Tell me a little about yourself, where did you grow up? What sorts of things did you do in school? Had you always had ambitions of running a company? And weren’t you in college when you started B9?
I grew up in Connecticut, and in high school I cared about 3 things – heavy music, skateboarding, and art. I skateboarded every day, I listened to punk and hardcore bands that I was introduced to through the heavy metal bands that I loved in middle school (Slayer introduced me to the Dead Kennedys, Misfits because of Metallica, etc..) and I spent a lot of my time drawing. Growing up I was always looking for opportunities to make my own money. When I was 9, I made flyers for “Chris’ Helping Hands” and did yard work for my neighbors. When I was 15, I sold golf balls that I collected in the woods around the local course for $5 a dozen in a roadside stand that I set up on weekends. When I was 16, I collected hundreds of hubcaps with aspirations of selling them (I had heard of someone making their first million doing this) only to ultimately end up selling them to a scrap yard for a few hundred bucks. In high school, I was the guy who designed the cassette covers for my friend’s bands, made pins for them to sell, did an “underground newspaper.” Fast-forward to my freshman year in college, and a few friends of mine at school helped convince me to put out a 7” record. They knew a guy who ran a label and put us in touch, so I was able to pick his brain and get started. I was always a self-motivated person and if I could do my own thing instead of working for someone else, I did what I could.
How long have you been going to hardcore shows? Can you remember your first one and what you felt at that time in your life? Did it have an immediate impact?
I went to my first hardcore show in ’91 or ’92. I remember hugging the wall so I wouldn’t get hit by the guys in the pit who were twice my size. It was intimidating, scary, and foreign to me. I had been listening to heavy music for years even before my first show but the live experience was new. Obviously it didn’t deter me and I kept going back.
Do you remember first hearing about the Straight Edge movement? How long have you been edge? And what does making that commitment to yourself mean to you?
I listened to Minor Threat pretty early on (as did most kids I knew who skateboarded) so I was aware of Straight Edge as an idea but I didn’t see it as something that was necessarily applicable to my life at the time. I wasn’t much of a partier in high school - I got drunk a handful of times, smoked weed with friends a few times, pretty typical for a suburban high school kid. I didn’t feel the need for a label, if I wanted to do something, I was going to do it, I didn’t want to limit myself. It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized how important Straight Edge could be to my life. I tried to hang for a few weeks with the new kids in my freshman dorm, but the “get wasted every night” regimen that they were on got old real fast, so I decided to claim “edge” and haven’t questioned it since. That was in 1994 so I’ve been edge about 14 years at this point. It holds the same importance to me as it did back then – keeping a clear mind has no doubt kept me healthier, allowed me to make better decisions, and to keep a sharp focus on all of the projects that I’ve worked on since.
Do you see Straight Edge as being a lifetime commitment and how do you feel about edge breaking?
I feel that Straight Edge is a lifetime commitment. If you “break edge”, then decide to abstain from drugs and alcohol again, then personally I feel that you can be “drug or alcohol free” but shouldn’t claim “Edge” again. Maybe the concept of “virginity” could be a good metaphor for being Straight Edge. Likewise, I feel that as the term “Straight Edge” was coined in the hardcore/punk scene, it should only apply to people who understand that culture and where it came from. If you’re a person who doesn’t drink or smoke but doesn’t know what Minor Threat was, I don’t personally think they should be able to claim Edge, but that’s just my opinion. In regards to “Edge Breaking”, I feel that it is every person’s decision and I don’t feel it is relevant to me in any way. I don’t believe I’m in a position to judge anyone’s decisions because I probably don’t fully know their circumstances.
Tell me about how the idea for Bridge Nine began? Where did the name originate and who designed the logo?
I needed something that would keep me connected to my hometown hardcore scene. I spent my college years in Vermont, a few hours from where I grew up going to shows. There wasn’t much going on in VT (that I was aware of) and I felt that if I put out a 7” record with my friends band, it would keep me connected. I wanted to contribute to the hardcore scene – I wasn’t in a band, I didn’t do a fanzine, putting out a 7” record seemed like a good outlet. The name “Bridge Nine” started with “Bridge” – which was a literal description of what I was trying to do – bridge the gap between the bands that I really liked and the kids that followed them too. I used to drive down to Boston for shows and on one of the highways from VT each bridge was numbered and had a sign… I saw the one that said Bridge 9 and it caught my attention, and it stuck, because the number 9 seemed to come up a lot in my life. I designed the logo myself – the original logo had “records” worked it into it, but in 1997 I briefly started making skateboards under the name as well, so I re-designed the logo and dropped “records” from it.
