“We’re trying to be as supportive as possible, but we’ve also been struggling to keep everything moving.”
If music is a world of gatekeepers and blatant antitrust violations, independent labels are the underdogs of the industry. With just three major labels (Sony, Universal, and Warner) releasing a little more than 60% of the music Americans purchase and stream, there’s not much room for the rest to compete.
Though no two are the same, generally speaking, running an indie label is, under ordinary circumstances, a fight against the proverbial tide—and to dare to do so during the pandemic was a massive risk. In a time when live performances were taken off the table, along with the profits they bring, artists who relied on gigs to win over new fans, sell merch, and self-promote found themselves resorting to less traditional methods of sharing their art with the world, all while delaying anticipated releases. The venues and labels who backed them, meanwhile, lost their most lucrative stream of revenue.
During a time that has placed increased pressure on DIY operations, indie labels have had to flex their creative muscles to not only continue producing content that can grab attention in a cluttered digital space, but also renegotiate their marketing strategies to accommodate a lack of ticket sales.
Indie labels like Bridge Nine Records, which has put out projects with the likes of Slapshot, Stand & Fight, Sick of it All, and Agnostic Front, are accustomed to this struggle: the hustling, thankless nights, and passion it takes to keep the music alive.
Chris Wrenn, owner and founder of the Peabody-based but internationally known Bridge Nine, has been immersed in the DIY struggle since 1995. Starting out by peddling 7” records by local bands and handmade merch, the label is now releasing music that is featured in Alternative Press and charts on Billboard.
While no label could have prepared for the events of 2020, Bridge Nine’s working mentality readied them to fight doggedly to (successfully) stay alive through a disastrous year. Speaking with the Dig, Wrenn explained how Bridge Nine navigated the pandemic as well as their plan for moving forward as a label despite setbacks that continue to arise.
During the pandemic, what did Bridge Nine do to elevate signed artists and their new releases without the ability to put on live shows?
We had several artists perform from their homes via livestreams. One in particular (punk band H2O) did a pretty nice performance from their garage and sold tickets [to the stream]. It was sponsored by Liquid Death Mountain Water and had a pretty high level of production.
Were any new releases delayed or were all projects released on-schedule?
Most were delayed. We had only one priority release come out during the pandemic—War On Women’s latest album—which was very relevant because of the 2020 Presidential Election, so we didn’t want to bump that. We were also supposed to have a very big 25th Anniversary show at the Palladium in Worcester, celebrating our history with a ton of artists that we’ve worked with over the years, and that was cancelled.
How did marketing strategies have to be altered, if at all, to fit the demands of social distancing and the pandemic?
Obviously with all shows stopping and many record stores being closed, we had to focus on our online store, which was difficult to do. I run [another] brand from the office—sullysbrand.com—and had to put as much energy into that, because that lost even more opportunities [than Bridge Nine]. With Bridge Nine, we at least had digital and streaming music revenue, which increased during the pandemic. Online sales were strong, and we had some package deals [of artist merchandise] that people were very supportive of.
What other challenges, beyond the financial impact, did you face as a label during the pandemic?
The hardest part was losing the staffing. For months, we had to have everyone work remotely, so that meant everything in the office fell on my shoulders. My girlfriend worked for her job remotely with me and was able to assist with packing orders and keeping things moving, but it meant a whole lot more juggling than usual.
As indie venues in Boston were shuttered, did you at any point fear for the toll the pandemic might take on Bridge Nine Records? If not, what resources made you feel secure in your ability to withstand the pandemic?
We received a small PPP loan, which helped cover some of our payroll. People working remotely weren’t able to do one hundred percent of their jobs [from home], but we still needed them to be paid, so that helped keep it going.
Now that live music is returning, what are the first steps you plan on taking as a label to help your artists return to normalcy as soon (and as safely) as possible?
We’re trying to be as supportive as possible, but we’ve also been struggling to keep everything moving [as a label]. During the pandemic, we were told our building, which we’ve been in for 14 years, was being sold. We have to be out by the end of this month. I’ve spent the last few months renovating a new spot in Beverly, Massachusetts, so that has been very demanding—time and money-wise. To top it all off, a key employee left after 11 years—[they] needed a change, clearly the last year had taken a toll—so I’m working with a new person part-time to help them pick up the slack.
Meg McCarney is a full-time, third year student at Lesley University studying Creative Writing and Communications. She’s interested in music journalism as a means to showcase the power of music in bridging cultural divides, addressing emotional wounds, and elevating voices and stories.