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Exploring the trials, errors and endurance of Yep Roc Records 

Glenn Dicker (left) and Tor Hansen peer out from a collage of record covers on Yep Roc Records, the label they founded 15 years ago.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Glenn Dicker (left) and Tor Hansen peer out from a collage of record covers on Yep Roc Records, the label they founded 15 years ago.

Glenn Dicker likes to tell the story about a phone call he received from Scott McCaughey, a quasi-star of independent rock who had long worked with R.E.M. and led his own band, Young Fresh Fellows.

"He basically was calling to say that he had a record he recorded with Wilco as a band that was gonna be called Down With Wilco," remembers Dicker. The album was by The Minus 5, McCaughey's sporadic side-project. "He called because he was a big Nick Lowe fan, and he thought it would be a cool thing to be on the label that Nick Lowe was on. So he's like, 'Would you be interested?'"

Yep Roc, the label Dicker co-founded 15 years ago, has since released five albums by the Minus 5, along with two by McCaughey's Young Fresh Fellows—and another 300 or so by a panoply of bands from around the world.

Nick Lowe penned "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and made a small fortune through that song's inclusion on The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992. In his later years, he has become a countrypolitan éminence grise. No longer encumbered by the more emphatic commercial demands of a music career, he is in the rare position to make and issue the music he truly wants to hear. For the past decade-plus, he has released those records on Yep Roc, the little North Carolina label that started in 1997 with nothing but a few connections.

This weekend, Yep Roc will commemorate its 15-year anniversary with four nights of concerts showcasing some of its marquee artists. On Thursday night, Nick Lowe will be at the top of the bill. Two nights later, The Minus 5 will take the same stage.

"Some of those things," admits Dicker, "they just kinda fall in your lap."

Long before Yep Roc existed, Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen were just two junior high friends whose relationship reached critical mass in high school. That's when the music bug hit big-time: They formed a band. They played speedy songs that echoed the contents of their record collections of British punk outfits like the Buzzcocks. They moved to Boston and nabbed jobs working for the influential roots-music-oriented label Rounder Records.

That's when they experienced what Hansen calls a "musical explosion"—the realization of just how much, and how many types of, music existed. In our world of doom folk and slowcore and chillwave and concomitant mp3 blogs, many take for granted a multitude of musical genres and easy access to them. But in the mid-'90s, discovering the sheer volume of stuff called music could still feel revelatory. At Rounder, surrounded by masses of music, they could experience that sensation almost daily.

There were practical lessons, too. It was there that they both found their own professional niche. "Rounder was a great job," says Hansen. "The model for a lot of our experience was learning the business through the ground up at Rounder."

Dicker began working with artists, understanding how to recruit them and, in turn, how to promote them—the stuff of forming and shaping a label. Meanwhile, Hansen learned how to market and sell the product.

"I enjoy the social networking of record stores," Hansen says. "I really enjoy connecting the dots, from getting the order to seeing it on the shelves to seeing somebody pick it up and walk out the door with it. I love the curation aspect of building a catalog, and that's always been a mutual thing. It's just after that I would really focus on: Now that we have this, how are we gonna get this to the people?"

In the early-'90s, while still living in Massachusetts and working at Rounder, Dicker started Upstart Records, an appropriately named little label that hewed to his interests. Hansen had moved to Chapel Hill, following a new music retail opportunity. He started Redeye to distribute records by local acts. In 1997, Dicker joined him in North Carolina; they started a label of their own.

They called it Yep Roc, a term they'd heard the offbeat R&B singer Slim Gaillard use while they were working at Rounder. In a song called "Yep Roc Heresay," Gaillard inimitably reads the menu at an Armenian restaurant. Gaillard invented his own jive patois and, with his partner Slam Stewart, gave the world such eccentric gems as "The Flat Foot Floogie" and "Cement Mixer Putty Putty." Jack Kerouac rhapsodized about him in On the Road. But Dicker and Hansen were not looking to encapsulate a particular vibe or sensibility. They just liked the music, a fitting ethos for the label they built.

"We have a publishing company called Riff City Sounds, which is based on a Gaillard song as well," explains Dicker. "I remember, Nick Lowe's producer, when we told him what the name of the label was gonna be, he was just like, 'Genius.'"

At the start, the operation was humble.

"We were working out of [Tor's] basement," says Dicker of the early days. "We just had to take it step by step, because we wanted to make sure we didn't skip any rungs on the ladder. The first couple of releases were compilations of different regional artists, and then as the distribution continued to grow, we brought on bigger artists. We were fortunate enough that two of the artists that I worked with from the Upstart days continued with us, those being Los Straitjackets and Nick Lowe."

