Chris Swanson is an astute and multi-faceted music industry trailblazer, dedicated to generating rich opportunities for the artists and creatives surrounding him. He is a founding partner of Secretly Group, which controls the activities of prominent independent labels, such as Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans, The Numero Group, and Secretly Canadian, as well as Secretly Publishing. Chris is a co-owner of Fort William Artist Management, overseeing illustrious acts, such as Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, The War On Drugs, Kevin Morby, and more. As a music supervisor, he has contributed to an array of indie darlings and notable serials, including Wild Wild Country, Easy, One Mississippi, and Drinking Buddies. In our engaging conversation, Chris reveals his process of scaling a small town label into a musical movement and the natural progression of his entrance into cinema, bridging the gap as an advocate for the profound talent in his midst.
I read that you, along with your brother and friends started Secretly Canadian out of your dorm room in Indiana. Can you tell us about your entreé into the music industry? What was the impulse behind the creation of your label?
I was actually a Religious Studies major at Bloomington. Back in high school, I knew I wanted to focus on journalism. I was the editor of the school paper. I quickly realized that I was more interested in the process of running a paper from an entrepreneurial management aspect and not as into the art of journalistic writing. I transitioned out of that and wanted to study business. I kind of always had the entrepreneurial drive, but after three semesters, I critically got disillusioned by the business program at IU. It wasn’t IU specifically, but the business school culture just wasn't really something I loved.
In high school, I was super deep into the beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg. I loved my Taoism courses and leaned heavily into Eastern Religion. I was moved by the more mystical, ecstatic religions. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was my jam at the time. There were these charismatic professors, who gave me that ‘stand on top of the desk’ passionate classroom experience I was seeking. That was the foil to the business classes that were a very textbook based snooze fest. I saw that as the liberal arts education I was looking for and I ended up getting my BA in Religious Studies. I knew that it would have very little practical application in life, but I had to finish, so it wouldn’t haunt me forever. My last few semesters were happening a couple years into running the record label, which was feeding me in a real way. It was tough to see through this abstract liberal arts degree, but it was truly the poetic endeavor I was looking for.
As far as my start in music, I was very deeply passionate about working at the radio station on campus and became music director in my second year. I was always a deep record collector and spent all my waking hours combing through record bins as a kid. It kind of obliterated my passion for playing instruments, for sports, for comic books, for video games. Records were like the bulldozer that knocked everything else over. Once I started working at the radio station, I saw what it was like to be a little more on the supply side than the consumer side. It was a dream come true for me.
After becoming music director, I started talking to music industry people regularly. Radio pluggers, label people, and the like would call me to pitch me their records and it started to demystify the process. I realized that these were just music nerds too and I felt like I could really do this. Then I got into doing some soft show promotion in Bloomington with my friends, who were also DJ’s. We were booking DIY shows and started to get less intimidated by the process of working with artists. We had the eureka moment of being like “Hey, we could put our money together and actually release an album”. It then occurred to us that we could approach artists and collaborate with them as a record label. At that time, I hit up my brother, who was still looking at different colleges and asked him to come to IU and do the record label with us. We grew up in Fargo, and he was looking for a tipping point for in his college selection process. So, he moved to Bloomington and in 1996 we started a label in the dorm. Then a couple of months into it, we started running it out of a house I was living in at the time and just fell in love with the process of releasing records. It was awesome. It was the business school experience I couldn’t get from the classes I was taking. I was learning on the job, making mistakes, and adapting to the practical application of things. It was exactly what I was looking for.
Going into this, did you have any specific mentors that helped guide the way?
No. I think it would've been helpful, but we were so DIY. We were just scraping it together and fumbling our way through. None of my partners and I had direct mentors, as we deliberately kept our label off the beaten path in a small college town in the middle of the country. We just vibed off each other, went down different rabbit holes and learned in our own unique ways. A couple of years into it, we were all done with school and it would’ve been the natural time to go towards the center of our musical universe, which was Chicago in the late 90’s. Back then, people were killing it out there. We thought if we went there we would just be categorized as a junior league version of the labels we aspired to be like. I think we were terrified to make it even more obvious that we were biting at their heels and copying. We also loved the culture of doing it differently, staying inside of a weird, small town and soaking up influences from our community instead of going off and being a part of the same things as our favorite labels.