What sorts of things were you interested in before Bridge Nine was set up and does doing the label dominate most of your spare time?
The label became a full time job in 2001 – when I managed to line up 7 releases for the same month. Until that point, I had worked part time jobs and the label ultimately took over.
That summer my wife Elisabeth (then, my girlfriend) and I were driving to NYC and stopped by my parents house in CT to tell them I was going to focus on B9 full time – and the response from my Dad was “So you’re unemployed, and you want us to be happy for you? OK!” Fortunately they were supportive of me, I think as long as I wasn’t asking them for money everything was OK in their book. Pre-B9 I was into listening to music, skateboarding, snowboarding, going to shows. These days, I still listen to a lot of music but probably not as feverishly as I did in high school, and I split my time between work, and hanging out with my wife.
Is the label something you enjoy making the sacrifice for? And can you think of a place in time in the future where you’ll say “that’s it I’ve had enough” or will you just continue as long as the fan base is still there…or do you just take every day one step at a time?
I was getting really burned out by running Bridge Nine in 2005-06, so I started looking for a label manager to help manage B9 while I focused on other opportunities outside of the label. I ended up hiring Karl Hensel – who I had known years before when he was in the band Holding On, and it completely changed everything. He brought a new perspective and energy that ensured that B9 would continue to grow.
As you get older do you feel your perspective changing? Were there times when you questioned continuing with the label and how did you get past those times of self-doubt?
Just before Karl joined B9, I was starting to doubt if the time, effort and money that I was investing in the label was worth it. It’s a tremendous amount of work. I barely break even at the end of the day because the label has always continued to grow, so I’ve always been just short in terms of the money that is needed to keep building. I’ve been involved in a few other ventures that were actually pretty profitable, and you start to realize that your time is worth money. All that said, at the end of the day the label is a labor of love and I enjoy the challenge. I don’t believe my perspective has changed much since the beginning – I want to continue to work with my favourite bands and give them whatever opportunities that I can.
I know from personal experience starting a record label takes an enormous amount of work, self-discipline, belief and determination and ultimately for most people ends in failure, were do you think the secrets to your success lay? What have been the personal highlights of running Bridge Nine? Watching it grow up so to speak…
It’s not something that you can be successful with overnight. And the labels that start out with big budgets and glossy marketing plans, I don’t respect as much. I like the fact that our first few 7” records had black and white covers, because we couldn’t afford full color printing. I like looking at a labels discography and seeing the growth. Bridge Nine started with about $1000 that I was able to pull together from odd jobs. As each release started to sell, I took that money, and whatever else I could scrounge up, and put it into the next project. The reason that B9 has continued to be successful and grow was because I never gave up. Even when key bands broke up or left, or a distributor tried to strong arm me and withhold payments, or when I had releases that I couldn’t even give away, I kept going. It took 5 years before I had a band that even toured nationally, and sold more than 1,500 copies. I think that most people who start their own businesses or record labels and ultimately fail, is because they give up. When it got hard, or too expensive to keep going, I figured out ways to keep moving. Now, 13 years in, I have built B9 up enough that it can take more of a beating than the next label, and we have enough of a following that we can sell directly to a lot of kids through our website, making the label more sustainable.
I have had a lot of personal highlights because of Bridge Nine. I’ve joked about having a hardcore kid wish list and how I’ve been able to cross off a ton of stuff. Touring Europe for the first time with my roommates in American Nightmare. Then going back the next year with Slapshot, a band that I loved growing up. Putting out a 7” with Sick Of It All, then reissuing Schism Fanzine as a book with the Project X 7”, then releasing a 7” with legends like Agnostic Front. Touring Japan with Terror and Australia with Champion, to then tour Europe with Slapshot and Champion 6 months later. More recently, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to release a record for New Found Glory, who have multiple gold records under their belts, and their guitarist, Chad, produced the new H2O album that we’re releasing. I have been a huge H2O fan since day one – in fact they are one of the only bands that I ever wrote a letter to back then, and now I am putting out their records, which is a great honor. I’ve met so many great people because of the label – people from bands whose records we’ve released, people who also run labels and fanzines and put on shows, and tons of people in general. I also have this incredible drive to make stuff, and B9 has been a great outlet for that. My wife jokes about never wanting to know the extent of my “human footprint”, because she claims that I make the world a heavier place (weight-wise, not music!).
