"Independent Study" is a new column that will profile a different independent label every other Tuesday. Its focus is on companies less than a decade old that are defining the DIY era.
To find Fool’s Gold Records, follow the rubber ducks. The six-year-old company’s headquarters, where six full-time employees report for duty in graphic tees and skinny jeans, are in the back of a retail store with mahogany shelves stuffed with snap-back caps, t-shirts, high-end headphones, iPad sleeves, vinyl LPs, cozies, wristbands and rubber duck figurines -- the latter being the official mascot of the Fool’s Gold DJ duo Duck Sauce (they “float for reals,” according to the company’s website). Everything in the store is impeccably branded and obviously labored over, from the prismatic merch to the street-luxury décor featuring custom Victorian wallpaper emblazoned with the Fool’s Gold insignia. Since Fool’s Gold built the dual storefront and office -- located on a main thoroughfare in Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- in 2011, it has stood as a kind of physical embodiment of what the company does best: package and sell signifiers of cool.
“Everything we do is an extension of our own personalities and tastes,” says Nick Catchdubs, co-founder of Fool’s Gold with the DJ and producer A-Trak. “I’m into tank-tops right now, so I would like a tank-top that’s Fool’s Gold. We are our own fan base.”
Fool’s Gold is primarily a record label, but over the past six years it has evolved into an amorphous lifestyle brand. The company is known for its prolific collaborations with apparel and other non-music companies, and for its live events, which include the annual Labor Day festival “Fool’s Gold Day Off” and the traveling dance party “Fool’s Gold Clubhouse.” Across platforms is an ethos of stylish irreverence.
The front part of the Fool's Gold office is a retail store, where the label sells much of its merch. (Photo: Kate Glicksberg)
A-Trak and Catchdubs met in 2006 as DJs who found themselves playing the same parties in clubs around downtown New York. At the time, Catchdubs was unearthing undiscovered music in his day job as an editor for The Fader magazine, and A-Trak had found minor celebrity as a world champion DJ prodigy who toured with Kanye West. Immersed in a community of likeminded artists and musicians, the two men, then in their late 20s, sought an outlet for the dance and hip-hop driven scene around them that didn’t exist at the time. They started Fool’s Gold Records in 2007 and tapped the street artist Dust La Rock -- who had designed the fliers for the same parties where they DJ'd -- to serve as in-house art director. La Rock created the label’s famous logo and post-modern, graffiti-inspired artwork that has defined its aesthetic ever since.
“It was a period where there was a lot of new, refreshing music coming out and we found ourselves surrounded by all this talent that didn’t have much of a voice,” A-Trak says. “In the late ‘90s I had run an indie hip-hop label with my brother called Audio Research, so I already had this reflex to press something up and put it out if someone around me was making something cool.”
The first Fool’s Gold releases were “Control” and “Pro Nails,” the debut, dance-friendly singles from Chicago-based rapper Kid Sister. The fledgling label got a major boost when West decided to add a verse to “Pro Nails” and featured the song on his influential 2007 mixtape Can’t Tell Me Nothing. A subsequent video for the track, in which West appeared, was played on MTV.
Fool’s Gold’s biggest breakthrough, though, came later that year with the signing of a then-unknown rapper and singer named Kid Cudi. In early 2008, the label released Cudi’s debut single, the buoyant paean to altered mind states “Day ‘N’ Nite,” which would eventually go on to sell over two million copies in the U.S., peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It started the same way everything started, with us wanting to put out this song that we liked by this guy that we knew,” Catchdubs says of the signing. “You can’t predict what will be a hit, but if you’re putting out music you like by an artist you like, no matter what happens you’ll be satisfied.”
The innerworkings of the Fool's Gold offices. (Photo: Kate Glicksberg)
The Fool’s Gold Touch
From the beginning, Fool’s Gold the brand was as refined and recognizable as any of its artists. The founders were inspired by the alternative rap labels Stones Throw and Rawkus Records, which cultivated reputations as tributaries feeding a specific segment of music culture. Fool’s Gold, for its part, became synonymous with party-first genre-mixing at a time when dance music and hip-hop were becoming the de facto soundtrack of the youth.
“They were really at the forefront of pushing those two genres together,” says Josh Young, aka J2K of DJ duo and early Fool’s Gold signee Flosstradamus. “They were always a bit ahead of the curve because they were willing to take risks on records that other labels wouldn’t take a chance on.”
