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The Boston indie label all the kids are talking about

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Run for Cover Records founder Jeff Casazza.

By Terence Cawley Globe Correspondent 

It doesn’t look like much from the outside — just another business renting space in an Allston building full of businesses. Only a tiny black plaque by the door gives any indication that this is the headquarters of one of the most exciting new record labels in indie rock, Run for Cover Records.

Founded by Jeff Casazza in 2004 while he was still in high school, the label has built an impressive stable of beloved bands while gaining a cult following which, like many of the artists signed to Run for Cover, generally skews younger than that of more established indie labels like Sub Pop or Merge. Several of the label’s signature artists, from former signees Tigers Jaw and Title Fight to rising stars Citizen and Modern Baseball, are leading lights of what is commonly referred to as the “emo revival,” although the Run for Cover roster doesn’t neatly fit into any one genre.

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While independent labels like Run for Cover perform all the same functions as major labels (manufacturing, marketing, promotion), they have significantly fewer financial resources and industry connections and typically don’t own their distributors. However, indies can offer their signees more personal attention, larger shares of profit, and greater artistic control. The best indie labels garner fanbases who trust the label’s taste, ensuring a built-in audience for any artist who signs to that label.

Even by indie standards, Run for Cover is considered particularly artist-friendly. Aaron Weiss, frontman for the post-hardcore band mewithoutYou, says their deal with Run for Cover is the most favorable contract they’ve ever signed — which is saying something considering mewithoutYou’s formation predates Run for Cover’s. He has also been happy with the creative freedom the label has afforded him.

“They seem to step back, let us do our thing, and just handle the business side, which is what I want out of a label,” says Weiss.

Pinegrove singer-guitarist Evan Stephens Hall is even more effusive. His band’s 2016 album “Cardinal” turned them into indie darlings, and Stephens Hall gives the label much credit.

“They turned what was already my life, but not really quite a sustainable practice yet, into a professionally viable route,” says Stephens Hall. “It changed my life, in a way.”

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A punk-loving, zine-writing Newburyport teenager inspired by local hardcore labels like Bridge 9 and Deathwish, Casazza started Run for Cover with a $1,000 loan from his father — just enough money to press 500 7-inch records. The business started slowly; the first Run for Cover signee, California hardcore band These Days, broke up about a year after their record came out. While Casazza was soon selling enough records to fund future releases, it seemed like little more than a hobby at the time.

“It was niche, definitely,” says Casazza. “Aggressive music on vinyl is not something everyone will be interested in.”

So Casazza went to college, studying business administration at Suffolk University while running the label from his dorm. Vague notions of turning Run for Cover into a career became more realistic around 2009-10, as the label caught a wave of hot pop-punk bands like Man Overboard and Transit. Unfortunately for Casazza, most of those bands left for larger labels right before their careers took off.

But even as the Internet threw the industry into crisis and the public grew reluctant to buy music, he stuck to a simple, if-you-build-it-they-will-come model.

“If you’re releasing music people care about, they’re willing to pay for it,” says Casazza. “I think that’s what we’ve done for most of the time we’ve been a business.”

Run for Cover spent the early 2010s regaining momentum with a new crop of signees who, while still very young, appealed to a broader audience than the staunchly adolescent pop-punk bands that had just jumped ship. Thanks to Casazza’s willingness to sign anyone he liked, the label soon had a much more diverse roster, one with room for everyone from a rapper and three Swedish groups to shoegaze, dream-pop, and alt-country bands.

Bowery Boston booker Josh Smith was already a Run for Cover fan when his company moved into the same building as the label in 2012. The two have since become close collaborators, and Smith cites the label’s eclecticism as key to its success.

“Every release is different and every signing is thoughtful and interesting,” says Smith. “None of their records feel out of place sitting next to each other on the shelf, but their catalog is dynamic, and that makes the label more interesting.”

According to Casazza, the label’s constantly shifting identity reflects changes in his own listening habits.

“As the label has gone on, it’s just been a representation of my taste at that point in my life,” says Casazza.

As Run for Cover grew, Casazza realized he couldn’t keep putting out records all by himself and continue to get by on handshake deals. He hired a small staff, moving them into their current office and warehouse and getting a lawyer to draw up proper contracts and secure the major-label distribution necessary to get the label’s artists into stores.

Despite his DIY roots, Casazza doesn’t feel any punk rock guilt over his label’s good fortune; as he sees it, there’s nothing wrong with making a profit if the musicians are treated well.

“We’re so candid with how we operate,” says Casazza. “The people we work with usually have the same mind-set. They understand that an independent label that does 50-50 profit splits is about as fair as it gets in any kind of entertainment business.”

Additionally, Run for Cover has increasingly used its newfound platform for philanthropy and advocacy. Spurred on by the actions of the Trump administration, the label has begun donating a portion of online proceeds to charity and hosting monthly benefit concerts in its warehouse.

“I’ve been really excited about the direction Run for Cover has been going in supporting humanistic causes and being a voice for social progress,” says Stephens Hall of Pinegrove. “I’ve been really honored to work alongside them with that.”

While it may have already exceeded Casazza’s expectations, Run for Cover is still relatively modest in size. The label frequently gets albums into Billboard’s Top 10 vinyl chart, but even its best-selling records sell only about 20,000 to 30,000 copies. By comparison, sales of classic rock and modern pop releases might typically range from 50,000 to 70,000, while indie stars like Arctic Monkeys and Sufjan Stevens can reach 40,000 to 50,000 in vinyl sales — numbers that don’t account for other formats like CDs and digital downloads.

Looking ahead, Casazza would like to see Run for Cover make the leap to top-tier indie label status.

“The goal would be to compete with Sub Pop, Merge, Matador, and Polyvinyl,” he says. “A lot of times we want to sign a band and if they have interest from any of those labels, we don’t stand a chance. Those are rare occurrences, but the goal is definitely to be able to provide the same things that those labels can.”

Then there’s the question of where Run for Cover’s future will take place. The label’s focus has always been national rather than local; its roster does not include any Massachusetts-based artists.

In 2015, another local independent label with emo revival connections, Topshelf Records, relocated from Peabody to San Diego. Though Casazza acknowledges that his label could make a similar move if it chose to, the connections he’s formed here have made him determined to keep Run for Cover in Boston.

“In the last few years, we’ve become a bigger part of the community,” says Casazza. “This is where I imagine we’ll always be.”


Terence Cawley can be reached at terence.cawley@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley