About six years ago, the Baltimore rock band Arbouretum played at a club in Chicago for an audience of almost no one.
You could count the members of the crowd on one hand, singer/guitarist David Heumann recalled, but one of them happened to be Bettina Richards, the founder of indie record label Thrill Jockey. She liked what she heard.
"There literally was nobody there but me," Richards said. "It was great. I totally was hooked."
Richards signed Arbouretum to Thrill Jockey. As Baltimore's music scene blossomed, she added another Charm City artist, and then another.
Over the years, other, bigger labels such as Sub Pop in Seattle would swoop in and sign acts from Baltimore. But none were as interested as Thrill Jockey in artists from the city. Today, the Chicago-based label releases music from about a dozen current and former Baltimore bands.
Thrill Jockey turns 20 this year, and to celebrate, Richards is throwing anniversary shows in New York, Portland, Ore. — and Baltimore. On Thursday, Baltimore artists (and Thrill Jockey label-mates) Future Islands, Arbouretum and Matmos will join critically acclaimed Chicago post-rockers Tortoise and former Baltimore rock band Pontiak (now based in Virginia) for the show, at Rams Head Live.
The hosts will be Baltimore musician/comedian Ed Schrader and singer/visual artist Nolen Strals, a member of the late punk band Double Dagger (also signed to Thrill Jockey). It will be quite the night, Strals promises.
"I'm preparing some prizes that are going to be thrown at the audience between bands," Strals said. "That's all I can say. I don't want to give it away."
When stacked up against major and minor labels, Thrill Jockey falls somewhere in the middle.
"They're a big small label," Heumann said. "They're not a major label, but one of the independent labels that are more notable than a lot of the really small ones."
When Baltimore's music scene first began drawing national attention five years ago, much of the press focused on the experimental arts collective Wham City. But Thrill Jockey, more than any other label, helped legitimize the scene.
Critical praise can be fleeting, Strals said, but Thrill Jockey put albums on shelves and supported cross-country tours.
"People talk about how Wham City are the ones who put Baltimore on the map," Strals said. "But I think Thrill Jockey played as significant of a role. … They put their money and their faith into a lot of the bands here that hadn't been getting it on a larger scale."
Richards swears she didn't spend time combing through Baltimore's music scene looking for talent, though. She signed bands because their music interested her — not just because they were from here, she said.
One of the first Baltimore artists Thrill Jockey reached out to was Daniel Higgs, former frontman of the '80s and '90s post-hardcore band Lungfish. WZT Hearts, the project of experimental musician Jason Urick, followed.
Richards had been a fan of the group Ponytail, and when she heard that Ponytail's guitarist, Dustin Wong, was working on a solo album, she asked him to send her some recordings and later signed him.
"It all happened pretty organically, but I see how, externally, it might seem strange," Richards said.
Heumann, the guitarist and singer in Arbouretum, wasn't surprised. There was a critical mass of unsigned Baltimore bands, and he knew it was only a matter of time before a label like Thrill Jockey snapped a bunch of them up.
"It was inevitable," Heumann said. "We have a lot of good stuff here, and they realized that. They just saw the potential."
At Thrill Jockey, Wong, Urick and the other Baltimore bands joined dozens of other cutting-edge musicians — most notably, Talking Heads founder David Byrne.
"We advocate for people who like to push boundaries, who are willing to stand outside trends and carve their own path," Richards said. "Those are the ones that have staying power."
Two decades ago, Richards left the A&R department of Atlantic Records and founded Thrill Jockey with an initial investment of $35,000. She moved to Chicago, drawn by its affordable rent and room to be creative. Now, she sees those same qualities in Baltimore.
"It's not known as a place you go to 'make it,' " Richards said. "You're not looking around you to see what might get you successful. You're looking inward. … Really, it's the tip of the iceberg for Baltimore."
If you go
What: Thrill Jockey's 20th Anniversary Show
When: Thursday. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live.
Information: ramsheadlive.com or 410-244-1131