Sitting down with us, Ben explains “My older brother (Chris Swanson) came here in ’94 for school, and he fell in with WIUX the college radio station. When I moved here, we had the idea to start a label – we didn’t know who we were going to work with right away, but we knew we wanted to do it. We spent about a month or two trying to find the right artist, then learning how to make a CD, how to make a 7-inch, and that fall we released our first record.
Ben credits the community of “rabid” music fans in Bloomington with inspiring and helping him and his brother get Secretly Canadian started. In the pre-streaming era, finding the community of music lovers, the “robust DIY scene” as he also describes it, is what made them decided to start the venture in Bloomington, in the fall of Ben’s freshman year at Indiana University.
Secretly Group’s success began with their first release – Songs: Ohia, a project by songwriter Jason Molina.
“He was our first artist, we came up in the music industry together, he was our first success and we were lucky to have him.” Ben says
However, Secretly Group learned quickly, as an indie record label in a small college town, you need to expand in order to thrive.
To operate at the scale they wanted to, Secretly Group needed to expand to other major markets. Relying on the local or regional scene would not allow them to become the international label that they aspired to be. Yet despite having offices in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, London, Paris and Berlin, the company’s headquarters remains in Bloomington.
Ben talks openly about the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the headquarters in Bloomington. While Bloomington has a really robust music scene, it is not the center of the music industry.
“One of the advantages of living in Bloomington” Ben says “is that you’re not caught up in the same hype cycle that labels based in LA, Chicago, and New York are – You’re not at a show with 18 other label people trying to go after the same band. It’s a differentiator for us.”
Ben admits that sometimes artists are “weirded out” that the company is still headquartered in a small college town, but more often than not it’s an interesting talking point.
“Some of our biggest artists are from the Midwest” he adds, “And there’s a lot of Midwest pride.”
For their employees as well as their artists, there is a love for Bloomington and it’s unique culture that offers a reprieve from the other major cities Secretly Group calls home.
“We fly everyone in, twice a year for meetings and they come to Bloomington.” Ben explains, “for a lot of people in our offices in bigger cities- they love to come to Bloomington, it’s this quaint little city that offers a lot of amenities with a small town feel.”
Quality of Life, Cost of Living – Why Secretly has kept HQ in Bloomington
Ben mentions the logistics, quality of life and cost of living when we ask why they have decided to keep headquarters in Bloomington.
“We can have a big warehouse west of town for a fraction of what an apartment would cost in New York.” he says
In terms of logistics advantages – being in the middle of the country was not something they necessarily planned for, but something that has grown organically and is now a big benefit to the company. The Midwest, offers an advantage in terms of a central location to travel to their US offices: Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles and New York. Not only that, but with last year’s announcement of the nonstop flight between the Indianapolis International Airport and Paris, logistics for a Bloomington-based headquarters makes access to the company’s three international offices (London, Paris, Berlin) that much easier.
Ben talks about all of the amenities Bloomington has, ethnically diverse restaurants, a robust music scene and compares them to those of the larger cities where Secretly Group has a presence. Coming from North Dakota, he talks about the advantages of the small town feel that Bloomington offers, but the importance that the small town feel comes without the trappings you typically find in Midwest small towns.
“There’s the continual cycle of new people coming through the University that creates this interesting energy, and that energy is constantly being recycled in town.”
For anyone living in Bloomington, it is impossible to ignore the presence of Indiana University on the community. Ben praises the energy the students bring, a continual cycle of new ideas and inspiration that is helping Bloomington to grow and challenge old ideas.
This energy and sense of continual renewal has inspired many of their artists to stop by Bloomington when they have the opportunity and has enabled Secretly Group to attract some of their employees from the larger cities to move to Bloomington. Employees from Georgia, Portland, Indianapolis, and even New York now call Bloomington home.
The Midwest Renaissance
The movement of people to the Midwest leads Ben to believe in a Midwest Renaissance. But he prefaces the explanation of this Renaissance with a caveat.
“I’m not delusional, I don’t think that people who grew up in New York are all of a sudden going to start flocking to the Midwest, I don’t think that’s happening” he says.
“But I do think that people who grew up in the Midwest, even in different parts of the Midwest are choosing to stay in the Midwest. And maybe they’ll go and move away to a bigger city for a couple years and get that out of their system, but there’s a greater percentage of people that are either staying or coming back, and realizing they can get a lot of what they’re searching for- the culture they’re searching for, in the Midwest.”
And the culture they are searching for – Ben thinks it’s growing strong in Bloomington.Take for example – Ben’s love for the growing coffee scene in Bloomington.
“I look at the coffee scene in Bloomington, I’m a coffee nerd” he explains.
“There was awful coffee Bloomington for so many years because nobody wanted to step on anyone else’s toes, but in the past 3 years, a ton of new places have popped up to challenge the incumbent!”
He continues, “In the past five years in general, there has been this real energy of embracing the constant renewal, and really pushing forward that I think is driven by the creative community here.”
Opportunities for Bloomington: Embracing & Growing the Creative Culture
The creative community and embracing the energy to continuously renew, brings about a healthy amount of competition. Something that Ben cites as being integral for Bloomington’s continued growth.
The creative community also wields a certain sticking power, as more and more of the workforce seeks opportunities in companies that enable them to embrace the culture and amenities that come with the community you are involved in. For this reason Ben talks about how necessary it is for Bloomington to continue to foster the creative and innovative economy if we want to retain good employees and attract more businesses for healthy competition. In Ben’s mind, the more Bloomington supports nature, music, art, a diverse culture, the more likely we are to take full advantage of the Midwest Renaissance.
Want your employees to be able to experience Bloomington’s robust creative economy and the incredible quality of life? Interested in moving your business to Bloomington?
Special thanks to Duke Energy for their assistance in the creation of this blog and video.