Ever since Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller founded Bloodshot Records in 1993, the small, Chicago-based label has been one of the most important, trusted homes of independent, roots-minded American music in the country. The label, which has fostered the careers of artists like Ryan Adams, Neko Case, Alejandro Escovedo, Justin Townes Earle, and most recently, Lydia Loveless, is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the release While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records, out today. The expansive, 38 song collection features Bloodshot admirers like Ted Leo, Andrew Bird, Frank Turner, Chuck Prophet and Hiss Golden Messenger paying tribute to Bloodshot by covering an assortment of material released on the label over the past 20 years.
“Bloodshot is a rarity as a record label,” Justin Townes Earle told American Songwriter earlier this fall when talking about the struggles he faced once he decided to move on from the label in 2012. “They’re the sweetest people on earth, so easy to work with.”
On the eve of the release of the label’s 20th anniversary tribute disc, American Songwriter caught up with Rob Miller, the co-founder of Bloodshot. We talked to Miller about his favorite moments from the album, the secret to longevity as a small, indie label, and the difficulties of signing new artists in the age of Spotify.
It’s been really nice to see all the coverage the anniversary release has been getting over the past few days. That must feel good.
The whole point of the title and just our whole mindsight as a label is that it still kind of surprises us when people are paying attention. It’s always good to feel like you’re not screaming into a void.
These types of anniversary discs have always a part of your label’s story. What was the initial impulse behind the five and ten year anniversary discs, way back when?
Before the internet, those five and ten year anniversary albums were still a way to gather a lot of like-minded people, on and off the label, and provide one tent under which this thing could be released when it was still harder for people to get their music heard. Everyone toured through Chicago, all our bands did and all these other bands who liked our bands did, so it was pretty easy for us to just compile thirty, forty, fifty tracks by people and put them in one place.
Does this new record feel more like a celebration than years past? More retrospective?
It was pointedly not a retrospective, we didn’t want to re-release a bunch of stuff or do something like that. I credit mostly Josh and Mike and other people in the office for coming up with this idea because, quite frankly, I’m buried in work and I’m trying to get these records out by bands I love. These guys came to me with this idea and I said sure, maybe a few people will respond and we can do a special 7 inch series or something like that. Then it became quickly evident that the scope of this thing was going to be huge because so many people from so many areas of the music world got back to us so quickly. All of a sudden, a series of 7 inches turned into a triple LP. That’s when it really started to get humbling and weird and very gratifying. If nothing else in the world, I can say that Mike Watt knows who I am.
It must’ve felt really nice to get all those responses.
It really did, and I’d say I had never heard 30% of the bands on this record before. This whole project was others in the office who are younger than me and who are all passionate music fans digging into their aesthetic and into their personal record collections and reaching out to all of these people. It brought an entirely different feel to it. It would never have occured to me to reach out to some of the people that they did.
Were there any moments on the album when you heard a track from one of the bands you hadn’t heard of before and thought, ‘these guys should be on bloodshot!’?
Oh, absolutely. Sadly, a lot of them are already signed to other labels, but yeah, there were a couple where I was like ‘oh my god, how did we miss these guys all these years.’
Do you have any personal favorites or new discoveries from the album?
Nicki Bluhm’s cover of Ryan Adam’s “Oh My Sweet Carolina” is gorgeous. I love what Chris Shiflett did with Justin Townes Earle’s “Look the Other Way.” Justin’s version is kind of a really dark, somber song, and then what Chris did with it, it reminds me of Ernest Tubb or somebody from the 50’s singing a really sad song with a big grin on their face. Ted Leo’s “Dragging My Own Tombstone” was a complete surprise. I could go down the list. Limbeck, who I had somehow never heard, I love what they did with the Old 97’s “Sound of Running.” For me personally, it’s going to be something that I keep discovering stuff from for a long time. That’s what keeps music interesting, that feeling of discovery.
What’s so great about this concept of this source material being covered by different artists is that it’s such a great way to both discover new groups and to discover old Bloodshot songs from way back.
That was another strange and wonderful thing about the whole process: some people went real deep the deep catalog. For the overwhelming majority of these covers, people came to us with a very clear idea of what they wanted to do, and a couple of these bands picked some real deep catalog things which were totally surprising.
