Hearts & Plugs occupies an unusual space for an upstart, community-oriented indie label. On one hand, the bands on the label have never been as big or so self-assured. Both the electro-pop rock band Brave Baby and alt-country ringers SUSTO are on the cusp of mid-level stardom, after having successfully toured the country, landed prominent supporting gigs, signed licensing deals, and generally presented themselves with charismatic panache. Even the label's strong and active second tier, like indie-pop crooner Grace Joyner and inscrutable indie rockers E.T. Anderson, have garnered an unusual level of prestigious press and breakout potential.
If you're label runner Dan McCurry, though, you've been doing all the thankless tasks like hustling CDs and emailing blogs or coordinating recording sessions and printing T-shirts — and it's been a long, hard road.
"It's always positive, always on the up, although it does move a little slower than you think," he says of where Hearts & Plugs is today. "I remember thinking early on that everybody was going to be huge in year two, you know? We're all another peg higher, but it takes a lot, a lot, a lot. But I think we've been taking some bigger strides lately."
McCurry has a comfortable mix of humility and swagger about the label, and he's quick to note both what Hearts & Plugs offers its roster and the number of cooks in the kitchen it takes to make it work. When you talk about Brave Baby and SUSTO's rise, he points out that booking agents, management, and licensing lawyers are all part of the story as well. And until this year, SUSTO was self-booked by frontman and singer-songwriter Justin Osborne.
"It's all pretty necessary," he admits. "But I think [being] on the label means you start at a higher rung, that you have access to this or that. It's always the most tangible thing, but even just the support of Megan [Elger, McCurry's wife] — we're here to help you."
And the power of community and association can't be denied when it comes to Hearts & Plugs, which is part of what the annual Summer Shindig is all about. The inaugural festival was held in 2014 with the vague sense that it should be more than a label showcase, that it should be marked by H&P's own specific aesthetic and brand.
"I don't know what exactly made me think to do an event, but I think in general, my thought was that we're all about associating fun with Hearts & Plugs, you know?," McCurry recalls. "We just want to connect with people. Sometimes when you're just blowing up your Instagram or whatever, putting out records, it's hard to connect with people unless you have an event."
The first shindig was ice cream-themed, emphasizing the summery goodness and spirit of conviviality, while maintaining a sense of professionalism and lifting each other up, that Hearts & Plugs has become known for. The flamingos came later.
"The flamingo thing was accidental," McCurry says. "I was just trying to come up with a new theme, and it was like, what equals summer? Flamingos."
Elger, who does all of the graphic designs and logos for H&P, was less convinced.
"She didn't want to do that," he admits. "But I was like, 'Just do the flamingo, try it.' So she did it, and we were both super happy about it."
The theme took off, with last year's attendees embracing the flamingo theme in the form of costumes, hats, and décor.
"People on social media — even throughout the year now — people tag Hearts & Plugs in flamingo photos. Last year we bought 20 flamingos, and most of them were stolen after the shindig," McCurry points out. "I think I had four left or something. Which was awesome! I was so glad people were so into it."
He adds, "We got 50 this year. We're really just going for it. Flying for it? Flocking for it?"
But it's not all fun and games. As the Summer Shindig approaches, McCurry is busy trying to secure formal distribution for the label for the first time, while also pressing up an official mixtape, Summer Essentials, for the event on CD and (pink) cassette. The compilation, which is also available on Bandcamp and Spotify, features two songs from each of the artists playing the Shindig, one on Side A and another on Side B. In addition to Brave Baby, SUSTO, Grace Joyner, and E.T. Anderson, that lineup is rounded out by three additional acts. There's tireless roots-rockers The High Divers, whose vibrant and ebullient sound fits in well with the summer theme; the humidity-drenched bedroom recording project Hermit's Victory, a group that matches craggy indie folk with lush, late-night synth atmosphere; and Johnny Delaware, whose excellent brand of retro-minded songwriting and rich vocals has taken a backseat in recent years to his role as a sideman in SUSTO.
Based on the past two years, McCurry seems confident that this year's Shindig will be a success. "We don't want to do too many events that would water down the specialness of what we're doing," he says. "And we want to use it as our opportunity to connect with the community. Our bands all play together, but it's cool to do this big thing where they are all there playing together and hanging out. "For the artist, it's sort of rejuvenating," he adds. "You get everyone all together, and that never happens. And everyone is killing it, and you're like 'Whoa, this is an amazing thing, and we're a part of it.'"