I wrote this in 1999 or 2000; I don’t remember where (or if) it was ever published. It’s a partial answer to the question I get from nearly every interviewer and quite a few people I meet in the course of everyday life as well, namely: why did I leave Lookout Records. I say partial because at the time I was still angry and bitter about the way things turned out, and at the way I felt I had mishandled them. But I was also way too ready to heap blame on other people for what had happened, and though I’ve edited this piece to damp down some of my harsher comments, it’s still fairly evident that I had an ax or two to grind.
One of these days I’ll get around to writing a more measured piece, but in the meantime, I’m posting this one because I think it does a reasonable job of presenting the basic facts and the way I was feeling about them at the time. Lookout Records was one of the most exciting and rewarding things I’d done with my life up to that point, so seeing it all slip away hit me pretty hard. Ah well, life goes on, even if great record labels don’t.
Over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of time to wonder where it all went wrong. How did running one of the best and most successful independent labels in the history of punk rock go from being such great fun to being an intolerable burden?
Until recently, I was convinced that the turning point came when Lookout moved out of the tiny room that doubled as my living space into a six-room suite of offices. But lately I’ve started thinking that the rot set in much sooner, possibly way back in 1990, when I uprooted the label from its original home in the mountains of Northern California and relocated it to downtown Berkeley.
Things were going pretty well in Laytonville. Granted, not having a telephone could be inconvenient, but it also meant that people couldn’t be calling me at all hours of the day and night with inane requests and insane demands. Having to subsist only on solar electricity meant that sometimes the lights wouldn’t be bright enough to work until three o’clock in the morning, but that can’t have been too bad for my physical or mental health. And having to travel ten miles to use a telephone or a couple hundred miles to go to punk rock shows was a nuisance, but it also forced me to think about how much I really needed to make that call or see that show.
I didn’t have any great desire or reason for taking Lookout to the big city; it’s just that I had decided to go back to college to finish the degree program I’d started many years earlier, and the label pretty much went wherever I did. And the first few years in Berkeley were pretty good ones, I’ll admit. Chris Appelgren, who was also from the North Coast, moved down to Berkeley shortly after I did, and on the first day of school I met a fellow student, Patrick Hynes, who was to end up being the third partner in Lookout.
It was lovely being only a ten-minute bike ride from Gilman, and after years in the country, I got a childlike joy out of the simplest things, like having a post office and a Kinko’s and stores and cafes all within a few minutes of my door. That was an exciting time to be in Berkeley, too; not only was Gilman still in its heyday, but bands and people from all over the country were making a beeline for the Bay Area, and it seemed like at least half of them showed up on my doorstep at one time or another.
From 1990 till early 1995, the three of us ran the label out of my room. It didn’t make for much privacy. Chris and Pat would often show up for work while I was still asleep in the middle of the floor, and until I found a silent answering machine, I was constantly being awakened in the middle of the night by people who either had no conception of time zones or were on speed or just thought it would be interesting to find out who answered the phone at Lookout Records.
By 1994, though, things had become intolerable. For one thing, we’d had to hire a fourth person, and there just wasn’t enough room for all of us to be there at the same time. And that was the year that Green Day started becoming massive. I thought it was hilarious that we could be running a multi-million dollar company out of what looked like (and essentially was) a falling-down hippie hovel. It was even funnier when agents and managers and other record industry types would have to traipse up our cracked concrete path and fling pennies at the upstairs window to get our attention (no, there was no doorbell, why do you ask?).
It wasn’t so funny when I tried to rent another room or apartment to sleep in and the landlord wouldn’t rent to me (“You tell me you’re running a multi-million dollar business out of that dump? I’m sorry, I just can’t believe you.”). Luckily I found a small room in the house next door and that took a bit of the pressure off for a while.
But changes were happening at Lookout and to the punk scene in general, and it seemed obvious that we couldn’t go on the way we were. I have to choose my words very carefully here, because I don’t want to sound like I’m fixing responsibility for what happened on anyone but myself. After all, I was the president and principal owner of Lookout. Nothing could happen without my say-so.