Did you have aspirations of running a record label when you were younger? Do you think of yourself as a businessman?
I never had any aspirations to start a label, even when I put out B9’s first 7”, I didn’t put a number on it, because I didn’t know if there’d be a 2nd release. I do think of myself as a businessman, I run multiple businesses – but I believe I run them ethically. We try to take care of the people that work for us – we offer health insurance to our full time employees, we use a payroll service so they don’t get screwed at tax time. Growing up, I was always trying to start different business ventures, with mixed success. I have no formal business background – everything has been trial and error (I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree). In addition to the label, I also own a clothing and souvenir company called Sully’s Brand, and I am a partner in a screen-printing business that I founded called Liberated Images. My other companies have allowed me to earn a living so that I do not depend on B9 for a pay check (I’ve gone without any compensation for more years than I have taken one, and even then it was still below minimum wage). I don’t believe that it would be possible to run an ethical hardcore/punk based record label if I depended on it for my living. My first widespread releases came out in 2000 – the same year that I started making and selling “Yankees Suck” souvenirs outside of Fenway Park to Red Sox fans leaving the games… I needed to raise a lot of money because I didn’t have any and I didn’t have enough credit to qualify for any kind of loan, so in order to cover the costs of the records I hawked whatever I could. In the following years, I started making more and more stuff to sell to sports fans. At the end of 2003, my local screen printer told me that I was their biggest customer, so I looked into buying my own equipment. That following spring, I hired 2 guys to run the shop, I financed a couple of presses and a dryer, and I leased the office next to the B9 space. Now that screen-printing shop (Liberated) prints all of B9’s and Sully’s merch, as well as merchandise for a ton of B9 bands (as well as anyone else who needs t-shirts).
What are the common misconceptions associated with running a label? Have there been disadvantages or things that you wish now you’d done or tried differently?
I think one common misconception with running your own business is that you can set your own hours. While in some regards this is true, it is ultimately so much work, that the business has more say in what free time I may have, if any… In regards to the perception from outsiders, everyone always assumes that you’re making more money than you really are because they don’t understand how many expenses are tied in with releasing records properly. I’ve had college interns who have gone home for the summer whose friends have asked “how big is Chris Wrenn’s house” or “what kind of car does he drive”, and the truth was that I have a small condo (at the time, rented an apartment) with my wife and I drive her 2003 Hyundai most of the time. I’m not pleading poverty because like I said my other ventures do well but the perception is completely off base. There are definitely disadvantages to doing your own thing. You become so wrapped up in the process of building, that you neglect personal relationships and friends. Building a label like B9 is so labor intensive, that I don’t hang out like I used to. I could probably find something to work on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and still not finish. Before B9 really got started, I would go skateboarding or hang out with friends whenever I felt like it, because my responsibilities at work or school had a defined boundary. With the label, there are no boundaries, and between dealing with bands, our website, and related label work, I am pretty much on call at all times. I have to discipline myself not to answer phone calls when I’m out to dinner with my wife. I hope that some day the label will have grown to the point where I will be assisted with most of the day-to-day responsibilities but that day still seems far off.
Have you ever been in a band or from the perspective of someone who runs a label would you ever like to be in that position? If so what would you like to do?
I have never been in a band, which is why I considered putting out records. We’ve always had people in bands work here though – Karl toured full time for a few years - because that is a good perspective to have. I don’t know what it’s like personally to tour full time, but I want to make sure we know what our bands go through so that we can properly support them.
Typically how many units do you shift for say an album like “The Things We carry” Initially how did you approach bands to offer them a deal and what sorts of things would you do for them? Have things changed much since those early days?