So, we stayed in Bloomington and we were insular. It was important to us to maintain our modesty, but beneath that, we were really driven. We put in very long weeks and had a very competitive, underdog spirit. We knew we had something, but it took years to figure out what that was. It was up to us to prove it and demonstrate that to ourselves and the people. We created a distribution group to help us amplify the growth of our infrastructure by having more titles to sell to distributors globally. Thinking back, it was three or four years before we even got accounting software. I was doing all the books, having to do double entry and handwritten ledgers. I had to figure out how to pay suppliers and it was wild. We didn’t buy any infrastructure and built everything from scratch, which has its blessings and curses. As a result, we learned a lot and knew our systems well.
The Touch and Go label and distribution group were a really big model for us. We saw what Corey Rusk was building and that was very inspiring to us. If you look at the last 22 years of what we've done, that model has made an indelible impression. It was a great honor to start working with Corey as a distributor for Touch and Go a couple of years ago because our story came full circle.
Your initial label is alive and well but has since expanded into the Secretly Group, an umbrella company which is home to many revered independent labels, such as Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, and The Numero Group, as well as Secretly Publishing. As a founding partner, what have been the highlights of this journey?
I’d say a major highlight for us was when we signed Antony and The Johnsons in 2003. We chased them for a couple of years before they signed with us and released the masterpiece, I’m A Bird Now. I feel like that was a really big moment for us on an international stage. Another one would be the initial signing and growing alongside Jason Molina and his Songs: Ohia project, and then he became Magnolia Electric Co. I believe that was a really big part of our heart and soul as a company. A real through line from day one to today. Of course, Bon Iver is a massive one for us, which is impossible to look past. He’s a fellow Midwesterner, who is very proud to come from a small town. Working with Justin on that has been the dream of a lifetime.
Can you tell us a little bit about how your approach to business has evolved due to the advances in technology and the necessity of digital presence?
We started in ’96, so for the first 10 years or so, I don’t think we even knew much about digital technology. It wasn’t until about 2002, 2003, 2004 that we started to take digital media seriously. I remember the first time when companies started to rear their heads offering record companies advances to have rights to download MP3's of their repertoire. At the time, we thought that was like free money. The first time we got an advance, it was like $7,000 and we thought it was funny money. It felt like lottery money and it was crazy to us. We were excited because, at the time, that amount could facilitate the making of four records or so.
Secondly, it felt like it was based on some false economy. We didn't think that there was a market that would pay for MP3s. Luckily, we were young and impressionable, growing our business at the same time this emergent media form was taking hold. When we started off, we were only producing CDs and vinyl. When vinyl starting dropping off, we shifted to CDs only, but when digital came up, vinyl also came back. We had to ride the wave and try not to be fixated on any one medium. To this day, as founders, as well as listeners and fans, we’re still very much album-oriented. It’s interesting because it’s a less album-oriented world than it's been in decades. We’ve had to adapt and be as nimble as possible.
In the last few years, we’ve really learned a lot from the next generation of young artists and watched how they have connected with their fans in such an unmitigated way. You see it on social media constantly. Gatekeepers still play a role, but artists don’t need them like they once did. I do think that music listeners still need filters. They still need people to help separate the best from the masses, but it has been instructive to see artists make these connections with their audience, growing and maintaining those fans over time. As a music company, we have to observe these interactions and understand how the next generation of music fans’ imaginations have been ignited.
I think back when I was a kid, I was still going to the library and checking out records, which I would then take home and dub on cassette, or I would tape my favorite songs from the radio. I would make mix tapes for myself. I would tape videos, I would make anthologies of videos from MTV. I had my favorite videos on four hour long VHS tapes. Going back to that era, there was a scarcity of information about artists. If an artist was successful with fans, they were leaving enough room and mystery in what they revealed to leave a big gap for the imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The imagination of fans can do more work and almost offers more interesting things for an artist than a bio writer or a journalist can in a lot of ways. In the year of 2018, how do we engage when access to public performers is ubiquitous. Now, you almost expect to see them on Instagram every couple hours. You have to consider how to connect in order to make it feel meaningful and not just come across as a soundtrack to a lifestyle. We are constantly learning and as a company, we strive to stay connected to who we are as fans.
