Secretly Canadian: A Local Success Story
Stand-up comic Tig Notaro’s latest book sits on a bookshelf in an office in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. The walls in the office are lined with gold records on the wall and young workers sit at their desks making phone calls and typing away on computers.
On the bookshelf next to Tig Notaro’s book sits a collection of drawings and instructions by Yoko Ono titled, Grapefruit, with an introduction by John Lennon.
Then, fresh out of a meeting comes Ben Swanson. Ben and his brother, Chris Swanson, along with two other friends started an independent music record label called Secretly Canadian based in Bloomington, Indiana. The brothers and friends started the label back in the late nineties at the tail end of the grunge scene. Twenty years later, Secretly Canadian has Yoko Ono, Tig Notaro, and The War On Drugs signed to its label.
“I graduated from IU in 2000 and started the label full-time the next day,” said Mr. Swanson, “and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
He grew up in Fargo, Minnesota, and came to Bloomington where his brother and friends already at IU were doing album reviews at WIUS and the Indiana Daily Student. The students tuned in to the Bloomington music scene and discovered tons of underground art-rock bands influenced by grunge groups from the West Coast.
“My brother Chris and a couple friends were just devouring all this music and would send back all these mixtapes to me,” he said.
Seattle, Washington, is the city where Nirvana, Pearl Jam and other grunge artists got their start. It seemed to be the epicenter of a new movement in popular music.
At the time, a surge of independent record labels sprung up all across the country as the music business was scrounging, trying to find the next Seattle.
The next Seattle was never found, said Swanson, but there were about 18 cities on the radar for music executives. Bloomington was one of those cities.
“We were failed musicians,” said Swanson, “and we thought it would be fun to get into the music business.”
Ben and Chris Swanson scraped money together they had from working the previous summer and decided to start a record label along with a few friends, co-founders Eric Weddle and Jonathan Cargill. One of the co-founders even used his savings from being a lifeguard at a neighborhood swimming pool for start-up money.
“In label-culture, we were obsessed with the idea of developing a roster of artists, and a catalog and the arc of an artist’s career,” he said.
Then, Darius Van Arman, owner of another record label in Bloomington called Jagjaguwar, joined the Swanson brothers at Secretly Canadian. After the two labels joined forces, the company continued to grow. Today, the label has two certified gold records.
Swanson talked about his experience with singer, artist, and activist Yoko Ono and her son, Sean Lennon.
“She’s a legend,” said Swanson, “we’ve been fans of hers forever.”
He met Sean Lennon in Berlin at Yoko Ono’s 80th birthday party. With Lennon, he discussed the reissues of some of Yoko Ono’s early records.
Lennon said he wanted to get his hands on some of the tapes in order to remaster them for the reissues. Many of Ono’s original tapes sat for decades locked up and kept in crates for storage purposes. Since the tapes have remained idle for so long, a difficult-to-conceive and arduous process must take place before the remastering.
The process involves an oven and is called “baking the tapes.” Technically, studio engineers and producers call this process sticky-shed syndrome. In order to ensure the tapes were in playable condition, NPR even ran a story a few years ago called, “A Sticky Situation: Baking the Tapes,” in which the reporter told of the organization’s own difficulties in preserving important audio for digital purposes.
Needless to say, the procedure needs to be extremely precise and there is a chance the tapes may be damaged while baking them. It took a long time for Sean Lennon to get access to the tapes, said Swanson. Then, Swanson asked him who he needed to get permission from.
“From my mom,” said Sean Lennon.
Swanson laughed. He said he forgot, for a moment, who his parents really were, especially since he considers Sean Lennon such a down-to-earth guy.
In 2016, Secretly Canadian partnered with Chimera Music and re-released eleven Yoko Ono studio albums on digital and vinyl platforms. Then, again in June last year, they released their second wave of her reissues. Among the most popular remastered records include Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins from 1968, Plastic Ono Band from 1970 and Feeling the Space from 1973.
Secretly Canadian has some new material coming out, including albums from Stella Donnelly, Makeness, and Suuns.
Ben Swanson, now running a national record label with big-name acts attached to it, said he used to judge the music business with disapproving eyes. He thought the industry had high barriers to entry but he wanted to leave young people interested in the music business with a positive outlook.
“When I was younger, my perception was the music industry was impenetrable. That’s not the case. It’s incredibly open, giving and easy to get into if you’re willing to work.”