How an Indie Rock-Label Saved My Life
Originally published in Rolling Stone.
There's no way I should have been able to make a career as a rock musician. I mean, there are thousands of singer/songwriters out there who are better, younger, smarter and prettier than I am. My career should have ended up like most of the bands I came up with, like most of the frustrated and talented songwriters everywhere. You give it your best shot and then quit when you turn thirty and get a job at Amazon or Microsoft. That's the Seattle way.
The reality is, I didn't even release my first album until I was thirty-two. By all rights I should have been laughed out of every bar and record label office in the country, but instead I spent ten years on tour in America and Europe, bought a house, and continue to make a living as a musician even now, all while most people, even hardcore music fans, haven't heard of me. How?
The answer is: a small, indie record label.
When I started writing songs in high school back in the Eighties there was only one real model of success. Or, at least, I only considered one option: that I would write hit songs and become a massive rock star like Tom Petty or David Bowie. The other options, like being a session musician, or a songwriter for hire, or shambling around America in a busted-up old van playing shows for beer, didn't appeal to me. My big dream was to be a pop songwriter with a "character" voice who made a new fresh sound that was warm and punchy. I knew the cards were stacked against me, as they were for anyone starting out, but my stupid teenaged confidence propelled me forward.
I formed my first real rock band in Seattle in the spring of 1991, before Nirvana or Pearl Jam had hit it big. We rehearsed for a year in a variety of basements, as bands broke all around us, feeling like the sludgy Grunge sound was just a fad. We recorded a pretty good five-song demo tape that sounded like Tom Petty meets David Bowie, then broke up without ever playing a show. It took ten years for Grunge to fade away, during which I had two more bands, each more successful than the last, and recorded something like four more pretty decent five-song demo tapes (and three really terrible demo tapes). Both bands broke up without getting signed and without making an album.
Anyone under the age of forty won't even understand what I mean when I say "demo tape." The idea was that you made a cassette tape with your four or five best songs on it, mail them off in envelopes to record labels, clubs and newspapers, and then hope that someone hears your cassette and sends somebody to see your show. Then someone signs you to a contract and pays you a million dollars and then you drown in a swimming pool, age 27. It never occurred to us to record an album ourselves or start our own record label. That would be insane. You might as well start your own software company or build your own rocket ship. I didn't want to be some guy selling his homemade record out of the trunk of his car, I wanted to get SIGNED. I was an ARTIST.
But the major labels never heard my demos, or if they did they never sent an A&R rep out to wine and dine us and fill our minds with baloney. There was never a bidding war, or even a bidding argument. There wasn't even a single bid. We were like 99% of bands: we had some fans, we made some cool music, but it didn't attract the attention of people from mainstream Showbusiness who were looking for a radio hit. That particular narrowness of focus excluded most bands from ever joining the "big leagues."
That should have been the end of my story. Continuing to obliviously flog an unsigned music career past a certain point was a surefire way to end up fifty years old covered in dander and herpes sores. It didn't matter that I had no fall-back plan or that I had never seriously considered the possibility that I wouldn't get signed and make the great American rock album. It was over. I fell into a deep depression.
Fortunately for me, I wrote lyrical, chordy pop that sounded good on an acoustic guitar. You could dress them up with a full band, or an orchestra for that matter, but it was basically campfire girlfriend music. The dying embers of my dreams of mainstream success were almost extinguished when a curious thing happened: the late-90's rebranding of complicated pop music as "Indie Rock."
In the last year of what should have been my last hurrah there was the sudden appearance of a new crop of bands, like Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins, who wrote cool pop music, played thrift-store instruments and adopted a very modest approach to the idea of rock stardom. I was an old man by comparison, but I loved playing shows with these new bands. They had absorbed all the eclecticism of rock music and weren't afraid to just be unashamedly pop. It was a quiet revolution.
These younger guys weren't waiting around to get signed. They were teaching themselves how to record, and making full-length records in their basements on equipment I would have dismissed as amateur gear. They were just DOING what I had spent ten years WAITING to see happen, not sweating their amateur status but reveling in it. Thanks to the encouragement of this new music scene I finally went into the studio and made a full-length album of songs I'd been carrying around for years. Then Barsuk Records agreed to put it out.
Barsuk was a brand-new record label, founded by some guys who had a band that released their own 7" single after no one else would put it out. Right away all their friends wanted help putting out their own records, until pretty soon they had a going concern enough that they quit their own band to run the label. Now they wanted to put out my album.
I have to admit that I was past the point of being disappointed. This was my first album, recorded with a bunch of kids on some toy gear in a ragtag studio, and now some dudes wanted to release it on their basement label. This did not equate to me being Tom Petty-Bowie. I resigned myself to the fact that I was thirty-two and the one album I ever actually made was coming out on a hobby imprint. It was better than nothing. Plus, the label guys were really fair. They promised to split the money in half, and they seemed excited about the music. I tried to enjoy it while it lasted.
Then a funny thing happened. The album started selling. For a couple of months it was the best-selling locally released LP in Seattle, and then we started getting reports that college radio was playing it around the country. The label was working hard, quietly hard, to promote and distribute my album through a small network of like-minded people who appreciated weird pop. It was already too late for me to die in a swimming pool age 27, anyway. We bought a van from some friends and started touring. Something was happening.
Let me be clear: even in the peak of our fame we were not enormously popular. We had a couple of minor indie hits. The music we wrote was just a little too unfocused, or maybe not unfocused enough, for the larger world to freak out about. Still, the label supported us and promoted us, and we developed fans and made albums and toured the world. A guy I used to work with back in the nineties who played in another struggling rock band used to say to me, "All I want is to one day play on German television. That will be enough for me to feel like a success." Well, I have played on German television. So there's that.
I grew up thinking that being a successful musician meant being rich and famous, but it ended up that my music career was the equivalent of owning a small business or running a thriving dental practice. I continue to employ a handful of people, I travel and pay my bills, and I enjoy a special relationship with my fans. This business wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been lucky enough to be standing around while the indie-rock revolution washed over me. I live the life of a musician and artist now because Barsuk Records and a small handful of creative people believed there was an audience for weirdo pop music and set about to make that music available outside the conventional system. An indie-rock label really did save my life.