Bloodshot Records was born in a late-night Chicago bar, with some simple ideas scrawled out on a cocktail napkin.
Ever since its very first album release in 1994, For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country, the esteemed label has been a bright and steady beacon in a shifting musical landscape. That very first compilation included local Midwestern greatness like The Bottle Rockets, Robbie Fulks, The Handsome Family, Freakwater, and of course Jon Langford (The Mekons), whose commitment to bands like The Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts – not to mention his striking visual art – is closely connected to the history of Bloodshot, spawning the term “insurgent country” for which the label is known.
Predating the Americana wave to come later in the ’90s, Bloodshot soon spread out across the nation to become nearly synonymous with rootsy rock ‘n’ roll, country punk, and shining singer-songwriters seemingly unfit to belong anywhere else. Initially dropping releases from the likes of Old 97’s, Neko Case, Waco Brothers, and Ryan Adams (Heartbreaker being Bloodshot’s biggest seller of all time) laid the foundation that the label would carefully built and gradually developed over the years.
More recent signings include Justin Townes Earle, Lydia Loveless, Luke Winslow-King, and Maggie Björklund, as well as long-time main stayers as Graham Parker, Andre Williams, The Sadies, and Alejandro Escovedo. And even though Bloodshot has always stayed true to its roots, it has never stop growing and expanding and has continued to consistently release quality music. Going through Bloodshot’s massive catalog and choosing highlights is both an exciting and monumental task, one that serves as a reminder of how vital, diverse, and fun the label’s output has been.
TIDAL hooked up with original label founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller to get to know beloved Bloodshot a little better. Read on to learn about the label that draws lines from the Dead Kennedys straight back to Johnny Cash, to hear a compelling story about longevity without compromising guiding principles and to understand how the devaluation of creative content these days makes us all culturally poorer. To set the right mood while reading, be sure to tune in to our Best of Bloodshot Records playlist here.
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Can you please give a brief history of Bloodshot and how it was founded?
Rob Miller: Three music freaks walked into bar… Bloodshot started the same way a great many ridiculous enterprises began: ignorance, stubbornness, naiveté, and boundless enthusiasm for music that others seemed to be ignoring. And liquor.
In retrospect, there was remarkably little awareness as to what we might be doing. In the hazy-crazy post-Nirvana days, everyone was looking for the next big thing. The notion of “alternative music” that we’d grown up on was being used to soundtrack jeans commercials, Martha Stewart was telling the world how to throw a “grunge party” and the whole thing was a depressing co-opting of a lifestyle and worldview.
At the same time, we saw a vibrant and, to us, under-recognized scene in Chicago full of bands dipping their toes into the rootsy music underbelly. It was fresh, inventive, unconstricted by rules or expectations. And it was honest and straightforward. It drew the line from the Dead Kennedys straight back to Johnny Cash. We thought “hey, why not gather up a bunch of songs and put them on a CD and have a show!” It was that simple and that, I dunno, pure in its genesis. There was no planning for step #2. It was, at the time, a distraction from my day job of painting houses and getting the infrequent tiny check for writing an album review or something.
But we struck a chord, and the enterprise snowballed and here we are, 22 years later, still waiting for someone to say “Hey! You can’t do that!!”
What motivated you to enter the music business in the first place?
RM: My first concert was Alice Cooper at the Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1979. I hated it all. The whole “Detroit Rock City” vibe. The weed, the long hair, the pure dumb-assery of it all. Listening to “Stairway to Heaven” on the radio made we wonder why people liked music at all. It was so tedious and spoke not a whit to the hellishness of the bullying and alienation I was experiencing in high school. Then I saw Devo. Then the Ramones, then Black Flag, then X, Circle Jerks, The Cramps, The Gun Club…. all in the space of about two months. And that was it: The energy, the anger, the weirdness, the freedom.
Looking back, I guess it wasn’t a matter of IF I’d be involved in music, but a matter of when and how. After a couple years of DJ’ing in college, and a stint as a roadie, as a stage manager, as a production manager and as an occasional tour manager in addition to doing lots of writing in my spare time, I moved to Chicago to get away from music. That didn’t turn out too well.
What labels, if any, where your personal role models or guiding stars?
RM: Being a full-fledged music geek, I started paying attention to the labels themselves early on and to the identities and histories they had. Stax/Volt, Sun, Chess and being from Detroit, obviously Motown and Fortune. Plus all those crazy regional labels like King and a thousand others. When I started getting into punk and hardcore, there was such a strong bond and association between bands, fans and labels. Dischord, Slash, SST, Touch and Go were all models – perhaps unwittingly – for the notion that if you want to do something, DO IT. Don’t wait for a major label or some other sort monolithic power structure to tell you how things should be done. Building a community around the label seemed so natural in the days of Sub Pop, Estrus, Sympathy for the Record Industry, K, In the Red, we didn’t really sit down and go “this is a good business move,” it was just a natural extension of our participation in the underground music scene.
What do you represent or stand for as an institution?
RM: Well, what we represent is for others to decide, I suppose. We’ve never got too bogged down with questions like “what is the BS sound?” or “how much do you represent a counterview to the Nashville Country Music Industry?” or other such things. We’re too busy doing the work and moving forward.
We’d like to be thought of, by both our fans and our artists, as a bunch of music fans who worked hard, believed in what we did, never took the support we’ve received for granted, and never took the art entrusted to us lightly.
And that we threw some pretty fun parties.
What, in your opinion, is the greatest achievement in the history of Bloodshot Records? What are you most proud of achieving since starting the label?
RM: Longevity without compromising our principles. It’s impossible for me to pick ONE moment, or ONE album, that would mean that I’m always looking back, and I try not to do that. The joy and sense of accomplishment comes from the long view; watching an artist’s career arc, still believing in what we do. I’m proud that people still find that occasional spark in our releases, that they trust us and stick around for the ride.
Did you have an initial idea back then on what the label ought to be and how it could evolve in the future?
RM: Not to be glib, but we had no idea what we were doing or getting ourselves into back then. Or now, for that matter. There was no expectation of a “future” when we started – ignorance can be very liberating – and there are always new surprises and challenges. Often, especially as a result of changing technologies, evolution is thrust upon us and we do the best we can.
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How will you describe your music scene at the moment?
Nan Warshaw: Bloodshot is in the wonderful position of having many loyal fans who buy music to support the artists they love. Many of our fans come from an indie rock background and most are seeking out unique music that speaks to them. Bloodshot has never fit neatly within a genre package, our bands tend to be too edgy for Americana and Folk, and too roots based for straight ahead indie rock and punk – which is exactly why they stand out.
How do you decide whether to release an album or not?
NW: Once we commit to working with an artist, we’re in for a penny and in for a pound. We give our bands full artistic reign. We have never not released an album delivered by one of our. Our “judging” process happens earlier, when we’re deciding if an artist is the right fit for Bloodshot. First, we have to love the music and believe we can be that artist’s best label home. These days we can only afford to work with artists that are already touring a lot, artists who already have the rest of their business side together.
So, where do you see Bloodshot another 20 odd years down the line?
NW: How will music be consumed in 20 years?!? We have no clue! What we do know is, as that change is happening, we must remain nimble and adapt quickly.
The music industry goes through rapid changes these days. How have those challenges and changes affected your work, if at all, and what is different running a label today compared to before?
We have to work harder and smarter to earn one third the amount we did a decade ago. For example, an artist seeing the success of Lydia Loveless today is comparable to what Justin Townes Earle saw six years ago, yet sales don’t compare at all. More than an entire generation is accustomed to getting creative content free, or almost free. People inoculate themselves against “illegal” by paying a pittance for a streaming service, they then don’t feel guilty yet they’re not paying enough to support the artists they claim to love. Bloodshot is getting more media and fan attention than ever for our artists, but it isn’t reflected in record sales or streaming income. In other words, the loss caused by a sharp decline in physical sales has not been made up for by the increase in digital revenue. As usual, the major labels have an unfair advantage over the indie labels. They invest in or own the digital services, and those services have cut them into income streams (such as breakage) that indie labels rarely see a part of. Then the major labels don’t share that additional income with their artists.
