In a state where Capitol towers loom and megalithic artists lord, a coterie of indie label movers tap into talent, revitalizing a tarnished industry. They toil for the sake of fandom and to make a massive explosion from the recording industry’s equivalent of a triple-A battery. At the epicenter of this sonic maelstrom is a man named Shan Dan Horan, who’s spent a decade perpetuating seismic activity in music creation, management, plus golden-eared production—and it all began in Flagstaff.
On a Monday in mid-April, we imagine Horan looking outside his office window in historic downtown Sacramento. From a phone line hundreds of miles away, he reflects on his accomplishments, gained with trust and a genuine appreciation for music, since exchanging the San Francisco Peaks for the California capital northeast of San Francisco.
“After the course of 10 years, it’s a proud moment that I’ve gotten to this point, and that I can make Flagstaff proud in terms of another Flagstaff resident going out and doing something crazy,” Horan starts. “In another regard it’s like, damn, I wish I had accomplished even more.”
Horan, a 2004 graduate of Tempe’s renowned Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, had landed back in his hometown in 2006 after interning at a Chicago post-production firm. He sunk his tattooed grip into a number of projects, including his own band, Caecelia. But he skipped town again for Los Angeles to focus on the business aspect of the industry that’s since accepted him as a multi-faceted innovator, especially in the veins of marketing and new media.
Recognizing his work with New Century Media, Fearless Records and a million more, Artery Recordings poached him in 2011 to head up their new media department. Also the President of the video production company, Shadow Born Group, Horan quickly ascended Artery’s ranks, landing as president of the independent, Sony-distributed metal label in 2014, and selling close to one million records worldwide to date. This is a guy who will rest when he’s dead.
“I fall asleep around 2 a.m., and do the whole thing over again,” he says of his daily schedule with a laugh.
Repackaging Flagstaff’s community-centric sensibility for the music industry, Horan strategizes with both new bands and heavy hitters like Massachusetts metalcore staple, On Broken Wings, who he was—and still is—a big fan of. Since restructuring operations, Artery started seeing a strong uptick in profits, and these pioneering efforts to help artists and individuals improve themselves have earned Horan an armful of awards, solicited advice from magazines including Alternative Press, and work on videos for artists including John Mellencamp and Incubus.
Other labels, too, have copied one of his inventions: a monthly A&R web session. Over a year, he’s signed two bands while putting to bed rumors leading bands to think their media kits land straight in the trash.
“I just wanted to nip that rumor in the butt and say, hey, us as a label want to listen to your music, let’s do it live on the air,” Horan explains of the live-listening tactic. “I try to keep it positive. I’m not trying to be like—what’s the dude from American Idol, Simon Cowell?—I’m not trying to be that dude. I’d crush some people’s dreams.”
These sessions have attracted thousands of listeners who toss out their suggestions to the team—and they pay attention to that, too, recognizing a strong fan base will likely grow with label support. Horan says Artery’s primary focus is artist development; structuring deals to get the most bang per buck for artists.
“Any indie label is more thrifty when it comes to what money should be spent on,” he says, noting Artery managers tap into diverse revenue streams like subscription streaming sites, licensing music for advertisements and monetizing social media accounts. For an album’s release, unique preorder bundles with limited-edition pressings and signed cards drive revenue and build buzz.
Sometimes, though, quirky buzz leads to pure fun for Horan. On April Fool’s Day, he posted on Facebook that he’d signed a pug-fronted metal band, Pugtopsy—and the story went viral, with TMZ ringing him up and radio stations talking about it on his drive home.
“I was like holy s***, they’re talking about my band right now and it cost zero dollars,” he laughs. “It was just creative.”
Proving himself a leader in the charge toward innovation, Horan says Artery is completely open to off-the-wall ideas with a potential to draw press. And to capitalize on digital album sales and streams, a sector the Recording Industry Association of America reports has grown to envelop more than half of industry revenue, clever marketing proves invaluable.
“A lot of bands, especially unsigned ones, they just put stuff out. They don’t think about how to make an impact with the content they’re creating,” Horan explains. “Me, I’m thinking how can we blow his up? Let’s get an angle on it, and maybe we can use that momentum to get our band a little bit of extra exposure.”
He describes the creative attitudes of cadres of bands who simultaneously neglect the clerical side of music. Especially signed bands, he says, film a new video or pull a single, and they are eager to release it—not dreaming of how the rollout might hurt them without any sort of pre-release buildup.
“My advice would be to plan stuff out—come up with a five-year plan,” Horan advises. “Any new music, get everything together before you plan on releasing anything.”
He’s also shopping around a TV pilot created with primetime Emmy-winning producer Alan Sacks, known for Welcome Back Kotter and a number of films about the L.A. punk scene. To build buzz for one green band, The Color Wild, “the Gordon Ramsays of music,” as Horan describes, tweak everything about the California four-piece from sound to image with the prospect of a record deal. They launch them into professional photoshoots and a music video before hitting the stage for a massive show packed with so many people the band is shaking.
“I’m really trying to chase the whole Noisey/Viceland route,” Horan explains, noting previous meetings with Lionsgate and MTV producers. “It’s all just a matter of time to figure out when and where it’ll be placed.”
There’s no template for success, but speaking from a place of deep experience, Horan says there are fixable aspects to a band that will net a growing audience. Whether it’s marketing or timing a thoughtful album rollout, he’s seen things work and others fully flop. With a business mind, he says his biggest challenge is one that creeps up hundreds of times on the daily: telling someone no.
This plays into the weight on the team’s shoulders, he says, as they work night and day to return the investment of trust on behalf of the artists. Still, he explains there’s no way to guarantee or predict whether a band will be a smash or not.
He adds, “That really comes down to the fans.”
With care and attention that’s earned him a reputation as a top-tier executive to work with, Horan handles these challenges, the time and structure, saying no and plotting clever marketing, inside an industry that has amassed a cutthroat reputation. He measures his abilities against the impact he wants to make—all woven into the fabric of helping musicians stand out in the crowd while maintaining their creative spark that attracts and affects fans across the globe.
“I’ve always been very deeply rooted in teaching and helping people, that’s kind of where I ended up getting into this live A&R thing, or starting a show to help people out,” he adds. “But I feel like what keeps me really going forward, my ultimate goal, are those little victories where you find a band, you build them up from nothing and they blow up to be something massive. That’s why I do it.”