In the first label merger of the COVID-19 era, indie powerhouse Secretly has partnered with 20-year-old Ghostly International, turning the smaller New York label into an affiliate and “co-integrating” its marketing, production and other divisions, according to a joint release.
The companies’ CEOs insist there will be no layoffs: “We’re integrating respective parts of our business,” says Darius Van Arman of Secretly. “We’ll have less overhead.”
Secretly, whose labels include Jagjaguwar, Dead Oceans and Secretly Canadian, representing indie stars such as Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, Mitski and Sharon Van Etten, began talking about the idea last year with Ghostly’s CEO Sam Valenti. They worked out an agreement in early 2020, then briefly called it off during the pandemic.
“We had poor visibility on how revenues were going to change and how the economy was going to go. It caused us to ask hard questions: Why now? Should we wait? Can we afford this? Would it be better to lay back?” Van Arman says. “We came back to the principle that this is fundamentally a really good partnership. It will unlock value.”
The announcement comes during A2IM Indie Week, a bittersweet celebration this year: Although indies represent a third of the global music market and have grown faster on streaming services than major labels like Universal and Sony, the annual conference and awards show have had to move online due to the COVID crisis. But in an uncertain time, Valenti says, the Secretly-Ghostly partnership is “a vote of positivity to the independent scene.
“Back in the ’90s, the paradigm was to have a major label invest in you — the Sub Pop and Matador idea. It was a tension of culture between big and small labels,” he continues. “This sort of partnership was, to me, exciting. Being part of a culturally aligned, larger company that’s still independent and artist-driven, and also brave and taking a risk and trying things — it felt like that was the dream, where Ghostly could go while maintaining its own space.”
Ghostly is by far the smaller label, with eight employees compared to Secretly’s 135. In addition to putting out releases by electronic-music specialists such as Tycho and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, the label specializes in branding and merchandise. The New York Times once called it “a Goop for the Pitchfork set,” and it sells playing cards, tote bags, candles, shoes and dog leashes. “Our experiences in product development and design, I hope, is an asset,” Valenti says.
Secretly’s distribution division, which posts music on digital services such as Spotify and Apple Music and ships millions of CDs and vinyl albums worldwide every year, handles more than 100 artists in addition to its own artist roster. Ghostly has used these services since 2013, and the relationship helped inspire the partnership talks. “It’s been good to have this time to think through what we want this partnership to be,” Valenti says. “Secretly didn’t stop things once COVID happened. They see the long view of strengthening the independent sector.”