Bloodshot Records Owner Rob Miller Talks Chicago Label’s 25th Anniversary, Past, Present, and Future (INTERVIEW)

Any independent record label that has managed to survive the digitization and disruption of the music industry is worth our admiration. Founded in 1994 back when buying physical music was a regular part of our routine, Chicago label Bloodshot Records has managed to swim against the tide for twenty-five years by carving out its own niche in the music industry. In the process, it has developed a die-hard group of fans who first flocked to the label for early releases from the likes of Alejandro Escovedo, Old 97’s, the Bottle Rockets, Robbie Fulks, the Waco Brothers, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and Ryan Adams, and have since got on board with newer acts like the Yawpers, Vandoliers, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, Cory Branan, and Ruby Boots. Bloodshot may be broadly classified as a roots rock label, but their acts have covered cow punk, alt-country, Americana, honky tonk, psych folk, blues, soul, and good old fashioned rock and roll.

Throughout their time as a label, Bloodshot (and many of its artists) have always proudly waved Chicago flag. That sense of pride in their own roots as a label and in their home town is the subject of their recently released twenty-fifth anniversary compilation Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots. The album features a collection of songs from longtime label artists like Jon Langford (playing with Steve Albini), Robbie Fulks, and Freakwater alongside lesser-known Windy City acts like Tammi Savoy, The Hoyle Brothers, Brendan Kelly, Lawrence Peters, The Western Elstons, Wild Earp, Big Sadie, and David Quinn among others. Each song seems to offer a snippet of the magic that has long defined Bloodshot, and it’s no surprise that the label itself describes it as one big Chicago family affair. Recently, label co-founder and owner Rob Miller took the time to talk about the new compilation, and Bloodshot’s past, present, and future.

Where did the idea come from to do an album similar in concept to For A Life of Sin: Insurgent Chicago Country?

With the 25th anniversary improbably approaching, we kicked around all sorts of ideas on how to commemorate the occasion: different themes, different formats – and who to approach (and, additionally, how to get those who approached US involved.).  However, in the end, I felt it was important, and would be an interesting document, to revisit the original idea, the genesis spark, and return home and shine the spotlight on Chicago. It would show that this music has staying power. So many scenes come and go, rise and flame out, or move on. But I think the music we love, whether we are the ones doing it or not, continues to have a resonance for fans who crave an honest connection to its audience, that isn’t trendy, or subject to the boom and bust mentality of THE NEXT BIG THING.

 How did you select the acts that played on the album? 

The beauty of this city is there is never a shortage of material to choose from. Everyone in the office had a say – they brought their faves into the mix. We asked around, we made a lot of new friends. Some of the artists were brand new to me, and some,  like Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Freakwater, and the Handsome Family, were, amazingly, on our first compilation. We wanted to strike a balance between those two poles, as well as show the ever impressive breadth of styles happening in the city.

What role do you think the city of Chicago has played in both nurturing Bloodshot as a label and in supporting the kind of music you put out?

It is just that: a nurturing place. Existing outside the entertainment company towns of NYC, LA, and Nashville allows Chicago to be a place of openness. Artists are able to develop and experiment beyond the glaring lights of THE INDUSTRY. They are very much A PART of the community, as opposed to apart or above it. There is great freedom in the ability to fail without fearing you’ve “blown your shot” or something. The infrastructure is also one of the best and most supportive in the country. Radio stations, writers, club owners, and retail outlets are all active participants in this vibrant ecosystem. It’s something Chicagoans should never take for granted. People are forgiving of the foul balls and willing give works in progress a chance. It makes for a usually very humble, down-to-earth, and boundary-stretching environment.

If you think back, do you think there is one or two acts that put the label on the map and gained it respect?

We have respect? Sweet! Why can’t I get a table at Girl and the Goat then?

Jon Langford’s participation certainly lent an imprimatur to our early tomfoolery; the success of the Old 97s made some major label A&R goons pay attention; signing Alejandro Escovedo gave us the veneer of legitimacy.

After that, it was mostly the occasions when our tastes and popular culture mysteriously overlapped. With records by Neko Case, Ryan Adams, Justin Townes Earle, Lydia Loveless, the Bottle Rockets, Detroit Cobras, we found ourselves with something of a track record.

Jon Langford is obviously a huge presence in the history of the label. How would you sum up his influence in terms of both his music and art in defining the label? 

As mentioned above, he was an early excuse for some pretty top notch writers to pay attention to us.

Beyond that, he has taught me invaluable lessons on how to behave in a racket full charlatans, buffoons, and grifters. We have never had anything but a handshake deal with him; it is inconceivable that I would ever betray that. Endeavor to do the right thing for people even if, especially if, no one is looking. Keep moving, do the work, don’t be afraid to try something ridiculous  and let others sort out the import, meaning, and legacy.

Is there an act that you wish you signed or maybe someone that you had a chance to sign and they became huge after? 

Oh yes. To pretend I have infallible ears and unimpeachable taste would be comically inaccurate.

There have been a few artists who approached us who, while we may have liked them and felt that perhaps they would do well, we didn’t LOVE the music. To enter into such an arrangement is a disingenuous prospect at best. It’s not fair to the artists – they deserve fierce advocates – and I think it’s fairly transparent when someone does something merely because of some theoretical belief that it will be a “hit.”

Then there are others that, for reasons ranging to depressive funks, a bad night, too much tequila, or something utterly random, I just flat out missed.

I have several stories of this nature that I will take to the grave.

As an indie label owner in a landscape that has always been tough but is especially so these days, what do you think is Bloodshot’s biggest triumph?

Surviving with our ethics and our mission statement largely intact; still believing in what we do – which I think fans and the community recognize and respond to. If we were just phoning it in, if we were just working with artists to make a buck, to help us pay for our infinity pools and waygu beef addictions, then it would all feel tremendously hollow.

In recent years you have set up a handful of brand partnerships with companies like FEW Spirits. How do these things come about and do you see them as a necessary form of branding for a label to stay visible? 

Honestly, they usually come about from mutual admiration. It takes a similar crackpot mentality to start an amazing distillery or sausage emporium (like Hot Doug’s), or notebook makers (Field Notes) as it does to run an indie label. They are passionate music fans, and we are, um, passionate drinkers. And eaters. And scribblers. It’s all part and parcel of a mentality that believes strongly in craft, locality, commitment, community, ingenuity. I genuinely believe that a rising tide lifts all boats and if someone who is a fan of FEW discovers our music, or vice versa, then everyone wins. Besides, it’s not like we are partnering up with Halliburton.

What does the future look like for Bloodshot? 

I’m no closer to being able to answer that question than I was 24 ½ years ago. Hopefully, we’ll keep finding music that gives us that jolt, we’ll keep doing the hard work, and perhaps the stars will align and allow us to keep doing this. I’m unemployable in the real world, so it HAS to work!

Too Late to Pray: Defiant Chicago Roots is out now. For all things Bloodshot visit bloodshotrecords.com.

Photo courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Related Content

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide

Twitter