The trouble was, I was getting tired of being Mr. Big Shot Record Mogul. It was never something I’d planned on in the first place, but once we started selling millions of dollars worth of records, it was hard to avoid having that title hung on me. People were starting to expect me to behave in a “professional” manner, and that was something I had absolutely zero experience in.
Chris and Pat weren’t much help in that department either, being barely more than kids, and while I was twice their age, I sure didn’t act it. It was not that unusual for us to say, “I’m sick of working today, aren’t you?” and shut down the “office” in favor of playing music or going to the movies. To my mind, that was the perfect way of running a business, but too many other people, including some of the bands we worked with, didn’t see it that way.
They wanted someone to answer the phone when they called, they wanted to know that the records they needed were going to be there in time for their tour, they wanted to know why their pictures weren’t showing up in Rolling Stone the way Green Day’s was. My usual answer was, “Keep playing lots of shows and writing good songs and everything else will take care of itself.” Unfortunately, not everyone was satisfied with that answer.
We took a big step toward “professionalism” when we hired Molly Neuman, then Chris’s girlfriend, eventually his wife. For the first time Lookout had an employee who had actually worked in an office before, who knew something about how business worked and wasn’t just making it up as she went along.
She was a whiz at promoting the bands and the label, and within weeks was able to make connections and get us publicity that we had never been able to manage before. When she answered the phone, whoever was calling got the feeling that, “Wow, this is a real record company” instead of thinking that he had just reached a bunch of goofy kids playing with their “My First Record Label” game that they’d gotten for Christmas.
Being a new employee, Molly was not too vocal about it, but it soon became clear that she thought we should be in a “real” office instead of an overcrowded bedroom. By this time, a number of artists, especially Ben Weasel, were saying the same thing. The last straw came when Mordam Records called me to say that we could no longer use the space in their warehouse where we’d been doing our mail order (it had outgrown my room a couple years earlier) because their business had grown so fast that they needed every square inch for themselves.
Since mail order was an absolutely essential part of our business, we had to find somewhere new, and I reluctantly started accompanying Molly on a search of downtown Berkeley. The one thing I insisted on was that it be in the center of town and easily accessible to public transit (and within walking distance of where I lived). After looking at a number of absolutely hideous buildings, we found one that wasn’t too bad. Built in 1905, it had a plaque commemorating it as “Berkeley’s first apartment building,” and it looked and felt more like someone’s home than a place of business.
I got a very nice room with a big bay window to be my own personal office. It was bigger than the room I lived in, and more than once I ended up sleeping there on the sofa. It felt awfully weird, though, sitting behind an enormous desk in a great big easy chair and having a secretary screen my calls for me. Many days I felt like just shutting myself in the office and pretending that there wasn’t a thriving record company operating just outside its doors.
For years I had grown used to just leaning over my shoulder and sharing a question or an opinion with Pat or Chris, who in any event were never more than a few feet away. Now people were getting in the habit of communicating by phone or by e-mail. Sometimes I’d go all day without seeing people who were working in some of the other rooms.
And the number of people kept multiplying to fill the space available. I can’t even remember who came when, but pretty soon there were more people working at Lookout than there were offices to put them in, and that was even before we opened up the Lookout Recordshop on the first floor. Up until then I’d always had a direct say anytime we’d hired someone, but now I was beginning to let other people make those decisions.
Looking back, I don’t necessarily think that was a good thing. While I wanted people to feel as though they were more than just “employees,” and that Lookout was as much their company as it was mine, there’s no escaping the fact that as head of the company, I was increasingly having to live with the decisions that other people made. If someone else hired an employee or signed a band, I had to be fully supportive of that decision, and that’s not always possible to do. In the past, if I signed a band, I had no one to blame but myself if they turned out to be jerks, or if they made a lousy record (fortunately, neither scenario happened very often). Now I was often finding myself at the mercy of other people’s judgment.