We’ve worked with all sorts of bands – some that have had a lot of success and sell between 10,000 and 20,000 or more records, and bands that sell anywhere from a few thousand to 5,000 copies. It depends on how much they tour, really. Bands that tour a lot, sell more records. In regards to the kinds of stuff that we do for our bands, we do whatever we can to keep them on the road. We pay for the recordings, take care of all of the marketing of the release. We design, print and advance them merchandise when needed and we sell it for them and pay them regularly for that. We develop new items for them to sell on the road so they can afford to tour, like our new 3’x5’ cloth banners and 24”x36” posters.
How do you work out royalties? Is that something agreed when you first sign the band?
That is something that is worked out when we first talk with a band. We pay out merch royalties on a quarterly, and for active bands, now monthly, basis. We account to bands every six months for their album sales, and pay them once a record has recouped.
Do you feel like your still doing something creative and how much of your influence affects things like design or the direction in which bridge 9 is heading? How do you measure success?
I definitely still feel like I’m doing something creative, and I try to keep things as fun and interesting as possible. I’m also very aware that B9 won’t last forever, and I want to make sure that its legacy is one that I will be proud of. I still design most of the advertisements, I design and source new items like our 3’x5’ banners, posters and stickers, as well as some of our t-shirts. In regards to the bands that we sign, I picked every band up through 2006 (with assistance from friends and people in other B9 bands), and since Karl has been in the mix, he’s had a big role in the “A&R” department. We are very much on the same page when it comes to bands that we feel should be on B9, and it has been exciting having him work on bringing some of the newer bands to the label. How do I measure success? Not in the traditional business sense. True, we need to keep growing financially so we can continue to support the label. Beyond that though, I measure success by the various ways we’ve been able to push the envelope as a label – through our own innovations, and the opportunities that we’ve helped our bands create for themselves.
What sort of opportunities have running Bridge Nine opened up for you? Are there any other avenues of business that interest you or are you quite happy to just continue to focus on releasing great music?
Bridge Nine has allowed me to do a lot of things… I’ve had the opportunity to tour all over the world, I’ve been able to challenge myself and accomplish things that I never thought possible. Like I mentioned earlier, I started a 2nd company (Sully’s) to raise money for the label originally and it has since become its own business, and I started a 3rd company (Liberated Images) to manufacture the merch needed by both Sully’s and B9, which is growing to accommodate more and more bands every month. I doubt I will ever be content with the projects at hand, I’ll most likely continue to grow other businesses for fun and money while B9 remains my true passion.
What advice would you give someone interested in running a label? (You actually wrote an article that was posted up on the Bridge Nine site which I used as a basis to form my record label Go-Team…could I put that article in my book?…I’m doing a section entitled get involved…)
Always know your limits – don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver. That is the #1 problem with people that run labels – they assume they can get something done, and then end up letting people down. You do that enough times and your reputation is going to be shot. It’s easy to spread yourself too thin when you run a label, but keep an eye on what you can afford to do, with both your money and your time. Feel free to re-print that “How to put out a record” article – I actually need to add that back to our website, I lost the PDF file for it. I’m glad to hear that you found it helpful; a lot of people have referenced it as being a good resource. I wrote that and made it available online for two reasons. First, at the time (2003) I was getting a lot of emails from people who were looking for advice on how to get started. I asked a lot of questions of people who ran labels when I was getting started, so I wanted to make something that I could refer people to instead of writing out the same wordy emails every month or so. I’ve learned a ton over the years and if I could help give back and make it even the slightest bit easier for someone just getting started, great. The 2nd reason, and probably the one that motivated me the most to write it, was because back in 2003 Bridge Nine was viewed as a label that was on its way up pretty quickly – we had releases with Terror, Sick Of It All, and a bunch of other hyped bands that year. With success, comes a lot of criticism, so it was my way of saying “If you don’t like how B9 is run, start a label and do it the way you feel hardcore should be represented. Here’s how you can get started”. When my label was just beginning to move, for as much as I admire and respect labels like Revelation, Equal Vision and others, I was critical of them and how they represented hardcore. In the late 90’s, all of the “bigger” labels that were rooted in the hardcore scene started throwing a lot of shit against the wall in the search for the next big indie band. There was a big void in the world of hardcore at that level, so I stepped B9 up and grew quickly in their absence. At the same time, I worked hard to have B9 represent what I liked about hardcore, and my bands and releases reflected that. As Bridge Nine grew from a bedroom label to one with an office and a small staff, that guide was a way to inspire people to start their own bedroom labels and get started. From what I’ve seen, it helped and a lot of labels got their start by reading it. It’s very easy to criticize others efforts without acting on your own. I am no longer affected by people taking shots at what I’ve built, because 99% of the time they’re from faceless avatars that don’t actually do anything themselves, from the confines of either their bedrooms in their parents homes or their cubicles at the jobs that they hate.