In 2011, you co-founded Fort William Artist Management. Clients include Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Kevin Morby, The War On Drugs, and many others. When examining the potential of an artist for label signing, management representation or another business opportunity, how much does an established and engaged social media presence influence your decision?
I feel like in the last year or two, I have gone through a complete transformation. I no longer see social media as a marketing tool. Artists used have to grapple with their relationship to these tools. It’s been a quandary for indie artists, who maintain modesty as a major force in their lives. It’s binary. Do I engage with this world or not? If I do, how bashful am I supposed to come across? It’s no longer a tool. This is a field of engagement. Social media is just like the room of a venue on show night. It's been a long time since artists would consider the venue space a marketing tool because it's the field of play. That’s a primary platform for engagement with fans and for artistic expression. I think the most successful artists now and those that will be the most successful see social media as an extension of that ecosystem with which they have the privilege of being able to perform publicly.
Musicians aren't just competing with their contemporaries anymore. That used to be the case. Pavement would put out a record and they would have to compete with Sleater Kinney, Cat Power, or whoever. Now, everything is compacted into this. *shows cell phone* It’s how people consume. All their music, all their media, all their culture comes through this. Artists today are competing with the entire recorded history, but also the golden age of television, the golden of age of comedy. You have sports. You have literature. You have access to everything. It's all flattened in one device and served to us through social media. Now, everyone's a creator and people are constantly engaging in new technology. Music is ever-present. A pretty considerable portion of the population soundtrack their lives from wake ’til sleep in this new era, which is exciting. The question is, how are you going to stand out? I feel people want access to your lifestyle and almost expect that they get it whenever they want. They can observe you and then you can become a part of the fabric of their lives. It could come from having something to say, having something to demonstrate, or maybe people just like your personal style.
I think some people want the art to stand on its own and others will filter and figure out just how deeply they want to engage. One of the biggest hallmarks of the internet age is the ability for things to go viral and the meta nature itself. The ability for insights, whether it’s comedic or melodic, for things to go meta. The ability for things to reach an exponential number of people based on a single seed planted is crazy. You’ll see certain songs by electronic, pop, or hip-hop artists go, but most people struggle. We work really hard to get artists like Angel Olsen, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sharon Van Etten, or Phosphorescent to their first 10 million streams on a song.
It’s intense especially with slightly more traditional bands, but then you have an artist come along and over the course of a couple months, they hit a hundred million. Those are the artists that are a part of the next wave of how people consume and interact with music. I remember seeing the first time something hit a billion streams, it was Major Lazer’s Lean On. I couldn’t believe it. If you would have asked me a year earlier if there would be a song that would hit a billion on any one platform, I'd of said it was impossible. Now, a billion streams is considered the new Diamond. I feel like the universe of hip-hop also showed us the future of media and cultural consumption through the early embrace of samples. Before people talked about meta was, it was an early example of what we call the meta dynamic.
The difference between artist A, that doesn't engage fans in that way, and artist B, that does, is a no-brainer. You might come across an artist that is amazing. They make incredible records but they don’t perform live. No shows. No videos. Never. Not even interested in doing karaoke. You still might sign them because their recorded work is so great, but you’ll definitely think real hard about it. It would be like casting for a television show or a film. You’re torn between two A-list actors, but one of them just doesn’t do press. No late night circuit, no festival circuit. That’s going to influence your final decision. Now, if you're not able to engage on multiple platforms you're missing out on the ability for things to have many sub-layers of meaning, regurgitation, or re-expression. That to me is what being a part of the early 21st Century is truly about and I think it’s fascinating.
What attracted you to pursue musical supervision? Was there a learning curve at all? To what extent, does your overlapping business with independent artists in various capacities feed into your approach to music supervision?
