By Chaz Bacus
The story of Asthmatic Kitty is filled with ambition, character, and an overall love of music. They began with pure intentions and to this day have stuck to what they do best: putting music into the world that they love and believe in. To best understand just how unique and genuine the people at Asthmatic Kitty are, one must venture to their humble beginnings.
Similar to the story of many independent record labels, the primary purpose of starting Asthmatic Kitty for Lowell Brams was to release the music of his step-son Sufjan Stevens, along with other local musicians from the Holland, Michigan area where they were located. Brams and Stevens began the label together and are both still co-owners today. The odd name of the label comes from a beloved pet cat named Sara who was found in the woods pregnant, starving, afflicted with parasites and had feline asthma. Luckily, she was saved by Brams and lived to the ripe old age of fifteen.
Brams relocated to Lander, Wyoming in 2002 and brought the label there with him. Several questioned his sanity for moving to the least populated state in the country to run a record label but as we have found out in recent years, it seems he knew what he was doing. Other offices are now run in Indianapolis, Indiana and New York, New York.
The main driving force behind this label’s success is and has always been Sufjan Stevens. He possesses that rare X-factor that is indefinable and simply draws people without the need for goading or persuasion. His music is sometimes simple and sometimes grandiose, with one of the purest voices you will ever hear gently laid on top.
With every album released he has garnered more and more attention and grown his fan base exponentially. His earliest album of acclaim is Greetings From Michigan, the Great Lakes State (Michigan) released in 2003. This was the first of his so-called “Fifty States” project, where he was going to record an album based on each state in the U.S. Many thought it was true when he released Come On, Feel The Illinoise! (Illinois) two years later, but today we know that it was nothing more than a marketing ploy.
Illinois topped out at number 121 on the Billboard’s top 200 chart, and since then every full-length album he has released has debuted higher (save for his 5 CD Christmas box set entitled Songs for Christmas, which was only one lower at 122). The Avalanche reached 71, All Delighted People (a 70+ minute “EP”) hit 27, and his latest, The Age of Adz, reached all the way up to number 7.
(click the albums above for more info on each album)
Billboard isn’t the only way to track success, however. Illinois struck big in the independent scene, landing in the top 10 on nine different Best Albums of 2005 lists, from Amazon.com to Pitchfork to Spin (it was #1 on four of those), as well as making several Best Albums of the Decade lists.
Sufjan Stevens performing Chicago
Asthmatic Kitty Today
Thanks to Sufjan’s increasing popularity, AK is able to work with more and more artists that they really believe in. These artists include My Brightest Diamond, The Welcome Wagon, I Heart Lung, and Half-Handed Cloud. This is more than they ever dreamed of working with but delight in getting to work with so much talent.
My Brightest Diamond
In a recent article posted on Hypebot.com, the heads of Asthmatic Kitty sat down and summed up in 5 detailed points their secrets to success.
- Marathon Running – it’s all about the long haul with artists, allowing them to develop and realize their true potential over a span of several albums
- Selling Experience - Understanding that in today’s world, people buy albums to OWN them, not to listen to them. Listening is all too easy in this post-bittorrent world.
- Information Savvy - The more you the fan knows, the easier it is to find new music you like. The more WE at AK know, the more efficient we become at getting the information and products to you the fan.
- Microculture Ecosystems – Fancy way of saying they are a fan of DIY.
- Be Grateful – They are honest, full of integrity, and have never forgotten where they came from. Just be real.
These five points are similar in nature to the way many successful indie labels operate. One example of this would be Merge Records based out of North Carolina. They started small, and focused on doing things efficiently, never paying for something they didn’t absolutely need.
An excellent example of Asthmatic Kitty’s humility and integrity comes from a recent debacle during the week that The Age of Adz released in October of 2010. Once released, Amazon.com made it their daily deal for $3.99. Shortly after, everyone on Asthmatic Kitty’s email list received an email that many misinterpreted as Sufjan Stevens bashing Amazon and telling people not to buy from there. All it really was meant for was to alert people of all of their price options, and they listed everything from torrenting the album for free to buying straight from their website.
The truth is that the label was very excited to be a part of Amazon’s daily deal. It’s a great way to get the music heard by new people who aren’t familiar with Sufjan’s work. Also, Sufjan had nothing to do with the letter. The line that became misinterpreted had to do with Asthmatic Kitty saying that Sufjan’s music is worth more than the cost of a latte. After everything settled, Michael Kaufmann of AK acknowledged that however true that statement may have been, that wasn’t the correct medium to share how they feel about the value of music. He goes into an extensive explanation that really matches up with the five points above, really driving home the fact that their intentions were pure, and the comment about perceived value of music was just a cursory thought, not the focus of the message.
In summation, Asthmatic Kitty Records continues to thrive because of a solid foundation and a solid business model. These days it really is all about customer service, especially in the music industry. As fickle as most music fans are, if they aren’t pleased by something they will move on. Period. Luckily, the folks at Asthmatic Kitty learned this early on and have done their best to please their loyal fans by putting out great new music as efficiently and effectively as they know how.
Click to get connected with Asthmatic Kitty