Interview with Dan Osborn
Co-owner of Drag City Records
Interview takes place at Unicorn Café
February 1, 1993
(M)att: What do you do?
(D)an: I started this label three years ago. We both have day jobs and we just do it cuz we like the music. We basically do everything but write the songs and record the music. Pretty much an7ything the bands want but they can’t do themselves.
M: Why would you do it and they wouldn’t?
D: They’re bands! (laughs) Either they’re incapable of doing it themselves or they just prefer not to. They have jobs of their own. A lot of the stuff, like actually doing the pressing and mastering and all that stuff, we sort of have to. . .someone central has to do it cuz it’s easier to get it done that way.
M: And you actually do that?
D: Yea. We get a tape from a band and get it mastered, get it pressed. Put the artwork, we either do the artwork or get it from the band. Get negatives done, get the sleeves made, get it all put together, get it distributed, promote it through ads. Pretty much anything they don’t want. . .a lot of times they’ll get us the art work for the cover. We don’t overrule anything they. . .anything central that they want to do, within reason.
M: What magnitude do you deal with?
D: Um. . .generally we break even on everything. In some cases, with Pavement we made up for all the records that didn’t make money. We’re putting out a compilation of their stuff. That will be like the backbone that’ll pay for all our other stuff.
M: So do you have a publishing company, too?
D: We don’t. No. Bands can do that on their own if they want. We try to keep the lower-end of it as out of the picture as we can, like contracts and. . .
M: Pavement’s not with you anymore?
D: No. They went on. But we are doing this compilation of all their old stuff.
M: Do you have the rights to their old stuff?
D: It’s not like we really have the rights to it. It’s just. . .they’re pretty down to Earth. We just said, “We want to put out these records. We feel they’re our records, we should be able to put them out.” We pay them fifty-percent. We split everything down the middle.
M: That’s pretty large, isn’t it?
D: Yea. We share the profit. It’s good. Especially for someone like them. They can end up making a lot of money from it. They could’ve easily sold those to anyone they wanted to. But they didn’t. That was nice. That comes from. . .We had more to lose than they did starting off with them, so now we get to benefit as well. But not having contracts is risky. Royal Trux is starting to get big enough that I think we’re gonna start having contracts and stuff with them.
M: How do you find a band?
D: With Royal Trux and Pavement we just. . .with both of them. . .my partner and I worked as a distributer that was out in Des Plaines. We had heard the first Pavement single and the Royal Trux album. We wrote both bands and said, “We’d like to do a record with you.” Figuring, you know, we didn’t. . .We wanted to do a record. They both wrote back, and at that time no one had approached them and they said, “Yea, we’re interested.”
We said, “Let’s do singles, cuz we don’t know how we’re gonna handle this.
They sent us tapes. We like them, so we put them out.
Pavement we contacted first, but Royal Trux ended up getting us their tape first. We put out those singles and those did well.
M: They just sent you their own tapes that they had already recorded?
D: Yea. Or they recorded for us, I don’t remember. I think Royal Trux recorded for us, we just paid for the recording session. Pavement, I think, had some stuff already. In both cases they had, like, free studio time somewhere. We didn’t have to pay too much.
M: Where’s Pavement from?
D: At that time they recorded in Stockton, California. Now two of the guys live in Stockton, the other guys live in New York.
M: What about Royal Trux?
D: They live all over the place. When we started with them they were from D.C. Then the go out to San Francisco and then they moved out to New York. And now they’re in D.C., I think. They were in Chicago for awhile. They’re kind of nomadic. They are our band that needs the most care. We did their tour. My partner essentially manages them. He has more free time than I do. They’re kind of flaky in a way.
The first year we did two singles. The second year was, like, four, with the money from the first two. Maybe six or seven last year. And this year we’ll have at least ten or fifteen released.
We hooked-up with Touch and Go because with the Pavement record, we did it with the royal Trux album because we knew if it sold. . .We couldn’t afford to press a lot of copies by ourselves with the money we had. With Pavement we knew that it’s gonna sell twenty or thirty-thousand copies. There’s no way we could afford that. Touch and Go can.
M: What can’t you afford?
D: Pressing. It would be like $100,000 to press 30,000 copies of the record. We couldn’t have raised that. It would’ve been a hassle. Touch and Go is all set-up to do a record like that. So we figured what we could’ve sold. . . and also it’s more attractive to the bands, for a band to come to us if they can get the great distribution that Touch and Go has. They take a cut of the profit, but we figure we’ll sell at least that much more. So we don’t really lose anything.
