Interview: Shane Kelly (Cardigan Records)

I recently had a conversation with Cardigan Records owner and founder, Shane Kelly. We spoke shortly after the label announced the signing of Lazarus Wilde and the day leading up to their three nights of celebration for their third anniversary.

Cardigan Records is an indie label which boasts an impressive and eclectic roster of artists. Shane is passionate about the music, and dedicated to putting out great art.

We talked about why this young label is so successful, Shane’s journey through all facets of the music industry, and upcoming releases that he is excited about. Check out our conversation below:

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I wanted to start with the new signing you just announced today: Lazarus Wilde.

Yeah, just about an hour ago. I’ve been looking for an artist in the vein of him for a while. When I first heard him, I heard a bit of a new-age Elliot Smith and some of the choruses kind of remind me a little bit of Brand New. So I thought “This is the perfect combination right here.” I’m excited about it.

And I saw on Facebook that he’s the first of a “few” new signings. So you’ve got a couple more coming up?

 Yeah, we have two that are already signed, but we won’t be able to announce for a bit. There’s a few issues and some marketing things we have for another week or so for one of them and then the other one will be later this fall.

Keeping us in suspense until fall!

 Yeah, Sometimes there’s a little legal paperwork here and there that has to be taken care of.

Understandable. So you’re going on the third anniversary of the label, what’s the actual date of the anniversary?

 The actual date is July 10th. So that would be Sunday but I didn’t want to do a party on Sunday so we’re doing three days. Tonight in Greensboro, NC, tomorrow in Fayetteville, NC, and then Saturday in Carrboro, NC at the Cat’s Cradle.

Do you have the whole roster playing at each of these?

Not the whole roster. We’re switching off on some days. I think we have maybe 60% of the roster playing. We have a band out of California, so it wouldn’t make much sense for them and we have a couple that just came off tour that played the area recently so they’re going to take a little bit of time off before they get back in the swing of things.

That was going to be another one of my questions – if most of these artists are local-ish to your area?

 It’s about 50-50. We have Lazarus, he’s in Tallahassee, FL, and then we have Time Spent Driving all the way out in Santa Cruz, CA, then we have a Georgia act, then we have a few NC acts. I’m trying to think… somebody asked me the other day how many artists we have, and I’m like.. “I don’t know anymore” [laughs].

We have Tennessee, then we have one band who has members from everywhere. S they’re pretty spread out.

So congrats on three years. I know it takes a bit of work to get something like this off the ground, and to be a success, so it’s a good sign that you’re still going strong and growing

What is one of the things you’re most proud of accomplishing in these last three years with Cardigan?

I think being around for three years! I’ve been in the industry all together now for probably half my life. I got involved in the artist side when I was 18, and I’m 36 now. I think the most proud thing is just getting it off the ground and running and actually having it gain some traction. I like to think that every album I put out is kind of a success story of its own. I can’t say there’s really one defining moment that stands out. I guess the better an album does, the happier I get! A personal moment would be signing Time Spent Driving, out of California, because that was a band I actually listened to back in 2003 when they were together and I believe they were on Doghouse and Deep Elm back then. It was kind of cool to sign a band that you really  liked and actually in some ways, they inspired me back when I was an artist. It was cool to help them put out their latest release.

I think that’s the biggest thing, is just to be around for the third year and the stuff we have planned going into this next year. To me, I feel like we’re taking an even bigger step in the marketplace.

You mentioned you’ve been in the industry a long time, and you actually started out as an artist yourself?

Yeah, I started out as an artist, then I did tour management, then I did booking, then I was a promoter for many years. Then an artist manager and now running a label and I still do some promoting and I also manage one of our artists that happens to be on Cardigan as well.

What was it that made you want to start your own label?

 I kind of feel like I did all the other aspects of the industry just so I could start a label!  I remember sitting in a house full of band dudes when I was like 21 years old and we’re like, “Man, it would be so cool if we had a label.” We kind of talked about it here and there but for me, it was something that I was like,“That does sound like something I want to do, I would like to be involved in putting out art that’s not my own.”

