A Local Record Label with Global Reach
Hillsborough-based Yep Roc Records represents NC and international artistsBy Jed Gottlieb
Yep Roc Records founders Tor Hansen and Glenn Dicker arrived at Hillsborough River Park to find their festival grounds humming. It was October 2017, and the community had flooded into the park with folding chairs and smiles for the marquee event of the label’s 20th anniversary — a free concert featuring Yep Roc artists, including Chapel Hill folk duo Mandolin Orange and Americana legend Jim Lauderdale.
But Hansen and his wife, Kim, who founded the label with the pair, thought something was missing.
Thinking they needed a birthday gift for Dicker, Hansen’s childhood friend and business partner of two decades, the couple slipped out and walked to the general store on King Street. They bought a straw hat and reflective mailbox stickers spelling out “YR20” to commemorate the label’s milestone. After affixing them to the hat, they headed back to present their creation to Dicker.
“The hat made it through [the day] in one piece,” Dicker remembers. “And it came in handy, it was a super sunny day and it was a nice straw hat with a green visor.”
The concert capped three days of Yep Roc parties around the Triangle, including sets from underground rock hero Alejandro Escovedo and “Cruel to be Kind” crooner Nick Lowe at iconic Carrboro rock club Cat’s Cradle. But for the guys, Saturday’s public concert topped everything. The concert seemed to cement the label’s place in Hillsborough’s vibrant arts and music scene. With the town’s Mystery Brewing Company’s limited-edition Yep Roc 20 beer, Hansen and Dicker toasted international success from their rural North Carolina home.
Dicker and Hansen first experienced the area’s hospitality in 1991. The grade school buddies who grew up outside of Philadelphia booked their band, Vouts, into Cat’s Cradle.
“We just loved the vibe of the town,” Dicker says. “The people were so nice. People at a record store put us up for the night. It was just awesome.”
The band broke up; the memory of North Carolina remained.
In the early ’90s, the pair worked at Boston’s Rounder Records, a legendary roots label, where they got a good look at the industry from the warehouse to the sales office to press and radio campaigns. Rounder provided great training, but eventually an entrepreneurial spirit and a longing for a move pulled the pair south.
“I had time working at retail and labels so I understood how distribution worked, so I felt I could make my way into the market with independent artists and small record labels,” says Hansen, who moved to the area in 1995 to work for Planet Music, a Borders subsidiary. Around the same time, Hansen started Redeye Worldwide, a music distribution company now also based in Hillsborough. “Then I thought, ‘We need to start a record label. It would work hand in glove with distribution.’”
Up in Boston, Dicker had founded a label and made some impressive contacts with artists who would later end up on Yep Roc such as Lauderdale and Lowe. Just as Dicker’s label began to lose steam, Tor Hansen came calling.
“I went down to visit Tor, saw him working out of his house, visited a few of the local record stores, and I thought it was great,” Dicker says. “Besides the place, it was working with Tor, a guy I’ve known since I was five years old, that hooked me. I had saved some money and thought, ‘Yeah, I can move down there and make zero money for six months as long as in the next six months we can build something.’”
From the beginning, Yep Roc and Redeye’s approach mirrored the adage “think globally, act locally.” Where other record executives showed up at Brooklyn clubs to schmooze hip new bands with gold record dreams, Dicker and Hansen drove around the Southeast chatting up indie record store clerks.
“We go in and ask, ‘Who is the biggest selling artist in your consignment bin?,’ then we’d go get the records and call up the bands,” Dicker says. “It was old-school, it was regional, it was something that major labels and indies wouldn’t do.”
“If they were doing well at the indie stores, we realized they probably weren’t keeping up with distribution in the broader market,” Hansen says. “Man, we traveled a lot. We went up to Richmond, out to Nashville, down south to Atlanta.”
The pair targeted artists for Redeye who could sell albums but couldn’t get their releases in the chains of the day: Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, Best Buy. In the late ’90s, they found bands with local fan bases that could still move 10,000 records if they had distribution in the right shops.
“You wouldn’t know it, but Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts was one of our bigger selling records back in the day,” Hansen says with a laugh, thinking of the late ribald rocker who made his name in Chapel Hill in the ’60s.
What started in the Hansen’s family basement in Carrboro, moved to Graham, then Haw River as it grew. But Hillsborough, where the label and distribution company bought two buildings, felt like home.
So Yep Roc set up shop in the town in 2012, and Redeye joined its sister company in 2015.
As operations relocated, a move to New York or Nashville, Los Angeles or London never came up. While it seems 90 percent of the musical industry works out of those cities, Hansen and Dicker never felt the need to compromise small-town life for global success.
“I always felt we had an advantage being in a place where everybody else wasn’t,” Dicker says. “If we had been in New York, we would have been competing with a ton of other labels for the same artists. I’m a very competitive person and I’m very ambitious, but I’m not into that kind of process.”
Billy Maupin, Yep Roc’s general manager and a North Carolina resident since he was three, backs up his boss’ philosophy.
“People in the industry see our perspective as a little different,” Maupin says. “We aren’t part of any industry group think. We aren’t chasing what’s hip.”
A hip rural town
Yep Roc has never been a hipster label, but it found a hip town.
Despite its small size, Hillsborough has filled its downtown with bookstores, art galleries and a score of other locally owned businesses. The community has its own radio station (WHUP) and record store/bar (Volume)—rare finds in towns 10 times its size. It also boasts a dozen resident writers, including Frances Mayes (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) and Allan Gurganus (“Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”).
While Hillsborough is known for arts, local internet retailers including Soccer.com and Pheinc.com make the town a player in the world of online commerce. This blend of arts and commerce made Yep Roc feel welcome from the start.
“As soon as we got there we thought it was a great fit,” Dicker says. “The mayor even came right over and took me around town and introduced me to everybody.”
Mayor Tom Stevens says the town’s reputation as a music hub is picking up momentum, and Yep Roc’s relocation has helped.
“We have a lot of homegrown music here and more developing all the time,” Stevens says, pointing to the local Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit working to preserve Southern musical traditions with grants to artists, and a now bustling music scene.
“For a town of this size, it’s amazing to walk out on Saturday night and have three or four regular venues of real quality with live music. Yep Roc is part of the rhythm of the town that makes that happen.”
Hansen and Dicker never imagined themselves “upstanding corporate citizens,” as the Mayor calls them, when they were unpacking boxes of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts CDs in a Carrboro basement.
“You’d hear about Hillsborough as this artists’ community, and now people throw us in as part of that community, and that feels really good,” Dicker says. “They have world-class authors and painters and sculptors. And now they say they have a major music business. And we are proud of that.”
Listen to featured tracks from North Carolina musicians, including Yep Roc artists Mandolin Orange.