Jonathan Cargill on Indie Labels, Press and Placement

Jonathan Cargill on Indie Labels, Press and Placement

Jonathan Cargill is a partner in the Labels Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans and the companies Bellwether Manufacturing and SC Distribution.  He makes management decisions for all of these companies but his areas of expertise are publicity and music licensing / placement.  Jonathan and his partners have had a great deal of success of late with artists like Bon Iver, Black Mountain, Okkervil River and Antony and the Johnsons.

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Musician Coaching:

First of all – tell me how you got into the business and wound up running all these different companies?

JC:

I knew I was going to be involved with music. I thought I was going to be a rock star, but I definitely learned very early that I wasn’t going to be a rock star.   I was managing a cafeteria at a university dormitory, and one of my employees – someone I had connected with and who had similar musical tastes and career aspirations – ended up being my partner Chris Swanson. After talking for at least a year, we decided, “Let’s just jump in and do this.” So he called upon his brother, and we pooled our collective savings. We knew of an artist, so we raised the money to press his CD. And once we had the CD, we realized we had to do something with these. We jumped in and figured it out and made a lot of calls and found distributors and a store. We just got some lucky breaks early on to the point where we had distributors and their attention, and it grew from there.

Musician Coaching:

About how long ago was this and which of these companies came first?

JC:

This was Secretly Canadian in 1996. Our first release was an album called “Gloria Hole” by June Panic, which came out September of 1996. It just grew from there, to give you more in-depth background about what goes on here in Bloomington, Indiana. After a couple years of doing Secretly Canadian, we connected with Darius Van Arman who was running Jagjaguar Records by himself in Charlottesville, VA. We connected with him because we saw some early Jagjaguar releases in stores that were compared to Secretly Canadian artists, which made us intrigued. We got to know Darius, and in 1998, Darius moved Jagjaguar from Charlottesville to Bloomington to hang out with us and have a little brain trust of struggling labels. From there, things kind of happened organically. We also have Bellwether Manufacturing and SE Distribution running out of our office. Those came about organically because we realized we were paying too much to get our CD’s manufactured. So we did a bunch of research and cut out the middleman and started working with CD manufacturing plants directly. That’s pretty much how distribution came about, because we a) didn’t have distribution and b) the people we worked with weren’t paying, so we took matters into our own hands.

Fast forward to today- we run the companies Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguar, Dead Oceans, Bellwether Manufacturing and SE Distribution out of our offices.

Musician Coaching:

You are a partner in all of these companies but what are your areas of expertise?

JC:

From the beginning, we all realized that we’re all partners and we all make macro decisions, but we have to specialize and have a division of labor. We found that pretty naturally, because we had people that were interested or had the expertise. Since there were four of us with four different backgrounds, we naturally went to our own positions. For the first eleven years I was the publicist for Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguar. Then as we hired more publicists, my role morphed. That’s when I got into the film and TV licensing. That happened out of necessity because we were getting a lot of inquiries and not really knowing what to do with them or how to handle them. I stepped up to learn how to do all that.

Musician Coaching:

I am guessing that because the phone was ringing you were able to build relationships and did a handful of cold calling as well to build up a roster of people to place with?  Is that how that worked?

JC:

Definitely. I did it the same way I built up the Rolodex of publicity contacts but with film and TV executives. It was figuring out who’s who and how to contact them.

Musician Coaching:

You really had to build this from scratch.

JC:

Yeah, but I don’t know what else I was doing, so I figured I’d just jump in and make it work. The first six years of Secretly Canadian, I also had a full-time job. It was just a super hobby, because the label was also another 40 hours. It got to the point where something had to give, and I decided to follow rock and roll. It was really a tough decision because I was taking a large pay cut and jumping into the unknown, but I just knew it was something I wanted to do.

Musician Coaching: What attracts you to an artist that makes you consider putting their records out on either of the labels you work with?  What do you look for in an artist?

JC: It’s a mixture of things that makes an artist attractive. The gateway is the music, and it has to be unanimous that we’re feeling the same about the music. There are times where someone is on the fence or didn’t like it, but there’s a due process for any band that someone really likes. We all have to connect on it.  The magic combo is artists that make great music, aren’t afraid to work, achieve the things they want and just aren’t assholes. That’s kind of the way we look at it. We’ve been pretty fortunate with finding artists who have these qualities.

