How a Tiny Record Label Jump-Started One Midwestern City's Arts Economy

Asthmatic Kitty Records has enmeshed its own growth with building up Indianapolis' cultural infrastructure.

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Indianapolis-based folk duo Lily and Madeleine are some of Asthmatic Kitty's most promising new artists. (Asthmatic Kitty)

The story usually goes like this: A local music scene develops, bands start to attract attention beyond city limits, the homegrown independent record label blossoms, and the city reaps the cultural and economic development rewards.

It happened in 1980s Manchester, England, where Factory Records’ legendary Haçienda was the hub of the “Madchester” scene, helping to transform the surrounding neighborhood into a destination for artists, musicians, and young people. In the 2000s, Saddle Creek Records—home to Conor Oberst’s seminal indie band Bright Eyes, among other acts—turned a former brownfield in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, into a thriving live/work/play destination with its mixed-use Slowdown project. And in 2006, singer Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records adapted a crumbling, historic church in Buffalo, New York, into its label headquarters—and a 1,200-seat concert hall.

But in Indianapolis, this story has unfolded backwards. And this time, the music label’s benefit has reached beyond any actual building. Indie label Asthmatic Kitty Records launched in 1999 to capture and broadcast the output of a small, experimental music scene in Holland, Michigan. Its primary artist then was co-owner Sufjan Stevens, an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter who would eventually bring the tiny label to national prominence with a stream of successful indie albums.

More than a thousand miles away in the remote town of Lander, Wyoming (pop. 7,677), Stevens’ first releases were handled at the label’s ad-hoc headquarters. As sales climbed, the label needed a manager, and San Diego resident and grad student Michael Kaufmann came on in 2001.

In 2005, Kaufmann migrated to Indianapolis and began managing Asthmatic Kitty from there. The city’s low cost of living let him meet the increasing demands of running a small label representing a popular indie act in a way that living in New York City never could. Plus, it was nice there. “There seemed to be a real exciting, embracing community in Indianapolis,” Kaufmann offers, “and an influx of cultural things within the city.”

Within months of Kaufmann’s move to Indianapolis, Asthmatic Kitty released Stevens’ critically acclaimed, state-themed concept album, Illinois. The unanticipated popularity of the album meant that Kaufmann needed an assistant, so he hired a fellow Hoosier state transplant named John Beeler. The label’s roster grew exponentially with new, buzzworthy bands—now from all over the country. They added an employee in England to help with international press and distribution. Very quickly, the once-tiny label became a global company—with the bulk of business decisions made via email from Indianapolis, Lander, and Brooklyn, where Stevens had settled.

The paradox of running a label in a city with no direct connections to its location was not a hurdle to Kaufmann, who viewed Asthmatic Kitty “as an opportunity to make a cultural impact on [Indianapolis].” In fact, Kaufmann and Beeler sought out opportunities to leverage the label’s impact on its home city.

In Indianapolis, Asthmatic Kitty has signed local acts, offers guidance to other entrepreneurs in the city’s music scene, and occasionally books evenings of music in local spaces. They’ve also sponsored an “Unusual Animals” pop-up art gallery in the city and established an informal partnership with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. But perhaps the label’s biggest steps in connecting with its urban environment came from Kaufmann’s and Beeler’s desire to influence urban policy “with a small ‘p’” in Indianapolis.

In 2011, Kaufmann helped host an Indianapolis screening of director Gary Hustwit’s film Urbanized with Hustwit in attendance. The screening expanded into a half-day event with speakers examining urbanism and Indianapolis. After that success, Kaufmann and a handful of city residents roped in Beeler and formed a virtual think tank, called We Are City. The result is a twice-weekly email reaching more than 1,200 subscribers, detailing urban action and thought in Indianapolis as well as information on similar happenings elsewhere. We Are City has since programmed two annual day-long “summits” open to the public, featuring speakers discussing city-building ideas. (Full disclosure, I spoke there on music scenes and economic development in 2013.)

In 2012, Super Bowl XLVI provided a new opportunity for Kaufmann and Beeler to use the knowledge they gained running Asthmatic Kitty to engage Indianapolis residents. While creating a compilation of music by Indiana bands for use in the game’s accompanying city-wide festivities, Kaufmann—who, at this point, had left Asthmatic Kitty to oversee “civic investment” for an Indianapolis public health care provider and to manage New York-based alt hip-hop act and composer Son Lux—and Beeler (now the label’s manager) initiated conversation with members of the local music scene, leading to the formation of The Music Council. Made up of a diverse cross-section of music professionals, the council includes representatives from local blogs, indie labels, the chamber of commerce, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and educational institutions. Its goal is to influence city policies that might foster growth for the music scene while also developing the city’s creative economy.

“One thing music brings to a city are these creative small businesses that have a huge impact on the creative economy of the city,” Beeler says. “It is really important for our city to think about how we can get more of these businesses into our ecosystem. That’s where the Music Council is heading … looking at bands, venues, publicists, videographers as creative small businesses.”

These efforts give credibility to the city’s music scene as a creative economic cluster, something Kaufmann saw play out in October 2013 when Asthmatic Kitty was marketing the self-titled debut album from Indianapolis-bred folk duo Lily and Madeleine. “What was it worth to Indianapolis when they were on CBS This Morning for nine minutes and talked about their home town and what it was like to grow up in Broad Ripple? How much would that [publicity] have cost?,” he asks. “Thousands.”

The value that Kaufmann and Beeler have created for Indianapolis is not lost on city representatives, who are looking to the label and others in the local music scene for insight as they try to lure young professionals to Indianapolis’s urban core.

Former Asthmatic Kitty A&R director Michael Kaufmann. (Courtesy Asthmatic Kitty)

And while it may have started out of necessity, the free-floating geography of Asthmatic Kitty is now de rigueur for the independent segment of the music industry. “Everybody is remote,” says Beeler. “A lot of people go for months not knowing that I don’t live in Brooklyn.” Indie-label album sales are also an increasing market share of the industry—and these labels are in places like Omaha and Buffalo, far from cultural hotspots like Brooklyn or traditional music epicenters like Nashville. Small labels and the scenes they represent are literally rebuilding parts of their cities on rock 'n' roll.

Today, Asthmatic Kitty Records continues to leverage its virtual global network to help advance and strengthen Indianapolis’ music scene while weaving itself deeper into the city’s existing cultural infrastructure.

“That’s a lesson from the record label,” Kaufmann says. “When you get the right people in the room talking, things happen.”

 

About the Author

  • Michael Seman is a senior research associate at the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research. He also contributes to Portland State University’s Artisan Economy Initiative and holds a doctorate in urban planning and public policy.