We Belong Here: The Communal Indie of Broken World Media
by Chad Jewett
The unifying aesthetic of Broken World Media might just be that there is no unifying aesthetic. There isn’t, for instance, much knitting together the formalist post-hardcore of Take One Car and the comfy bedroom-pop of Told Slant besides the imagination that puts them together on the same iPod. New Hampshire is the only real commonality between the stardusted post-rock of Deer Leap and the barbed screamo of Old Gray. Instead, Broken World — founded by Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak of The World Is A Beautiful Place and run with David Bello, Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak, and others — is mostly defined by the generation buying its records. The label is slowly, quietly becoming a standard bearer for the way punk might work now — capacious and free-wheeling and diverse. You get the sense that the label’s A&R criteria starts and ends with “Is it interesting?”. That you can chart a family tree that does link most of the label’s roster to TWIABP’s roots in punk and art scenes in the band’s native Connecticut, West Virginia, and the tri-state area is all the more telling. Watching band after band cycle onto the cramped stage during last weekend’s Broken World Fest – a two-day event that featured just about every band Broken World has ever released – that aura of teamwork and esprit de corps was palpable. Even when there aren’t roots, you see that the label values relationships — which of course is what’s most valuable about punk music in the first place. You discover a record because someone you trust helps you find it. Broken World operates on this principal writ large.
There aren’t many direct forebears or analogies for what Broken World Media does. In a sense, it reminds you of Saddle Creek – blossoming from a specific community of artists in a specific place, buoyed by a particular band (The World Is… / Bright Eyes). The terrific production work being done on several of their releases by TWIABP guitarist Chris Teti makes this comparison a bit more salient – Broken World’s version of Mike Mogis: careful craftsmen with sympathetic ears. The sheer volume of what Broken World has already released brings to mind Dischord Records, a label that similarly seems to operate on the principle of releasing anything that strikes them as important, and letting the wins and losses even themselves out. But the closest comparison, borne out by the atmosphere of the festival itself, might be Athens, Georgia’s Elephant 6 collective – another familial, scene-oriented ersatz label run out of a quiet college town. Except that where Elephant 6 always remained inward, like a secret club for art kids in need, Broken World has increasingly taken that sense of sanctuary and safe spaces and expanded outward.
The festival itself was well-run, and as exciting and diverse a showcase as your likely to see. Small tents sheltered merch tables outside; someone’s old grill produced veggie burgers for a couple bucks. As Broken World’s roster spreads geographically from its Northeastern heart, one finds oneself forming relationships with bands and records the way you would traditional indie labels – listening to the LPs and waiting for those brief, often chaotic summer tours. But watching Broken World Fest was like an instant, comprehensive primer. The results were often revelatory. Makeshift Shelters, whose debut full-length Something So Personal remains one of the year’s best, revealed a sinewy, hardcore-inflected density that you don’t quite spot in the album’s sparkling clarity – you could hear Lifetime and Through Being Cool all of a sudden. Earlier, it was hard not to be wowed by Sarah Cowell and For Everest – the singer’s explosive voice and the band’s bright approach to Vagrant-Records-era emo.
Band after band acknowledged Shanholtzer-Dvorak, and if you’ve been in or around the New England punk scene long enough to have a before/after impression of their effect on it, you understand why. The Handsome Woman, a house venue run by Derrick, Shanholtzer-Dvorak’s wife Katie, and various other members of The World Is A Beautiful Place, was as close to a sure thing as DIY punk spaces ever got. It was welcoming and run almost entirely without the pretense or guardedness that marks the less admirable corners of punk scenes. The World Is A Beautiful Place is quite often tied directly to our contemporary emo renaissance (indeed, they might be the band that reminded us of emo’s usable past just as they found a way forward), but the band had an equally significant a role in keeping alive a Connecticut punk scene that was between epochs, making the “quiet corner” of the Nutmeg State a sturdy, welcoming spot between New York City and the near mid-west, as well as a vibrant larger community for bands from the state. The forty-eight hour marathon of Broken World signees could just as easily double as a “thank you” party for the Shanholtzer-Dvoraks.
It was equally telling to watch Derrick, conspicuously inconspicuous behind the small stage, singing along with each band. There’s no doubting they’ve listened to each of the records Shanholtzer-Dvorak puts out, that the label-head’s criteria remains “Does this move me?”. In that way, its fascinating to see the guitarist and songwriter, so often the wryest voice of humor in The World Is A Beautiful Place’s social media presence, taking on the role of some benevolent elder figure, proud as hell of both the team of underdogs they’ve created with Broken World, but also with the reputation Shanholtzer-Dvorak has accrued as a figure of honesty and decency in contemporary punk music. As The World Is A Beautiful Place played its whittled, greatest-hits leaning set – one of the best I’ve seen from the band — all of those songs about belonging and the importance of place, memory, friends, earnestness, were all the more poignant.
The label itself has built a promising modus operandi. Find your way to Broken World’s bandcamp and you’ll discover that nearly every release is available for “Name Your Price” – which either means “free” or a modest donation, which in turn subtly asks “how much is art worth to you?”. But what the label has also intuited is that, in fact, art is worth a whole lot to the generation that subscribes most vehemently to what Broken World does – kids landing somewhere between junior high and grad school. If Shanholtzer-Dvorak and the bands Broken World has released don’t see much from that “Name Your Price” window, they certainly see a lot more from the label’s physical releases. Vinyl records sell, and a quick browsing of the BWM store will turn up nicely tailored color variants (take a starbursted multi-color version of Something So Personal, matching the album’s similarly vivid cover, for instance) at near break-even prices. Even when The World Is A Beautiful Place gets post-modern, selling a plastic fork complete with a TWIABP logo, the purchasable inside joke comes with a digital download of actual music, in fact making it a weird bargain (iTunes doesn’t sell forks). That the label also gives attention to cassette releases – a bright green tape of Whenever, If Ever complete with screen-printed leaves is particularly gorgeous – underlines the kind of intimacy that makes Broken World Media important. For a few dollars they can make you a tape with their own decorations. It’s art that seems to literally remember why you care about this stuff in the first place.