|Article - Newspaper
|Newsweek, January 30, 1995 (United States)
Punk Is His Business
BRETT GUREWITZ MAY BE A RECORD company president, but he doesn't reallv act like one. Wearing black jeans, a T shirt, scuffedup shoes and close-cropped hair, he is hanging out in the main office area of Epitaph Records, a punk label that's become the most successful independent company in the music business. Located far from Hollywood's high rises in L.A.'s Silver Lake district, the office is an old, ivy-covered converted trolley building that once housed the West Coast's only large-scale taxidermy shop. Gurewitz's desk is right alongside everyone else's. He doesn't have an assistant; his staff of 17 doesn't even include a receptionist. Gurewitz presides over a multimillion-dollar company, but every once in a while he likes to answer the phone himself.
At the rate Epitaph is growing, he may soon have to make a few minor concessions to success. In 1994 Epitaph made pop history when an album by its band Offspring, "Smash," sold more than 3 million copies and went to No. 4 on Billboard's chart, becoming one of the most successful indie rock albums ever. Offspring's success flouts every rule of music-industry hit-making: for the first time since alternative rock became a commercially viable genre, an independent label has not only competed on the level of the majors, but has beat them at their own game. With Offspring, Epitaph began dismantling the myth that a band has to be on a major label to reach a mass audience, and now other bands on the roster-Rancid, NOFX-are following suit. Ironically, the label's success comes at a time when the staunchest independents, from Seattle's Sub Pop (original home to Nirvana) to New York's Matador (Liz Phair), have set up deals with majors. But Gurewitz wants to stay independent. He's rejected advances as high as $50 million from corporations like PolyGram, Sony and EMI, as well as from hipper labels like Interscope and Madonnas Maverick. (Sub Pop sold 49 percent of the company to Warner Bros. for $20 million.) In an industry where everything has its price, Gurewitz quite simply doesn't. He seems to be running his company on a principle other than greed.
Epitaph is driven by a punk ethic that promotes do-it-yourself individualism and deeply mistrusts the mainstream American way. His employees share the philosophy. "I had lunch the other day with Jimmy Iovine, the president of Interscope," says Gina Davis, an artist-development executive at Epitaph. "He said, "Gina, Gina, let's make a deal.' You know, I don't have to kiss his ass. We're a punk company. We were fine before the hit. If we never have another hit, we'll be fine."
Most important, the label's key acts share the ethic, too. Epitaph bands generally aren't the cuddly, marketable Green Day type. plenty sport mohawks, some have crammed 23 loud, fast tracks into a 45-minute album, and most are as likely to sing about social problems in America as the angst in their pants. Last summer, corporate interest in Offspring grew to such a hysterical pitch that the band went on the record in Billboard saying they were committed to staying with Epitaph. More recently, Rancid was at the center of a high-stakes bidding war and almost signed with Epic, a Sony subsidiary; at the eleventh hour they, too, chose Epitaph, even though the money was less. NOFX was offered a contract worth almost a half million dollars. "We thought about it for five minutes," says the lead singer, Fat Mike. "Epitaph is a really good metaphor for how businesses should be in the U.S. Everyone who works there is happy. The bands are happy. The people buying the CDs are happy. It's perfect. It's not like on TV where they're trying to trick you into buying something."
Gurewitz is punk rock right down to his roots. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, the son of a self-styled entrepreneur who sold envelopes out of the family garage. Gurewitz, like most of the Epitaph staffers, got into punk as a teenager. "I was miserable," he says. "Other than the prom queen and the football captain, I think most people have pretty horrible experiences." Gurewitz played guitar for a band, Bad Religion; in 1981 they scraped together the money to put out an album and a single, and Epitaph was born. It wasn't until 1988, however, after Gurewitz overcame an eight-year drug addiction, that he got Epitaph going in earnest, releasing albums by L.A. punk staples like NOFX and the all-female band L7. Back then, hard-core punk was truly an underground phenomenon. Radio, MTV and the mainstream music press ignored the stuff with amazing consistency. "The problem is, most of our bands are in their teens," says Andy Kaulkin, an Epitaph marketing executive. "And teenagers don't program radio stations. Teenagers aren't journalists. So no one knew about us."
Nevertheless, Epitaph grew through word of mouth. In 1993, Gurewitz sold about 1 million records-"every single one of them punk rock," he says proudly. By 1994, the climate in the music industry was changing. Green Day, which had jumped from an indie to Warner Bros., sold 3 million records. Henry Rollins, another survivor of the L.A. punk scene, became a media icon. Punk replaced grunge as the rock trend of choice. And the video for Offspring's "Come Out and Play," made for $5,000, became an MTV hit, shown alongside clips that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
But since Offspring's breakthrough, Epitaph has been struggling to hold on to its credibility. Gurewitz's primary objective is to stay in touch with the core audience of surfers and skatepunks who have been with him from the start. With no previous knowledge of computers, he has developed a highly sophisticated database that maintains marketing information on every punk-record store, skate shop and fanzine across the country. When it comes to the media, Gurewitz's rule is, When in doubt, just say no, MTV asked to inter-view Offspring; the band said no. NEWSWEEK asked to interview Offspring; they said no. NOFX requested that their video not be sent to MTV. "You want me to be honest?" says Kaulkin. "I don't think I should be talking to you. I like being underground. NEWSWEEK is not our venue."
If anything, Epitaph's caution and vigilance is paying off. The label has become a spirit: a recent signing is Wayne Kramer, former guitarist for the proto-punk late '60s band the MC5. Kramer's new album, "The Hard Stuff," is the blueprint material many of the Epitaph kids copied from; at 46, he's a generation removed not only from the bands on the label but from the staffers, too. "I called Brett up and said I wanted to make a record," Kramer says. "He said, "We all wouldn't have bands if it werern't for the MC5. I'll work out an advance with you, you can cut it in any studio you want and if at the end of the day you don't like the record, forget the whole thing. You don't owe me nothin'.' I said, "This is punk'."
In fact, these days things at Epitaph are going so well that Gurewitz has allowed himself to make one little concession. He finally just hired a receptionist.
- Karen Schoemer
German transcript updated
English transcript added
English transcript added
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