That’s a new thing we did. Touch and Go is similar cuz they don’t really have contracts in general. It’s the same kind of philosophy, this trust thing. They’ll distribute the stuff.
M: do you think that would be possible for a major label to do?
D: No. Once you get to the level like Pavement is getting to be, you almost have to have contracts. We would have to have contracts just to protect ourselves if anything should happen. Major labels make so many promises they got to put it in writing.
This year will be a good year. The Pavement record will really be. . .it seems that all classic labels have a backbone record. Mute has all the Depeche Mode records, and 4AD had a bunch of records. That allows you to put out whatever you want to put out. It’s like having an anchor store at a mall. Like SST, for example. Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du. All those bands allowed them to put out every other album, some of the worst albums of all time. In a sense they put out a lot of bad albums and they hurt themselves in the end. SubPop had Green River and stuff that allowed them to put out totally, some of the unsuccessful records they’ve done. And they were only saved because of Nirvana. They overspent a lot.
It seems there’s a pattern that once a label has some successes they start throwing tons of money on things. SubPop was flying people out from England to see a show, for no reason. They owed us money for a year, cuz they were shipping some of our stuff.
M: They owed you money?
D: Yea. And we’d see them spending their money idiotically, and they owed us money. And Rough Trade. When Rough Trade went under they owed us money, not too much fortunately. It was frustrating to see them spending idiotic amounts of money on records.
M: How do they end up owing you money?
D: They were a distributer, too. Rough Trade distributed our records. I don’t know what the line is between a distributer and a label, but I assume it’s a fine line.
M: I still don’t understand how they end-up owing you money? I thought you would pay them to distribute your records.
D: No. Essentially. . . It’s sort of consignment. You give the distributer your records on whatever certain terms you want. You usually get a list, like sixty days terms. You send them 100 records and they’ll owe you for those records two months later. In general it works out, but you never get paid on time. That’s the basic thing. If they haven’t sold all those records then you have to work, like, do they return them? Do they credit you for them? But you don’t have to pay to distribute. They’ll make a profit. They’ll mark it up once they get it.
M: Do you have contracts with them?
D: No. You can. When I worked there sometimes the band would send us a contract and we’d have to promise to pay them whatever it’s worth. Some people send us contracts but you generally don’t. The invoice is sort of the agreement that. . .You’re selling them to somebody for a wholesale price and they’re gonna mark it up and sell it to retail. You’re selling it at under wholesale, and they’re selling it at wholesale.
Distributers never pay on time so. . .If you only ever put out one record you have a problem because the way the payments generally work they’ll say, “Well, we’ll pay you when you put out your next thing.” So you have to keep putting out stuff to get paid. And with Rough Trade it was. . .we bugged them enough to get paid as much as we could get paid. They only owed us $300. They owed a lot of people thousands of dollars. Touch and Go lost a lot of money on them. SST I think lost a lot.
M: Do you put out particular kinds of bands?
D: Umm. . The way we work is. . .
M: I’ve never heard Pavement.
D: I have a postcard of all our stuff.
M: Aren’t they on a major label now?
D: They might be. They probably will be. I wouldn’t be surprised. [Dan shows me the postcard with all of Drag City’s releases.] That’s pretty much everything we’ve put out. This is the pavement thing we’re dong which is just a compilation. Most of these bands, like. . .The Palace Brothers are the only band that sent us a tape and we really liked it. Everything else we knew of and wrote them and said, “We’d like to do something.” They’re the only. . .them and Mantis, but we knew people in Mantis. We put out the first record they ever put out. Everyone else has put out records previously.
M: They put out stuff previously and came to you afterwards?
D: We usually went to them. We had heard them and said, “We’d like to do something with you.” That’s how our system has always worked. And the Palace Brothers. . .We knew people who knew them.
M: So what’s the idea, financially, in choosing the bands?
D: We don’t have to worry about that so much. That’s why you’re an independent label. That’s why you can do most anything you want. Matador has worked up a deal with Atlantic where they can. . .Atlantic pays for the label but they can do anything they want and Atlantic sort of has an option on whatever things they want. That’s kind of an ideal thing that nobody else really has.
For the most part we can do something that’s completely unsellable and do 500 of it and wouldn’t have to really worry about it. We can generally sell enough to cover our costs. We haven’t taken any huge losses.
M: Are you concerned with making a profit?
