Dylan Magierek wanted out of the independent record business. By 2004, he was five years into running his label, Badman Recording Co., in San Francisco. He'd had some successes—a few records from Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek, an EP from the newly buzzing My Morning Jacket—but the pressure of managing the expectations of young bands was getting to him. So he gave real estate a try.
"I tried that for a year, and that wasn't my atmosphere at all," Magierek says. "Just dealing with people who work in that industry—oh my God, they're like robots or something. The most insincere people I've ever met."
A year later, Magierek moved to Portland and continued Badman's lucky streak, putting out breakthrough albums by STRFKR, Lovers and the Builders and the Butchers. Now, the label he started in his Haight-Ashbury apartment is celebrating its 15th anniversary with the 2½-hour retrospective compilation Make Some Quiet. WW spoke to Magierek about cutting his teeth sneaking kids into Weezer shows, adjusting to changes in the music industry and how running a label is actually a bit like real estate.
Willamette Week: Did you have any idea that you could make it this long as a label?
Dylan Magierek: I never knew what this would do at all. The first couple releases were just friends bands, but it really got my feet wet, because I'd been doing this kind of stuff for Universal Distribution, doing retail promotion and stuff with bands so I could get stuff on listening stations and seeing that it would sell. I started thinking I could do it for some friends' bands I recorded, but it wasn't until doing the Shanti Project Collection, which was Red House Painters, Hayden, Low, Idaho, a couple songs from each band. Once that came out, it sold 10,000 copies or so, and then it made me think, "Oh wow, this could really work." Or, let's see how long it'll go. And then I kept getting all these great bands. That first STRFKR release from 2008 sells as much now as it did in 2008. I just kept getting surprised, is what I'm getting at.
Tell me about why you gravitated toward starting a label.
I was working at Tower Records, and that's a great education, working at a record store. I didn't know anything about distribution, the difference between record labels, who promoted the records to radio or retail. I got really fascinated by it, just from reps coming in. So I applied for a job and barely got it, for 18 grand a year, back in '92 or so. I had all of Northern California, then Oregon and Washington, all the retailers. I'd go in with posters and promo CDs and try to get albums on listening stations and the in-store play pile, get them to order records if they didn't have them already, and hang up posters. I loved it. I had in-stores with Weezer for their first tour. People were writing on their posters in the venues "pseudo Pavement." That's what they were calling them back then. I tore them down afterward so they wouldn't see them. Their next time through, I helped them sneak some underage people over the fence at the venue they were playing. It was great to be involved with bands like that.
How exactly did Badman start?
Well, I got laid off. I had saved some money and stuff, so I put money and credit cards into the label. That Shanti Project record came out and was doing well, and that was at the end of me working at Universal. It had Mark Kozelek on it, Hayden and Low. Hayden, I approached him because I offered promotion on a couple of his Geffen releases, and Mark Kozelek from that. I went after both of them for records. I recorded two of his solo records and got this John Denver tribute put together, with Low and Bonnie Prince Billy. That comp started these relationships. I got four records out of Hayden over the years, two out of Kozelek, and each of those sold 10,000, 20,000. Those two artists alone really launched the label.
What lessons did you take from Universal that you applied to Badman?
It really taught me about promoting records at music retail, because that's mostly what I did. So I really learned back then the importance of getting music to people in an atmosphere where they're finding music. That's not very important anymore. Most of the time back then, if you got something at a listening station, most of the time I'd just ask them, "Can you put this at a listening station?" Sure, we'll have to bring in 10 copies to support the listening stations. Great. You do that in enough stores, you've sold 10 boxes of CDs, and then in a month, most CDs would sell. Back then, people would buy almost anything they were hearing.
As the industry has changed, how hard is it adjust?
That part of it is this constant brain battle. OK, what works for the last record? What worked for this one band? These days, I'm realizing how little a publicist's impact is anymore. We used to get so much press on each band when we had a publicist onboard that loved the record. And now I feel like we can have that and still hardly any press. So it's constantly trying to come up with new ways to promote bands. The one thing that's really working, that bands can control the most, is touring. I'm still seeing that touring makes the most difference overall. Because that can stimulate all this word of mouth. That street buzz, like we got for STRFKR, is hard to come by, but when you get it, it takes off on its own, and then you just try to keep supporting it. Make the band stay on the road, make sure press knows what the thing is that's happening. And it's hard to get that.
How do you feel about something like Spotify? Services like that are basically the modern day listening station, but they're increasingly loathed by artists.
I have a different feeling on some of that stuff maybe than other people do. The tracks we give away are usually our best sellers as well. When we do a free download with Pitchfork or whatever, those tracks tend to be the best sellers at iTunes or whatever. The same ones that are out there for free become best sellers. This might not always be true, but we're making money off Spotify. As a label, there are decent checks that come every month from Spotify. That's putting income into our bands' pockets, and hopefully it's another way for people to discover bands. Because I'm not sure the traditional ways that were working even three years ago are working anymore. Maybe Spotify is a new way to discover stuff. If it's not paying much per play, hopefully it's adding up.
