Joe Wigdahl, Chris Strong, and Ed Menacho admit they were a bit green when they launched Brilliante Records in the summer of 2002. The three friends, who met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the late 90s, started the label to release an EP by the Milwaukee quartet Camden. The band had already broken up, but its previous album had sold about 3,000 copies, and two members had since joined the popular emo act the Promise Ring. “We thought in the beginning because we were so crazy about the EP that [with] the buzz over [the Promise Ring] people would just buy it without advertising or anything,” Wigdahl says. “We were pretty naive.” They pressed 2,000 copies, but they’ve sold only about 500 so far.

Jesse Woghin and James Kenler, the owners of Flameshovel Records–which Woghin had started to put out a record by the brooding Detroit band Judah Johnson in 2001–were similarly confident when they licensed finished albums by two obscure Irish indie-rock bands, Joan of Arse and the Dudley Corporation, and released them in October 2002. “The music was so good that it seemed obvious that people would pick up on it,” Woghin says. But not many did: each record has sold about 300 copies.

Most people who start indie labels are music fans first and entrepreneurs second, and the enthusiasm that sustains such projects doesn’t always survive the onset of economic reality. Yet Brilliante and Flameshovel are hanging in there. Neither is turning a profit yet, but both teams of owners remain optimistic, and the labels fill a void in the Chicago scene, putting out records by the kind of local arty guitar-based rock bands that Thrill Jockey, Drag City, and Touch and Go haven’t signed in years.

When the Brilliante guys decided to put out the Camden EP, only Menacho, who’d parlayed an internship at Chicago’s Aware Records into a full-time job in the label’s mail-order department, was looking to work in the music industry. Wigdahl and Strong were photographers and designers who’d done plenty of music-related jobs–Wigdahl designed the site for Grand Theft Autumn Records, while Strong had contributed to CD art for Hey Mercedes and Owen, among others. “Chris and I figured we could do most of the art and design for the label,” says Wigdahl. “Between the image and the music we were pretty good–it was just the business stuff we needed to learn.”

It took them more than six months to get the Camden EP out, finishing just in time to miss the Promise Ring’s big summer tour. In the meantime William Seidel and Ryan Weber, the two ex-Camden members, offered the label the debut release from their dance-pop project, New Sense, and Menacho struck up a relationship with the Athens guitar-pop outfit the Eskimos. In the fall of 2002 the label agreed to put out an EP by Caviar: the local four-piece, led by Fig Dish vets Blake Smith and Mike Willison, had been dropped by Island and wanted to remain visible while shopping for a new major-label deal. Though it’s sold only about 600 copies, the Caviar EP is Brilliante’s most successful release so far.

But the label’s most promising signing may be the M’s, a Chicago quartet that writes concise, irresistible melodies reminiscent of the Kinks, then nearly buries them with guitar and overdriven organ. Wigdahl fell in love with them after seeing a show in early 2002; Menacho and Strong eventually came around, and Brilliante put out the band’s impressive debut EP this August. Reviews have been very positive, and the M’s are getting good gigs, recently opening for Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks at the Double Door.

On January 27 Brilliante will release the untitled debut album by the moody Everyoned–Chris Connelly, Joan of Arc’s Tim Kinsella, TV Pow’s Brent Gutzeit, and Town and Country’s Liz Payne and Ben Vida–and Total Eclipse of the Heart, the debut from naive-pop project the Love of Everything. The first M’s LP is scheduled for April. All three partners still work full-time outside the label, and thus far Brilliante has been financed mainly with credit cards. “Eventually things will catch up, and we’re starting to see that now,” Menacho says. “The more time we put into it, the more we get back.”

Flameshovel’s Jesse Woghin moved to Chicago in August 2000; his brother-in-law got him a job managing a Web site and answering phones for a commercial real estate company. With few friends in the city, he says, he stayed home most nights and kept his expenses down. The following summer he and Noah Mewborn, whom he knew from Oberlin College, put out the Judah Johnson EP under the Flameshovel name. After arranging to release an EP by local punkish power trio Viza-Noir, Woghin began to entertain the idea of turning the label into a real business. Mewborn drifted off, but by the end of 2001 Woghin had brought in Kenler, another Oberlin friend, who was managing the computer lab at the University of Chicago. “I liked what they were doing,” Kenler says, “and I had the desire to do something better with my time besides fixing computers.”

It wasn’t until the fall of 2002 that Flameshovel issued the albums by the two Irish bands, but by then it had gotten involved with a bunch of local acts. Woghin and Kenler agreed to put out finished albums by the Ancient Greeks and the Race as well as a Viza-Noir full-length, and they were talking to a new band, a dark postpunk quintet called Low Skies. “It never slowed down,” Woghin says. “All of these projects kept happening at the same time, and we didn’t want to pass on any of them.” Over the summer of 2003 the label issued albums by Judah Johnson, Viza-Noir, Low Skies, and Atombombpocketknife guitarist Che Arthur, bringing its total for the year to six, an impressive (or crazy, depending on your perspective) figure for a young label on a limited budget. Its catalog also contains vinyl versions of recent albums by two bands on Brooklyn’s StarTime label, the Natural History and the Joggers. So far the Ancient Greeks record–which has moved about 700 copies–is Flameshovel’s best seller.

Woghin quit his job in October 2002 to work on the label full-time. “I realized that I would rather be broke and do what I really want to do and try to make it work out,” he says. Kenler followed suit a few months later. He relies on occasional freelance work and an inheritance to pay the bills, while Woghin scrapes by on his savings. Neither draws a salary from the label, although they’re both confident that the situation will soon change.

This spring Flameshovel will release the debut from Lying in States, another new local act on the roster. “I think we’d like to try to keep the focus on Chicago bands as much as possible,” Woghin says. “Nationally people don’t really care about Chicago that much aside from Wilco or Billy Corgan or whatever. It gives us an ability to operate under the radar a little bit and to foster some kind of scene.”

Low Skies perform Saturday at the Empty Bottle (see Spot Check). Lying in States are at Schubas Thursday, January 15; Brilliante act New Sense plays there the following Wednesday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.