The indie rock darlings/power couple avoid a life of ramen by running a label designed for artists, by artists.
At some point—I have no idea when, and if I did, I would punch that moment in the face—getting appropriately compensated for your labor became a dirty notion in the counterculture. Maybe the upper middle class beginnings of white rock and roll allowed for some mental divorce from the progressive unions that allowed that most rock and roll concept, "the weekend," possible. Or maybe it started from the loftier idea that art is somehow not labor, and therefore to expect to get paid is to taint the entire endeavor. Either way, if a band expects to be paid (in something other than “exposure”), the entire interweb calls down holy Hell on them and basically calls them Metallica. Abuse from the fans or abuse from the aesthetes; musicians who want to eat more than ramen are regularly getting it from both sides.
I talked to Brandon Welchez and Dee Dee Penny, a married couple from the bands Crocodiles and Dum Dum Girls respectively, who have a small record label called Zoo Music. We met up at Manhattan's Beauty Bar (they’d met each other at the San Diego one) and discussed how to maintain an artist-run label in an environment that demonizes labels in theory and dismisses artists in practice.
Through Zoo Music, Brandon and Dee Dee put out recordings by their main bands, their side projects, their friends, and—most endearingly of all—bands that they just happen upon that they like. Brandon discovered Dirty Beaches, whose double album Zoo just put out, while bopping around stoned on MySpace. “I was just absolutely blown away. It was just some of the most beautiful and genuine pieces of music I’d heard in such a long time.” Dee Dee then told me that she’d actually gotten signed (by Hozac) because of MySpace. This makes Zoo Music directly involved with two out of the three MySpace success stories. The third one, of course, being Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em. Almost everyone else Zoo has signed that wasn’t already a friend or, uh, either Brandon or Dee Dee themselves the two met through touring with their respective bands. Oh, and they signed the A&R dude who signed Crocodiles to Fat Possum. Which is, you know, totally fair.
The label, named after one of my 50 favorite Birthday Party songs, was formed in 2008 with a tax return the couple received. The first release was a Crocodiles seven-inch after Brandon’s band was tired of the degradation of shopping their music around and just wanted some product to sell on tour. As Dee Dee put it, “Sometimes, it’s a better situation that breeds even better situations to just do it yourself.” (Dum Dum Girls put out their first CDR on Zoo.)
While Frenchkiss is putting out the new Crocodiles record, Zoo Music is putting it out internationally. “We got dropped by our European label and we could shop it around, but why listen to idiots’ opinions on whether we were ‘commercially viable?’ If the thing flops, I only have myself to blame. But the dream is self sufficiency.”
What started as just a vehicle for their own output—via low key seven-inches and tapes—became more official as they signed more of their “disenfranchised” friends and Dee Dee’s lawyer, Scott Pactor (in whose office Dum Dum Girls had initial practices and where Brandon practices reading poetry…I’m pretty sure he’d want you to know that…). Through the additional partner and their distribution deal with Revolver, the label is now self-sustaining. The size of the label allows them to do a case-by-case basis for recordings of the bands. Pulling from the art hardcore community that Brandon got his start in (I met Brandon when he was in Revelation’s token spazzouts, Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower), they used Pete Lyman (Year Future) as a sort of house mastering guy until more bands started giving them finished recordings. Nowadays, while the bands tend to take care of their own recordings, Zoo Music is able to help out with equipment and provisional production expenses. Brandon says about hiring publicists for individual releases, “It’s important to us as musicians to try to do everything we can, with the limited funds we have, to do everything for our artists a bigger label would do, because we’re in the same position as the bands that we work with.”
Though big labels making ham-fisted attempts at poaching (all resisted through the earned loyalty of their bands) has been an issue, Dee Dee and Brandon both want what’s best for their bands. Having left smaller labels themselves, they offer what they can, but understand that some artists might want something a label of their size just can’t offer. Zoo has a 50/50 (profit share) deal their bands, and they only take a share of synch fees if they do the legwork.
I asked them about the possibility/ethics involved in making an actual living through music.
“That’s the fucking dream. [The idea that art must be its own reward or be meaningless] is an archaic stigma left over from some of the more brainless aspects of punk. If you support yourself on your own terms, and somehow keep your self-respect intact, is there anything better? Not to say that art should then become purely about commerce, but if you’re able to make a living with something, with passion and your heart, with your integrity…that’s great!...A lot of hard work goes into all art. I can only speak for music, but I put a shitload of work into it. If I put the same amount of hours in at an office, I’d expect a fucking paycheck.”
“Of course, if someone is doing something shitty just to make a buck, that’s another thing, but I don’t know anybody who does that consciously. Even people who are making something shitty…they don’t think they are. And more power to them.”
It’s important to the basic foundation of Zoo Music that both Brandon and Dee Dee can see the larger picture from the vantage point of music consumer ("I love music, and I believe it’s worth paying for."), music maker ("My art is my job, but that’s not all that it is."), and music provider ("I would prefer it if neither myself, nor my artist, were fucked over beyond recognition.) so that the label is both something economically viable, but also morally tenable.
Brandon said, “You see the politics—the sketchy bullshit that drives everything—and the further you get in music, the more privy you are to see these sorts of things…and I’m not that far along, but from what little I HAVE seen…the depths that it must go… I just want to exist outside of that.”