In 2012, Redeye Distribution is the country's largest independent distributor, putting out upward of 5,000 titles for more than 100 entities. And Yep Roc is 326 albums into its own catalog, making them an outlier in an industry that, by most reports, has fallen apart during the same time span. The journey hasn't been exactly linear.

One drawback of owning both a record company and a record-distribution company is that your office is necessarily located in a soulless industrial landscape. You need a lot of room for all that music, after all. So Yep Roc and Redeye are currently headquartered in Haw River, an along-the-interstate town in Alamance County. They share space with a manufacturer of industrial hoses. If not for a group of somewhat shaggy folks often on the side entrance taking a smoke break, one could easily drive right past it without giving a single thought to rock 'n' roll.

The Yep Roc operation consumes a relatively small portion of the overall space, most of which is given over to an airplane-hangar-size warehouse in back. That's where Redeye fulfills orders on behalf of hundreds of record labels. In a few months, Yep Roc will pull up stakes for a sixth time and head to a new headquarters in Hillsborough. This time, Redeye is staying put, so each operation will, for the first time, have its own space.

But the industrial atmosphere has suited Yep Roc's utilitarian image: Yep Roc calls itself "the artist-driven label that refuses to be labeled." Many independent labels, not unwisely, choose to focus on a particular genre. Yep Roc, however, has attracted an astoundingly eclectic group, from venerable British rockers like Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock to purveyors of indie-minded Americana like John Doe, Dave Alvin and Reverend Horton Heat. There's a deep vein of power pop represented by Fountains of Wayne, Sloan and local mainstay Chris Stamey, and a slew of local, rootsy acts, including Chatham County Line, whose rise from modest Raleigh bluegrass quartet to far wider acclaim has been nurtured by the label. There are musicians' musicians, too, in songwriters like Chuck Prophet and Jim White and revered bands like Mercury Rev and The Go-Betweens.

But how? Sure, Dicker and Hansen had experience in the record-distribution industry, and they inherited a couple of acts from Upstart. Their success could be attributed, in part, to the customary clichés—hard work, genuine passion for music, good ears, business savvy, the fact that they're both really nice guys. But a crucial component of Yep Roc's long run has been its willingness to experiment and fail.

"We've all learned from making mistakes," Hansen confirms, sitting behind a desk in his pleasantly dark, rock poster-bedecked, wood-paneled office in Haw River. "And honestly, we've also learned from 'Hey, that worked, let's do that again, or let's improve upon what worked.' So, it has been a lot of figuring it out, especially when things continue changing. All we've really had is our past experiences to guide us for the future."

Inevitably, says Dicker, some of their favorite records and sure bets have not taken off: "There's an artist called C.C. Adcock. The record we did with him is still one of the coolest records we've done. Another local band called The Comas did a record called Conductor that I thought was an amazing record. I thought Tres Chicas did an incredible record. They actually recorded a record with Nick Lowe's team [Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl] over in London. The record is fantastic. Some of them got more attention than others, for sure."

Hansen agrees about those trials and ultimate errors, records that they thought they could get into more ears. "Mayflies USA or The Comas—we truly were like, these guys have something. It's easy to get excited about it, but you don't know what the future holds," he says. "There's a lot of peaks and valleys in sales, but we don't really judge it on release by release. It has been a sort of organic growth. It wasn't like we just started a record label with all this money. There were roots to this thing, and they start way back. Slow growth has been a good thing for us."

Maybe not for everybody: Caitlin Cary made her name in Whiskeytown alongside Ryan Adams. She recorded her first of three luminous releases for Yep Roc in 2000 and followed that well-received EP with two full-lengths for Yep Roc before bringing two more projects to the label. Cary's last record for Yep Roc was Bloom, the aforementioned Tres Chicas LP, recorded with Nick Lowe's band in London. As Dicker acknowledges, the record didn't sell well.

Cary credits the label with exposing her "to a national audience, and to some extent an international one ... [and] for allowing me to work with great producers and musicians and great studios." Still, she expresses disappointment at what she calls the label's increased focus on legacy artists with established careers, rather than fostering new talent toward bigger audiences and experiences.

"Money for tour support was harder to squeeze out, and marketing budgets and plans were shrinking. From my perspective, this was discouraging, especially since I'd come out of the gate strong," she says. Her first release with the label sold around 20,000 copies. "But this is reflective of the industry as a whole," she continues, "and it probably means Yep Roc was making smart business choices, just not the ones that would necessarily work to promote my records. We were decidedly up-and-comers, not the already-arrived."