I always liked to help other people with their dreams. That was the main thing for me, it was a chance to be involved in art that wasn’t just my own, or not just for selfish reasons, but for stuff I believed in, that I thought could help people, or the world needed to hear. That kind of sparked it, then I realized I can’t just jump right in, so I’ve got to know what I’m doing and the way the music business is ever changing, I felt “I need to understand all aspects of it.” I understood the artist side, I needed to understand what it’s like booking shows, and I needed to understand what clubs to go through, and how to get people out to those shows. Because promoting a show and promoting an album, in theory, it’s the same thing, there’s just little processes that are different, but overall it’s the same thing: you want to get the word out about an artist and hopefully have a fan or customer engage in a transaction.

Would you say that’s why we see some other small labels and start ups flop after a year or two but Cardigan is still around, because you do understand all these other elements?

 I think so. That would be great for me to say that, but I think some of it’s luck, and some of it’s resilience. There was a time, within the first year, that I could have totally given up and folded but it’s something I wanted to see through. When I started this I had a five year plan, and after five years I’d reevaluate where I was at. But the thing was, I had to make it to five years. That first year was hell, and the second year got better, and going into the third year, things started to happen. Now, going into the fourth year it looks like I’ll be right where I wanted to be on my fifth year. So in a way, we’re right on schedule.

Is it because I know the other aspects of it? In some ways, yes, because I saw where I might be losing money in certain aspects of the business. I decided to start doing other things as additional revenue sources. I started going out and looking at sponsorships. I got involved in helping put on a music festival. I started doing some concert promotions of bands other than just who were on the label. All of this together allowed me to not go further into debt, and reinvest that money into Cardigan, which then turns around and turns into record sales, or streams.

Looking at the artists that you’ve got, you’re crossing all sorts of genres. With Lazarus Wilde now, to Professor Toon, and Bear Girl. What do you look for when you’re looking for a new artist?

 I want to feel something. It’s kind of funny because I look at it like, “Yeah, I have a broad spectrum that I’m covering here of genres,” but I hear something in each of the artists. And again, this is where it gets like more of a selfish way of looking at it, but I hear something in each one of those artists that is something I can’t put my finger on or put into words. I actually can hear a relationship between each of the artists that I have. So for me, it’s not that far-fetched; plus my musical taste is all over the place. I grew up into Tupac and Kurt Cobain & Nirvana. Those were my two favorite things when I was like 14 years old. So it only made sense later on to do something like this.

But going back, I look for something that I can feel, and something real and honest.  I think that as long as there’s that vulnerability in the music then I think that’s something that I would be interested in. So that’s initially what’s going to catch my ear, would be the music itself. But then I also look at the person. Is this someone I want to work with? I’ve made this mistake before in just picking an artist that I thought would sell well, and honestly it didn’t. It was a tough situation on both sides. So now it’s “Do I think they’re good people? Do I want to work with them? Do I want to spend a lot of time and energy on this person? Do I believe in them?” If the answer is “yes” to that, then I have another question. Do I feel that they’re going to be a hard worker? Are they just going to put out an album and then never talk about it again? Or put out an album and then not really play anymore? I’ve been called this before – I’m a hustler. I’m always looking for something to do, really, and I need to have artists that are the same way because no one’s going to work harder for your dream than you are. I think if people don’t realize that, then what’s the point of even having dreams?

Totally. I like what you said, looking for the artists that you can connect with ,where there’s something real going on in the music. I think that’s one of the things that really sets an indie label like you apart from the bigger labels that just want to find something that will sell.

I was listening to some Must Be The Holy Ghost earlier this week, and it’s some of the most creative new music that I’m hearing.

