Hi. I’m Nan Warshaw. A Columbia College alum and owner of Bloodshot Records—a locally run independent record label. I co-founded Bloodshot Records roughly 21 years ago, as I was finishing up my Masters thesis here at Columbia. I chose to go to Columbia to learn some solid business skills, subjects that sounded hopelessly dull, like marketing and advanced accounting, and I couldn’t stomach a traditional MBA program. Here I learned those essential business skills so I could apply them to the arts and make them relevant to me. I knew damn well that in the music business, what I put on a resume, or even having a resume at all, was oftentimes meaningless. But I also knew that the more tools I had under my own belt, the better chance I had at creating the perfect job for myself.
With mine and my Bloodshot partner’s experience, enthusiasm, naiveté, disdain for commercial and corporate rock, and with lots of luck, over time Bloodshot evolved organically into a business. We never sought outside investors; we didn’t want to be beholden to someone expecting us to turn a profit. So we kept our day jobs, we didn’t pay ourselves the first 3 years; in those first few years it would have been presumptuous and absurd to think our scrappy indie label would turn into a successful business that could endure decades. Now we have the honor of having launched careers of a number of great and successful artists like Ryan Adams, Neko Case, The Old 97s, and Justin Townes Earle; we have hundreds of albums in our catalog, and we continue to work with musicians and bands whose music we love and respect.
The college I attended for undergrad was in a small town in Washington State. It was the early 80s and punk rock was the soundtrack to my life. What made the music so important was the sense of community and a fierce desire to create change at all levels. When redneck townies threw bottles at us from their pickup trucks with gun racks, because we had mohawks and safety pins and looked different, that only strengthened our sense of community. We had reason to write lyrics from the heart and the gut – it would have been blasphemous to sugarcoat for mass appeal, instead concepts and emotions were stripped raw and laid out for all to witness and experience. We channeled our anger into the music and fought for political and social change.
In historical perspective, it wasn’t all that long ago that women and African Americans were finally given the right to vote. Those were ugly battles where many people put their lives on the line and died for a chance at equal representation, or representation at all. So when you feel strongly about an injustice or a destructive law, share your beliefs through your art, in how you conduct your business, or by your vote.
The changes in the music business this past decade have been dramatic, with more coming fast and furiously. High tech and new media is the future -- YOUR future. Stay engaged with tech advancements and trends. The tech side of the arts is exactly where the money is (and may be the only place where there’s good money in art). It’s where you need to be to stay current.
However, through technology we are witnessing a sudden and extreme devaluation of professional creative content. Consumers expect to get their music, design, photography, and journalism for free, or close to free. We can go back and blame the Major record labels for suing the fans rather than embracing a healthy digital sales model, but that won’t fix the problem of a generation who now expects “free”. We need to stay involved with the non-profits like The Future Of Music Coalition, and arts trade organizations like A2IM, so we can inform our elected representatives and educate them on what fair compensation means.
And now with split-second direct access to fans, we can educate them on what it means to support the art and content they profess to love. I know that every fan who buys a Bobby Bare Jr. CD or a Ha Ha Tonka T-shirt at a show is putting gas in that band’s van so they can come back to town again. Plain and simple: financially supporting the art you love allows the artist to create more. It is our job to get that message out -- or we won’t have art and certainly not arts jobs.
You can structure your own business to be ethical. You CAN do it YOUR WAY. You don’t have to follow traditional and slimy business practices. You don’t have be a part of the pay-for-play and payola world. One of the reasons the Chicago indie music scene has thrived is because it’s non-competitive and there’s wonderful cross-pollination between artists of every genre. If you’re making unique art and not a higher profit widget, then you’re not threatened by sharing resourceful information with like-minded businesspeople and creators. You can be the good citizen and entrepreneur, you can be a compassionate and respectful boss.
If you think you want to run your own business, you’d also better be so driven that you can do nothing else. But know that every entrepreneur needs to surround themselves with great staff. You may be able to make a bigger impact working a specific job as an employee than you could doing the broad duties of a business owner. As a small business owner I have to handle payroll, taxes, insurance, contracts, royalty statements; I have much less time than my staff to work directly with our artists on new release plans and tours. The label would not exist without our excellent, dedicated, and hardworking staff.
The battle between art and commerce is brutal. 98% of the rote office work I do each day is banal and absolutely unglamorous, but when I got our newest artists Banditos in front of the packed house at Metro for Bloodshot’s 20th Anniversary show and they blew people away, that was the payoff. It’s those moments of brilliance in a performance, like when Lydia Loveless joined The Old 97s on stage for a song that sent shivers down my spine. When artistic development is palpable in an artist’s new album – those are the gems that keep me going in the day-to-day business grind.
Your world is wide open, which also means it’s obtuse, scary and financially and emotionally unpredictable. The secret is to be able to identify that intersection where your passions lie AND where your strengths and talents complement your drive. Now it’s time to literally look around you. WE are the ones now creating and supporting new art and culture. Take control, use your networks, skills and knowledge. Once you find the way to get paid to do what you love, you’ve won. Now go, follow your heart. And congrats!