By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The answer, born from Walker’s experience as an artist and from Castelaz’s 10,000 hours of behind-the-scenes practice, was straightforward: Execute the old record-label ideal of artist development with new-media nimbleness, doing a small number of things really well as opposed to a large number of things moderately well (or not well at all).
“Jeff is in touch with a lot of people in a lot of places,” says KCRW music director Jason Bentley. “He really pays careful attention to what’s out there, what bands are looking for deals and shopping demos and whether or not they’d fit into the Dangerbird universe. And not everything qualifies. They don’t sign a lot of bands.”
“Jeff’s mindset is basically the exact opposite of the major-label mentality for the last 30 years,” adds Butch Vig, the producer and Garbage member who’s known Castelaz since the latter brought Citizen King to Vig’s Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. “He’s interested in figuring out how to be efficient with budgets and marketing, and when it comes to reaching your audience, how to get the biggest bang for your buck.”
The label’s biggest bang so far has come in the form of Silversun Pickups, the celebrated Eastside dream-rock outfit whose 2006 debut, Carnavas, has sold more than 335,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. This past Tuesday, Dangerbird released the Pickups’ highly anticipated sophomore disc, Swoon, just in time for the band’s Friday-night performance at Coachella this weekend. By all accounts, Swoon is a big record for Dangerbird; it represents a chance to find out if the label’s machinery is capable of firing at what music-industry folk habitually refer to as the next level.
What defines success for the album, of course, varies depending upon whom you ask. “We just knew that as long as we didn’t fuck up and shoot ourselves in the head, we’d be okay,” says the Pickups’ front man Brian Aubert.
“If you’re efficient with your business model and you sell a couple hundred thousand,” Vig says, “that’s a home run.”
The group’s manager, Cliff Burnstein (whose company QPrime also represents Metallica, Shania Twain and the Red Hot Chili Peppers), thinks in somewhat loftier terms. “I want them to be considered one of the best bands that is currently operating today,” he says, “that their music is at a high, sophisticated level, that the album is good all the way through, and that it’s better and more ambitious than the first album. That’s what’s important to me. All the other stuff will follow in the wake of that.”
Lots of indie-label heads are afraid of being called businesspeople, with the dreaded term’s taint of conference-room anti-artistry. Castelaz isn’t one of them.
“The music industry has been run by people, part and parcel, who have no clue about business,” he says. “Somehow they’ve gotten sucked into this slipstream of working for corporation after corporation after corporation. But they’re not entrepreneurs. They might think they are because they yelled at somebody and they pay a lot of money for dinner on their expense account. That’s not being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur says, ‘Let’s start a new label. Let’s put our nuts on the line. Let’s put our flag up on the flagpole, and if we don’t do well, the whole world will be there to see it.’”
Castelaz loves business, but he hates bureaucracy. So he and Walker run Dangerbird with an eye toward vertical integration, offering bands the closest thing they can to one-stop shopping in the form of in-house marketing, radio-promotion and licensing staff — not necessarily the norm in Indieland. That last piece of the puzzle is particularly unique and, according to KCRW’s Bentley, particularly crucial. “They’re actively pursuing TV, film and commercial opportunities for their bands,” he says. “Being on an indie label in a time when sales aren’t what they used to be, that can make all the difference.”
Burnstein appreciates the lean-and-mean approach. “Jeff has far more than a skeleton staff but not anywhere approaching a major label,” the manager says. “I can talk on a very high level with the majors, but that doesn’t mean that anything gets done. I actually spend more time talking on the mid- to lower levels; it’s better to go from the bottom and push up. But with Jeff, I have the luxury of ending a phone call and walking into the next room and saying to someone, ‘QPrime and Dangerbird decided this is what we need to do — let’s get it done.’ I don’t have to play games or work the building from within or any of that stuff. It’s refreshing.”