In the midst of what may be the worst year in record-business history, with industry execs citing downloading, payola-restricted radio playlists and consumer apathy as the culprits, it may be a strange time to start a label. Yet that didn‘t even enter the thinking of Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey, the former front person of That Dog and the co-founder of the Go-Go’s, respectively, who set up their own label, Five Foot Two, earlier this year.
The duo formed their partnership not to get rich, to change the world, to buck trends or any other concept, noble or venal. “I don‘t want to assault the major labels and what they represent,” says Caffey. “I just didn’t want to be involved with them.” Waronker had completed a disc‘s worth of new material, and “It never even occurred to me to take it to a major,” she says. “I started talking to Charlotte [Waronker’s sister-in-law], we raised the money and decided to do everything ourselves, from the ground up.”
“Anna is the mailroom, I‘m the intern, and we’re the new mom-and-pop label — well, mom-and-mom, really,” says Caffey.
But their motivation is fierce. “Do you hear female artists on rock radio as much as you did 10 years ago?” asks Caffey. “It‘s come full circle to when the Go-Go’s were considered a risky signing for IRS, because you just didn‘t hear it back in 1980.” Caffey believes that the majors are no longer artist-friendly enough to take seriously. “I remember when the Go-Go’s were being distributed by A&M, they nurtured and kept acts like Joan Armatrading when she wasn‘t making commercial records. Now it’s a week‘s worth of promotion, and if you don’t click, bye-bye.”
So, Five Foot Two‘s philosophy is different from bottom to top. Caffey and Waronker have a slate of projects besides Waronker’s on tap, from reissues of Caffey‘s husband Jeff McDonald’s group Redd Kross, to a new one from the Muffs, to a Lisa Marr (ex-Cub) disc. What these acts have in common is a love of and devotion to the short and sweet pop song — not to mention that almost all of them were on majors and indies both. “That‘s what I’ve loved all my life,” says Caffey. “That‘s why I want these acts on my little label. And, yes, they are friends and relatives so far, but I’d love to put out anything I was crazy about. Thing is, I don‘t know how crazy they’d be about us — we‘re very small.”
Waronker’s homemade disc fits very nicely into this scheme. A 14-song slab of succinct pop gems, it‘s a far more straight-ahead take on the basic tune than her old band offered up on their three Warner Bros. discs. With a minimum of outside help from husband Steve McDonald, the singer plays pretty much everything on this home-recorded outing. Unlike so much of what is concocted in the home studio, it is the polar opposite of indulgent. Each tune is neatly packaged with simple guitar hooks and ringing, chiming harmonies, while motifs run the gamut from pithy takes on femme-aggro (“Perfect Ten”) to wittily observed love songs (“I Wish You Well,” “Nothing Personal”). Waronker’s throaty, evocative singing and the set‘s lush, carefully layered arrangements make the disc one of the great out-of-left-field comers for this blinkered year, hopefully earning it a bit of radio play to augment its distributor’s push (the disc will be carried by Oglio).
As such, it would have fit easily into the modern pop oeuvre served up by many major labels, but Caffey‘s own experiences, recent and in the distant past with the Go-Go’s, have soured the guitarist-songwriter somewhat. “Relinquishing control is painful,” she says. “I‘ve found that when I’m in control of the budget and the money, how much more efficient I‘ve become [her new label’s initial capitalization was about $15,000]. When we threw our launch party at the Echo, the cost was about 700 bucks. Because it‘s our money, we’re frugal, we make everything count, not like ‘Oh, wow, let’s really go for it and blow two grand‘ when we don’t have it. All I want is to do a bit better than break even, so I can put out more records.” So far, minus any real press or radio, Waronker‘s disc is selling briskly. “If it was on a major, we’d be terrified,” says Caffey. “As it is, it‘s better than we could ever have imagined. We’re hitting our goals.
”I learned from my mistakes and naivete. Anna‘s song ’I Wish You Well‘ was on the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack, and she thought that putting it out again wasn’t right. But I persuaded her that it was a great song and had to be heard, because I remember the Go-Go‘s going through the same thing with ’We Got the Beat.‘ It was a dance hit in the clubs in 1980, and IRS wanted us to re-record it for Beauty and the Beat, and we were like, ’Oh, but it‘s old,’ like our friends from the Starwood or Whisky might be sick of it, so therefore the whole world was. We did it, reluctantly, what did we know? Well, what I know now is that I didn‘t want to know the business end back then, and now I have to — and it isn’t that bad.“