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Dangerbird's Wings: Silversun Pickups' Label Bangs Out a Template for a Post–Major Label Landscape

Dangerbird Records co-founders Peter Walker (left) and Jeff Castelaz
Jennie Warren

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?”

 

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.”

 

That economy of decision-making prevented Burnstein from entertaining any of the major-label overtures the Pickups received after Carnavas took off thanks to the success on alt-rock radio of the band’s single “Lazy Eye.” In fact, he says, “there were no offers made, because we made it clear that we’re with Dangerbird.”

Castelaz had his own way of dealing with the interest. “When major-label guys would call me and go, ‘So, what are you gonna do with Silversun?’ I’d be like, ‘What do you mean?’” he says. “‘Are you possibly wearing a jester’s cap and have fucking bells on your feet? What the fuck are you talking about?’”

The prospect of shifting to a major has never held any allure for the Pickups, says Aubert, because the concept of artist development — of “sitting still for longer than two fucking seconds,” as the singer puts it — has virtually dried up in the corporate record business. In contrast, he says, Dangerbird “are in it for the long haul. They made it clear from day one that that’s how they run things and that it’ll take us a long time to get dropped.”

“Jeff grew up admiring 4AD and Factory and Mute and all those cool labels,” says Tony Hoffer, an L.A.-based producer (and longtime Dangerbird Management client) who’s made records with Beck, Air and the Kooks, among others. “From them he learned that it’s about building a career and not just, ‘Let’s put out a record!’ Any label needs to sell records, but Peter and Jeff recognize that it may not be the first or second release — it may be the third or the fourth — and that that’s okay.”

Plus, Hoffer adds, “They’re really clever at street marketing, so that by the time that third record comes out, it seems like the band has been around forever. And that kind of stuff can be done without spending a lot of money.”

The label’s latest low-expense artist-development tactic is its resurrection of the old-school A&R guy, and having members of the Dangerbird family who’ve been around the block lend their expertise to the label’s younger acts (in terms of songwriting or producing or making the transition from studio to stage). Hoffer describes working with Eulogies, tightening material for the band’s 2008 EP and its just-released Here Anonymous album, while Meldal-Johnsen has helped out Dappled Cities, the One AM Radio, Darker My Love and Sea Wolf.

“Jeff thought it might be cool for someone to do what people like Lenny Waronker and Ahmet Ertegun did on a small scale,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “I’m kind of a homebody, so I’ve got no predilections toward becoming a talent scout. That’s an outmoded concept in the age of the Internet, anyway; now you meet bands through other bands or through a MySpace link. But Peter and Jeff wanted someone who has time behind studio glass — someone who’s perhaps more credible than a dude with a convertible and a tan — to finesse the roster that exists currently, rather than someone to find new talent. I’m a resource in town, and I think that goes further than the services that labels usually offer these days.”

Needless to say, Hoffer and Meldal-Johnsen aren’t providing their time for free, and the latter admits that the work they’re doing is “not a cost that is required for immediate survival. But we make it cost-effective, and the reasons for doing it are much more in line with Jeff’s long-term vision. It’s a feather in his cap. When people find out about this or about the in-house licensing, they realize that this is unique. These guys are trying to form a low-key juggernaut, and historically, sometimes businesses succeed in tough times by doing things that are counterintuitive.”

The people who don’t cite Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in reference to Castelaz — and plenty of those who do — talk about his passion, his energy and his commitment to his work. Says Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery, whose solo album Help Wanted came out on Dangerbird last year: “The image I got the first time I met Jeff was sort of as if the entire landscape of L.A. was on fire and he was standing in the middle of it unaware that everything was burning down, saying, ‘I can’t wait to show you some L.A. real estate!’”

When you find out that Castelaz’s 5-year-old son, Pablo, has been in treatment for cancer since May 2008, there’s a temptation to wonder if his zeal regarding Dangerbird is a form of escape from the reality he faces at home. (He’s also an avid cycler given to dawn rides in the Angeles National Forest.) “Oh, God, no,” he says with a laugh, grabbing a bite for lunch in Dangerbird’s artist-friendly conference room. If anything, Castelaz says, he’s determined that Pablo’s condition inform his professional life. Last year, for instance, he put together a compilation for Urban Outfitters’ Give Listen Help series, featuring cuts by Garbage, Rilo Kiley and most of the Dangerbird roster. Proceeds benefited the Pablove Foundation, which Castelaz and his wife, Jo Ann Thrailkill, created to support “the pediatric-cancer community in and around Children’s Hospital Los Angeles,” where Pablo is undergoing treatment.

 

In between responding to e-mails — he estimates he receives around 1,000 a day — Castelaz writes PABLOg!, an incredibly candid, often heartbreaking blog about Pablo’s experience, which includes posts by Thrailkill and their older son, Grady. The openness, Castelaz says, is his attempt to defuse the shame and secrecy that he’s seen infect families of those struggling with cancer at the hospital.

Castelaz’s naked ambition is unlikely to be satisfied anytime soon (even if Swoon meets Burnstein’s very high hopes). Still, this is a guy who understands that even the sky is a limit.

“I guess you might call us idealists, but we’re not idealists in the way that a lot of idealists are, where it’s all cloud and no ground,” he says of the way he’s trying to grow Dangerbird while many (if not most) of his peers are busy scaling down. “There are a lot of motherfuckers in this world who have the party and put out the press release and the fucking logo and the advertising, but they never get to actually doing the work. And now they’re selling their Aeron chairs on eBay. You know what I’m talking about: the dot-com boom.” He shakes his head. “It’s like, how about you go home at night and rest and enjoy life, whatever your shit is: kids, surfing, skateboarding, running. Then come back here and work hard again the next day.”


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