But as I said before, I can’t fix responsibility on anyone but myself. At any point I could have spoken up and said, “No, we’re not hiring that person/signing that band.” Instead, I was retreating into my own world, wondering how I’d gotten myself into this situation and wondering how or if I’d ever be able to get out of it.
Two main things were on my mind. The first was the realization that my principal interest was in starting new projects and uncovering new talent, not the day-to-day running of a business. The second was that while I had originally started the label as an outlet for my own music and writing (and that of a few select friends), I was now devoting nearly every waking moment of my life to promoting the music and writing of other people and leaving no time at all for my own.
That combined with the disastrous end of a personal relationship a year or so earlier sent me reeling into a state of depression as serious as I’d ever known. People kept congratulating me, telling me how successful I was, and I’d look at them as though they were crazy. By the end of 1995, Green Day’s two albums had gone gold, Lookout had a million dollars in the bank, and I would rather have been just about anywhere in the world than sitting behind that desk running that oh-so-successful record label.
I remembered the words of David Hayes when he’d decided to leave the label back in 1989: “There’s too much golden light shining around this whole thing.” I hadn’t known what he’d meant then, and I’m not sure I do today, but obviously he had been able to see what was coming and had decided not to be a part of it.
It was around that time, probably while we were figuring out the taxes for 1995, that I realized I could afford to leave Lookout and perhaps never have to work again, or at least not for a long time. It was a crazy feeling; I’d been poor most of my life, and it was difficult to even imagine being that financially secure. I remember sitting at my desk on Christmas Day – my life had gotten to a point where I really had nowhere else to go – and thinking, “I could walk out of here tomorrow and never come back again.”
There was one not-so-small problem, though. Over the years, Chris and Pat had earned, in addition to their salary, a half interest in the company (technically, they owned 49% and I owned 51%). If I were simply to take my share and leave, there wouldn’t be enough money left for them to operate Lookout, since much of the company’s assets were in the form of records and CDs that couldn’t necessarily be turned into instant cash.
What’s more, although Chris and Pat and Molly and the other new employees had come a long way toward knowing how to run the label themselves, I still had doubts about whether it was in solid enough shape to hand over to them. I told myself, “Okay, I’ll leave, but not until I’m sure everything is organized as best as it possibly can be.”
I thought at the time that I was being noble and magnanimous, but I was really making a deal with the devil, the devil of my own ego, the devil that said, “You’re so clever and indispensable that they could never manage without you.”
It was true that there was a seemingly endless amount of work that needed to be caught up with. Lookout had grown so fast and so big that many of the essentials had been overlooked or neglected. Some of the bands didn’t even have a basic contract, our accounting system was a chaotic mess, and in almost every area we were constantly playing catch-up.
But while I flattered myself with the idea that I was sorting things out, too often I was just treading water, trying to stay on top of what was beginning to seem like a giant, out-of-control beast that kept growing and growing in ways that I could no longer predict or handle. It felt like the old saying, “He who rides the tiger dares not dismount.”
Looking back on it now, it’s easy to tell myself, “You shouldn’t have wussed out, you should have taken charge and kept Lookout the way you wanted it to be,” but I’m not too sure that would have been possible. By 1995 there were too many people working for the label and too many bands recording for the label that had different ideas about how Lookout should operate. Short of firing people (something I’d only had to do once and never wanted to do again) and dropping bands (also something I’d only done once, and didn’t want to do again), it’s hard to see how I could have ever gotten back to the old way of doing things.
Anyway, by 1995 much of the East Bay scene was caught up in the pop-punk equivalent of the gold rush. People who weren’t already in bands were starting them as fast as they could, but all too often the new bands sounds uncannily like the old ones. While the East Bay had put itself on the map by creating a fresh, original sound (or at least a new take on an old sound), now bands were listening to Operation Ivy, Green Day or other old school Gilman bands and doing their best to sound just like those bands, only more so.
It’s not that they were bad bands to imitate, not by a long shot, but what had excited me about Operation Ivy and Green Day in the first place was that they didn’t really sound like anyone else. Yeah, okay, there were echoes of the Clash and the Specials and the Beatles, but when you dropped the needle on an Operation Ivy record, you weren’t going to confuse them with any other band in the world. Ditto for Green Day, ditto for most of our bands, whether you were talking about the big stars like Screeching Weasel and the Queers, or the cult favorites like Nuisance and Brent’s TV.
For the first time, I was no longer getting excited about listening to demos or going to see new bands. Dozens of tapes lay in a pile in the corner, some from bands who would go on to be hugely successful on other labels, but whose real dream had been to record for Lookout. In the case of Avail, one of my favorite bands of the later Lookout years, I would never have signed them or even heard them if they hadn’t made a point of coming to the office and personally inviting me to their gig. Even then, I only ended up seeing them because they were playing with Rancid.
I was also spending more and more time away from Berkeley. Now that there were people at the office who could handle most of the day-to-day chores, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel as much as possible. I would go out to different parts of the country to either meet with bands or to go out on the road with them. That was a nice change from the daily slog back in Berkeley, but my favorite times of all often came in between meetings and tours, when I’d get a week or two to go off on my own and just explore the country.
On one trip, I traveled through Florida and several other southern states with Avail, then headed north to meet with Squirtgun in Indiana and Screeching Weasel and the Vindictives in Chicago. In between, I cruised through about 17 other states, just checking things out and taking time to think. Another time, I drove up through Michigan all the way to the east coast of Canada, then down into New England to see the Queers. It was great fun, but not necessarily the best way to run a label.
I also was spending a couple months a year in England. I had family ties there, and it felt like a second home, minus most of the stresses and conflicts that I had come to associate with Berkeley. The more time I spent there, the harder it was to come back to Berkeley. If you asked me then, I would have told you it was because London was cool and Berkeley was not, but I have to admit now that it had to more with London being a safe harbor, a place where I could get away, at least temporarily, from all the pressure.
I wasn’t much fun to be around in those days. As long as I was focused on music and business, I could cope, but when I was just hanging out with friends, the main thing I did was complain. Pretty soon people were regularly asking me, “Well, if you hate it so much, why don’t you do something about it?” Meaning, of course, “Either quit the god damned label or quit your god damned griping.”
Things dragged on like that for nearly two years. The pop-punk explosion died down a little, but Lookout was still selling ridiculous numbers of records. But for the first time ever, we weren’t making much of a profit. We were spending money almost as fast as it came in, on things that Lookout had never done before, like videos, public relations agents, ads in major magazines, etc. In 1996 we sold more records than we had in 1994, but whereas in 1994 we had made a large profit, in 1996 we only did a bit better than breaking even.
To me this was a very bad sign. Not because I judged Lookout in terms of how much money it made – when I started the label I thought I’d be lucky to make any money at all – but because it was different from the way we’d always operated in the past. One thing that set Lookout apart from major labels (and even a lot of indie labels) was that I tried to break even on every release.
That may sound like simple common sense, but it’s not the way most labels, especially major ones, operate. They fully expect to lose huge amounts of money on most of the records they put out, and make it all back on the handful of records that become mega-hits. If you ever wondered why CDs that cost less than a dollar to manufacture end up in stores for 15 to 20 bucks, that’s why: most of that extra money is going to pay for the videos and ads and promo tours and posters and hype for all those bands that put out one record that bombs miserably and then are never heard of again.
For most of its history, Lookout couldn’t have operated that way even if it wanted to. We simply didn’t have the money. The label started with $4,000, pretty much all of which went to record and press four 7″ EPs by Corrupted Morals, Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine, and Isocracy. Luckily, all four records sold enough to make back the initial investment, or we would have been out of business within six months.
But it would be years before we had any extra money to throw around, and besides, I’d already seen too many other indie labels go broke by trying to copy the major label approach, going into debt to pay for massive amounts of promo and hype and never making the money back. So I approached things from a different angle: whenever I decided to put out a new record, I’d make an educated guess about how many copies it was likely to sell, and add up how much money that would bring in.