It was pretty natural. The second artist that we ever released on Jagjaguwar was a band called Drunk from Richmond, Virginia. The main principal of that band is named Rick Alverson. Between Rick Alverson's band, Drunk and his band, Spokane, we released nine albums on Jagjaguwar over the course of 12 years. Rick and I became close working on his projects but then we'd always talk film. Film was our retreat from grinding on music all the time. He called me up one day to tell me that he was working on finishing his debut feature film that he’d started a few months prior. I was surprised. He always had great taste in films, so when he asked for finishing funds for the project, we said yes. It was called The Builder.
His next film was New Jerusalem, starring Will Oldham, and we funded that. We were executive producers of that, as well as The Comedy, which he did with Tim Heidecker. For that film, I acted as music supervisor. Rick and I would get together and create the sonic landscape of the film in both pre-production and post-production. It had over a dozen songs and some great soundtrack moments. I felt like the music did a great job of really advancing the narrative of the film. It was very fulfilling for me to work with him, and finally, I had some way to express my second passion, film. I've long since put in my 10,000 hours watching films. This was a way for me to overlap my love for both music and film. Music supervision gives artists another platform for discovery, which is just awesome.
That experience was so fun and fulfilling that I ended up reaching out to a few filmmakers whose films I liked that had previously licensed from us. One of them was Joe Swanberg. I reached out to him and said, “Hey, man. I just had a blast doing The Comedy. If you're ever looking for a music supervisor, I'd love to work with you”. At that point, he had just been through a very busy period, completing seven movies in two and a half years time. He invited me to dig in on a film called Drinking Buddies. We ended hanging out, listening to a bunch of music, and having a blast. Drinking Buddies was also a very music-heavy film. I think the music effectively pushed a lot of narrative to meet Joe's cinematic objectives while also providing a platform for musicians in a meaningful way. It was fun to offer the opportunity for a lot of musicians to get their first sync ever. From that point on, I started working on a lot of micro-budget films and it’s been amazing to learn how it all works.
I really enjoy the process of working with directors. I love being able to put playlists together to kind of school them on contemporary or under-appreciated music of the past. I am passionate about finding discovery moments for both directors and for the viewers. I love that Shazam moment when people take out their phone to figure out what that is. I ended up creating an internal system with my colleague, Jessica Berndt. She and I are partners in music supervision. Over the course of the last five years, we've gradually been able to work on cooler projects with better budgets and broader viewership base on serials like Netflix’s Easy and One Mississippi on Amazon. It’s been rewarding.
Wild Wild Country is a documentary series that follows the gripping saga of Indian cult leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his controversial presence in Antelope, Oregon. How did you get brought into the fold? Can you tell us about the initial conversations about the overarching musical direction of the series?
I saw the documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball on Netflix a few years ago and loved it. Absolutely loved it. I wrote a fan letter to the Way brothers right away. Not only did I love the awesome film, but the score also blew me away. Chapman wrote me back and it turned out that his brother, Brocker was the one to create the score. We had a nice exchange and then early last year, he hit me up out of the blue about what would become Wild Wild Country. He said, “Hey, we’re working on this crazy project. It’s a six-part serial that I'm co-directing with my brother, Maclain. Brocker’s doing the score again. Do you want to get together for a meeting?” and sent over a teaser. Before I even watched the teaser or went to the meeting, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I love serials because it’s great to dig in with a team and be able to expand on the music. I’ve realized that there is a learning curve to finding and establishing a rhythm, but once you figure it out, the more work you can do, the better. After seeing the 20 minute teaser they used to pitch to Netflix, it was like boom! It felt very necessary right now from a literary standpoint, as well as a historical one and a political one. I just felt like it was perfect.