Hansen says Yep Roc never set out to focus on legacy acts, but he doesn't seem to regret a roster with more than its share of rockers of a certain age, even if it serves as a consistent gripe against the label. "I feel very fortunate to be working with these artists who've had a career and still have a career," he says. "They are icons and have a legacy that we can continue to foster and push into the future."

Dicker admits that the label has had struggles advancing younger bands, but it remains an active pursuit. One such act is recent Yep Roc signee Jukebox the Ghost, a sunny pop band from Brooklyn whose whose giddy video for the single "Somebody" has received a quarter-million views on YouTube.

"I think people that ultimately get on the label look at it as sort of a big-picture thing, as opposed to a shortsighted thing where it has to be this kind of music, and I need to be with this kind of label and this kind of roster. People who sign to Yep Roc have a different feeling about what they're looking for," says Dicker.

Indeed, Yep Roc has made a virtue of eclecticism, though Dicker admits that some have questioned the wisdom of this approach. That stance originates with Dicker and Hansen's shared history. When they grew up, target marketing was less of a factor; you simply pursued new music. And when they moved to Chapel Hill, they found a supportive scene less concerned about genre than enjoyment.

"You could go see the Mayflies, you could go see the Two Dollar Pistols, and you'd see the same audience at both shows," Dicker says. That became an implicit Yep Roc ideal. "People have recommended to us many times, 'Oh, you should start a different label for this kind of music.' It's been a challenge, but we're continuing to go for it."

For others, that quest has paid off big time.

Chapel Hill's Two Dollar Pistols were an early signing. John Howie Jr., the former group's leader, extols the Yep Roc experience because it pushed his band and career toward the level of sustainable.

"When we toured behind those records, there was always press. And that's so crucial to get people out to those shows," says Howie. He parted ways with Yep Roc, amicably, in 2007 and now releases his own music with his new band, the Rosewood Bluff. But he continues to reap the benefits of what began under the label's tutelage.

"They were pretty critical in kick-starting my professional songwriting career, in that they were the first people to really get songs that I had written in film and TV," he says. Yep Roc helped land two songs he wrote with Tift Merritt for a collaborative EP in the horror movie Jeepers Creepers. "It ended up being a horror movie with an awful lot of shelf life; it gets shown all the time all over the world every year, and every time that happens, I get money."

After a series of stints on larger labels, the alt-country chanteuse Merritt returned to Yep Roc for a solo release, Traveling Alone, earlier this month. She echoes the sentiment of her early collaborator.

"I have been very lucky and fortunate to have worked with some really wonderful labels, but I really am not comfortable working in a less personal context. My work is so personal to me, and my heart is invested in every part of it, and when you are working with a really large company, it's just not the same thing," she says. "Once you experience that kind of understanding and that kind of vision, you can't go back to doing business for business's sake."

"I don't think we know any other way than to let the artist lead the charge," says Dicker. "It's rare that we get involved in discussing songs. The established artists we've worked with, they wouldn't have stood for anything like that anyway. Nick Lowe wouldn't have had any interest in us coming in and sitting on the couch as he's recording and weighing in on things."

Howie had no interest in that, either. "One of the things I liked about them was they let me get on with the job of ... making the record. You could take that as just, like, sheer indifference, but I chose to take it as they trusted me to do my job."

Merritt found the label's low-key approach entirely welcome during the making of her new album, which she recorded swiftly, albeit with an all-star band.

"A tremendous amount of energy is freed up when you feel that your vision is actually respected and cared for by the people you're working with," she says. "Who is whispering advice in your ear about what comes next—no matter how stubborn and strong-minded your own vision is—is real, and you have to be careful about who's sitting at your table."

During these 15 years, the list of people who prefer to sit at Dicker and Hansen's table has continued to grow. In an era of roiling changes, they have built a successful record company. But the thrill of working with figures whose music means the world to them has not worn off, and that excitement extends beyond the big names.

"Last night we were having a few beers after work with Matt McMichaels, who was in the Mayflies, a local band that was pretty popular back in the late '90s and early 2000s. We put out three records by them, and I still think they're amazing. And this was when we had like one person working at the record label," says Dicker. "I do totally get excited about these things. When it comes to working with your heroes, there's nothing wrong with that. You still get excited talking on the phone with them."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Body of song."

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