—David Menconi, Down on Copperline
Based in Carrboro, Sleepy Cat Records started up in the summer of 2019 with a motto summarizing its modest intentions: “Friends making art.” Self-described as “a small business run by 2 sweeties and loads of help from our friends,” Sleepy Cat nevertheless has grander ambitions behind it. It’s less a conventional independent record label than a collective, and maybe even a model for what the record industry might someday become.
“In the most boring sense, it’s marrying music and economics,” says Sleepy Cat co-founder Saman Khoujinian. “We don’t really have an especially good model for what it might look like someday. But it’s become less tenable than ever to be a musician with a professional career unless you have rich parents, or fall in that upper echelon. It seems like everything is that way, whether it’s music or housing.”
Sleepy Cat has a first-rate roster of primarily regional acts including singer/songwriter Chessa Rich, octogenarian bluegrass Hall of Famer Alice Gerrard, Mipso members Joseph Terrell and Libby Rodenbough, synth-pop auteur Sam “Night Blooms” Logan, and the founders’ own spare folk ensemble T. Gold. It’s a collaborative group of artists with a house-band approach, in that they all frequently play on each other’s records. The label has also taken a few steps beyond what most record companies do by putting on live events like the outdoor music festival Sleepy Fest, which had its second edition this past summer.
“We’re not interested in being a traditional label, for sure,” says co-founder Gabe Anderson. “As a collective, what would it look like to do different things besides records? Like poetry – we had that at the festival. We’d like to collaborate across platforms into photography, printmaking, writing. I think we’re becoming like a media company that empowers voices within and around us, because traditional media seems like it’s dying.”
To that end, most of what Sleepy Cat has on its agenda for 2024 is a series of smaller releases with limited runs of physical product – mini-albums and singles rather than full-length albums. Night Blooms will release a series of three conceptually linked EPs, while the founders’ group T. Gold will be putting out what they call “a steady drip of singles” over the coming year.
“The traditional album cycle is exhausting,” says Anderson. “So doing the single drip is more enticing. For ourselves, we want to make it and let it go. Put it out there and make more. Artists seem to like that approach.”
Looking down the road, both Sleepy Cat principles think the label will have less and less focus on conventional releases in favor of an approach that’s more organic and spontaneous.
“Albums are still popular, and I still like making them,” says Khoujinian, whose studio credits include Sylvan Esso and Watchhouse. “But what inspires me is the idea of funding studio time to make music that would not otherwise exist. Think in terms of, ‘It would be cool to get X and Y and Z in the room to see what happens when they dig into this concept.’ That’s the kind of thing I want to hear in the world, so do we have the money to make that happen? I’d like our niche to be recordings that would not otherwise exist, documenting moments in time.”
So far, Khoujinian and Anderson have been able to keep Sleepy Cat going as a labor of love. While it doesn’t generate much money, it does seem to be developing a niche of its own in a local independent-label ecosystem that includes Superchunk-founded Merge, Paradise of Bachelors, Sylvan Esso’s Psychic Hotline, Yep Roc and Jphono1’s Potluck Foundation.
One of Sleepy Cat’s key acts is Mipso fiddler Libby Rodenbough, who released her solo album “Between the Blades” on the label this past May. Rodenbough has become something of an ambassador for Sleepy Cat and one of its most enthusiastic boosters – especially after showing her contract to music-business friends who pronounced it artist-friendly almost to a fault.
“Sleepy Cat doesn’t have a lot of financial resources, but I trust Gabe and Saman to be advocates for artists who might feel totally drained because of what self-advocacy demands,” says Rodenbough. “They have made me feel so much less alone because it’s such a bad landscape for artists and labels now. There’s no money in it, so the best you can hope for is to have someone who makes you feel like the art is worth putting effort into. They’re like a gift I can tell people about.”