Bloodshot Records’ front room looks like a museum on drugs. An ancient typewriter perches atop a cherry-red bar, conveniently located next to a vintage pinball machine. A cow skull decorates one wall, while an electric sign for Pabst Blue Ribbon hangs on another. And plastered on every available inch of the room are album and gig posters representing the 20-year evolution of one of Chicago’s most respected indie labels. There’s a patchwork of artists old and new, famed and acclaimed: Grammy-nominated singer Neko Case, second-generation country star Justin Townes Earle, breakout artist Lydia Loveless and many, many more.
Sitting in front of this visual history is Nan Warshaw (MA ’93)—ex-publicist, ex-DJ, current badass and Bloodshot’s no-nonsense co-founder. Along with two friends, she started the roots-inflected indie rock label to showcase acts she loved, and by sticking to that mission, she’s kept the label alive while others have floundered.
With 20 years, 220 releases and 70 artists under its belt, Bloodshot Records has left its whiskey-stained mark on the Chicago music scene—and it’s not stopping any time soon.
Learning the Business of Art
Warshaw grew up in Old Town and Evanston and attended the progressive Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. (it didn’t even have majors), earning an undergraduate degree in 1985. After working for a nonprofit for five years, she enrolled in Columbia College’s graduate Arts, Entertainment and Media Management (now Business & Entrepreneurship) program to pursue her goal of working with bands she loved. Warshaw considered getting a traditional MBA, but “thought [she] wouldn’t want to stomach that program,” and instead chose a business school that spoke to her passion for music.
She credits Business & Entrepreneurship professor Angelo Luciano with making accounting skills accessible to a decidedly nonmathematical mind, and says former professor Greg Hoskins is now Bloodshot’s financial adviser. Columbia also gave her a small taste of the record label experience through the AEMMP Records practicum course, which allows students to release multiple CDs each semester. (That semester was a dramatic one: The president of the label was ineffectual, so the rest of the crew committed mutiny and Warshaw ended up reluctantly taking the co lead, signing off on decisions involving manufacturing, distribution, marketing and more.)
A Genre Is Born
During her graduate studies, Warshaw was an independent publicist for country-rock band the Old 97’s and DJed Wednesday nights at the Lincoln Park punk bar Crash Palace (now Delilah’s), spinning country music instead of the bar’s usual fare. One of the regulars, Rob Miller, made frequent requests for music she didn’t have, and soon after, he became her friend and business partner.
“It annoyed her to the point where she just said, ‘You should start DJing too,’” Miller says, and he did, alternating Wednesday nights with her for several years. The two bonded over their shared love of the roots music—rock influenced by country and blues—that inhabited the “underground of the underground” in Chicago’s music scene.
“We [in the punk scene] were looking for something that felt as genuine and spoke to us in the same way that punk rock had.”
“The music of my college years was being co-opted by the major labels,” Warshaw says of the decaying punk scene, adding that Chicago was attracting national attention in the early ’90s with artists such as Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins. “They were signing every Nirvana rip-off band, so we [in the punk scene] were looking for something that felt as genuine and spoke to us in the same way that punk rock had.” Traditional country music, with its simplicity and straightforwardness reminiscent of punk, became her new passion.
Around the time Warshaw was completing her grad studies, she, Miller, and another friend, Eric Babcock, came up with a half-cocked plan to release a compilation showcasing Chicago’s vibrant roots scene that nobody was talking about. Meeting at Crash Palace and Ten Cat Tavern, scribbling notes on cocktail napkins, they drew up a list of about 20 bands that they labeled “insurgent country,” and were able to get songs from 17 of them for Bloodshot Records’ first release, For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country.
The three pooled their money (about $6,000 total) to fund the album and consigned it to local record stores—and the initial 1,000 copies practically hopped off the shelves.
“At the time, the word ‘country’ was a bad word,” Warshaw says of their genre-naming decision. She wanted to set this roots-tinged rock apart from the slick, commercial country of Garth Brooks. “In some ways, we did too good of a job, because for years we were called insurgent country. We haven’t used the term ourselves for 10 years or more, yet people still refer to us that way.”