When I first got together with him, he told me they were thinking to name the project Wild Wild Country based off of a Bill Callahan lyric. In episode six, there’s a song called Drover, in which he refers to his Wild Wild Country. So, they deliberately took inspiration from that because they felt like he embodied this wild cowboy narrator that they imagined coming in like a Greek chorus time and again throughout the series. Musically, they wanted this low male voice to come in, acting as a very formalistic narrator. I just so happen to know this archetype very well, so I ended up spending a couple days, sending them tons of songwriters that fit this ilk. A bunch of them ended up being ones that I worked with intimately, but not exclusively. Those guys have great taste in music and they were just devouring it. They’d quickly send me back notes and we vibed back and forth.
We found a handful of voices that they fell in love with that were used multiple times in the project. They responded to their voices and some of the lyrics were just really speaking to them. We were lucky to be given a lot of creative freedom. I was able to work with most of the artists and got them to give us a thumbs up to go in and make edits, loop certain aspects, and in some cases, make some of the songs twice as long. You know, chop out a vocal part here, keep the instrumental going so that it would work in the bed of the dialogue that they needed in there. I was able to talk a lot of these artists into doing it. The budget was very low on the project, but thankfully, the artists were easily compelled by the story.
How much did you know about this story when you first became involved with the project?
I had heard of Bhagwan, I'd heard the name. I remembered hearing about him through the comic, Doonesbury. It was somewhere way in the background periphery, but I really didn't know any of the nuances.
In your mind, what insights does this narrative have to offer us regarding American life?
Oh man, I feel like they embodied the Manifest Destiny that the American forefathers had in them, that we claim to hold as a sacred drive. I think of our penchant in modern times — it’s like going back to day one — being highly suspicious of anything that’s Other, criminalizing it and being terrified of it. It was an interesting parallel to be a part of this series. I watched it unfold over the course of 2017, which we all know was an insane year. It was crazy to watch it at the start of the Trump era. Yes, they did go to great lengths, engage in some bad things like bio terrorism, but in a lot of ways, they were just defending their own ability to practice what they believed in as individualists. It doesn't justify their actions but they would've easily been squelched long before. I get that they were terrified. They were criminalized before they were criminalized. To me, it's crazy.
I think that's where Government needs to step in and provide structure. I feel like Government wasn't there to protect a pluralistic community or disparate voices to coexist. They wanted to maintain homogenous philosophy or religion. It's freaky, looking at what these people did to preserve their ability to practice. Today, there are a lot of people who will go to great lengths to protect their personal freedoms.
As Wild Wild Country progresses, there is this gradual ascent of tension and chaos that is mirrored in the music. It begins with feelings of optimism and divinity, which develop over time into ominous themes of oppression and fear. Can you tell us more about your process and the creative choices you made?
We were working very in a linear fashion, episode by episode. It was very much determined by the linear edit that they were working on. They were grinding, working 80 plus hour weeks and Brocker would go on these scoring marathons.
For instance, we knew that they were going to have Bill Callahan’s Drover song at the end and it would be a simultaneous literary and sonic crescendo. Their intention was to meet objectives as they were running along. They had motifs that they wanted to maintain, but to me, it felt pretty practical — results based — and “in the moment” during the edit. We had to be innovative because we’d be faced with trying to get a hit controlled by a major copyright holder that we knew was going to be a stretch. We knew it was going to be tough getting Television’s Marquee Moon for our budget. Things like John Denver’s song, Leaving On A Jet Plane. Even though we got My Morning Jacket and ATO Records on board, the publisher was like, “This is too big of a property for us to give you for that fee.”.
They wanted to maintain a balance, but the cowboy narrator concept had to come in periodically. It was almost needed to break up such a dense story. It became an ongoing cinematic device that they used. Sometimes, working on a single episode would take a month. We’d go back and forth until we had the right fit for the right money. It was a little difficult because we couldn’t really start going in and clearing anything until we were on the fourth or fifth episode. Early on, we tenderized conversations with artists and copyright holders but we didn't put in any quote requests right away because it was still the fog in the distance. We didn't know how many cues there would be. We had a finite budget, so we didn’t know if something was going to come in or if all of a sudden, one episode would need to be cue heavy. We just didn't have that confidence, so we couldn't put any numbers in front of people until we were two-thirds of the way through the process.
