One night last month Jeff Castelaz, president of Los Angeles–based Dangerbird Records, met Johnny Marr of the Smiths at a Spaceland show. The Smiths’ self-titled debut was hugely important to Castelaz during what he describes with typical frankness as “a fucked-up childhood living in a basement in Milwaukee.” So the 36-year-old label owner relished the opportunity to shoot the shit with an alternative rocker whom he considers no less a guitar hero than Eddie Van Halen.
Among the topics of discussion was an old bootleg video that Castelaz remembers seeing when he was younger; in it, Marr and his bandmates are captured hanging out in the original office of Rough Trade Records, the seminal London label that released the Smiths’ albums, as well as early stuff by Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants and the Raincoats. The scene stuck with Castelaz through the years, and when he and Dangerbird co-founder Peter Walker began hammering out ideas for the label’s brand-new Silver Lake headquarters — it’s the big, bright-blue building a few doors down from Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea on Sunset Boulevard — he turned to it for inspiration.
“Those Rough Trade guys were so badass, but they were also humble,” he says. “Peter and I aren’t in this for the parties and the nonsense, you know? We just wanna have our own little place where we can be sane and responsible and love our families.” Castelaz has just given me a tour of the Dangerbird complex — in addition to offices for label staff, there’s a small recording studio and a cozy warehouse space — and now we’re standing in an outdoor area behind the building, looking at an unruly pile of dirt and construction rubble that Castelaz says will eventually become a space for small-scale shows by Dangerbird acts, many of which are L.A. based. An acoustic performance by Silversun Pickups, say, for a group of invited Hollywood music supervisors.
“We’re trying to keep things simple, but we also wanna bring some energy to the office environment,” Castelaz continues, pointing out a stories-high wall that he plans to turn into a sort of parking-lot gallery of rotating street art. (Shepard Fairey is at work on an inaugural banner.) “Our whole thing is: Don’t go halfway in whatever you do. Don’t half-ass it, because if you do it right the first time, you’ll be set in the future.”
If you’ve read even a scrap of music-business media coverage over the past five years or so, you might have surmised that being set in the future is not exactly a characteristic the record industry can lay claim to right now. (Death-knell evidence abounds, but consider that earlier this month the trade journal Hits reported that not a single 2009 release — including U2’s No Line on the Horizon — managed to sell a million copies during the year’s first quarter.)
Yet at a moment of increasing businesswide instability, Castelaz and the Dangerbird crew are thinking both big and long-term, taking cues from old-model forebears and sinking serious dough into a new physical structure dedicated (at least in part) to selling a dying physical product.
Is this dude nuts?
It isn’t easy to find someone who can talk about Jeff Castelaz without invoking an oft-quoted passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in which the author writes that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to develop a truly remarkable ability. Though Dangerbird is a young company — the label’s first release was in 2004 — Castelaz began racking up his 10,000 hours more than a decade ago, as manager of Milwaukee’s Citizen King, best known today for their goofy 1999 hit, “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out).” Citizen King’s success (short-lived as it was) earned Castelaz other gigs supervising the careers of bands and producers, and in 2000 he moved his company Cast Management to L.A. Once here, he started taking on additional clients from around town, including garage-rock brats the Vacation and Beck/Nine Inch Nails sideman Justin Meldal-Johnsen.
He also hooked up with Walker, a local indie-folk guy who now fronts the band Eulogies, and when meetings with a variety of labels didn’t yield an appealing deal for Walker’s solo debut, Landed, the two formed Dangerbird to release the album. (The name now encompasses both the record label and Castelaz’s management firm, which currently represents Eagles of Death Metal and the Dears, among others.)
“The scene was just a little grim,” Walker says of the label landscape at the time that he and Castelaz were looking for a home for Landed. How so? “It sounds so obvious, but just the lack of control that we would have had. We had so much that we wanted to do as an artist and a manager, and working with someone else’s small budget, it would’ve been okay — it would’ve been a step forward — but it wasn’t very exciting. So we came up with the idea of, Hey, what would it be like to do this ourselves, and what would that mean?”