How did the label change when you moved to Portland from San Francisco?
When I was in the Bay Area, I did put out a number of Bay Area bands, but I also had bands throughout the world. Once I got here, I really focused on Portland bands. One of the early bands was Weinland. I recorded them, and I'm cofounder of Type Foundry Studio, so I was able to work there, work with local bands, and I was just like, "Let me focus on all this great music here." The Bay Area, I found the music just wasn't as strong overall. There, I felt there were bands acting like they're great. Some artists feel like if they put on a persona that they're great, people will think they're great. Here, people don't do that. You get the opposite. There's a talent pool here that's so high.
Now that there is more of a spotlight on the city's music scene, how has that changed how the label has operated?
I know I haven't been signing as many bands from here lately. Part of that may be I'm not going out as much to see bands. There are a few bands I've been interested in, like Lost Lander. I ended up doing some sync placement stuff for them. But I feel like I need to get more in touch with what's happening here again. There's a lot going on. I really liked that first Radiation City record. I was interested in working with them, but that moved so quickly. They sent me the record, I liked it, but they were already working with Tender Loving Empire.
So is there more competition?
There are a lot more labels now that are as big or successful as we are, where maybe there weren't when we came here. Maybe the choices aren't as easy.
What's the worst album Badman put out?
A few of the early records we put out aren't ones I'm super proud of, because they weren't as professional and great and national. They were more friends' bands. So there was a couple there. But there was this one band I just couldn't work with anymore. I won't name them. They're not around any more. This was back in San Francisco. It was one of those things where they were so on my ass. And it just sucked. They sent me their next record and I was like, "I don't think we can work together." We just weren't the right fit, personality wise. I feel I can kick ass for a band. Give me a good band, a band I'm interested in, and I can make good things happen for you. You've gotta work, you've gotta get out there and tour your ass off, but if I believe in you, you're in a good spot. You don't have to ride my ass. How's radio doing? What's up with record stores? I'm on that shit.
So do you always try to work with a band you're 100 percent behind?
Sometimes you don't know if you're 100 percent. There are a few instances where I've felt totally dedicated—STRFKR, My Morning Jacket, Mark Kozelek, Hayden, the Innocence Mission, Lovers—where I just knew, I love this stuff, I want to be part of it, it's going to work out. Even if we don't make money on it, I love it enough to get behind, and I totally believe in it. And there are other bands where you get into the negotiation stage with their lawyers and you start saying to yourself, I don't know, man, I don't know how this is going to sell, I don't know how it's going to go over—maybe I should get out. It's the same feeling people have when they're buying a house. All the paperwork starts coming in and the inspections, and you're start going, "Oh my gosh, this $300,000, $400,000, what am I doing? I'll go back to renting. But you just roll with it, and you end up saying, "I'm glad I have this house. This worked out."
Managing expectations in the big thing. I've signed a number of bands where they felt like once they're signed to a label, because we've had previous success with these artists they liked, that they were going to make it. They're going to break. And when they don't get the Pitchfork review, or this big tour doesn't happen, they're bummed. And they're bummed at me. It made me slow down on signing bands for a while, that and the economy of the music business, has made me slow down, and take less risks on bands. I just don't want to disappoint people. So I try to do an "expectations speech" before signing.
What does it mean to be a label these days?
I think there was a time, and not as much now, with the way outlets like iTunes will often not list the label—if there's no digital booklet you don't know who engineered the record anymore. People don't care as much about that stuff anymore, unfortunately. Hopefully that'll come back, where they'll be label insignias on more things in the digital realm. I think it doesn't mean quite as much to newer bands, maybe, but I do think it helps having a known label behind an artist. It helps with press and radio, especially. Some of these people have been around for a while and they know if it's on Merge, they're going to listen to it before listening to something on Jose's Recording Company or whatever. Case in point: the Portland Cello Project put out a record a few years back and they just did it on their own label, and Doug Jenkins from the band immediately felt like because it's on their own label, people weren't as prone to even listen to it.
How much longer can you keep doing this?
There was a time when I was trying to get out. Back in 2004, that whole managing expectations thing with bands, some artists would be disappointed with what happened with the record and thinking it was my fault, at least subtly they felt that way, if you can't blame the publicist, they blamed the label. Couldn't be they didn't tour enough or that the record was good but didn't strike a lot people. So I tried to get into real estate. I like houses and investments. I tried that for a year, and that wasn't my atmosphere at all, just dealing with people who work in that industry. Oh my god, they're like robots or something. The most insincere people I've ever met. That was in Oakland. These days, luckily our catalog is at a point, at least currently, where it sells enough each month and gets enough sync placements that we can live. I'm sure sales will come down for some of these artists as the records get older, we're going to need more signings, but hopefully we can get a couple more STRFKRs. One every couple years would keep things going, then we can take chances on bands that aren't as popular.
HEAR IT: Make Some Quiet: 15 Years of Badman is out Tuesday, Dec. 10.