By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Today, anyone with a laptop, a blog and a Paypal account can start an indie label. This year, Touch and Go Records celebrates its 25th year, a considerable feat considering that, back in the day, the underground punk scene existed on the margins without the Internet to help spread the news, just sweat and passion.
Next to Dischord in Washington, D.C., Tough and Go is the longest-running independent rock label in the U.S., with a roster that serves as a historic slate of adventuresome rock: Shellac, Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, Slint, Mekons, Girls Agains Boys, Killdozer and, most recently, Calexico, Ted Leo and TV on the Radio.
The label throws a three-day street party outside the Hideout starting tonight (see related story).
Label founder Corey Rusk started the label in Toledo, Ohio, and then moved it to Detroit before making Chicago its home in 1986. (The label now operates out of a warehouse in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood and has 24 full-time employees.) Rusk, 42, is one of the more notoriously reclusive figures in indie rock, preferring to work behind the scenes. A few weeks ago we got into a lengthy conversation about the anniversary. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q. You moved Touch and Go to Chicago from Detroit in 1986 – did you ever think this is the job you’d be doing for 25 years?
A. Definitely not. At the time we were doing the label for five years. It seemed preposterous that there would be enough people in the world who would want to buy music that I liked, or that Touch and God would still be operating three years from now, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t. Not necessarily because we were having problems at that time, but just because it seemed unreal that enough people would be interested in music that I wanted to put out.
Q. Touch and Go started as a hardcore label, much different from the variety on the roster today.
A. Back then it was before the “hardcore” term even existed. It wasn’t until late 1981 or 1982 that the term started coming to describe that style of music. Back then hardcore or punk was exciting and fresh and had no chance of being commoditized.
Q. Unlike now when bands like Fallout Boy are called punk.
A. Absolutely, the punk music was watered down and sold to the masses without a doubt. At the same time … there are a greater number of people genuinely interested in music outside the mainstream than there were in 1981. There was a smaller group of people with adventuresome music listening habits in 1981 than today.
Q. Your catalog is available on iTunes. Has the internet helped indies more than hurt them, as opposed to the majors who say that it’s ruining their business?
A. All the music, be it the file sharing or be it people actually being able to buy music on the Internet, means they are able to hear a broader range of music … I do know it allows more people to experiment hearing music on our label and hopefully that means there are people out there that end up paying for music.
Q. You’re also the rare label that keeps every title in your catalog in print.
A. The vast majority of it. We’ve always worked hard to try to keep everything in print that even vaguely is financially practical to do. I think a lot of labels think that once a title is below a certain sales point that it should be deleted out of the catalog. I feel like the records we put out, while personally important to me, I think they’re culturally important. Even if that means only a few people every year are interested in buying and hearing them, I do want them to be available.
Q. Is your reputation for being so artist friendly because you were once in a band?
A. I suppose partly because I was a musician and I was in a band I can relate to what’s important rather than someone who starts a label because it’s a business. Partly I always tried to work with bands I could be friends with. And work with them as people as well as musicians. I realized that the art that they created was important to them, and the art they’re creating is important to me as well.
Q. What’s your reason for sticking to just handshake deals with your artists?
A. Ninety-nine percent of our records are handshake agreement … Verbal agreements with 50/50 profit splits with (the artists). That’s what’s worked for us for 25 years. I guess from the start it’s because I was a 16-year-old kid and everything I learned about how to be a record label I either learned or made up as I went along. And in the very beginning it’s not like there was any money involved. I worked outside jobs to raise money so I could put out records. There was no money or time to deal with lawyers or contracts anyway. So I guess it just developed naturally. It’s not like there was ever a need for it.
Q. You had one breakdown when the Butthole Surfers took you to court in 1999 to control its catalog, a dispute that you lost.
A. That was the first time the thought entered my head that maybe doing business without contracts wasn’t the smartest thing in the world. That was really depressing on a variety of levels. After it was all over, I spent a year really thinking about: Am I doing things the right way? Have times changed? At the end of the day I thought: I’ve been doing things this way for 20 years, this is the only time I’ve had this problem. There are probably plenty of record labels that have carefully executed contracts and who have more problems than I had. So at the end of the day I said, “Oh (expletive) it, I’m tired of thinking about this. I’ll keep doing what I do.” If, in the future, I have more problems with more and more frequency, maybe I’ll have to rethink it. I also look at it and go, lawyers are expensive and lengthy contract negotiations take an enormous amount of effort. We’ve put a lot of records we knew from the get-go would be very marginal in terms of the amount they would sell. But it was music I felt was important. And if before, when I was willing to put those records out, if I felt I had to go through contract negotiations with everybody, a lot of those records would never have seen the light of day. The cost of doing that would be greater than the cost generated.
Q. The variety of Tough and Go’s roster really speaks to your growth and a listener. What are you ultimately listening for?
A. Hopefully quality. To me that’s the main consistency. There’s such a wide variety of musical styles on the label, to me the consistency is music that I find interesting and hence has quality. It’s still personal to me. thats it. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to put out records that would certainly have made a lot of money and sold plenty of copies. But because it wasn’t personally interesting to me I didn’t do it. So really looking for a direction of the label or a them of the label: It’s just personal taste issues for me. I feel lucky to do this for a living, but I wouldn’t feel lucky if I were putting out records I hated. Then those long hours would feel way more like a job than they do.
Q. I think about Chicago in the late 1980s and remember an incredible scene of bands popping up.
A. The second half of the 1980s and in the very early 1990s, there was so much going on. I didn’t know I would end up working with bands in Chicago in that time period: Big Black, Rapeman, Urge (Overkill), Jesus Lizard. I’d like to hope we helped contribute to the growth of that. That our existence helped out bands we ended up working with. Either way, it was certainly great timing. When we arrived in Chicago, it was right at the beginning of an amazing bloom of great bands. I have a really warm feeling about that whole time period.
Q. Kurt Cobain made it known, although through his posthumous journals, that he once hoped to be on Touch and Go.
A. My sad Nirvana store is that I remember when “Bleach” came out on Sub Pop. I thought it was a great record. Around that time Tad, I thought, had a great record. And I liked Mudhoney. (Sub Pop) had a bunch of cool (expletive) going on. I was over in England, I guess in late 1989. There was a show in London that was happening when I was there. It was Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. I was hanging out there and ended up meeting Kurt. I told him how much I liked “Bleach,” and he was like, “You’re kidding.” He said, “When we started, Touch and Go was the only label we wanted to be on and we sent you a demo and we never heard anything from you.” We get so many demos that at that point in time we generally listened to every demo. And I kept them all. The other day I was cleaning out a storage room and found a box of demos from the 1980s. I dug through the demos, but there was nothing in there. Either it never made it to us or it sounded totally different. I have no idea. I remember being bummed when he told me that because I liked the album.
Q. The label has also seen some of its roster – from The Jesus Lizard to The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – defect to the majors. What’s your reaction when that happens?
A. The way we operate and what we do, it is intentionally different from the way the major labels do it. If a band feels that being on a major label is what’s right for them, in the early years I would have taken great offense at it. But at the end of the day, bands have to decide what’s right for them. That’s not to say I haven’t been sad to see bands go … Certainly post-Nirvana bands with the least amount of press were told, “You could be the next big thing.” It was a different time, being on an indie label. Now that we’ve made it through the 1990s, everyone saw that getting signed to a major label didn’t mean you would be the next Nirvana. It meant you’d be treated like (expletive) then dropped. There’s been more of a history of it for bands to look at.