Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bob Monohan of Chaperone Records Puts It On The Line

According to their website, Duluth-based Chaperone Records "is devoted to the promotion and enfranchisement of Northern Minnesota’s musically progressive community. In a world of cheap, plastic gadgetry, a product’s finest aesthetic can only be achieved through passion, insight and an honest commitment to quality. This is the foundation of Chaperone Record’s philosophy and the impetus behind its inception. The choice to produce skillfully-crafted, vinyl LPs, pressed by United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tennessee, coincides with Chaperone’s commitment to quality."

I met Bob Monohan at a PROVE Gallery art opening where Chaperone Records was showcasing Lion and Gazelle, one of the groups under their wing. Monohan is also a poet whose writing is seasoned with humor and laced with wit.

EN: What motivated you to start Chaperone Records? 
Bob Monohan: After being laid off from yet another seasonal serving gig, an intense fear of boredom and tediousness thrust me towards another hare-brained entrepreneurial adventure. Through my involvement with the local music scene over the past 10 years, and my kinship with a handful of bands -- many of whom happened to have recording projects under way -- I saw it as a golden opportunity. I felt, with their talent and material, they deserved a chance at doing something bigger than putting their stuff up on the internet for free.

EN: You are something of an entrepreneur who has started a number of other businesses. What have you learned through these experiences? 
Monohan: Perhaps the most obvious thing I've learned is that, no matter how bad things blow up in your face, you're still kind of a badass for going for it. The inevitability of failure, in one form or another, is the beauty of entrepreneurism. You get filthy rich in humility, if nothing else. And, at the end of the day/week/month, you can look back and think: "Damn, I did a bunch of crazy stuff this day/week/month." It's gratifying as hell. Energy and relentless enthusiasm are essential. The terms "nine to five" and "Monday through Friday" mean nothing.

EN: What is your process for selecting the groups you represent? How many albums have you produced?
Monohan: Okay, this is where it gets tricky. I don't so much select the groups. The groups seem to select Chaperone. There is an arbitrary nature to the so-called "selection process." Quite superficially, it comes down to selling records. Record sales are based on myriad factors, many of which are hard to predict. If I could predict which relatively unknown bands would sell a few hundred (or more) records -- either through touring or retail -- I would probably be the head A & R guy for a major indie label. At this point, the decision to put out a band's record or not comes down to taking a good hard look at: how many honest-to-god, record-buying fans they have, how many shows they're going to play this year, whether they plan on touring, do they have large families who will purchase multiple copies(?), do they have friends who work at record stores(?), etc.

EN: What is it that you like about making albums in vinyl? What is the biggest challenge with vinyl? 
Monohan: You can ask any vintage-loving, audiophile, hipster, vinyl junky why they like records and you will get a number of answers, most of which have to do with "the sound, man." It's true. Vinyl has a particularly nice sound. If they weren't so damn convenient MP3s could go back to cyberspace, for all I care. Vinyl is the anti-MP3. It represents that thing -- that aesthetic, quality, tactile-thing -- that has been lost since tapes and CDs took over, and were swiftly rendered obsolete by the ubiquitous (and perfectly piratable MP3). LPs, aka "vinyl records," come in a 12" paperboard sleeve with artwork on both sides. You put them on a turntable and set the needle on them to make them play. Need I say more? One big challenge of vinyl is that it is expensive to manufacture, thus it costs significantly more than CDs, and way more than MP3s, which can be downloaded cheaply (or freely) and easily. People need to be convinced that they are getting more than just music; they are getting a work of art; an experience.

EN: How did you hook up with Alan Sparhawk to produce his Retribution Gospel Choir "3"? 
Monohan: This story has an interesting twist, and a monumental one, in the lifespan of Chaperone. Alan and I have known each other, peripherally, for at least five years. When my band, Total Freedom Rock, was in full swing, Alan, a mutual friend of (bandmate) Brian Ring, came to a few shows and even sat in with us on occasion. I've kept him in the loop, and consulted him a few times, since Chaperone Records was just a name registered with the state. This past fall, when it was time for RGC (Retribution Gospel Choir) to decide what to do with their new record, a two song full-length follow up to their four song EP (The Revolution, 2010, Sub Pop), they opted to work with Chaperone; never mind that we had a mere four records in our catalog and no real distribution network. We said "yes."

EN: What was the most interesting part of this project? 
Monohan: Holy crap. It is probably the fact that we had pre-orders for more records than we had sold of all other releases combined. Granted, this included a mini distribution deal with a European distributor, Konkurrent, that has worked with Alan on distributing Low and other Sub Pop releases in Europe. But still... we had some ponying up to do if we were going to do this release right. To say we've learned/grown a lot from this experience is an understatement squared. The connections we've made; music/vinyl bloggers, radio DJs, record stores and journalists; are incredible. We've got some serious freaking cred, and all we did was say "yes."

EN: Where can people find Chaperone Records? 
Monohan: Our website is the most obvious: www.chaperonerecords.com.
On Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/chaperonerecords and, of course, the ever-necessary Twitter: @chaperoneduluth. If you promise to be nice, our office is located above the Electric Fetus in omni-charming downtown Duluth.

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