D: We started off with just being concerned with breaking even, cuz we didn’t want to lose our investment. We weren’t making any money. And now it’s not. . .It’s not like either of us has to live off the label, so we don’t have to look for bands that have to do really well. We’re concerned about making a profit in the sense that we’re not going to blow money for now reason. But not in the sense that we’re going to actively search out commercial bands. Our criteria is that it has to be something we both like. We have to both agree on it. There’s been things that I’ve liked but my partner hasn’t liked, so we haven’t done it. It’s whatever we both agree on. We both have to vote yes.
M: do you have any employees?
D: No. His girlfriend does some work. It’s getting to be so that we. .. he has a shorter work day than I do, so he ends up doing a little more of the. . .making a few more phone calls. I don’t think that’ll be in the picture for awhile. He’ll quit his job before we hire anybody.
M: So what, again, physically, do you actually do in running the label?
D: Let’s say, like, with the Palace Brothers. They sent us a tape and they said, “Would you like to put this out?”
M: Where do you suppose they heard about you?
D: We have mutual friends. We’re probably on a list of people they want to send a tape to. I’m not really sure. I don’t know if they sent it to anyone else. We’re working with a band called King Kong from Louisville, and the Palace Brothers are from Louisville, and there are some members that are the same in both bands. I can’t believe they didn’t get offers from other people.
They sent us a tape and were like, “Do you like this? Would you like to put it out?” And we both like it so we wrote them back and said, “Send us more.” Cuz there were only two songs on the tape so we didn’t really know. They sent us, like, six or seven songs which we thought were great. So we wrote them and said, “Yea. We’d like to do a single with you.” And they worked up what they wanted the single to be. They sent us a DAT master of that. They sent us artwork that they’d done. So we took the DAT master to have it mastered, have metal plates made for it. . .
M: You send it to someone else?
D: Yea. A mastering plant does that. They send the metal plates to our pressing plant which is in Nashville. And then we send the artwork. . .
M: So you set-up contracts with pressing plants and. . .
D: Yea. It’s not really contracts. It’s just services. It’s like going to a Xerox shop.
M: At this point has it cost anybody much money?
D: Well. . .At this point we’ve paid the band for the tape, whatever they want, whatever it cost to record it.
M: You paid them for just the tapes they sent you?
D: Yea. And that’s a few hundred dollars. It’s whatever it cost to be recorded. Then the mastering facility. I don’t know how much. . .Maybe $100, maybe $150, I’m not sure. Dan does. .. Dan’s my partner. . .he does a lot of that end of the stuff. So that’s maybe $150. And then the pressing plant, we usually have to put a down payment, half the pressing. At that point we sort of try to start talking to our distributors to find out how many they’re gonna take. We’ll send them a cassette and we’ll talk to them and tell them what it’s like. In this case some of the members of the band are in other bands and they didn’t want that to become common knowledge, so we just said, “It’s a new band.”
M: You just tell them verbally. You don’t sent them some kind of package telling them about the band?
D: In this case the band didn’t really have anything and didn’t really want to write anything. They want to sort of be an enigma. In that case the distributors were frustrated cuz they want selling points. And we’re not really providing those. So they’re gonna take a low number of this single cuz it’s an unknown thing.
M: They’re gonna take low numbers?
D: They’re gonna take low amounts of the single. They’re gonna say, “Only send us 100 cuz we don’t know.”
M: What are they gonna do with 100? One-hundred is nothing in the world of records.
D: We have nine distributors. If we sell 1,000 singles we can break even.
M: Where do they distribute these to?
D: In little stores. Vintage Vinyl kind of stores. The biggest will be, like, Tower, which might have a little local section. Sometimes they will export. There’s a big market in England and oversees. We export to Australia.
M: so you depend a lot on people who still buy vinyl?
D: For singles, yea. Singles are a pretty prolific thing now. Albums we sell a lot less of and we’ve done a few CD only things. You know, vinyl is dead for all intents and purposes, except for singles.
M: There’s a pretty big market for singles still?
D: Yea. There’s definitely a market for them. But it’s not. . .Like, with Pavement we sold eight or nine-thousand singles, which is good and more than enough. . .We made a profit. It’s weird with a single. You’re not supposed to be able to make a profit. But, I mean, if you’re gonna make money it in a full album or a CD.
In Europe vinyl is still pretty popular. I don’t know why.
D: Yea. That’s why y9ou can find import copies of vinyl of things that are only available here on CD. Like the Sonic Youth album. The Dinosaur album. . .stuff like that. I guess a lot of people still have turntables along with CD players. I don’t really know.
M: I still have a turn table, but I rarely buy records. Sometimes a used record, but not, like, a new band. It’ll be some band who I want the original record.
D: Or if it’s been remixed for the CD. There’s reasons, but. . .
So that’s where most of our vinyl goes. And to people who are anti-CD.
M: There aren’t too many of those left, are there?
D: The type of stuff we’re selling are enough if we sell a few hundred of it. Some of our bands just want a vinyl copy of the stuff. They just have a fondness for vinyl. The big record sleeve. So we do a few hundred of them. It doesn’t really pay for itself.
M: So basically you have to like the band. The band would never pay you money to do it.
M: There would be no reason for that to happen?
D: I mean they wouldn’t. . .it’s a lot of work. We wouldn’t want to do that. It would waste too much of our time. Especially if the band was terrible. You’d be spending all your time doing something that would never make money. That would be like torture. I’m trying to think if there are labels that do that. I don’t really think so, though. . .
M: The bands can go directly to the pressing themselves.
D: They can press it themselves, yea. I mean that’s what bands do. They have to distribute themselves, but. . .If the band’s not into working too hard they’ll go to a distributor and say, “Here’s all of our stuff. Distribute it.”
M: How many tapes do you get a week?
D: No a lot. Maybe six or seven. Not too many. If you’re a major label you must get at least a thousand tapes per week, 500 to 1,000 tapes a week. It must be really, really depressing. I would really hate that. As it is now, just getting six or seven a week. . .99% of them are really, really bad. It’s like they haven’t heard anything we’ve ever put out.
M: I’ve never heard any. Although I know there’s a big buzz about Pavement. Is there a musical theme to your bands?
D: No really. I think they all fit in, but they don’t all sound alike. It all makes sense but. . .Palace Brothers are like countryish kind of stuff, folk sort of music. They have to be noisy. It’s all pretty different. This is kind of psychedelic. This is basically punk stuff. [He’s pointing to bands on the postcard of Drag city releases.]
D: Yea. That’s pretty psychedelic. It’s like a space jam kind of thing. There’s really no on stylistic kind of thing. A lot of the bands don’t have that really slick production value.
M: Do you send copies to, like, WNUR?
D: Yea. And to magazines. We have the usual. . .In comparison to most we have a relatively small mailing list. We don’t send out a lot of promos. With pavement we’ll send out 500, 600 copies. For something like that it’s justified cuz that’ll make a lot, that’ll sell a lot.
M: So sticking with what we were talking about, the costs, have you already done that?
D: Yea. So when the pressing plant finishes the record they’ll send us a test pressing. We’ll listen to it and make sure there’s not some defect in the pressing. The people who do the sleeves don’t send us a proof, they just send us the sleeves. And in this case the sleeves turned out wrong. So we had 3,000 sleeves that were wrong. And so it turned-out the band liked them wrong; they were too dark. So we lucked out. We could’ve had to redo 3,000 sleeves.
M: That would’ve been your fault?
D: Yea. We would’ve had to eat the costs of those, use those sleeves for something else, I don’t know. But it worked out okay. The reasons we had that problem was cuz we. . .where I work I have a huge Macintosh and so I’ve been doing all the artwork on that. To do photo stuff is real tricky. It was basically ignorance not knowing how it all worked and it just turned out wrong. We got it all straightened out now.
Then they send us. . .in the case of seven-inch, they send you the sleeves and the other place sends you the vinyl and you put them all together. With albums your pressing. . .your printing plant will send the sleeves to the pressing plant and they’ll put them all together in shrink-wrap or whatever you want. And then you get the shrink-wrap records back or CDs or whatever. But with singles you still have to put them together yourself.
M: They sent you the artwork they wanted?
D: Yea. We just had to add certain things to it, you know, like “Made in Canada,” stuff like that. Cuz we print in Canada.
M: So does Touch and Go.
D: Yea. There’s one place that’s really cheap. You can’t get prices anywhere near it anywhere else.
M: And you’ve put out all this different stuff, all these different singles [referring to the postcard].
D: That was an LP/Cassette/CD that we did with Touch and Go. That’s a seven-inch [referring to the postcard again]. . .t-shirt, video, double album. And that first album we’re reissuing. We didn’t put that out originally.
M: So you’re reissuing something they did with somebody else?
D: Yea. It was their first record they just did on their own. We bought the tapes to it. Just on cassette/CD only.
M: So since you didn’t have a contract. . .
D: Actually, with them we do now. Just cuz they have all this stuff. They’re getting big now. Bigger.
M: So if a major label wanted to talk to them, would they have to talk to you, too?
