Friday, February 11, 2011


The music industry is a fickle mistress. Making, selling, and promotion music in 2011 is at times a daunting pursuit. The accessibility of internet file sharing, cultural disinterest, and dispassionate consumers has decimated large swaths of the once thriving independent music industry. Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records remains one of the few labels thriving in this difficult musical landscape. The label, founded in 1992 by owner, Bettina Richards, has been releasing well packaged, beautifully recorded, eclectic independent records since its inception. The label has never wavered in its commitment to musical innovation, and has always cultivated artists pushing the limits of sound.

In the early 1990’s independent music was booming all across the globe, with indie bands releasing a flurry of 7inch records, LPs, CDs and mix tapes. For a a while, it seemed like people everywhere were making and recording music. Chicago was a main cultural hub for artists looking to collaborate, meet other music makers, play out, and promote their recordings. People from all over the country were making the pilgrimage to Chicago to be a part of its thriving music scene. Cheap rent, a close knit community, and popular record labels were just a few of the reason artists made the trek to the city of big shoulders. Chicago bands of the period experimented with punk, jazz, funk, soul, dub, and it was not unusual for these bands to combine this multitude of influences in the music they were making. The city in the early 90’s was bubbling over with musical innovation and a jubilant creative spirit. Thrill Jockey Records came out of this time when it seemed like anything was possible in independent music. In an early release, such as the self titled debut by the Chicago band Tortoise, the label’s genre bending aesthetic and creative spirit are completely evident. Tortoise’s sound was revolutionary, and the band’s mix of soundtrack music, dub, jazz, and post punk was unlike anything being recorded at the time. Thrill Jockey packaged the band’s debut in hand silk screened covers on brown chipboard, beginning a hand made trend in music packaging that would continue for years to come. The label continued to release strikingly creative music throughout the 90’s by bands like The Sea and Cake, Sam Prekop, Eleventh Dream Day, Tortoise, Bobby Conn, Gastr Del Sol, Rome, Mouse on Mars, Freakwater, Califone, Oval and Trans Am.

Thrill Jockey still cultivates unusual artists from all over the musical map. The label has never had a definitive musical style, and the only connective thread between its artists is the consistent quality and innovative nature of the work. Releasing everything from the folk, psychedelic chug of a band like Arboretum, to the elegant African guitar minimalism of an artist such as Sidi Toure, there isn’t a style of music that Thrill Jockey hasn’t touched. The label has managed to stay ahead of the digital music malaise by providing digital downloads, purchasable on their website, alongside their CDs and LPs. Although digital downloads might be the future of music, it hasn’t stopped the label from releasing beautifully packaged recordings. Each recording put out by Thrill Jockey is a wonderfully considered piece of sonic art. Everything from the recording process, mixing, and packaging reinforces the label's strong aesthetic rationale.

In a world that sees independent music labels shutting down on an almost daily basis, it's nice to know that a Chicago treasure like Thrill Jockey Records is still sourcing great artists, and releasing some of the most consistently adventurous music around.

For information on Thrill Jockey artists, recordings, and merchandise, please visit their site at

Sidi Touré - "Taray Kongo" with Jambala Maiga from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

Tortoise - Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

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