When I asked Bob Herrington how business was at his Ragged Records store, his answer was a shrug. “It’s good enough,” he said. “I sell records. I’m not going to get rich.”
Ragged Records, of course, specializes in new and used vinyl just off the Government Bridge in downtown Davenport, in a shared space with Trash Can Annie. Prominent in the store is a display showcasing eight LPs – all bearing the name of Cartouche Records, which Herrington also runs.
And the words meant for Ragged Records could easily apply to the two-year-old label. “It’s not a money-making venture at this point,” Herrington said of Cartouche. “If I can do it, and put out a few releases a year, and not lose a ton of money, I’m going to continue to do it.”
As understated and matter-of-fact as Herrington is about his businesses, Cartouche has – from an outside perspective, at least – been transformed this year. After putting out two albums in 2014 and one in 2015, Cartouche has released five records in 2016.
The genesis and development of the label have been organic, but the catalog at this point has a shape that looks intentional. Eight releases from eight different artists – three from the Quad Cities, three from farther west in Iowa, and two from Wisconsin. There’s an even split between quirky indie rock and idiosyncratic singer/songwriters. Every album has a distinctive, clear, and committed voice, and – more importantly – there’s not anything remotely resembling a bad or misguided effort in the bunch.
Cartouche launched with the Quad Cities’ Bedroom Shrine two years ago, and that band’s Johnnie Cluney said Herrington’s label is a throwback. “Labels aren’t like they used to be,” he said. “There are a few, but in the ’90s and the ’80s ... these record labels were very cool – like secret clubs. ... You knew what you were going to get, like you could trust the label. You didn’t even have to hear the new release, and you knew it was for you. ...
“In this day and age, it’s so hard to find. There are more bands and more record labels now than ever, and to stand out I really think you just have to be unique and authentic. You’ve got to do your thing, and not let any friends sway your vision.”
Cartouche’s thing appears to be letting artists do their thing – from the quavering folk of Wisconsin’s J.E. Sunde to the wide-ranging rock (and occasional cacophonies) of Marshalltown, Iowa’s Land of Blood & Sunshine.
Cluney described Cartouche as a home for “these shadowy singer/songwriters. ... Finally, there’s a label for people like us. Because there are not many. Cartouche is a unique record label in this day and age, definitely.”
“There is somewhat of a vision for the label.” Herrington said. “I want it be more of a modern-folk, singer/songwriter type of label.”
But as anybody who has listened to the Cartouche albums from Brooks Strause, Devin Frank, Kalispell, or Sunde will understand, within the singer/songwriter genre is an emphasis on unusual texture.
“I don’t think a singer/songwriter record necessarily just has to be a guy sitting there with a guitar,” Herrington said. “It can be way more layered, with much more interesting things going on production-wise. ... I think that comes just from the people that I’m working with. ... They’re more interested in doing more in the studio than just sitting down and playing a song.”
As for people being able to identify a Cartouche album simply by hearing it, Herrington said, “I think that might start happening more, just because of the direction I do want to take it in. [But] I’m not just trying to having a specific sound. ... I think if it’s a great singer/songwriter, and they want to record it a different way, I’m all for it.”
“It Just Kind of Evolved”
Cartouche grew out of Herrington’s collaborations with Jason Parris on two Hello Quad Cities vinyl compilations in 2012 and 2013. Those records bore the name of no label, but they were the seeds for this one.
Three years ago, Herrington said, he heard Sunde’s Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God when Pat Stolley was mixing it. “I really dug the record,” he said. “I knew Jon Sunde from his band that had played here several times called The Daredevil Christopher Wright. ... I was amazed by the record, and he didn’t have a label. I played it for Jason, and we both thought it was amazing. ‘Let’s maybe turn this local-music-comp thing and let’s maybe take it a step further and do an actual label.’” (Herrington said Parris – a business partner for Cartouche’s first two years – left the label last year.)
“And at the same time, Johnnie Cluney’s band Bedroom Shrine ... were mixing their record [No Déjà Vu] at Daytrotter’s studio with Mike Gentry ... . So we thought, ‘Maybe it’s not a bad thing for our first two releases [to be] something we really, really dug and [then something else with] the local connection and the Daytrotter connection with Bedroom Shrine.’”
Those two albums announced the arrival of Cartouche in 2014.
“Then, I really like Brooks Strause, and he’d been working with Pat Stolley” on The Chymical Wedding of Brooks Strause, Herrington said. “And so that was almost immediate after deciding to do those. Land of Blood & Sunshine is one of my favorite bands in Iowa. ... After that, it just kind of evolved. ...
“I’m just winging it. Literally, this is learning experience as we go along. ‘Oh, that was a good idea.’ ‘That was a bad idea.’ ... We’re still pretty young.”
The label’s flood this year, Herrington said, was not an intentional effort to escalate: “It was actually very unconscious. It was just like, ‘This is cool. Let’s put this out.’ ... And then trying to space them slightly.
“But the problem with that is, with doing vinyl, it takes so long to get vinyl pressed. ... We were kind of hoping to spread them out a little more, and – because of the way manufacturing is – they kind of got lumped, a bunch of them together, in the first eight months of this year.”
Next up for Cartouche is a J.E. Sunde follow-up early next year, and Herrington said he has two other projects in the works – although he declined to say what they would be.
“From here on out, I’m going to try and do two to three releases per year,” he said. “At least, that’s my thought. We’ll see how that goes.”
The Role of a Label in the Digital Age
Because nearly everybody can record and release an album – at little or no cost – in this digital age, record labels might seem like a relic. But the Internet glut of musical artists and releases has actually reinforced the role record labels can play; with so much out there, a label can help bands break through the noise.