D: No, not really. We don’t really have any contracts. They can do whatever they want. The main problem with these is they want to. . .right now we’re paying for the new album that they’re recording. So if they wanted to sell that to someone else we may have a problem cuz we paid for it. But, no, they wouldn’t have to go through us. They might, they might try to.
It’s weird. After we put this one out we got all these calls from major labels and they were like, “Send us a copy of this album. We read about it and we want to hear it.” And we were like, “What are we? Idiots? Why would we want to lose. . .Why would we want to send you a single?” It’s like Warner Bros. calling up MCA and saying, “Hey, we heard this record you put out. Sent it to us.” It was really weird. They didn’t realize it was kind of an insult.
M: I don’t get it.
D: They were wanting us to send them a record so that they could. . .we’re like their competition in an incredibly unbalanced way. It’s like calling the competition and asking for something free from them so you can maybe steal it from the. They just didn’t get it, I guess. I guess it must work with a lot of people. They must get a lot of free stuff that way.
M: It would seem like. . .
D: It’s not in our best interest to go somewhere else. We don’t own any part of them so we wouldn’t get. . .It’s not like with Nirvana. SubPop gets points on that. So they got something by that group being successful. We could potentially do that with Royal Trux, I don’t know.
M: Theoretically, if you had some kind of contract, if you had, say, the next nirvana, you could sell that.
D: Or better yet take a percentage of the record if you think it’s gonna be successful. In that case SubPop must have made a million dollars.
M: It was put out. . .it had DGC. . .
D: Yea. But it had the SubPop logo on it.
M: So they just got a percentage of the profits?
M: Is that how it usually works?
D: That’s kind of usual. I’m sure if DGC could’ve work it, they would’ve cut SubPop off completely. They must’ve had a contract. I don’t know how that end of the whole thing happened.
SubPop has their name on something else that came out recently, but I don’t remember. Oh, I think it was that Nick Cave and the guy from the Pogues thing. I think they had their name on that, too. But maybe not. I’m not sure.
But we don’t have any contracts, so we can’t really be sure that. . .
M: They could leave tomorrow.
D: They could leave tomorrow. Yea. They could’ve left already. It’s possible. It’s possible. That’s kind of precarious, but. . .
M: It looks like you’ve done a lot with Royal Trux.
M: What kind of promotion do you do?
D: We’ll send out free copies to magazines we like, and radio, put ads in things.
M: What about their tours? Do you have anything to do with their tours?
D: With them, we organized their tour. We didn’t book it. We had people that we organized to do that. They sort of managed the day-to-day. Cuz they toured the last six or seven months and we could never handle it. The woman we hired to do that is good. Actually we’ve started another promotions firm, too, to promote the records individually because they can do it all and we can’t. And it’s attractive to the bands to know that someone is working their record all the time.
M: So who is the employer and who’s the employee? Are you the employees of the band, or are they your employees or. . .or neither?
M: It works both ways. When they’re successful. . .it’s sort of a mutual thing ultimately. Since it’s all fifty-fifty and stuff like that, it’s really working together.
M: They like you and you like them and. . .
M: And they don’t feel like doing all this stuff to sell themselves.
D: Yea. And it’s a lot of work and we’ve been doing it long enough. .. and have worked doing similar things that we know what needs to be done. We know what’ the wrong thing to do. We’ve made all the mistakes, half the mistakes, already.
M: How long have you been doing this?
D: We’ve been doing this for four years. Before that I worked at a record distributor and then I worked at ‘NUR.
M: As a DJ?
D: I was Music Director for a couple years. So I saw how the labels worked. And when I went to the distributor I saw how the distributors worked. We really had a good basis for knowing what were the mistakes you would make. The distributor I worked at was pretty shady and the guy was kind of a creep. We learned how not to lose money. Basically don’t trust your distributor. And it’s worked out well for us.
M: How old are you?
To do the stuff on the level we’re doing it we know what needs to be done. But there’s always. . .we’re weak on certain things. WE could do promotion stuff. We both work day jobs so it’s exhausting.
M: Do you do your other work and then start doing this stuff?
D: Yea. Since I’ve got this computer stuff at work I usually stay at work and get my stuff done. But tonight I have to go back and. .. we’re doing this video for Expressway and they sent us a master and like an idiot I didn’t’ look at it to check it. It was a hell of a format. It was like Beta. It was a big tape. So I had to dupe. The tape is made and then there’s a problem, the audio is missing on some of the songs. So I gotta go. . .We checked it out and the master is flawed. And this is from New Zealand, so we’re calling New Zealand to figure-out what the problem is. Now the tape has disappeared, I’m not sure where it is. I gotta go back to work tonight and look around and find the tape. I figured it might of gotten put. . . I work at a video editing place and maybe someone took it somehow. I don’t know. But there’s always something like that.
