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As a lifelong, self-taught musician, Brett Johnson knows a thing or two about the inner workings of the music business. In addition to founding and operating his own independent label, Blue Worm Records, Johnson has played a handful of instruments in a handful of bands, including touring for four years as the bassist for Atmosphere. He's seen bands in the Twin Cities come and go, including his own, but underneath it all he has kept a relentlessly optimistic outlook on the future of the music business and his own homegrown label.
"Music was always the focus—it was what I was going to do," Johnson says matter-of-factly over a cup of green tea at his immaculate Robbinsdale apartment. The dichotomy between his appearance and demeanor is striking at first. His large frame towers over the kitchen table, and he maintains a serious expression throughout the conversation, yet he speaks softly and compassionately about the history of his record label.
"I'd been jumping from band to band for many years, until I got to the point where this one particular band, Dropnickel, started. And when Dropnickel started, that's when we started Blue Worm," Johnson says. "I wanted to be able to put out records without having to cater to some existing scene or sound. And then all of a sudden, this band came about and I thought, 'I think now's the time.'"
Things started building slowly, as Johnson and his Dropnickel bandmates put out their first two-song cassette under the Blue Worm Records name in the spring of 1998. Soon after, the band issued their first EP on Blue Worm, and Johnson decided to try adding another band to his roster.
"We decided to start going to shows to find bands we would want to play with. One of the first bands we saw, on accident, was the Dames," he says, his eyes lighting up as he recounts the story. "They played New Band Night at 7th St. [Entry], and I was there to see another band. When we saw the Dames, we were just floored. They were playing again at the Foxfire the next night and then Ryan's in St. Paul the night after that, and we just decided we're going to go see these guys three nights in a row. It was funny, I don't think they took us seriously. They were kind of shy about it. I thought they were really incredible."
Soon enough Johnson had built up a small stable of local bands for his burgeoning label. He says he tends to sign bands who fall within a similar genre of music—independent rock 'n' roll—though the definition of straight-up rock has evolved slightly over the years.
"It's not 'indie rock,'" he says, bristling over speaking the words "indie" and "rock" in succession. "To me, it's just bands that are really into creating their own version of rock 'n' roll, and are not trying to rip off anybody. It's usually heavier or more aggressive, I guess, but it's not exactly metal. I just always call it Midwest independent rock."
The most important part of his role as label head, he says, has been to help bands figure out how to stay together through the ups and downs of the music business.
"It just depends on what you want," he says. "That's the biggest lesson I've learned. Be really clear what you're in this for, and that the people you are working with are on the same page as you. If you're not on the same page, then leave the situation and go find people who are. Otherwise, it's going to be a constant struggle of three out of the four of you on the same page, or two out of the three of you, and then you're just going to go from band to band to band to band.
"If it's about money or it's about art—don't judge yourself about it, just be honest—then move in that direction. I think that's the biggest advice I'd give to any up-and-coming musician who wants to make a career in music."
BLUE WORM RECORDS will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this FRIDAY AND SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10 and 11, at the TRIPLE ROCK SOCIAL CLUB; 612.333.7499