What has it been like to always be serving, to some degree, as a launching pad for your biggest artists. Is it ever hard to say goodbye to them when they move on?
We take a lot of our business philosophy from Dirty Harry, where he says ‘a man’s got to know his limitations.’ It’s always bittersweet when somebody does so well and wants to move on, but in another very real way that’s a victory for everyone, because we ultimately wanted to get this artist who we believe in in front of as many people as possible.
We’re very comfortable at the size we are, it allows us to be a lot more flexible. When Ryan Adams started to hit really big in 2000 there was a lot of pressure on us to expand, to hire on a lot more staff and be able to keep up with just the manufacturing alone. When we’re talking about manufacturing five to ten thousand CD’s and then all of a sudden we’re manufacturing several hundred thousand, that’s a terrifying proposition for someone like us. We’re a little storefront in chicago, where are we going to put all these damn things?
We made the conscious decision early on to keep ourselves at a very manageable level, and if somebody needs the services of one of those bigger labels, then yeah, absolutely, they should do that. If they have that ambition to get to that level, then our job is to get out of the way. Some people do it more graciously than others, and sometimes there can be a little hard feelings. The other side of that coin is we’ve had several artists who were on major labels and hated it and wanted to come back to us, people like the Bottle Rockets, Alejandro Escovedo, the Mekons. They had been through that sausage grinder and they realized that they would rather sell fewer records, make not much less money, but also have total freedom.
When I talked to Justin Townes Earle earlier this fall, I asked him a bit about finding a new label because he had been publicly gotten pretty upset about the first label experience he had after he left Bloodshot. For him, it seemed like it had been a rude awakening as to what the rest of the industry could be like.
Yeah, you never know until you try. You see people riding around in tour buses and you think ‘I want to do that,’ but it doesn’t come without a price a lot of the time. It was probably a bit of a rude awakening because things with us were just so great. Those first four records with Justin, it was just so obvious what a talent was developing there. And then all of a sudden he’s kind of thrown into the deep end of the business pool and it’s not as smooth as it should be, sometimes. But we’re still friends, we still sell his records on the website and everything.
Justin Townes Earle doing so well a few years ago allowed us to take a chance on Lydia Loveless and start developing her. Ryan Adams doing really well allowed us to put a lot of money into Neko Case. If you allow yourself to get too big and only put money into things you know are going to get big, then you just fall into this boom-and-bust cycle mentality of ‘we’ve got to keep growing, we’ve got to keep growing.’
Has the process of discovering and signing new labels changed at all over the past 20 years? Is it still as simple as you and Nan just really liking new act’s music?
In some ways, the core of it is still as simple as that: if something about an act really excites us, we’ll want to work with them. The thing that has changed, because of piracy and Spotify and people just not feeling like they need to pay for creative endeavors, is that it’s been harder to sign up bands or artists that we may really like but don’t have the ability in their life, because of jobs or family or something else, to go out on the road 150 days a year. So we just have to kind of politely decline, because there’s no way for us to make that work anymore, which kills me.
Some of my favorite artists from our earlier days, like Devil in a Woodpile, or Trailer Bride, or the Meat Purveyors, were bands that would put out a record, we’d do it cheaply, and they’d maybe be able to tour ten or twenty days a year, and that was enough to break even. And then we could just do another one. I love those records, but we can’t work with artists like that anymore. That’s the hardest part.
That inevitably means you’re cutting out artists who are older, or have kids, or come from different economic backgrounds. By only being able to sign acts that can tour six months of the year, you inherently must be narrowing the scope of voices on the label. That must be tough.
Yes, absolutely. People seem to walk around like ‘oh piracy’, or ‘oh, I pay my $9.99 a month to Spotify, this is all a victimless crime, all these musicians, they can make all their money from t-shirts and gigs and stuff,’ but it’s just not true. The amount of art that is not getting created, where artists just kind of shrug their shoulders and go ‘I just can’t make this work’ and they just go do something else, that’s really tough, because like I said, we’ve had to pass on some acts that we really like.
That’s a good way of putting it. Your average fan probably looks at the artists they already know and think that if they buy a t-shirt or see a show or something, those artists will make enough money. That may be sometimes true, but you’re so right in saying that the real damage being done with that mindset is the exclusion taking place that you would never think about.
Right, it’s hard to describe the music that hasn’t been made.