Nan Warshaw MA ’93

Businesswoman. Publicist. Influencer.

With 20 years, 220 releases, and 70 artists under its belt, Nan Warshaw’s Bloodshot Records has left its whiskey-stained mark on the Chicago music scene.

Nan Warshaw grew up in Old Town and Evanston and attended the progressive Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. (it didn’t even have majors), earning an undergraduate degree in 1985. After working for a nonprofit for five years, she enrolled in Columbia College Chicago’s graduate Arts, Entertainment and Media Management (now Business and Entrepreneurship) program to pursue her goal of working with bands she loved. Warshaw considered getting a traditional MBA, but “thought [she] wouldn’t want to stomach that program,” and instead chose a business school that spoke to her passion for music.

She credits Business and Entrepreneurship professor Angelo Luciano with making accounting skills accessible to a decidedly nonmathematical mind, and says former professor Greg Hoskins is now Bloodshot’s financial adviser. Columbia also gave her a small taste of the record label experience through the AEMMP Records practicum course, which allows students to release multiple CDs each semester. (That semester was a dramatic one: The president of the label was ineffectual, so the rest of the crew committed mutiny and Warshaw ended up reluctantly taking the co-lead, signing off on decisions involving manufacturing, distribution, marketing and more.)

A Genre Is Born

During her graduate studies, Warshaw was an independent publicist for country-rock band the Old 97’s and DJed Wednesday nights at the Lincoln Park punk bar Crash Palace (now Delilah’s), spinning country music instead of the bar’s usual fare. There, she became friends with one of the regulars, Rob Miller, who would become her business partner.

Around the time Warshaw was completing her grad studies, she, Miller, and another friend, Eric Babcock, came up with a half-cocked plan to release a compilation showcasing Chicago’s vibrant roots scene that nobody was talking about. They drew up a list of about 20 bands that they labeled “insurgent country,” and were able to get songs from 17 of them for Bloodshot Records’ first release, For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country.

The three pooled their money (about $6,000 total) to fund the album and consigned it to local record stores—and the initial 1,000 copies practically hopped off the shelves.

“At the time, the word ‘country’ was a bad word,” Warshaw says of their genre-naming decision. She wanted to set this roots-tinged rock apart from the slick, commercial country of Garth Brooks. “In some ways, we did too good of a job, because for years we were called insurgent country. We haven’t used the term ourselves for 10 years or more, yet people still refer to us that way.”

To The Top of the Underground

For a few years, Bloodshot was simply a hobby. “It was done out of boredom and not knowing what we were getting ourselves into,” Miller says. When one release broke even, the partners would start making plans for the next one.

In 1998, Bloodshot hit the musical jackpot: Neko Case, she of the powerful pipes that would draw comparisons to Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Warshaw first saw Case perform to about 20 people at a CMJ showcase in New York City and was “blown away.” Bloodshot released Case’s first three solo albums, launching the alternative country star’s storied career before she signed to the larger label Anti-.

The new millennium brought another boon to the burgeoning record label. Warshaw was good friends with the members of Whiskeytown, so when the band was courted by major labels, frontman Ryan Adams asked her to sit in on one of the dinner meetings. “This major label was just clueless,” Warshaw says. “They’re like, ‘We’ll make you into the next Offspring!’ or whatever was popular at the time, and Ryan was so disgusted, he walked right out of the restaurant.”

After Whiskeytown broke up, Adams developed a more lo-fi, country sound that fit perfectly into Bloodshot’s lineup, and Warshaw says the label jumped at the chance to release his solo debut. To this day, Heartbreaker (2000) is Bloodshot’s best-selling release, selling more than 350,000 copies in the United States and 100,000 overseas.

Since then, the label has amassed a roster of critically acclaimed country-rock artists such as Robbie Fulks, Justin Townes Earle and Alejandro Escovedo. One of its recent additions, potent crooner Lydia Loveless, was named an artist to watch in 2014 by both SPIN and Rolling Stone. Bloodshot has also expanded its roster to include blues, soul and R&B acts, such as JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, a “post-punk soul” group known for its infectious live performances.

“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what grabs us,” Warshaw says. “It’s seeing that new artist that puts a dumb smile on my face.”

“You Need That Passion”

A key ingredient to Bloodshot’s success is frugality. In the label’s earliest days, while Warshaw was still an intern at Elektra Records, she rummaged through the company’s discarded jewel cases—kept in a box big enough to house a small family—and used those to package Bloodshot’s promotional copies, which were hand delivered to the press. After Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker raked in the most profit in Bloodshot’s history, Warshaw and Miller invested the money rather than expanding the label. They still have fewer than 10 full-time employees, and their annual revenue is less than $2 million.

That’s largely because Warshaw is still a punk at heart: She despises corporate tactics and decries the “Walmart-ization” of America. She says running a business on her terms requires staying on a relatively small scale, but it’s “surprisingly possible to work within the music business and do it ethically.” More than anything, it takes dedication to art over money—a model that Bloodshot has successfully followed for 20 years.

“The only reason to start your own record label is because you’re so passionate you can’t help yourself,” Warshaw says. “You need that passion to drive you all the time.”

Adapted from DEMO magazine, issue 21