Then, all of a sudden, we hit this moment where we felt like we could safely start. We knew what our MFN was. We can start putting numbers in front of people and stand behind them. Jessica and I were as transparent as possible with copyright holders, so we could just cut through some of the negotiations. We're known as people who are very actively involved in copyright clipping and sync clearances on our end for our publishing company and record labels. So, it was just like, “No bullshit. We do have a higher tier than what we're offering you. It’s for this motif. This is why we're thinking this is a lower tier.” We did our best to spell it out and let them know you’re not buying or selling a used car. Most people really got what we were setting out to do and overall, they were really easy to work with.
For those who don’t know, can you explain the concept of MFN?
Most favored nations. It basically means that someone will agree to a fee structure, to this cost under certain circumstances. For example, a label would say they will not accept less than the publishing half of the license and that would become the routine for the project. It’s about no one else getting a better deal in the project and it’s also dependent on the prominence of the use. A lot of it comes down to communication. We’ll be like “Listen, this is the ceiling right now. If it bumps up, we will give you MF. If things change, your fee will go up with it”.
It’s always tricky managing a music supervision budget. We were talking about very low fees for this, so people were mostly doing it because of the creative opportunity. They were trusting our gut that it would go on to be an exciting thing. Making A Murderer was our model. We didn’t have a crystal ball, but we knew it felt like it could be one of those shows. Damn us if this doesn’t smell like something that will resonate. We weren’t able to offer that across the board because it was a Netflix series. There was no backend on this. We couldn’t offer any step deals because there's no theatrical. The filmmaker's got a fixed amount. There are no variables. It’s a flat fee.
We pushed hard with people and they went out on a limb to be a part of it. They had to believe that it would serve the value of their copyrights or the profile of the artist that they're representing in some meaningful way.
If you were the leader of your own cult, what would the theme song be and why?
Bill Fay’s I Hear You Calling from the early ‘70s. Something about the opening line “I hear you calling from the river bank” and how the piano line insistently moves the plot along. When the song comes in, it feels like an epiphany. It’s really serious and really beautiful. It’s easily one of the greatest songs of all time.
Who are some of the emerging artists that you have been championing recently? Are there any acts you wish you had signed or hope to sign in the future?
I love Phoebe Bridgers. She’s from Los Angeles. We put out her records on Dead Oceans. We released her debut album last fall and it’s a masterpiece. It’s a contemporary singer/songwriter record but its production goes way beyond what you might expect. I feel like she’s going to have a really long and fruitful career.
As far as artists that I would love to sign, there's an artist from England that goes by the name, Rex Orange County. I absolutely love Rex Orange County. He’s an incredible singer and songwriter. I feel like he's a young guy who is making bedroom pop that's got a soulful vibe, but he's very much a child of hip-hop. There’s something about the way he takes classic singer/songwriter tradition and infuses it with soul and hip/hop. It feels effortless. So, that'd be the one artist I would work with if I could.
It seems like you have left very few stones unturned in the industry. What do you intend to accomplish in the coming years and is there anything else you have a desire to try your hand at?
I would love to provide the artists and clients we work with on the label side or publishing side with more of a gateway into cinema. We've got a handful of great examples of musicians that we work with, who direct their own videos. For every album campaign, we’ll create anywhere from three to five videos. I think it's a great opportunity for musicians to express themselves visually if they have either the interest and time. It is an opportunity to break down the barriers of what they do musically with art direction in the context of cinema. You see really cool things casually off the cuff on social media. I feel like as we get more fluent in these areas, the lines are going to start to crumble.
I would love to see and help facilitate a musician or two that we work with to make a feature film in the next five years. Look at the work of Flying Lotus, he’s doing feature films now. Boots Riley. I think that St. Vincent is doing a feature film now. I would love to play a part in helping more musicians do that. You don’t need to know how to do everything technically, you just need to have a strong vision, know how to pull the right levers, and run a team. I feel like the most successful musicians we work with have that aptitude and that ability. It comes from practice. I feel like making short films by way of music videos is a great launching pad for that. I would personally love to see more of that. I think cinema can always use more outside voices.
Wild Wild Country is now available for streaming on Netflix.