That’s how I’d develop a recording and advertising budget: if I thought a record was only likely to sell 3,000 copies, there was no way I was going to spend extra money on it in hopes that it just might sell 5,000 instead. It was a very conservative way to run a record label, but it worked like a charm. Out of the first 50 releases, only a handful ever lost money, and even then it was rarely more than a couple hundred bucks.
So when certain records, like Operation Ivy or Green Day or Screeching Weasel, ended up selling ten or a hundred times more than I had expected, it was not only a nice surprise, but meant that both the label and the bands made a very good profit. Unfortunately, the larger the profits got, the more pressure there was from the bands to spend that money on ever more expensive recording budgets and ever more hype.
I started getting the uncomfortable feeling from some bands that they wanted the benefits – fame and fortune – of being on a major label but wanted to retain the credibility of being on an indie label. To a certain extent, I felt I had to compromise, because part of my philosophy from the beginning had been to let Lookout grow with the bands in a way that no band ever needed to feel it had to leave Lookout to advance its career. But I wanted it to grow in an organic, grass-roots way, not just to throw our old traditions out the window and become a junior version of a generic major label.
Making things even harder was that other indie labels, especially Epitaph and later Fat, were very successfully going that route. It’s not that I had any real problem with either label; both were honestly run and did a very good job for their bands. But both were far more commercially driven than I had ever wanted Lookout to be.
Soon hardly a week went by when some member of a Lookout band wasn’t buttonholing me and saying, “My friend is in such and such band on Epitaph (or Fat) and they’re not even half as good as our band, but they’re selling twice as many records as us. How come?”
There were a lot of reasons, I’d try to explain. Distribution, for one; Epitaph and Fat dealt with companies that our distributor, Mordam, wouldn’t touch. Also, the Epitaph and Fat approach, at least in the early years, was to concentrate on a very specific genre of punk rock, whereas Lookout had traditionally been all over the map. But what the bands always came back to was that those labels spent far more on production and promotion.
I tried arguing that Operation Ivy and Green Day had become massive despite dirt-cheap production budgets (the first Green Day album cost a whopping total of $675 and eventually sold nearly a million copies) and essentially nothing spent on promotion, but bands would say, “That was back in the old days, things are different now.” Once upon a time they would have shrugged their shoulders if a record didn’t sell well and said, “Oh well, it’s punk rock, what do you expect?” Now they’d be more likely to say, “It’s Lookout’s fault for not promoting us.”
I don’t want to give the impression that all bands were like that. In fact, the majority of bands carried on just as they always had, thrilled that they were getting a chance to make music and have it heard by the world. But a few very aggressive bands took up more and more time and energy and money, and it became increasingly difficult to say no to them.
“How difficult could it be?” people sometimes would ask me. “Why don’t you just tell them to go fuck themselves and find another label if they don’t like the way Lookout operates?”
There were a few reasons. One was that I was starting to be in the minority. Other people at Lookout were convinced that the bands were right, that we needed to spend more money in order to make more money. Another was that many of the musicians were long-time friends who I felt a sense of obligation to. And lastly, who was to say that my opinion was always right? Perhaps the bands and the other Lookout staffers had a point.
Somewhat reluctantly, I gave the go-ahead for greatly increased budgets on many of the releases, but my heart wasn’t in it. As a result, I turned over much of the responsibility to other people who often didn’t have the experience or the cost-cutting instincts I had. Not surprisingly, budgets frequently burgeoned out of control. Bands were starting to demand cash advances (something Lookout had never done before), they were asking Lookout to buy them tour vans and new equipment, and if I ever demurred, I’d hear something along the lines of, “How can you be so stingy? Lookout’s making millions of dollars. Besides, so-and-so’s band got a new van, why can’t we?”
I got really tired of explaining that the reason Lookout was making so much money was that I had always been very strict about costs, one of the few fundamental principles I’d known about business when I’d started the label. Eventually, too often, I’d give in and say, “Yeah, yeah, all right, go shoot your $40,000 video, just leave me alone.”
