The Story Of The Militia Group
The Militia Group was originally a booking agency started by Chad Pearson, located in Los Angles in 1998. Two years later, partnering with Rory Felton, The Militia Group became an independent record label. By 2007, the label had sold more than a million and a half albums, released music from Copeland, Acceptance, Cartel, The Rocket Summer and Lovedrug among many others, and Pearson had left to start a new label. The skeleton of facts read like a vague mystery novel, one whose plot twists aren’t quite exciting enough for an investigation. And while it’s not an obsession, the lingering question of what happened to this label that provided such important albums is enough to warrant this final ode to The Militia Group.
Original founder, Chad Pearson grew up in Papa New Guinea, but came state side to attend college at the Arts Institute in Seattle. It was here that Chad was asked by one of his classmates to be an extra in a video for a Tooth & Nail Records band. Through this opportunity Chad met label owner Brandon Ebel who would eventually give him his first job in the music industry.
Pearson recounts the event here: “I still remember it vividly. I went to a Roadside Monument show at the Velvet Elvis (RIP both of them) and sat behind [Tooth & Nail’s] Brandon Ebel. During a set change Brandon turned around and asked me quite casually “Hey, what are you doing this summer?” I said, "Nothing”. He replied “Well, come work mail order for us, we need someone to cover for Jonathan (Bass player for Roadside Monument) while he goes on tour with his band. Come in Monday and we’ll get it all figured out.” Wait, what? “For real?" "Yup, for real”. And that’s how I got my first job in the music industry.“
Shortly after getting hired at Tooth & Nail Records, Pearson dropped out of school and began working full time. This is where he learned the ins and outs of putting together a record. He described himself at the time as the one who would "take other people’s lame tasks,” not because he loved all the grunt work, but simply because he was soaking up the experience of working in the music business. Eventually Pearson left Tooth & Nail and started The Militia Group which booked shows for Slick Shoes, Dogwood and other indie Christian bands.
Rory Felton grew up in Kansas City where he was in the music scene pretty early on, playing some local shows with the likes of The Faint, Bright Eyes, The Casket Lottery, and The Getup Kids. He quickly realized his interest and way of thinking lent itself to the music business rather than getting pigeon holed playing a certain type of music. Felton’s first step was booking bands on tour to play at clubs in Kansas City.
Felton ended up connecting with Jason Irvine from Louisville, KY and together they released a few titles, including The Juliana Theory, Dawson High, and The National Acrobat, under Arise Records. When choosing between schools, Felton ended up selecting University of Southern California in Los Angeles based solely on the fact that they offered a major focused on the music industry. It was there in LA that Felton discovered a few great bands, including Rufio, and felt the urgency to create a label and sign these bands before someone else did. He approached Chad Pearson about partnering and turning The Militia Group into a record label, he agreed.
Felton approached his parents for a loan to start the record label and was asked for his business plan. “I wrote a business plan with the idea of signing 5 artists and selling 3000 CD’s from each band during the first 18 months.” Felton’s parents approved the plan and helped him get approved for a $30,000 bank loan. This, of course, was still while Felton was in his freshman year dorm room at USC, doing TMG in his spare time.
Remembering the process of signing artists, Felton says, “Chad and I agreed that one of us would ‘A&R’ each artist, but we’d both have to agree to sign an artist. This tended to keep the creative control of the label a bit higher. The first artists I led the charge with was Rufio, Tora! Tora! Torrance! while Chad led with The Lyndsay Diaries, Veronica and we both led with Noise Ratchet. Most artists were a joint venture, though one of us would consolidate communication within the label.”
Felton approached Revelation Records seeking a ‘sub-distribute’ deal for The Militia Group. It was Jordan and Beka that helped the new label gain its first distribution deal after they agreed to the business plan in place.
“Our first record was Rufio’s ‘Perhaps, I Suppose’ which sold 350 copies its first week and eventually went on to sell 150k worldwide” remembered Felton.
