Dan Koretzky, cofounder of Drag City Records, recalls receiving the 2,000-copy shipment of Royal Trux’s Twin Infinitives at the doorstep of his Erie Street apartment with a kind of optimistic trepidation. Released in 1990, the double LP was the embryonic label’s first big go of it; Drag City had only released a pair of seven-inch singles prior.

“For the first couple of hours of carrying these records up two flights of stairs, I was in a panic, terrified that someone might snatch one of the 50-pound boxes while I was in transit,” Koretzky tells me. “By hour three I was secretly hoping someone had.”

Koretzky eventually got them all inside and eventually sold them all off—though he admits that because of “space and morale reasons” the boxes of then unsold records were repurposed for a short while into what he dubbed “The Most Expensive Desk I’ve Ever Owned.”

More than 20 years later, after releasing albums by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Joanna Newsom, Silver Jews, and whatever Ian Svenonius happened to be up to, Koretzky can probably buy himself a nice desk with actual legs and perhaps even a drawer or two. But back then, trekking up stairs carrying crates of records he was certain would “literally change the world,” Koretzky was deep in the do-it-your-own-damn-self mentality indie labels typically suffer before breaking through—or busting. Simply put, there’s a lot of heavy lifting involved.

The label I was privileged to be part of during my waning years of high school never quite reached the level of Drag City’s success—we released cassettes in batches of 50, which is almost like 2,000 double LPs—but the minuscule degree to which I learned the ropes has elevated my appreciation of every masochistic person who ever said, “Fuck it, I’ll just put the album out myself.”

A good portion of my late teens was spent hanging out in the basement of a friend who drew sick enjoyment from recording blaring nonsense onto a cumbersome, old-school reel-to-reel. Thanks to a set of mild-tempered parents willing to endure a bunch of suburban deviants hammering through take after take of poorly executed, bumbling punk-rock anthems, we ultimately decided to start packaging the rudimentary recordings and guilting our friends into buying them.

Initially meant only as a conduit for our bands, the label, Cobalt Room Records, was a bare-bones operation. Art was made “in-house,” we folded the sleeves and stuffed cassettes, the catalog went to shows with us, and releases were hand-delivered to record stores who ultimately didn’t want them. Seven or so releases in, however, we carved out a sliver of the west side of Cincinnati that had a vested interest in the label and wanted to be involved with it. Bands started approaching us to be recorded and we started throwing megabilled fests at any all-ages venue that would let us rent it. It was weird and excellent.

The label sputtered out a year or two into undergrad, but its flash-in-the-pan moment transcended the initial goal of releasing shit to see if it sticks. Instead, it became an actual community-building exercise, albeit on an infinitesimal, suburban-underground level. And so the story goes.

In the interest of exploring the roots of four Chicago-based labels—HoZac, Not Normal, Peira, and Chocolate Industries—I sat down with the founders to pick at their inner workings, listen to what makes them tick, and live vicariously through their ambition. I also asked several heads of local labels—some of the labels unknown outside their niches and some local institutions—for their input on the process of tracking down bands, their motivation in taking the label dive in the first place, and the release of seminal albums that changed the label’s focus. The result is a glimpse into a part of the Chicago music scene that the public rarely sees—a subculture that lives offstage, inhabits merch booths, and slaves, sweats, and (sometimes) sputters in an attempt to occupy your turntable.

Tune in:

HoZac’s catalog of rock ‘n’ roll, garage, and scuzzChocolate Industries bridges IDM with hip-hopPeira packages the abstractNot Normal Tapes documents the midwest hardcore scene