To The Top of the Underground
For a few years, Bloodshot was simply a hobby. “It was done out of boredom and not knowing what we were getting ourselves into,” Miller says. When one release broke even, the partners would start making plans for the next one. They hired their first employee, Kelly Hogan, as a part-time publicist three years after the release of For a Life of Sin.
“We did a few things that were businesslike so that we could get to the next step,” Warshaw says, adding that Bloodshot was run out of her Wrigleyville apartment for several years before moving to an office on the North Side. She had worked part time at the small Chicago label Limited Potential and was an intern at Elektra Records (“an excellent learning experience that taught me I never wanted to work for a major label”); Miller had produced live gigs in Detroit and knew how to write a decent sentence; and Babcock worked at the Chicago-based Flying Fish Records. Pooling their experience and talents—Warshaw handled the legal work while Miller wrote almost all of the press releases, and Babcock provided industry connections— they managed to keep the label afloat by releasing more compilations as well as albums from the Waco Brothers, the Old 97’s and Moonshine Willy. (Babcock left in 1997 to manage Checkered Past Records, then moved to Nashville to run Catamount Records.)
In 1998, Bloodshot hit the musical jackpot: Neko Case, she of the powerful pipes that would draw comparisons to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Warshaw first saw Case perform to about 20 people at a CMJ showcase in New York City and was “blown away.” Bloodshot released Case’s first three solo albums, launching the alternative country star’s storied career before she signed to the larger label Anti-.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what grabs us. It’s seeing that new artist that puts a dumb smile on my face.”
The new millennium brought another boon to the burgeoning record label. Warshaw was good friends with the members of Whiskeytown, so when the band was courted by major labels, frontman Ryan Adams asked her to sit in on one of the dinner meetings. “This major label was just clueless,” Warshaw says. “They’re like, ‘We’ll make you into the next Offspring!’ or whatever was popular at the time, and Ryan was so disgusted, he walked right out of the restaurant.”
After Whiskeytown broke up, Adams developed a more lo-fi, country sound that fit perfectly into Bloodshot’s lineup, and Warshaw says the label jumped at the chance to release his solo debut. To this day, Heartbreaker (2000) is Bloodshot’s best-selling release, selling more than 350,000 copies in the United States and 100,000 overseas.
Since then, the label has amassed a roster of critically acclaimed country-rock artists such as Robbie Fulks, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo. One of its recent additions, potent crooner Lydia Loveless, was named an artist to watch in 2014 by both SPIN and Rolling Stone. Bloodshot has also expanded its roster to include blues, soul and R&B acts, such as JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, a “post-punk soul” group known for its infectious live performances.
“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what grabs us,” Warshaw says. “It’s seeing that new artist that puts a dumb smile on my face.”
Keeping Up With the Millennials
Unfortunately, eliciting a dumb smile is no longer enough to get a band signed; acts have to tour heavily (at least 100 shows per year) in order to be a good investment for Bloodshot.
“There’s now a generation of people used to getting their music for free,” Warshaw says. Will we ever get that generation back? Will those people ever realize the damage they’re doing to culture?”
Even the recent vinyl revival isn’t enough to bring labels back to their heyday: According to Warshaw, LPs have an exceptionally small profit margin. But, she says, “It’s great to engage the serious music fan. Since we’re serious music fans, we love being able to put out vinyl again.”
Warshaw and Miller’s fan status has become a signature of the label—they don’t sign any group they don’t love, and loyal customers have come to trust their recommendations. Singer JC Brooks says people who aren’t even fans of soul come to his band’s gigs solely on the strength of the Bloodshot name. “They find acts based on quality,” he says of the label. “Quality will find its way to the top eventually.”
Country artist Robbie Fulks, who contributed to 1994’s For a Life of Sin and has been with Bloodshot on and off ever since, agrees: “They have an established flavor. You see their name and it stands for something.”
