One floor above the CDs and incense holders at the Electric Fetus in downtown Duluth is a small office. Shelves holding heavy boxes of shiny new vinyl records reach all the way up to the ceiling. Two cluttered desks sit next to a window overlooking Superior Street.
This is the Chaperone Records headquarters.
“Have anything pressing you need done today?” Cory Pittman asked from behind one of the desks.
“That’s a little record label humor,” replied Bob Monahan, president and head chaperone at Chaperone Records. He didn’t answer her question, which probably wasn’t a joke.
Chaperone Records has been on a serious roll since they got their start not even a full year ago. Since August 2012, this quickly growing, little label has put out a variety of record releases from well-known artists like Charlie Parr and Retribution Gospel Choir. Their tenth release is set to drop in early May.
“On the most base level, we are a record label,” Monahan said.
They’re definitely more than that.
“I guess you could say we produce records,” Monahan said. “In a nutshell, we pay for the entire production of an artist’s recording, and then do what we can to help them sell records.”
Duluth has a vibrant music and arts scene, as epitomized by the weeklong Homegrown Music Festival that takes place every year. In a town where upwards of 180 acts come together to celebrate music and the arts, there are bound to be a few standouts.
What started as a a group of friends in a burgeoning music community quickly grew into a something to be taken seriously.
“People were getting really good,” Monahan said. “It kind of evolved into a realization that there was some real talent emerging, around the people I was associated with, and how that network was growing.”
In May 2012, Monahan registered the name Chaperone, and the company became a reality.
“I’m a little mystified about how I suddenly became head of Chaperone Records,” he said.
“We’re particularly proud of that one,” Monahan said. “Not because it’s an internationally-known band. We respect the shit out of those guys. I mean, it’s Sparhawk. He can’t be denied.”
Retribution’s regular label, industry legends Sub Pop decided to pass on 3. The album has two tracks, and each clocks in at around 20 minutes. It might have been a little too avant-garde for Sub Pop to risk putting out.
But it was just what Chaperone Records was looking for.
“The album was sort of an outlier,” Monahan said. “Chaperone is kind of an outlier since nobody really knows who we are. Suddenly, we’re the label that’s putting out the new Retribution.”
Southwire is a folk-gospel group with a subtle bit of hip-hop. They just released their self-title album through Chaperone this last March.
Chaperone has a serious commitment to putting their artists on wax. The label puts out a vinyl version of everything they release.
“It’s a 12x12 piece of art,” Monahan said. “We’ve really run with that concept. All of our releases have been hand-screened. A lot of them have been designed by our in-house guy, Dave Moreira.”
Dave Moreira is a Duluth artist who goes by the name SkatRadioh.
“It became clear that we didn’t just want to become a record label,” Monahan said. “We wanted to be a specialty record label. We wanted to fill a niche that no record label in Duluth had ever filled before. That’s sort of the premise behind why we do vinyl. Because it is legit. It’s something you can’t really deny.”
Unlike many contemporary indie labels, Chaperone is equipped with their own recording studio, also located downtown.
“From the get-go, I thought to have a studio in place,” Monahan said. “I also found out real quick that that’s not typical. I found a lot of labels don’t. They take the master and go from there. I wanted to have the ability to produce quality sounding records.”
Sean Elmquist is the man behind the console for those who wish to record their album in the Chaperone Studio.
“[Elmquist] is a very adept music producer and engineer,” Monahan said. “I wanted to make sure that he had the facilities available to make whatever kind of records he wanted to.”
Chaperone Records is not even a year old, and they’ve already gone a long way. If they can keep up the momentum, there is no telling how far they could go. For Monahan, the business is a just necessary part of a nobler endgame.
“In the grandest sense, Chaperone has nothing to do with me wanting to be record label dude,” Monahan said. “It’s way more about helping other people achieve their artistic dreams. It’s about the community.”