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Scottie McNiece on Unifying Chicago’s Music Scene

The International Anthem cofounder discusses the record label’s humble beginnings, the creativity of Chicago’s musicians, and more.

International Anthem founders Scottie McNiece (left) and David Allen   Photo: Mark Pallman

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Scottie McNiece, co-founder of record label International Anthem. The label hosts its Third Annual Winter Solstice show at Logan Hardware this Sunday.

How did you start International Anthem?

I got a job at Gilt Bar to pay the bills, and I slowly got into programming music. There was a small bar in the basement, and I started booking jazz groups. The deal was, I’ll give you a month to play if you compose original music for the residency. Then I called David [Allen], who’s my business partner, and said, “I’m doing this artist’s residency with Rob Mazurek. I want to record it and potentially start a label putting the recording out.” That was December of 2012, and the record [Alternate Moon Cycles] came out in December 2014.

How do you run such a small, hands-on label?

My primary job is to build community. The artists and albums we choose are the ones that I feel have the best opportunity to strengthen the existing community we’re starting to build. A lot of labels, they just get a finished record in the mail and they put it out. We fund an entire production, and sometimes it takes six months or a year. It’s not cheap. Thus far, we just lose money. Before International Anthem, we started a company together called Uncanned Music, where we design sound systems and do playlists for restaurants. That’s where we make our living.

Most of your artists are affiliated with Chicago. Do you think there’s a distinct sound to your music?

Chicago is notorious for being one of the birthplaces of experimental, avant-garde, creative jazz. No matter what the music is—electronic, cumbia—we’re taking an experimental approach. A lot of our records have been produced in an improvised setting. Also, creative jazz music in Chicago is a lineage that’s passed down from generations. Hear in Now, one of the bands on our label, play with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In other genres, like punk, when you see the 60-year-old rockers that were big in the ’80s, it’s almost laughable—a nostalgia tour. It’s the opposite in jazz. The hippest players are starstruck with the elders.

A huge inspiration to me was Umbrella Music Group, a group of musicians who were booking jazz in different clubs—basically to have a network of places that supported creative music and musicians who needed places to play. Mike Reed from that group started Constellation, his own venue, and Constellation has been one of the unifying forces in this music scene.

What does unifying a scene mean as a label?

Encouraging musicians who lean avant-garde to make music that’s not as alienating. And encouraging artists who are crowd-pleasers to go further out on limbs. Jaimie Branch, for instance, whose debut we put out this year—anything else she’d done up until that point was not poppy. And with this record she was responding to the flag we were putting up. She wrote the poppiest thing that she’s ever written, and people responded to it. We want to show musicians you don’t have to compromise your art to have a broader appeal.

On the opposite side of that, someone like Makaya [McCraven], whose music up until In the Moment and Highly Rare had been straight-edge contemporary jazz, we were able to put him in situations where he was more comfortable going out on limbs, including doing things that were more challenging and weird.

How are you trying to fill a gap in the Chicago jazz scene?

Delmark Records has been putting out jazzy records for a while, and in the ’90s Thrill Jockey was that. But as far as I know, there wasn’t anyone doing what we are doing. I don’t think we started our label because we saw a seam in the market. We wanted to do it, and we were already doing the work. When things started going well, a lot of musicians said to me, “Man, I didn’t really think about it, but there was a need for this.”

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