The way we look at it is we’re not in the business to release one record by a band and then try to cash in and walk away from it. There are a lot of labels that do that, and that’s not what we’re about. It’s a partnership. “We’ll bust our ass for you and this is what we can offer.” We don’t tell them this, but it’s an understanding, “We hope that you’ll bust your ass and do such and such thing. Don’t be afraid to tour, connect with your fans with your website or MySpace. Do things that bands should be doing if they want to get heard.” I think symbiotic relationships are ultimately the most successful.

Musician Coaching:

How are you finding the role of being a label now that there are so many tools are in artists’ hands?

JC:

There are definitely bands that I don’t know why they come to us because they act like they don’t need us or necessarily want us, and that’s fine. There are plenty of bands that can do that. We’re really transparent and say, “This is who we are, this is what we offer, this is what we think we can do.”

Musician Coaching:

In your particular case that’s your licensing and PR relationships. What do the others focus on?

JC:

We have robust and timely accounting. We’re very transparent.  The steps we take can be seen by our artists. They get their statements from us, and they know what we spent and where we spent it and the money they made, where it’s all going. That’s a big thing. I think there are labels that don’t do well with accounting.  We have in-house manufacturing and distribution, so we know they’ll get a quality product; their albums are going to look good and sound great. We also have a network to get their CD’s in stores or onto digital service providers.

Musician Coaching:

I would guess you are getting good placement in the indie retailers that matter.

JC:

I think so. We’ve had relationships with these stores for over a decade now. That’s particularly good for us, because all members of the label are also project managers. We all have our own bands that we work with. If they have any questions or there’s any problem with the distribution, we can just walk over there and ask why there aren’t CD’s in a particular store, etc.

Musician Coaching:

What advice would you give for artists looking to get more press and looking to get their material licensed?

JC:

I think for press, it’s easier now than ever. The whole blog explosion has definitely leveled the playing field a bit. First of all, I think it’s good for a band to be very realistic. If you think you recorded an album and now you’re going to be on the cover of Alternative Press, it doesn’t work that way. I personally think it’s easy for bands – especially unsigned bands – to create a ground swell that will attract the attention of labels, booking agents, promoters, bigger publications. I think that’s been the big revolution in media recently.

Musician Coaching:

Do you think by going after enough attainable periodicals and blogs, someone can snowball that into getting bigger and better press and opportunities?

JC:

I think so.  Especially f a band can couple that with being on the road a lot. It’s always good for a band to tour as much as they can and as much as they can afford. That’s where you’re going to connect with your audience. That’s what I want. If I hear a record I really like, I want to go see them and see how they do it live and get a sense of their personality. I think that’s what drives fans and what being a fan is. That’s how you attract them – by creating an attention. Blogs can do that, and if you have some blog in Minneapolis talking about your band and show up in a week or a couple days, it starts to connect. People remember your name and they tell their friends. I think the whole grassroots thing is incredibly important and very strong.

Musician Coaching:

What about on the licensing front?

JC:

That’s a different beast. There are plenty of success stories of unknown bands getting key placements. With bigger magazines – if you’re shooting for Rolling Stone – you’re someone at the mercy of the editor. If the editor likes it, then he assigns it to a writer. I think it’s the same way with licensing to film and TV. You have to find the right music supervisor. They either have to really like it, or it just has to be the perfect song for the perfect scene. That’s the wild card with film and TV. It has to be right for the scene. It’s hard for some bands to understand that, and they ask, “How come we’re not on Grey’s Anatomy?”

Musician Coaching:

I would imagine it’s a lot easier for you than for an artist doing this on their own, because you’re calling constantly and not just with one band’s worth of material.

JC:

Right. I also get a lot of searches for supervisors that will call looking for the perfect cue for a scene, and it’s incredibly specific. A lot of times, I just don’t have anything for that. 90% of the time it’s that way. That could be anything. But that connection is, you just have to get you music heard by the right people. Because when the right scene comes up and you have the perfect song for it, it’s going to happen. You just have to make sure they know to look for your song.

Musician Coaching:

Any advice on doing that? Get your music heard in a way that’s not obtrusive?

JC:

Finding these people is not that hard – that’s what Google is for. There are hundreds of people selling mailing lists. I don’t know the validity of those places, but when I started, I went online and for $30 bought a mailing list that had music contacts of film production and TV production companies, or directly to music supervisors and just started sending them music. Sending the CD in the mail is not obtrusive at all because that’s these people’s job. Their job is to absorb as much music as they can so they can find a perfect home for it. They are actually seeking music, you just have to meet their demand. It’s obtrusive if you’re calling them every day saying, “Hey – place my music in Grey’s Anatomy.”

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Check out what Jonathan and his partners are up to at Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans, Bellwether Manufacturing and SC Distribution