M: What’s Expressway?
D: It’s a label in New Zealand. They put out a bunch of different bands. We’ve just done compilations with them. Bands you have never heard of, I’m sure. Obscure, weird, noisy pop bands.
M: Do you export things from the United States to them?
D: Yea. They’ve actually licensed their stuff to about six or seven different labels in the U.S. But we’ve only done compilations but they’ve done individual band things with people. They’re a lot like us in New Zealand. And he doesn’t have the money to do everything there, so he gets people like us to help him.
M: I imagine that somehow you’re connected to all these different labels all over the world.
D: In a way. We trade with certain people. We just started. . .We’ve been waiting to find someone to license our stuff overseas, cuz it’s easier to just license it and they can press it up and deal with it. And we finally found someone to do it. That’ll hopefully happen and they’ll do. . . Ideally they’ll do everything, but probably they’ll just do the big things. Then we don’t have to worry about exporting over there. They know how to work a record there, we can’t do that. As long as they’re trustworthy we’ll be okay. That’s the tough part.
M: So you think it’s a pretty shady business?
D: Yea. In one sense it’s shady and in another sense there’s a lot of people that have good intentions but can’t. . .In terms of labels, you know, can’t follow through because the money isn’t’ there or. . .And if you’re a small label and you have a hit record, you can easily be destroyed by that. Like Matador, in particular, had Superchunk and Teenage Fan Club, and those records both did really well and they were out of print six or seven months because they couldn’t afford to press more fast enough. You can easily be killed by that. And then the bands get angry and jump to somewhere else that can deal with it. A hit record isn’t always a good thing. We’ve been lucky because most everything has been slowly built, so we’ve always had the money to do it.
M: So you’re lucky you haven’t had a hit record?
D: Yea. [laughs] Cuz that’s one way to lose a band.
People are shady or incompetent. Even if they’re competent in a nice way, if they’re nice people. . .There’s this great label from California called Iridescent. . .This guy sent us a list when I worked at the radio station, he sent us a list of the next twenty things they were gonna put out. They were gonna put out a bunch of amazing things. Like five-LP boxed sets, triple albums boxes by these great bands. And none of them ever came out. Cuz he has all these tapes and he never put them out. I think he was slightly crazy. But you get people who have these dreams of what they’re gonna do and just don’t have the money to back it up. I’ve seen a lot of that stuff that was on that list come out on other labels, but some of it he just hasn’t put out. The tapes are sitting around somewhere I guess.
M: And then there’ labels like Rhino, and they mostly put out things from the past.
D: Yea. And they do really well with that.
M: They’ve even been getting into the more modern stuff, punk stuff.
D: Yea. I saw a bunch of new stuff that they’re gonna put out. As the people that were into that stuff get older they’re gonna be able to afford to buy the reissues. Just like you can see a Rasberries Greatest Hits, you’ll see a Sonic Youth Greatest hits someday.
M: Or the Germs. Rhino is supposed to be putting out the Germs first album, but they didn’t say when.
D: They put out that Husker Du album, Everything Falls Apart, which I always wanted at the time.
M: Especially with a lot of bands that came and went before CDs.
D: There’s a lot of stuff we’re trying to find people. . .We’re doing a reissue, probably this Summer, of a band called Big Flame; they put out like seven or eight singles. We gonna put those all on a CD. Cuz there were things we really liked that no one ever heard.
M: Do you know Paul Zamost, from the Effigies.
D: I’ve probably met him. I know John Kezdy.
M: He said they were trying to get a deal to put out all of their records on CD.
D: That would be cool. They should do that. I should talk with my partner, I really like all that stuff. Actually they had a deal with this guy in Chicago, he did a compilation which was their first couple records and all their singles and stuff. And that guy was like, it looked like he had all his stuff together, and then he, like, disappeared. I don’t know if he started making some money. . . I don’t know what happened to him. He was crazy. It’s the trap you get into.
Sometimes when people start to make money they start to get into stuff. They get into drugs or whatever. One of our distributors went under cuz one of the guys spend all of his money, from our records, on cocaine. And disappeared. People wanted to kill him. We wanted to kill him.
M: so with all these people you work with, do you have percentages going on; off of your records he made money?