After Rufio’s success Felton decided to drop out of school and convinced his parents he was need to run the label full time. The two founders opened a 600 sqft office in Huntington Beach, CA. James Cho soon joined the new label after working at Vagrant Records as their sales manager. He assisted in introducing the label to RED Distribution, and helping with a distribution agreement that would be one of the biggest breaks for the independent label.
RED provided The Militia Group larger distribution access and some capital to sign more artists including Copeland and The Rocket Summer. RED’s parent company, Sony Music, had signed Acceptance to Columbia Records and in turn partnered with us to develop their first title in more organic fashion.
Though not directly involved with hiring the interns on a day to day basis, Felton mentioned that they were the ones really evangelizing the label and helping spread the word about the bands they loved. One of those interns, Wesley Chung, recounts how he got hired at the label. “I had heard they employed interns year round and it had been suggested I inquire about it, so I emailed and swung by one day and started interning for the next six months.”
“At first I was just organizing merch, getting people to ‘friend’ the bands on myspace, listening to demos sent in, handing out flyers at shows, and constantly printing things for people. Later I became the assistant to the publicity guy. I was then sending out new releases to reviewers and copy editing.” Chung’s claim to fame came with Brandtson’s music video for their song, “Nobody Dances Anymore.” Chung starts off the video, but throughout you get glimpses of the whole staff, including Pearson and Felton.
Wesley Chung moved on after his six month stint as he realized the business of music was just that, business. "I had the idea that a record label would be a creative environment where you partner with musicians to create something amazing, and that may have been someone else’s job, but as an intern I just did the everyday business side of things. I left The Militia Group thinking that the music industry is for business savvy folks that love music, and I was a musician with very little drive for business. I met some wonderful folks, made some real good friendships, and had a great experience.“
Another employee of the label was Randall Jenkins. Jenkins worked as Creative Director for The Militia Group from 2004 through 2007. Cold War Kids bass player Matt Maust left in 2004 and that’s when Jenkins interviewed and got his position. He had been friends with Pearson and Felton, spending a good amount of time at the office while he was finishing up his degree. Jenkins didn’t get involved in many band signings until the end when he had pushed for the label to sign Manchester Orchestra, Holiday Parade, and William Tell. Jenkins helped out with both Brandtson and Let Go quite a bit, even tour managing for them over in Japan.
So where do things stand now? The last release that the label put out was The Appleseed Cast’s ‘Sagarmatha’ in February of 2009. In July of 2012 a message was posted on themilitiagroup.com stating that indeed the label was on indefinite hiatus. Also at last check, The Militia Group website groaned of 2006’s best design effort, now a semi static tomb of what indie musicians looked liked pre-iPhone, Spotify, and when you couldn’t count all the major labels on one hand. Though abandoned, the site serves as an instant reminder of the label’s heyday, when they were a force that gathered and controlled the best new bands. In the interim, bands have continued to leave labels or just not seek them out in the first place and opting to do everything on their own.
I started out wanting to find out and tell the whole story of The Militia Group, you know, one that explained the humble beginnings, saw the rise and success, and ultimately explained the collapse. I sought out the founders, people associated, and even the bands formally signed to the label. No one really wanted to talk about the past. In the end though, there was little conspiracy behind The Militia Group finally calling it quits. It seems that entrenched business deals and corporate regulations led to tied hands and a lack of passion where once there was nothing but excitement and possibilities. This led to people leaving in search of something more fulfilling.
The unfortunate part in all this is not the loss of a single company, but what they meant to the kid looking for a place to find good music. In a time where music discovery wasn’t as easy as it is now, The Militia Group was a sanctuary, signing bands that shaped a generation of music lovers. They touched a nerve, one they didn’t necessarily expect to and a spark was lit. Over the years the fire raged as they connected people with these bands, and unknowingly, connected people to the company behind those bands.