Things finally came to a head over Screeching Weasel. For my last couple of years at Lookout, that band took up more of my time and energy than all of the other bands combined, and when I say “that band,” I really mean its leader and spokesperson, Ben Weasel.
I’d met Ben when his band first toured the West Coast in 1988. We became fast friends and remained so for years. I spent many enjoyable and productive hours on the phone with him, enjoyable because of the acerbic insults and insights we always seemed to be trading back and forth, and productive because of the way we were able to resurrect Screeching Weasel, which had broken up at the end of the 80s, and turn it into one of Lookout’s most successful bands.
Ben was a songwriting genius, and equally adept at performing, but something went terribly awry once My Brain Hurts and Boogada Boogada Boogada (the former being Screeching Weasel’s third album and first release on Lookout, the latter Lookout’s re-release of the band’s second album) became popular on a scale we’d never imagined. Ben had hoped My Brain Hurts would sell 3,000 copies, I was imagining maybe 5,000 if we were lucky; the last I heard it was in the neighborhood of 75 to 100 thousand.
Unfortunately, success didn’t do Ben many favors. While for the first couple years he was over the moon about selling enough records to support himself and being free to devote all his energy to music, for some reason he became less rather than more happy as Screeching Weasel got bigger and bigger. What used to be conversations with Ben started to be more like therapy sessions; where we’d once exchanged ideas and strategies, my job more and more was just to listen to him and try to stop him from shooting himself and the band in the foot, if not the head.
I spent a full year trying to persuade him not to fire Dan Panic, one of the best drummers in punk rock, and another year trying to stop him from doing the same to Dan Vapid, who’d provided the guitar lines and backup melodies that made a Screeching Weasel song instantly recognizable. Ben’s reasons for wanting to fire those guys aren’t important here, especially since they basically made no sense, but they were typical of how his increasingly obsessive attempts to micro-manage every aspect of the band came to threaten the band’s continued success, or possibly even its existence.
When it came to music, I had no quarrel with Ben, because he knew what he was doing and could do it better than just about anybody. But when he ventured into the production end of things, he started creating an expensive mishmash. Wiggle, the follow-up to My Brain Hurts, cost two or three times as much and was barely half as good, at least in part because of Ben’s attempts to mix it by proxy. Unwilling to spend the time in the recording studio, he’d listen to tapes and then call up engineer Mass Giorgini and try to explain over the phone how the tape should be re-mixed once again.
Eventually Ben would become a pretty decent producer, thanks to a lot of on-the-job training, but where we really ran into problems was when he decided he knew how to run a record company. By 1994 or so, Ben had become convinced that it was only my incompetence, laziness, and stinginess that was standing in the way of Screeching Weasel being far bigger than they already were. To put things in context, the band had made more than $100,000 from record sales that year, and would more than double that the following year, so I was inclined to think things weren’t going all that badly.
But saying so only made things worse, and what had been a great friendship deteriorated into outright hostility. For the first time, I began avoiding Ben’s phone calls if I could, because it seemed all we ever did was argue. Increasingly, he’d end up talking to Chris instead, making the case that his band needed far more money if they were to stay with Lookout.
During this time we had released Anthem For A New Tomorrow, How To Make Enemies and Irritate People, and an anthology called Kill the Musicians, all of which were very successful. But when it came time to make the next record, the one which would eventually become Bark Like A Dog, negotiations started out badly and soon zoomed off into some surrealistic stratosphere.
Ben asked for a cash advance and recording budget so large that Lookout would have had to sell 75,000 copies before it made a penny. When I explained this, he retorted that it was my own fault for not running the label in an intelligent, “professional” way. It felt to me as though he was almost deliberately trying to sabotage Lookout, though I hesitate to read too much into another person’s motivations, particularly a person as complex and opaque as Ben Weasel.