D: He’d take. . .We’d sell him our records, he would sell them, so he would make. . .he would mark them up, he was a distributor. So he made all this money off them. There’s a weird thing when you get at that level. There’s a . . .Some distributors have labels of their own. If you really followed conflict of interest things you would not. . .If you had a distributor you would not use any of that money to pay for your label. Most people don’t’ think about it or they don’t. . .You need that money eventually. Like Dutch East India, which is a big distributor, had a few labels, but among them was Homestead. Presumably Homestead always claimed that none of their money came from Dutch East, like it was all. . .They had a starter amount of money and they lived off that forever. But you wonder. So there’s a conflict of interest.
We’re selling our records. We’re giving our records to Dutch East to sell, and they use the money from our records to pay for records they’re putting out to compete with ours. When they owe us money, can they not pay us cuz they put out something else? That’s a weird thing. Our distributor was putting out records of his own, but he wasn’t paying us. There’s a line there that’s really. . .You keep wondering. Every time we saw one of his records come out, “Did that money come out with the money he owes us?”
M: Would a contract help with something like that?
D: Not rally cuz he was weird. He owed us a few hundred dollars.
M: There’s stuff like this going on in every city in the country? Labels that are your size that are doing this. . .
D: Yea. Then there’s four or five in Chicago that we know of. This is just the type of stuff in one genre. I’m sure there are Blues labels and Folk labels, Rap labels and Hip Hop labels, that kind of thing.
When I worked at a distributor we would export a lot of that to England cuz it was really popular there before it was popular here. Guys would drive up, you know, and out of the back of their car would give us hundred albums and we’d send them to England. No labels on them sometimes. It’s like a cottage industry kind of thing. A lot of people aren’t really experienced in the business stuff, so they make mistakes.
M: So what is the importance of labels like yours for rock music?
D: Like philosophically? To us it’s like we’re doing something we’ve always wanted to do. Being involved with. . .putting out music we think is great. In a sense I think it’s sort of like, you know, you want, to a certain extent, a piece of history. You want to be able to say, “I put out these things, and they were great!” We’re proud to be involved with everything we’ve done. We’re extremely lucky to get Pavement and Royal Trux. We’ve really had good luck ourselves. That there are two of us allowed us to have an edge in a way. One person didn’t have to do everything. Dan is better at some things and I’m better at others. It’s a good balance.
But the importance, I don’t know. Ultimately it’s no more than the importance of music in general. We’re not really helping anybody. It’s nothing holy or anything. It’s all business. We run stuff the way we run it cuz I think we’re both. . .we both have a lot of respect for labels that just did whatever they wanted to do. We’re honest and responsible.
M: Are you a musician?
D: No. I took piano. My partner is sort of a musician. He plays in a band. We may put out something from his band.
M: What’s their name?
D: I don’t actually know what they’re called now. I think they’re called Dakota or something, I don’t really know. He plays with members of some of the other bands we’ve put out.
M: When did you decide that you wanted to do something like this?
D: I think both of us probably. . .We both were into the same kind of music when I used to work at this distributor. I’m sure we both, the minute we saw that someone put out their own single, we knew that, “Oh, man! I really want to do that! I’d love to do that.” We both lucked out.
M: While you were in college you weren’t thinking about starting a label?
D: I was thinking about it. I’ve always thought about it.
M: What was your major?
I’ve always thought about it. Before you realize how easy it is, you think it is really complicated.
M: To me, I wouldn’t know where to start.
D: It’s not at all. It’s really, really. . .It’s ninety-nine percent busy work. It’s almost one-hundred percent busy work. If you wanted to do it, just talk to someone who has done it. It’s exactly like going to make Xerox or something. You go and you get the masters ready and you get them copied and then you get them bound and then you sell them to people. It’s like doing a fanzine or something. It seems mystical, but it’s not. It’s really ordinary.
M: It makes me wonder why every band isn’t putting out a record, every single band there is.
D: A lot of people do that. The advantage of working with a label. . .we know how to do all that stuff. You don’t have to go through. . .To a certain extent we know, we know how to do it at the level we’re at right now. They don’t have to go through all the stuff we’ve gone through. We’ve had to go drop distributors who didn’t pay us. We learned all that stuff the hard way, which they don’t have to do. Plus if they’re successful they’re still making a healthy amount of money. And not having to do the end of the work we have to do which is busy work which doesn’t matter. We’ll do anything they want us to do.
M: Do you have any Chicago bands?
D: Mantis, who are no longer around. Burnout are from Chicago. They play out a couple times a month, probably, at Lounge Ax and places like that. No one else is from Chicago.
M: Do you ever approach bands?
