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What I've Learned, | Jan 28, 2016

Ben Swanson, co-founder of Secretly Canadian


His success proves an independent label can thrive in a small town.


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Secretly Canadian owner Ben Swanson shows off the records the label has produced over the past 20 years. /Photo by Meghan Little

Ben Swanson, 37, opened the Secretly Canadian label in Bloomington 20 years ago with the help of his brother and a friend. Since then the company has thrived here, expanding into three labels and representing artists that include Bon Iver, Major Lazer and Jason Molina. 

You need to evolve in an ever-changing industry.

We’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now, and it’s a much different place today than it was in the mid-1990s, the mid-2000s or even five years ago. We still have our core values that remain pretty consistent: releasing music that we’re passionate about. How we do that has changed dramatically. For the most part we just have created that real, fundamental partnership with the artist.

Both professional and personal relationships with the artists are important.

It’s OK if you’re a massive fan of a band and not be too cool about it. It’s one thing to be a fan and another thing to take care of business. I think the key is to do both. Sometimes an artist will make a choice in the moment that I believe is fundamentally bad for their career. Sometimes you just have to say, ‘You know, I think this is a bad move, as your business partner and your friend.’ We were confronted with this a couple years ago when our first artist, Jason Molina, was struggling with alcoholism. We ended up having to take care of him for a while and walk a fine line of what we felt was in his best interest professionally and personally.

You can use your local roots to find your niche.

We’ve been able to use our Midwest roots. It’s not always as sexy as a New York- or Los Angeles-based label, but not every artist is looking for that. Our niche is just really quirky songwriters and artists. We try to find those who have a unique voice and are charting their own path. It’s not always the easy way to go, but it’s definitely the most rewarding way to go.

You need to say yes to more opportunities.

I used to get really uptight about what it would mean to take on either a new artist or a new initiative. I would just unravel in my brain all the steps and work that it would take. A while ago, I learned that better things happen when you say yes than when you say no. We’re opening a vinyl plant in Jersey. I was very hesitant to get into it. Intellectually I couldn’t wrap my brain around it, but emotionally I thought it could be so rad. It has turned into something we’re super proud of. I can be a “glass half empty” type of person and can see all the stuff that can go wrong, so I try to remind myself to say yes more often.

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