunch of CDs anytime soon,” Silverman offers, before quickly amending, “But everything’s hard.”
Terrible Records seem to be doing a lot right by worrying about the music first and letting the rest fall into place. But with major labels and marquee artists wringing the well for every cent, how will his modest imprint stay afloat? Silverman serves up what he describes as a “pregnant pause,” as if he’s looking for a few short words to explain an entire worldview. Then, he confidently declares, “If you continue to work with artists who are important and exciting, I think the money will follow.”