D: Yea. All our bands we’ve approached except for the Palace Brothers, who sent us a tape. Every one of them we knew about and approached them. From Chicago? I don’t know. Maybe we just don’t go to a lot of shows that we don’t know about. We should more. We generally, someone will say, “Hey, this band is great” and we’ll go see them. We’re doing a compilation, a label compilation. We’re going to have a song form this band called Red Red Meat, who are from Chicago.
M: Are they the one who has a really tall guy?
M: They opened for Meat Puppets.
D: And they have a new bass player that’s really, really tall. It’s funny cuz their lead singer is kind of short. It looks funny. But I don’t know if we’ll do anything more with them. Time will tell I guess.
M: How often do you go to shows?
D: It depends. I don’t think either of us. . .Except if someone says, “This band is great,” we’ll go. Maybe once a week or twice a week at most.
M: That’s a lot.
D: Yea. I haven’t gone to a show, though, in maybe a month.
M: So you don’t go check out bands you’ve never heard of.
D: Generally not, no. It’d be like listening to demo tapes, but you’re standing in a smoky bar that you don’t want to be in. Listening to demo tapes is bad enough.
M: That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I go to one or two shows every week.
D: Really. You probably see a lot of bad stuff. A lot of time you have to rely on someone saying. . .There’s some band that’s from Chicago that’s called Larry Cash Jr., or something like that, that’s supposed to be really great. So we’ll go check them out. We’re already tired all the time. It’s numbing to think we’d have to go to shows all the time. There’ too many bad bands. Plus we both have day jobs. You can’t be exhausted every single day.
M: What do you have in here? [He’s carrying a satchel]
D: Oh, I have to do some Xeroxing of press clipping of various things for all these records. Touch and Go requires certain things I have to do. We’re doing this pavement thing and this Royal Trux thing, so we have to give them press sheets that they can include with the records when they send them out. So I’ve got to do a compilation of the best of their press.
M: So they’re going to distribute it for you?
D: They’ll press it and distribute it. They send out little promos. On this thing, for some reason, they’re doing a few extra things. Cuz we just have the basic thing with them where they’re doing the stuff we can’t do, which is getting the money to press forty-thousand records. You can have. . .Merge, which is Superchunk’s label, work with Touch and Go, and they have the next level up with Touch and go above us, which is like Touch and go does all the promotion. We would like to do that stuff our self, so we don’t do that. For this thing, we do a full-color postcard that’s got the record on it that we send out to the press. They’re gonna do, like, three-thousand of those. I don’t know why they’re doing it. It could pay off, I think.
M: So you’re doing. . .
D: Yea. Two records with them. It’s great because we just have to give them. . .We don’t even have to give them the negative if we don’t want to. We just have to give them the art work and the tapes and they take it from there. It’s like us being the band. It’s great.
M: How much do you get?
D: They take, like, twenty, or thirty-five, or thirty-percent. But we’re at least selling thirty-percent more than we would on our own. We really don’t have an alternative in that sense. We couldn’t raise $100,000. And even if we could it would be a risk. $100,000.
M: What bands are you doing this with?
D: Pavement and Royal Trux. We’ll do an album with the Palace Brothers and they’ll probably do that. Any of our records that have the potential of selling.
M: so when it gets put out is it going to say “Drag City Records?”
D: It does. Yea. A lot of people have that kind of deal. If you’re an independent label and a major label takes you, they’ll put their little. . .But Touch and go doesn’t do that, so it’s nice. In the stores it just looks like Drag City Records.
M: So what do they get out of this?
D: They get the profits. They get thirty-percent. So they get whatever that equals. The Pavement record will make them a lot of money. That’s how they want to do it.
M: To me, if I was the band, I would see you as just a middle-man and want to go directly to the source.
D: It’s true. But Touch and Go might not want them. They have their standards, which are whatever Corey likes. So he doesn’t really have to like our bands to want to. . .It’s a real business deal with us cuz it’s a profit making venture.
M: So they don’t want to put it out cuz they’re afraid it might not look good to their label.
D: Yea. I mean, his standards are whatever he likes. He has very specific tastes in things he likes. And a lot of the stuff they put out is friends of people that have already put stuff out. I don’t know what he would do if Pavement had approached him to do it directly. I don’t know what he would have done. I know he’s honest enough he would’ve said, “No,” simply because we weren’t involved. He started that label Quarter Stick, I think, to put out stuff that he didn’t really like but he thought should be put out.
M: So there is a certain idealism to the thing.
D: Yea. It would be really depressing to do all this stuff. . .