Still, there was no way I could agree to hand over that much cash to keep Screeching Weasel on Lookout. It flew in the face of everything the label had ever stood for, and in any event, if I acceded to Ben’s demands, how could I refuse similar advances to other bands? With that, Screeching Weasel were off to Fat Wreck Chords, and though it was a considerable blow to Lookout to lose such a great band, I think most of us at Lookout were quietly relieved to have Ben out of our hair.
Bark Like A Dog came out on Fat and did extremely well, better, I think, than any previous Screeching Weasel release, but Ben was still not happy. Suddenly enormous faxes were arriving at the Lookout office claiming that I had been systematically defrauding his band and demanding that we greatly increase the amount of money they were being paid for the old records. If we didn’t do that, and what’s more, if we didn’t release them from their old contracts, essentially allowing them to take the old records away from us any time they wanted, Weasels, Inc. (the band’s new holding company, formed by Ben and long-time guitarist John “Jughead” Pierson), they were going to consider us in breach of contract and take the records away anyway.
I know now that I should have kept a more level head about it, but I was outraged. I knew damn well that Lookout was an honestly run label and that it had treated all its bands, Screeching Weasel included, with extreme fairness. Major label reps, who I was coming into contact with from time to time now that Green Day was so massive, were always saying, “How can you possibly afford to pay your bands so much?” To me it felt as though Ben was deliberately accusing of us of things that he knew weren’t true as an excuse for breaking his contract with us.
Now that my temper has had a few years to cool, I’m more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, to assume that he genuinely believed that he was being taken advantage of, no matter how mistaken that belief might be. I’m also inclined to think that I could have handled things better, that I let my temper get the better of me.
In any event, I took Ben’s threat to yank the Screeching Weasel catalog away from Lookout very seriously. Not only was Screeching Weasel a major part of Lookout – they accounted for about one quarter of all our record sales – but it would have also set a very bad precedent to let a band unilaterally walk away from its obligations to the label.
For example, when Green Day signed to Reprise and went mega-platinum with Dookie, there was a lot of pressure on them to take the old records away from Lookout and re-issue them on Reprise. That was what indie bands usually did when they jumped to the majors.
Yet Green Day stayed loyal to Lookout, and it wasn’t because they had a contract. When you’ve got the power and money of Warner/Reprise behind you, homemade indie label contracts don’t mean much. The decision to leave the records with Lookout probably cost Green Day in the neighborhood of a couple million bucks, but it also allowed Lookout to survive and prosper and give the same chance to dozens of new bands that Green Day had gotten back in 1989.
But how would Green Day have felt if, after making the sacrifice they did, Lookout let Screeching Weasel take its records away? Ditto for Operation Ivy, who could have taken their record to Epitaph and made a lot more money, and ditto for half a dozen other bands who in the feeding frenzy of 1995-96 were attracting major label interest. One of the vital tenets of Lookout was that all bands, no matter how big or how small, got the same treatment, and anything I let Screeching Weasel do, I had to, in good conscience, allow to the other bands as well.
So I essentially told Ben to go fuck himself, and probably in words not much more polite than that. A lot of back and forth ensued, but the upshot of it was that I decided to ask a court to decide whether Ben’s claims against Lookout were valid. If the court ruled in his favor, Screeching Weasel would get all their records back; if it ruled for us, we kept the records and Screeching Weasel would have to pay the legal costs.
That was it. Not a “lawsuit” in the usual sense of the word, simply asking a neutral third party to decide who was right. It seemed to me that Ben was likely to file some sort of suit against Lookout anyway in an effort to break the contract, so I felt it necessary to make a preemptive strike. Ben of course went ballistic, and was all over the punk rock media denouncing me and Lookout as corporate bastards and bullies. It was not a pleasant time, but I felt confident that I was in the right, that the contract was valid, that I had always treated Screeching Weasel fairly, and that anyone looking at the issue objectively would agree.
What I didn’t count on was dissension in the Lookout ranks. Decisions had always been made in consultation with the three owners of the company. Up until then we had never disagreed on any major issue. But now Chris acknowledged that he was very unhappy about the whole affair and that if it were up to him, he’d let Screeching Weasel have their records back rather than fight them in court.