We used to be able to release an album because we loved it; so long as it was recorded affordably, we could sell a few thousand copies and break even. Those days are gone. Both our country and the world at large is missing out on great music because the vast majority of music listeners are no longer paying a fair price for their music consumption. Ironically, despite the fact that both truly affordable home recording and tremendously broadened access to music dissemination allow many musicians to create more easily than ever before, we’ve stopped financially supporting creative content as a culture. So the same story goes in all creative content forms from film to journalism to photography.
This shift to devalue creative content makes us all culturally poorer.
What’s coming next for Bloodshot?
We have exciting new albums in the works from Scott Biram, Cory Branan, Ha Ha Tonka, Banditos, and Yawpers. Plus, a seminal vinyl LP release from the Old 97s. Most recently, we released a new, yet classic, juke-joint swing album Slingin’ Rhythm by Wayne Hancock, and a vocal-pop-jazz (think Harry Nilsson, Beach Boys) album It’s a World of Love and Hope from Chicago all-stars The Flat Five.
Where can folks experience your music in the near future?
Our bands are constantly touring. You can see all the upcoming dates here. If you want to be notified about new releases and your favorite Bloodshot artists coming to your town, sign up here.
Any regrets? Anything you would do differently given a second chance?
Since I don’t have a time machine and might accidentally dial in the wrong date if I did have one – anyway, I’d rather go back to re-live a great show! – I’ll avoid re-living my failures and the risk of my little historical changes causing WWIII. On that happy note, I’ll add that we’ve had the absolute pleasure and honor of working with our musical heroes – there is nothing better than watching a stellar show where the artist plays a new song that almost goes off the track but amazingly manages to stay on, or where harmonies send chills down your spine while there are twice as many enthusiastic fans watching than the last time.
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We also asked the kind people over at Bloodshot to select 5 memorable or important albums (impossible task, we know) that tell the story of the label. Mr. Miller kindly returned with these gems from over the years:
Old 97’s: Wreck Your Life (BS 009, 1995)
The first record we released that made us think “um….we might be onto something.” They came on like a gang and found that heavenly sweet spot between true punk, metal and deep country soul. They perfected a template that has had no relevant usurpers.
Ryan Adams: Heartbreaker (BS 071, 2000)
No in depth history of Bloodshot would be complete without a mention of this masterpiece. A stone cold classic. The sine qua non of Ryan’s albums. Where promise met execution head on. As life piles on the weirdness and hardships, this album gets nothing but better. It took off like a rocket and we all had to hang on for the ride, learning a lot of lessons along the way.
Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else (BS 219, 2014)
As a music geek, one of the ongoing thrills of the job is the act of discovery. Finding a young, rough talent and watching them find their voice and develop an artistic footing. We’ve been fortunate to be along on such journeys with Neko Case, Justin Townes Earle and many others. Recently, we’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the creative and popular ascendance of Lydia Loveless. On her first Bloodshot release (2011’s Indestructible Machine) there were fevered comparisons to acknowledged music icons like Loretta Lynn, Stevie Nicks, the Replacements, and more: She’s half this, half that, one part something else. We hate math. But, now Lydia Loveless is a reference point all her own. The arc of her development is an inspiring and exciting one.
Roger Knox: Stranger in My Land (BS 179, 2013)
Made with an all-star cast, headed by Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers), this is a record of great importance. It traces the influence of American country & western on the aboriginal Australian community. It is powerful and moving material, heartbreaking and hilarious, downtrodden and uplifting, suffused with longing, alienation, resilience and hope; universal themes arising out of largely unexplored context. It possesses the urgency of an Alan Lomax field recording, but with a spirit that remains relevant in today’s world. Most of our music is for entertainment’s sake, but this a record with profound historical reach.
Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories (BS 242, 2016)
We worked with Robbie on our very first release, the Chicago-centric compilation For A Life Of Sin. After that, we put out a few of his albums and several other compilation tracks. Our paths meandered over the years, but recently we have re-connected for a couple of stellar releases, the most recent being Upland Stories. That Robbie is not a widely celebrated name in households across the world as one of the premiere songwriters of this generation, is a pox upon us all. To be a part of his evolving talents is a listener’s delight.