Over the years hardcore has evolved in so many different ways, What were things that drew you in to this underground world that appealed then and to this day still put a smile on your face?
Heavy music and the perception of “hardcore” may have evolved, but we still stick to the basics. I like what Revelation Records started and they have been an influence to Bridge Nine. We also won’t work with bands who aren’t fans of the Bad Brains for the most part, so that is a good way of weeding out the bad eggs. I know that a lot of people “grow out” of hardcore/punk music – they only latch onto the bands that they liked during the height of their involvement in the “scene”. Fortunately, I have continued to be exposed to new and interesting bands – so it’s always exciting, I’ve never been one of those “it was better back then” types, because hardcore/punk has continued to keep my interest.
This point in time must be quite poignant for you with the releases from Agnostic Front, New Found Glory / ISHC, H20, Have Heart & Verse coming up & very exciting also. Bridge Nine is starting to bridge that gap between the underground and dare I say a wider audience how do you feel about it growing and getting even bigger?
I think our audience is growing but I don’t believe that it is that wide in the grand scheme of things. We’ve just released the NFG/ISHC 2xCD, but even that is only going to translate over to the hardcore kids that are already fans of NFG, for the most part. We’ve had the honor of working with established bands like Agnostic Front and H2O, but also developing up and comers like Have Heart, Verse & Ceremony. I think that B9 has become a well-known label in regards to hardcore/punk music – but in the grand scheme of indie music we could grow 5 times our size and still be considered a small label.
Do you think the Internet helped or hindered the hardcore scene or both? Made it more accessible but then there’s a lot of talk on the net, the rumour mill...people need more hobbies…with that in mind why should people get more involved in there local scene and what sort’s of things can they do?
I think it has been a double-edged sword. It allows people to hear any band that they want, at any time. Which is an incredible convenience. At the same time, it has cheapened music in the sense that if you don’t have to work hard to find it, its value is diminished, it’s disposable. In the 80’s and early 90’s, the #1 place to find out about bands that you might like was from the thanks list of albums that you already listened to. Then you’d have to search out their records. Also, in the past if you had an opinion about something that you wanted to express, you either wrote to a fanzine or published your own, or you said it on stage or you told the person to their face. Now, anyone anywhere can voice their opinions anonymously and without consequence. The fact that people love doing this is mind boggling, and one of the dark sides to the convenience of the internet.
What sorts of things interest you outside of the hardcore scene?
Riding bikes with my wife. Watching the History Channel. Hanging out with my cat. Watching Red Sox games. I’ve made an effort to actually go out to the games more now, so Elisabeth and I have caught a few so far this season.
Ten Yard Fight or In My Eyes? Could you imagine if Sweet Pete and Wrench formed a band? Who would be in your ultimate youth crew band?
I was a fan of both bands. B9 released the Ten Yard Fight final show video back in 2000 but I would have put out something with In My Eyes in a second if I had the opportunity. Wrench and Sweet Pete are two talented, passionate people who fronted two great bands that marked an exciting time in Boston. While I like a lot of bands that came out of that era and had that sound, I don’t really have any ideas of what would be my ultimate “youth crew” band.
How do’s it feel to be Chris Wrenn right now? Any success coming your way seems full deserved!
It’s cool, but I’m not in any position to rest on my laurels or anything. Being Chris Wrenn means working 12 to 15+ hour days, being stressed about paying bills, and multi-tasking a ton of projects for several businesses at once. I do acknowledge the good stuff often though – I feel very lucky that I am able to spend my days building my record label and releasing exciting music, but this has been a 13-year journey and not an overnight success.