“I just hope it’s more of an artist-development kind of relationship, ... with us helping you, with our PR people helping to promote them with their record,” Herrington said.
“Anybody can put out a record now,” he continued. “But just putting it out ... doesn’t really mean much. There are literally millions of recording artists now. ... It’s a tough market. The role of a label is just helping to develop them, and getting their name out better ... .”
Cartouche typically pays for the manufacturing (which, with vinyl in the mix, can cost several thousand dollars), has arrangements in place for digital and physical distribution, and does publicity and radio campaigns.
The investment of money and time, Herrington said, is dependent on the artist: “If it’s somebody who I know is going to tour a whole bunch, and this is what they want to do with their life, I’m more willing myself to put more into it. ... You can rack up 10 grand pretty quick in one release.”
The return on that investment, he said, comes mostly through pre-orders and shortly after an album’s release. Vinyl sells best, while CD and digital sales are roughly even behind it.
But few releases will recoup Cartouche’s investment through sales. “Really the only way for labels to make money ... is through licensing deals,” Herrington said. So far, Cartouche has two licensing arrangements for Sunde’s music in France.
“I’m not doing this out of planning on getting rich,” he said. “This is something fun to do. ... And hopefully we can get them to another level. I would love for any of these guys to have another label – a bigger label – go, ‘We want to sign you.’ That would be fantastic.”
Cluney said Bedroom Shrine had interest from another label for No Déjà Vu, but “we decided to go with Bob because we know Bob, and he’s a good guy, and his vision was correct and spot-on with what we wanted to be involved with. ... I know what Bob listens to. I know his musical opinions, and I just trust him. I love all the [Cartouche] releases, and ... there is a feel there. There’s something going on. I think you can see that if you spend time with those records. ...
“Anybody that wants to invest time or money into your band, your project, your ears perk up. ... We would have sold more records if we had toured around a bunch, I’m sure, but ... we’re very happy with how it came out.”
Because Chrash doesn't tour heavily, it used a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the manufacturing of its July release on Cartouche, Things My Friends Say. (See review.) Even so, said the band’s Chris Bernat, the label offered several benefits over self-releasing on CD and the Internet. “We’re not equipped, nor do we have the time, to do what’s necessary to work a record through press, and through radio, and to do all those things,” he said.
“It’s so nebulous to say you’re putting a record out now,” he continued. “What does it mean? For several of our records, it just meant we paid to get them manufactured and sent some out to media outlets. ...
“The biggest piece of satisfaction that I derived from doing this record is that I can hold a piece of vinyl in my hand and play it, and it has songs that we wrote, produced, and put together as a package.”
He added: “It’s beneficial in that we’re grouped with like-minded artists and even similar genres.”
“I didn’t have the stamina or the patience to spend a year trying to knock on every door to find a home” for Shapes That Kiss the Lips of God, Sunde wrote. “My plan was to put it out myself if the few labels that I sent it to weren’t interested. I chose to work with Bob because he was really excited by the record, he understood where I was as a performer, and he had a clear-eyed goal of creating a label that worked to support and put out music that they really believed in. I’ve learned that when an opportunity opens and those involved are generous and sincere in their desire to help support your art, one shouldn’t take that lightly.”
“I’ve Had Amazing Support”
The biggest surprise in running a label, Herrington said, is “the amount of time to do it right,” especially publicity and press. “I realize now why PR firms have teams. ... It’s so time-involved. ...
“I want to figure out ways to make it work better – make it a little simpler, maybe get some other people involved – so that I’m doing justice for the artist. ... What’s the point of doing it if you’re not doing it right?”
Already, though, Herrington has built an impressive web of relationships behind the scenes at Cartouche. The label has clearly benefited from friendships with people at Daytrotter, including founder Sean Moeller, illustrator Cluney, and engineer Stolley. It also works with local musical/visual artists Jeff Konrad and Jon Burns, while photographer Joshua Ford – a regular contributor to the River Cities’ Reader – has done videos and stills for Cartouche artists.
“I’ve been really lucky from the standpoint that, starting out with J.E. Sunde, everybody who’s involved loves him, loves that record,” Herrington said. “These are people that want to see him succeed, so they’re on board to help him out.”
“I was totally blown away” by Sunde’s record, Ford wrote. “This record is just off the charts – the instrumentation, Sunde’s voice, the songwriting. It is not necessarily in my normal ‘wheelhouse,’ ... but I ended up listening to that album far more than any other album the year it was released. When talk of a video for a song on that album came up, it wasn’t even a question. I was on board. ...
“I’m honored that Bob and the artists on Cartouche have faith in me to add a visual component to the work they are doing, and it is really rewarding to grow these relationships with Bob and his artists.”
“I’ve had amazing support,” Herrington said.
And he said that “there really haven’t been any disappointments – since I’m not looking at it as ‘Oh, we’re going sell ... thousands of these.’ ... My only vision is that 10, 15 years from now, I can sit back and go, ‘What a cool label. I really liked everything we put out. It’s all really respectable stuff.’”
Sidebar: Cartouche’s Catalog
Bedroom Shrine, No Déjà Vu (2014)
J.E. Sunde, Shapes That Kiss The Lips of God (2014)
Brooks Strause, The Chymical Wedding of Brooks Strause (2015)
Land of Blood & Sunshine, Lady & the Trance (2016)
The Multiple Cat, Intricate Maps (2016)
Kalispell, Printer’s Son (2016)
Devin Frank, The Vanishing Blues (2016)
Chrash, Things My Friends Say (2016)