SOOPER Records is a Lightning Rod in Independent Label Landscape
The men of SOOPER Records beam with excitement when they come into the studio. They are fervently talking with one another, laughter and random noise bouncing around them. Another shoot is wrapping up so I sit down at the table with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Glenn Curran, and Steve Daoud, founders of this new Chicago label.
We start talking about where they come from musically. Much of the lineup of artists on the label are personal friends that came up in the same scene as the founders of SOOPER. We talk about different groups they had played in together. We discuss what some of the catalysts were for them in the scene and Nnamdi recalls,“I feel like there were more individual people that became like legendary people as musicians. They were just doing their art in a way that we’ve never seen. There’s awesome bands, but I feel like there just have been individual people throughout the bands I’ve seen evolve and take form since I’ve started playing music in high school in the burbs.
Ogbonnaya’s take on people serving as “lightning rods” shows how necessary he thinks strong leadership is. There are certain people that both make things happen and also provide the anchor creative people need to feel empowered to follow their muse. Leaders are frequently the fuel that powers people to create art. Recognizing the risks of burnout, the creative workhorses at SOOPER are braced for the burdens engendered by the unique role of inspirers. But Chicago, helmed by local superstar Chance The Rapper, is a fertile breeding ground for leadership, and Nnamdi occupies this role for SOOPER and the community developing around them:
G: “The actual first release on Sooper was a free download, which is still available online and it gets downloaded all the time, of people covering Nnamdi’s songs.
N: “I can’t listen to it without crying (haha)”
G: “All these friends made it for him as a birthday present and we called it ‘Goon Squad.’ Almost of the releases we’ve put out so far have been artists that were on that recording in some way. And that wasn’t intentional because that idea was our friend Ian that was like his birthday present to Nnamdi and he organized this wonderful thing. Nnamdi came back from [a] tour and [Ian] showed it to him and we were launching the label like a week later and we were supposed to launch it with Man Without a Head and then we were like ‘We’re going to put this thing out cause it’s really crazy.” That release is emblematic of this community that you (Nnamdi) are at least involved in in a lot of ways.”
The album (with an insane name) produced by Goon Squad is a beautiful tribute to their friend while also being a resounding declaration of a group of people about to break out. Almost every subsequent release on SOOPER Records contains one of the artists involved with the project. There was clear, even if unstated, purpose in these musicians associating with one another. It became evident that it was the perfect founding release for the label in its celebration of Nnamdi and his relationship to the community.
Despite this very clear message of the project, Nnamdi is somewhat reluctant to accept the role. He doesn’t attribute his magnetism to his musicianship, but mores to his personality and ability to bring people together. “I was just the most obnoxious one most of the time... There are definitely people that are better at their craft than me but I was a pretty vibrant person and tried to bring people together. I booked shows at my parents house when I was in high school and stuff. So I think a lot of people knew me from that type of stuff and would see me just interacting with everyone and being like, “Oh, that person, yeah, I think I like him.”
Nnamdi understands the importance of his role in the business while being humbled that people gravitate toward him despite his personal belief that there are more talented people out there. There is a lot of truth to what he says about his own personality. He is charismatic, but he sells his musical ability and commitment short. He has the kind of hyper focus that makes talented people “driven,” and when you detect it, as I did with him, it is impressive. Steve and Glenn continually praise Nnamdi’s work ethic and high level of musicality, with Glenn designating Nnamdi the face of the label. Nnamdi lets on that he appreciates the work involved in making SOOPER successful, and seems determined to navigate any obstacles to getting his work out there:
G: “I would say Nnamdi’s incredibly business savvy. It’s funny cause in our small community, maybe from time to time, there’s a perception that, ‘Ohhh Glenn’s this lawyer and they teamed up and did all this stuff.’
N: “Even when I was first starting off and just reading blogs early on, I would get every person’s email address and every single blog and then CC them and try to change it up so it didn’t look like I was doing that. So I don’t know if that’s ‘business savvy’ or me just wanting something bigger.”
Apparent, though, is that both Glenn and Steve have complimentary qualities to Nnamdi's that together have fanned the sparks of the label into a blaze. Glenn is a practicing attorney in addition to being a musician with a variety of projects. He has an open attitude about learning the ins and outs of the business and remains exceedingly humble despite his accomplishments as the day-to-day operations manager of the label. Steve is a musician as well and has a job at a marketing firm. He handles the back end of their online presence and helps shape the aesthetics of the label and overall marketing direction. He is reserved, but also funny and intelligent. He provides a more tempered approach to Nnamdi and Glenn’s fervent pursuits. Together, they form a rock solid foundation for any successful label.
Nnamdi proved a potent flagship artist, gaining them a partnership with Father Daughter records for the release of his acclaimed Drool album. Nnamdi consistently tours and they have a growing name in the city. They’re already in the conversation for best local label and are looking down the barrel of rapid success. G: “Our big existential question now is how do we go from being a small, limited run, physical distribution, mail order label to something that can really offer real services like PR and have contacts with booking and stuff like that. That’s sort of an ongoing question, and Drool is where we’re learning all of that because that was co-released with a label that has those connections. So yeah, we’re learning everything from Drool and Nnamdi’s the flagship artist and the label is branded around him.”
Though they give a lot of their success up to accidents, the men behind SOOPER have a certain worldview and an arrange of skills that have set them in motion to succeed. They do not have an entitled view when it comes to their music. They don’t believe it should be listened to simply by virtue of existing. They understand the crowded space in which they exist and that they will have to be creative. Just because they have great music, which they do, doesn’t mean they assume success.
S: “Reach has never been defined by quality. Not just in music, but in everything in life. How many things in life have been mass marketed that just aren’t of any quality? That doesn’t mean that everything that’s mass marketed isn’t quality, but it also doesn’t mean that if you aren’t making a reach you aren’t quality.”
They know that the product won’t do anything if it doesn’t have the right legs and that you have to face your modern business circumstances head on. Even though these guys have such high standards for music, they know that isn’t necessarily what will carry them forward to where they want to be. Nnamdi says, “I don’t think being good is as important as being unique in today’s age. If you have a persona of if you’re like something people are drawn to, then you could be putting out shit and people would be like ‘Whoa, I’m drawn to this for some reason.’
Now that more people are drawn into what SOOPER has to offer, they are faced with the dilemma of growth. They are figuring out how to accomplish their near-term goals while maximizing their growth potential:
G: “The question is to what extent are we going to try and pursue traditional label prerogatives and to what extent are we going to try and maybe follow a trajectory constantly evolving and try and do different multi-media stuff and put out a record that has a huge video component to it or something”
S: “It’s not about growth, necessarily. It’s about quality. It’s about giving the people that we engage with, the artists that we work with, and the people who purchase things from this label, the best experience that we can. We all work. Nnamdi plays music. Glenn does something, I’m not really sure (haha). Me too. It’s really just about doing what we can, and being the best at it.”
N: “And also putting out stuff that we believe in. That we believe that other people would like. Me and Glenn talk about it. We can’t put out an artist that we’re not 100% behind.”
While at a crossroads, they have the skills and principles to carry them to national prominence, so long as they stay dedicated to each other and the community that lifts them.