I tried arguing with him, and so did Patrick, who pretty much shared my view, but the more we talked, the more obvious it became that Chris was not prepared to go along with us. Eventually he said that he didn’t think he could remain with the company if we pursued the court case.
This was serious business, because Patrick, like me, had already decided he didn’t want to make a lifetime career out of Lookout. He wasn’t planning to leave as soon as I was, but if Chris left, it meant that both Patrick and I would be stuck with full responsibility for running the company and that it might be many years before we could extricate ourselves.
So even though Patrick and I could have outvoted Chris (or even I myself could have, since I owned 51% of the company), it was becoming clear that the price of doing so would be Chris’s leaving. We argued late into the evening, and it was already well past dark when everybody else went home, agreeing only that we’d take up the discussion again in the morning.
I don’t know how late I sat there in my office. It was probably well past midnight. Most of the lights were out, and all around me were shadowy remnants and souvenirs of the last ten years. I was so upset over what was going on that I left my mind drift off, thinking over the times when it was all fun and games and nobody took the whole thing very seriously, when we were just a bunch of goofy kids running a semi-pretend record label.
Suddenly the phone rang. It was, of all people, Ben Weasel. It was obvious that he wasn’t expecting to find anyone in the office, that he had been planning to leave a message of some kind on the voicemail. He stuttered and sputtered a couple sentences of abuse toward me and then hung up before I could respond. Welcome back to the present.
I sat there for another hour trying to figure a way out of this mess but got nowhere. Finally I went home to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Somewhere around four in the morning I sat up, realizing what had to be done. I went over to my desk, switched on the computer, and started writing a letter of resignation.
I explained that I could no longer carry on in my position, that since Chris had a longer-term commitment to Lookout, he should be the new head of the company, and thanked all the different employees for their effort and support over the years. I went into the office early that morning, before anyone else had gotten there, and e-mailed it to everyone. I was in a state of shock, as if I’d just had a limb amputated, but I also felt a great sense of relief.
There were a couple more weeks of meetings, of sorting out the company’s financial affairs, of cleaning out my desk and office (that had to be the saddest part), and somewhere in early April of 1997, I walked out of the Lookout office a free man. A day later I was on a plane to London, still reeling from the shock of it all, but full of excitement and expectations for the future.
I had decided to live in London for a while, partly because I loved the place so much, but also as a way of disconnecting myself from the people and politics of the punk rock record business. That disconnection proved to be a lot harder than I had anticipated. So much of my identity had become bound up with being “Larry Livermore, the record label dude” that I felt kind of lost, felt as though I no longer belonged anywhere.
Even now, more than three years later, there’s still a sense of loss. Many of the things I packed up that last day in my office sit unopened in my room, and every time I start to sort through them, I get lost in memories and end up shoving them back in the closet or under the desk, promising myself I’ll return to them another time. I still take it personally when I hear people criticize Lookout or its bands, and I still find myself wanting to butt in and offer advice when I think it’s merited, though fortunately I’ve mostly been able to restrain myself from doing so.
People often ask me, “Why don’t you start a new record label?” or “Don’t you miss all the excitement?” and my answer to both questions is usually “I’d have to be crazy to even think about it.” Then again, if I weren’t crazy, I never would have had the temerity to start Lookout in the first place. I always remember my dad’s remark back in 1988 when I first told him about the label: “Well, that sure sounds like a stupid idea.” And I guess in a way it was, even though it paid off in fame and fortune and fun and all sorts of other things that I still haven’t found a name for.
But if I had it to do over again, would I? Even if I’d been able to foresee how things would end up? Hell, yes. All the years and all the stress would have been worth it even if we’d never put out anything besides one Brent’s TV 7″. While I doubt it sold much more than a thousand copies, it captured a precious moment in time when some kids got together and sang a few priceless songs that, if it weren’t for Lookout, might never have been heard outside of a couple laundromats and street corners in a sleepy Northern California town, but now, deservedly, will live forever. I’m happy enough just with that. All the rest was gravy.