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THE SECRET OF SUCCESS

The Secretly Group is more than just the Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans and Jagjaguwar labels. It’s also a distributor, publisher and indie powerhouse investing in side ventures as diverse as vinyl factories and arthouse films. Gareth Murphy meets the founders to uncover the success story behind America’s coolest labels

Brand names are like decorative doorbells in the world of record labels. If they look cool and ring nicely, then they do their job. Only some open into deeper ideas that resonate. Secretly Canadian is one of the finest examples.

Coined by a gang of Midwestern college friends, the term began as a private joke wrapped in a nonsensical riddle. From the shock of discovering that Neil Young, The Band and Joni Mitchell were not actually American, ‘secretly Canadian’ became their own Wayne’s World mutation of the hidden righteous concept. You didn’t have to be actually Canadian, nor did you have to be an artist. If you were a natural born outsider able to see straight through mainstream America, you were secretly Canadian.

The time and the place were the mid-90s in a college town called Bloomington, Indiana. With a population of 120,000, a third of them students, Bloomington was, as it is today, an unlikely place to house America’s biggest and arguably hippest indie label. But in the internet age, geographical remoteness is clearly no longer the logistical handicap it used to be.

In 1994, the main founder, Chris Swanson, enrolled at Bloomington’s reputed University Of Indiana to embark on a Religious Studies degree. He’d grown up in Fargo, North Dakota, a bigger city near the Canadian border, albeit one that is “one giant suburb in the middle of nowhere”.

In comparison, Bloomington was a historical town you could walk around. Set against a backdrop of prairies, rivers and forests constantly changing through the extreme seasons, it’s a laid-back place of limestone buildings, coffee houses, health food stores, parks and the occasional monument. Both a haven for aging hippies and a hive of scientific research, Bloomington is what Americans call ‘a blueberry in a tomato soup’ – namely, an ultra-liberal town in the middle of an otherwise conservative state.

THE NEXT SEATTLE

Swanson’s studies were quickly sidetracked. He ran a student magazine, he DJ’d at the college station, WIUX, he worked at video stores, and when he was stone broke, he even sold his blood. Ever curious and energised by social interaction, he befriended future co-founder Jonathan Cargill, a likeminded music freak, who hailed from a nearby town.

Working together in the dormitory cafeteria, they’d sort silverware, fill milk machines and cut bread while passionately discussing bands, in particular, Chicago’s vibrant scene. At the college station, Swanson found another kindred spirit in Eric Weddle, a journalism student from Buffalo who became the trio’s authority on experimental music.

At the time, Bloomington was tipped by Billboard magazine to be the ‘next Seattle’. It didn’t happen as predicted. But by running gigs, meeting bands and receiving phone calls from labels pitching their new releases, Swanson learned his first vital lesson about the music business: musicians and indies were just passionate nerds like himself, with most of them operating shoestring adventures from bedrooms, basements and garages.

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About Long Live Vinyl

ISSUE 35 of Long Live Vinyl is now on sale! In our first issue of 2020 we bring you the inside story of Bob Dylan's most diverse, divisive and fascinating decade – the 1970s. Dylan made eight hugely different studio albums in those 10 years, and we've rounded up some of his closest confidants and bandmates to tell the tale. It's a must-read for any fan of Mr Zimmerman. Elsewhere in issue 35, our packed interviews section features Angel Olsen, Seth Lakeman, The Go-Betweens, Field Music, DJ Shadow and Courteeners, plus we take an in-depth look at The Doors' Morrison Hotel and meet the music fanatics behind America's coolest label group – Secretly Canadian. If that's not enough, we bring you 40 essential folk-rock classics, a guide to building your perfect hi-fi setup in 2020 and the usual eclectic mix of vinyl columnists, news and reviews. Long Live Vinyl is THE magazine for vinyl lovers.