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Sharp Darts: The Thrill Isn't Gone

Even after 15 years, Bettina Richards's label is full of surprises.



Despite the success of her label, Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards isn't exactly a wealthy woman. "I peaked at 21 or so in terms of paychecks," she says. In the late 80s and early 90s she worked as an A and R rep for Atlantic in New York, where she earned enough to save a respectable chunk of the seed money she'd later use to start Thrill Jockey. But if not every endeavor since then has been a moneymaker, well, there are other rewards. Thrill Jockey is not just a respected elder among indie labels—it's still breaking new ground, expanding and experimenting with its operations and its roster. It's celebrating its 15th anniversary this year (you've probably already caught wind of the huge two-night label showcase at the Logan Square Auditorium this weekend), and the occasion has spurred the usually forward-looking Richards to spend some time considering the past.

Richards worked for Atlantic before the post-Nirvana pillaging of the indie-rock scene, and her bosses weren't especially attuned to her sensibilities. "I really was just a music fan, so I kind of stumbled into working at a major label," she says. "I didn't have any ambitions about being an A and R person." She secured record deals with Atlantic or its affiliates for some bands she cared about—Eleventh Dream Day, the Meat Puppets—but she wasn't high enough on the totem pole to make much of a difference in the label's approach. "I just didn't like how I couldn't follow through on everything because of the way a corporate structure that's that huge is by nature somewhat inflexible," she says. "You can't completely bend the system."

So in early '91, when she was 26, Richards left the system. She got a job at the venerable Hoboken record store Pier Platters and in '92 starting putting out records herself. Soon she left New York as well, moving to Chicago in 1995. "I mean, just logistically," she says, "getting records shipped UPS out of my fifth-floor walk-up was like a huge hassle."

Richards had visited Chicago many times because of Eleventh Dream Day, but she had other good reasons to come here: she'd gotten to know some of the city's indie heavyweights, including Corey Rusk at Touch and Go and Dan Koretzky at Drag City, and she'd already released albums by Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, two bands at the center of the mid-90s creative bloom that earned Chicago's music scene its reputation for experimentation and hybridization. Plus there was the city's relatively low cost of living, which Richards connects with that aesthetic adventurousness. "I think that a lot of the practical nuts and bolts of living here have allowed it to be the kind of city it is, where bands really cross-pollinate," she says. "You see people who are interested in jazz playing with people who are interested in rock, or people who are really into techno trying it with people who are not from that scene. So I think that has a lot to do with how the city is kind of financially expansive—you can kind of afford different kinds of spaces, you know, if you're willing to go west or go south."

In short order Thrill Jockey's roster was nearly as eclectic as the Chicago scene. That diversity remains the label's calling card, and you can get a feel for it—as well as for the kind of wonderfully ridiculous ideas Richards still embraces—from the Super Epic Thrill Jockey Mega Massive Anniversary Mix, assembled for the label by Trey Told 'Em, aka Girl Talk guy Greg Gillis and Frank Musarra from Hearts of Darknesses. They've broken down big chunks of the label's catalog into bite-size nuggets and assembled them into a 74-minute continuous mix. One section edits together every Oval track, and two more combine a bunch of snippets from Trans Am and Tortoise, respectively; elsewhere the Sea and Cake's smooth pop segues into free jazz from Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake and blip merchants Mouse on Mars are pressed into service as a sort of rhythm section for Freakwater. The fact that the mix isn't completely unlistenable is a testament not only to Gillis and Musarra's skills—I'm seriously considering upgrading my opinion of Girl Talk—but also to the high standards the label has maintained throughout its history.

It also says a lot that SETJMMAM, the closest thing Thrill Jockey has to a greatest-hits collection, is itself an experiment in form—and that the label is giving it away. You can buy it on disc from Thrill Jockey or Trey Told 'Em if you move fast enough (it isn't available as a download), but most of the copies are being handed out as gifts to fans who buy two-day passes to this weekend's anniversary shows.

For something to sell, the label is focusing on Plum, a set of 20 all-new recordings issued in an almost aggressively retro style: as a box set of ten seven-inches. No CD release is planned. On each side, one Thrill Jockey artist covers a song by another. "I just thought it would be fun," Richards says. "It'd be fun for me to witness what songs bands would pick out. And I thought, well, hopefully that will lead people to bands. If they're really a huge Califone fan but never paid much attention to Freakwater, then Califone playing this Freakwater song—maybe that'll help them, be like a gateway for them." The track listing looks like a musical relay race: Califone covers Freakwater, Freakwater covers the Zincs, the Zincs cover Howe Gelb, Gelb covers John Parish, Parish covers Califone. It's obvious the artists respect one another, but they aren't afraid to put their mark on the songs. Bobby Conn turns the dark folk of Freakwater's "Washed in the Blood" into Gypsy disco, and in David Byrne's hands the Fiery Furnaces' "Ex Guru" loses its manic, ragged edges, acquiring instead the straight-faced kitschiness and glossy funk of his own material.

When I point out that Plum's format is wildly impractical, Richards doesn't argue. "I know," she says, "but that's kind of why I like it." Her decision is easy to appreciate for its perversity, since it's clearly not an oblivious blunder. Thrill Jockey has adapted expertly to the evolution of the online music marketplace, and the label's in-house digital retail service, Fina Music, has been successful enough that it's now serving dozens of other indie imprints, from Bloodshot to Constellation to Editions Mego—it's like Richards is trying to repay the karmic debt she took on when Touch and Go agreed to distribute Thrill Jockey back in the day. She admits she hasn't totally wrapped her head around the changes in the industry, "But, y'know," she says, "I want to meet the person that has."

Anyway, Richards is relying on more than her digital-retail savvy to help Thrill Jockey survive the ongoing Internet-enabled breakdown of the barriers between performers and listeners, which could make record labels obsolete. It's her outlandish ideas—the ones that don't seem like they could possibly be profit minded—that endear the label to people. And given they way music consumers' choices are proliferating, there's no overstating the importance of a loyal audience. "We're gonna do whatever we want," she says, "whether somebody tells you it makes sense or not—like a seven-inch box set or getting Trey Told 'Em to make a mega mix of a whole catalog. Someone was like, 'That is crazy,' but who cares? I still love doing what I do. Even on the worst of days, I still really like it—it's the only reason to do it."v

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