On paper, at the beginning, it would not have seemed the most probable of music-industry success stories: one former major label exec named Bettina Richards, $35,000 in mostly borrowed start-up capital, and a burning urge to put out new, boundary-pushing music no matter what genre it happened to fall under — and to treat the people who made it fairly.
Two decades later, we'd be loathe to call Chicago independent record label Thrill Jockey anything but a success. After all, it's 2012, and the company actually exists! It puts out records — good ones, even! It keeps an office in London! It has five employees! Who get paid money! This amid one of the greatest and most disruptive revolutions the recorded music industry has ever seen, one that's slashed the sales figures for new records (and the revenues of the firms that put them out) to fractions of what they were five or 10 years ago.
Yet Thrill Jockey has survived — and, over the last 20 years, put out hundreds of records by some of the country's most adventurous musicians, including many hailing from San Francisco and the Bay Area, like Wooden Shjips, Mi Ami, and Barn Owl. If you ask the people who know how this came to be — how it is that Thrill Jockey retained its indie credibility, grew its ambitions, and stubbornly continued to exist — you'll hear an interesting word come up: "conservative." Not conservative in terms of music — Thrill Jockey has put out bluegrass records, free jazz records, post-rock records, black metal records, and ambient-psych records, among other unusual genres — but conservative in how it does business.
"A healthy sense of doom keeps my budgets very tight, and is part of the reason why I think we've been able to survive," says Richards over the phone from Thrill Jockey headquarters in Chicago. "It's the perpetual feeling that we might be teetering on the edge of a cliff that keeps us constantly making sure we're not overreaching."
That means keeping the costs down while the quality up — and working quickly, says S.F. artist Phil Manley, who has released albums on Thrill Jockey both with the band Trans Am and as a solo artist, and engineers Thrill Jockey releases at his Lucky Cat Studios in Potrero Hill. "Sometimes you get these labels that want to turn on the money hose, and the band is in the studio for three weeks. A lot of great records are made in four days, and Bettina knows that, and I know that."
Thrill Jockey's persistence is all the more remarkable considering the headwinds facing any company in the recorded music business in 2012. In its pre-Internet heyday, the post-rock band Tortoise, which is to date Thrill Jockey's biggest artist, might have sold 85,000 copies of a new album, Richards says. Now, with MP3s and streaming and filesharing, Richards says that even though Tortoise can draw 1,500 to 2,000 people to its live show, the band's new records will sell only 15,000 to 20,000 copies.
Richards has responded to the pressures of technology largely by changing along with them. Thrill Jockey puts every release by every artist up on its website for streaming in its entirety, believing that, as Richards says, "If people could access the music and they liked it, they would support it in some fashion." It was one of the first labels to jump to digital-only promotional records, which caused loud complaints but saved thousands in printing and shipping costs. And while each new release may not sell as many copies as it would have a decade ago, Thrill Jockey has responded by putting out many more records every year — nearly 60 in the past year, including reissues.
Still, all this would make little difference if the core mission of the label — finding good music to release — weren't going well. Though once identified with the post-rock sound of Tortoise and others, Thrill Jockey's catalog defies easy generalization today. Many of its Bay Area bands deal in various flavors of psychedelia: There's the massive riff-rock of Wooden Shjips, the vast, subtle landscapes of Barn Owl, and the classic, bluesy rock of Golden Void. But the label also released an acclaimed album by Brooklyn metal outfit Liturgy last year. And Thrill Jockey has also been known to put out jazz from the thriving Chicago scene.
"Even though Thrill Jockey at one point had a really distinctive sound, I think they've pushed past that now," says Andee Connors, co-owner of the Mission's Aquarius Records and drummer for A Minor Forest, a now-defunct S.F. band that released on Thrill Jockey in the '90s. "Thrill Jockey has become this really cool brand for all sorts of things. They really are tapped into what's interesting."
The label is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a series of shows around the country featuring artists from its diverse roster. This week's San Francisco edition will see the spacey synth-rock of Manley's Trans Am sharing a bill with Liturgy's howling assault, the glacial, instrumental atmospherics of Barn Owl, and the transportive jams of Wooden Shjips, among others. It's an odd collection of bands that wouldn't normally share a single bill. But then, considering Thrill Jockey's 20-year history of putting out worthy, unusual music, regardless of genre, how could it not be?