 Thank you. We’ve got a new album coming out September 16 with him. It’s really cool stuff he’s doing. Some of it’s in the same vein of Get Off, his previous album, but others it’s taken a new direction. When I hear that music, it creates emotion. When I listen to it, it takes me to the feeling I have and I can get lost in that feeling. That’s what I most enjoy about Must Be The Holy Ghost.

 So you’re leading towards my next question: what new releases do you have coming up? And what are you excited about that the label’s doing right now?

 We just announced Lazarus Wilde. We’re going to be releasing his EP August 5th, so that’s right around the corner, just a few weeks away. That’s just  an introduction to get everyone to know him and then we’re looking at doing a full length with him first or second quarter of 2017. Then we have Must Be The Holy Ghost coming up Sept. 16th and I think he’s leaving that same day for a while on tour. Then we have fall releases from Bear Girl as well as Youth League. We haven’t set those dates yet. I haven’t got the masters back on those but we’ve got the mixes and we’re really happy with them.

That’s the cool thing too, about being a young indie label with some of these newer bands, is that you get to be a part of their progression as a band. You can hear the growth in their art form, itself. So with a few songs over a few years, and knowing those guys personally, too, you can hear their story in the music. And then.. I can’t say… In  about a week [from the posting of this interview] we’re going to be announcing our biggest signing to date, and we’re going to have that album out early October. We don’t have that date set yet.  That one we’re really excited about and then another artist I can’t announce, we’re having an early December release.

So for us it’s pretty busy this third and fourth quarter. We’ve been releasing one or two albums a quarter. We did take a little time off from doing that, and now we’re releasing five or six albums over the next six months, one on top of the other, so it’s keeping me busy. I’m actually on vacation right now, but I haven’t been vacationing at all. I’m sitting at my desk sending out emails, and putting stuff in my calendar.

Haha! How big of a team do you have at Cardigan? Are you doing most of it yourself?

 Mainly, it’s just me and I have three other guys that are helping on a case by case basis. I have an in house designer that helps me with a lot of stuff, then we have a guy that’s doing some of our college radio campaigns, some booking, and then we have another guy that helps with booking. But we have a PR agency that we work with that helps me with all the PR stuff.

So it’s not too big of a load on myself, having the PR agency and the other guys help me definitely frees up time to think about some of the big picture stuff and not get bogged down with what font I should use on such and such.

You said you were on track to reach your five year goal. Do you have any big dreams of where you’d like to see Cardigan in the future, or right now focused on that five year goal? Ideally, where would this label end up?

 Ideally, this is something that I would like to have going after I’m dead and gone. When I decided to start Cardigan I wanted it to be something that’s bigger than myself. If I wasn’t doing it for whatever self-fulfillment I was looking for or whatever I was missing in my life at the time, or what have you, I wanted to create something that whoever takes it over after me, it’s just putting out good art, and putting out music that’s honest and vulnerable as long as we can.

The thing is, with the way the industry’s changing I don’t even know if Cardigan would be a record label in ten, fifteen, twenty years, with the changing landscape; but  I still would like to be involved with the music. I think there will always be music companies and there will be some aspect of the label always. But one thing I try to remember is that with Cardigan, and in my life in general, not just with Cardigan – things that don’t adapt go away. So I need to be open-minded and willing to adapt to whatever the change in the landscape is, whether it’s changing the business model to focus on just streaming revenue, or changing the business model to look at licensing and sponsorships. I think we have to be open; all indie labels. Majors, too, because they’re starting too look at that stuff as well. If we don’t do that then we’re  a hobby and we’ll be gone soon.

To go back to your question, I think I just want it to end up living after I’m gone. If I have a family that takes over after I’m gone or if I just have someone else come aboard, I think that would be the true success of it. As far as short term, I just want to be putting out awesome records that I’m proud of. The thing is, as long as I can keep doing that, then it is a success, because to do that means I would have some kind of monetary success as well.  think I’ve gotten to the point now, where we can and we’re about to sign more established acts and get involved in their careers as well.

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