Another key ingredient to Bloodshot’s success is frugality. In the label’s earliest days, while Warshaw was still an intern at Elektra Records, she rummaged through the company’s discarded jewel cases—kept in a box big enough to house a small family—and used those to package Bloodshot’s promotional copies, which were hand delivered to the press. After Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker raked in the most profit in Bloodshot’s history, Warshaw and Miller invested the money rather than expanding the label. They still have fewer than 10 full-time employees, and their annual revenue is less than $2 million.
That’s largely because Warshaw is still a punk at heart: She despises corporate tactics and decries the “Walmart-ization” of America. She says running a business on her terms requires staying on a relatively small scale, but it’s “surprisingly possible to work within the music business and do it ethically.” More than anything, it takes dedication to art over money—a model that Bloodshot has successfully followed for 20 years.
“The only reason to start your own record label is because you’re so passionate you can’t help yourself,” Warshaw says. “You need that passion to drive you all the time.”
In addition to hosting concert events in 2014, Bloodshot will release a 20th anniversary compilation in November, featuring more than 35 covers of Bloodshot songs performed by artists such as Superchunk, Frank Turner and Into It. Over It.—By Hannah Lorenz (’16) | Photography by Jacob Boll (BA ’12) and Christopher Semel (’11)
My Five Favorite Bloodshot Albums
By Nan Warshaw
Bloodshot can celebrate 20 years precisely because we’re forward-looking, working with artists who continue to grow creatively. It’s exciting to witness those dramatic moments of artistic development and brilliance. My favorite albums change with each year and with each inspired new release. The following are my top five recent faves.
Barrence Whitfield & The Savages – Dig Thy Savage Soul Barrence Whitfield is a fantastic soul screamer, with limitless energy and enthusiasm (plus he’s one of the sweetest humans ever). He helped pave the road that Bloodshot burns, and today we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to try to pay him back.
Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward
Robbie is absurdly, diversely talented, with the soul of a country singer and the mind of a vaudevillian. He started off a honky-tonk smartass but quickly became a monster talent. Lost in his deserved accolades for being a fabulously unique, clever and heartfelt writer is the fact that he’s also one of the best guitarists around.
Gone Away Backward is an album of stories—rooted deeply in the interplay between Fulks and a brilliant cast of Appalachian-style slingers, dark and modern as it is historical, city and country. Robbie’s live shows continue to be as unpredictable as they are brilliant.
Lydia Loveless—Somewhere Else
The first time I saw Lydia Loveless perform, she was playing in a shitty bar on 6th Street during South by Southwest, singing up into the mic [like] Lemmy [of heavy-metal band Motorhead], wearing big heels and a little black dress and a lot of black eyeliner. Then out of that sight came a blast-it-to-the-back-of-the-room voice and songs with the musical and attitudinal influences of everyone from Charles Bukowski to Richard Hell to Hank Williams III.
Her current album, Somewhere Else, is stark and honest, songs of self-examination and openness; it’s about longing for the other, whether that’s something emotional, physical or mental, all anchored by her arresting voice that sounds beyond her years. Ms. Loveless’ art is a force to be reckoned with.
Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder
Cory Branan has been too punk for country, too country for punk and too Memphis for Nashville. He is a top-notch songwriter, fierce lyricist and hyper-dynamic performer, with the ability to fingerpick finer than ’60s Greenwich Village folkies and brutally strum like a protopunk shredder. Across three albums, he’s made collective struggles poetic and turned personal breakthroughs into sympathetic acts of populist heroism.
The No-Hit Wonder is chock full of timeless craftsmanship through deceptively simple songs about love and home, losses and dreams—the pull of settling down and the push of life’s unavoidable unsettlings.
Luke Winslow-King – The Coming Tide
Luke Winslow-King is a guitarist, singer, composer and lyricist known for his slide guitar work and interest in prewar blues and traditional jazz. He juxtaposes original songs with those from a bygone era and makes new, timeless originals. His sound and style are both rustic and elegant—always plenty proficient, but never precious.
The Coming Tide feels like the sound of rickety wooden porches on humid summer days, the grimy streets of New Orleans beyond the French Quarter; it’s speakeasy cool and jazzy elegance.