Bloomington’s Record Label: Jagjaguwar
By the time Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon walked on stage to accept the 2011 Grammy for Best New Artist, the band had already sold millions of albums. Vernon had appeared on the covers of SPIN and Billboard magazines. But one of the first groups he thanked was a tiny Bloomington record label few at the awards show had probably ever heard of: Jagjaguwar.
Founded by Darius Van Arman in 1999, the upstart once occupied just 100 square feet with another Bloomington label, Secretly Canadian. The five guys shared one computer, one phone line, one email address, and one fax machine. “We were so frugal, we would manually roll the fax toner back to use what portions of it had not impressed on paper yet,” Van Arman says. He and his coworkers would sneak into Indiana University computer labs to snatch up discarded paper. “The failed term papers of IU students were our invoices,” he says.
Jagjaguwar may have had a scrappy beginning, but before long, the record label started signing bigger artists like Dinosaur Jr. No band changed life for Van Arman and his colleagues more than Bon Iver, however. Jagjaguwar first took notice of the act in 2007 when it released its self-produced album For Emma, Forever Ago on MySpace. Lots of labels recognized the potential in Vernon’s gorgeous falsetto vocals, but the band ultimately chose Jagjaguwar for what Van
Arman believes was its “spirit of openness.”
Today, Jagjaguwar handles album manufacturing, distribution, and marketing for Bon Iver. Van Arman’s team brings the business acumen, Vernon brings the songs, and the profits are split 50-50. “Our job is to try to get that music, get his voice to as many people as possible,” the Bloomington founder says.
Which begs the question: How does an indie label from Indiana hang on to a major artist once they blow up? “The premise out there is that a recording agreement is a trap,” Van Arman says. But he believes in short contracts. So far, Bon Iver has chosen to stick with them.
Two decades in, the label’s “If you love someone, set them free” strategy seems to be working. Jagjaguwar is now part of Secretly Group, which employs close to 100 people in Bloomington, New York, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin. Van Arman, who spends more time these days scouting for artists than in the recording studio, says everyone has their own computer and they now buy paper. He recently moved to New York, but the core of the label remains in Bloomington—a locale Bon Iver seems to feel comfortable with. “Indiana is a good balance between the Chicago hustle and Southern hospitality,” Van Arman says. “People get things done there.”