Maintaining that reputation as a taste-making entity is a top priority for the label, which regularly taps its favorite artists of the moment for inclusion on compilation albums or to perform at free parties sponsored by the likes of Bushmills, Adidas and Scion.
“People know what to expect from us, and our artists are very much branded as Fool’s Gold artists,” A-Trak says. “It’s been very important to us to create mental associations where when people think of Fool’s Gold, they think of the first event where they saw Juicy J in New York, or their first time hearing Danny Brown.”
The company has a penchant for mascots, from the rubber ducks to Mr. Goldbar, a foam costume character with white Mickey Mouse gloves and the Fool's Gold logo for a head who is a staple at the label's events. Most Fool’s Gold artists have their own battery of logos, stickers and apparel that helps to set them apart even in a crowded field.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the Fool’s Gold brand to date is the resurgence of Danny Brown, a licentious rapper from Detroit known only in underground circles before signing to Fool’s Gold in 2011. The label worked with Brown, then 30, to relaunch his career via a free album, XXX, a grassroots promotional campaign and subsequent tour. A-Trak, Catchdubs and co. personally curated everything from the album’s tracklist to its t-shirt-ready cover art, and the release catapulted Brown to his current position as one of hip-hop’s most closely watched rising stars.
“We are essentially a branding and marketing company,” A-Trak says, adding that the label has considered starting its own creative agency. “I think one of the things that Fool’s Gold does best is figure out how to present something -- everything from the wording, to the look, to who the right people are to get it to. All of that comes naturally to us.”
As active DJs (A-Trak is on tour 200 nights a year, Catchdubs spins nights and weekends), Fool’s Gold’s founders have a built-in platform for discovering new artists.
“I listen to new music all day long, and out of that a small handful of songs will go into the ‘Listen again’ pile and an even smaller handful than that will go into the ‘Let’s talk about it’ pile,” says Catchdubs, who heads up A&R for the label. “Because we’re on the road so much, we can drop in for a meeting with an artist in their hometown, or play their track at a club and see how people react to it.”
Fool’s Gold signs artists to two-page contracts of varying term length and generally splits revenues 50/50 after expenses are recouped. The company does merch deals with many of its artists, touring deals with some.
“In a lot of cases when we sign these artists, we’re presenting them to the world,” A-Trak says. “So we get them on a lot of shows, we get their merch out there, we present their music to the right people. In more and more cases we get involved in a lot of those activities.“
As the label’s footprint has grown, it has begun to attract artists who were themselves influenced by the Fool’s Gold sound, creating a kind of feedback loop. After he signed a recording contract with the label, the Vancouver DJ and electronic producer Sleepy Tom revealed that years prior he had played the role of Mr. Goldbar at a Fool’s Gold party.
The Duck Pond: The Fool's Gold Records storefront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Photo: Kate Glicksberg)
A Tailored Approach
Unlike many of its peers, Fool’s Gold doesn’t have a contract with a physical distributor. The company releases all of its records digitally through Seed Worldwide and partners with physical distributors, including Fat Beats and Traffic, only on select releases. The strategy helps control costs and forces the company to think about each project individually.
“Some bigger labels are run by old people with a cookie cutter mentality who still have the same numbers in their head from 10 years ago of what first week sales should be,” says A-Trak. “But we don’t have any ingrained numbers or processes. If our objective on a given release is to sell through 1,500 pieces of vinyl, then we’ll press 1,500 and not 5,000. We’ve always played it very safe as far as projection and budgeting.”
“All of our releases do fine without ever sending us into debt,” adds Catchdubs. “We’ve never had something bomb and then said ‘Oh shit, we need a hit!’ in order to make up for all these CDs that we were sitting on. Everything is thought out and managed according to the scope of the specific project.”
The company is perhaps less conservative when it comes to the merch side of the business, which now generates as much profit as does record sales. The Fool’s Gold web and retail stores are well stocked with t-shirts, hats and accessories priced between $25 and $50 each (the rubber ducks retail for $20). One of the company’s most successful products, a slim-cut leather jacket made in collaboration with Member’s Only, sold out at $775.
Catchdubs says he doesn’t see the merch business as underwriting the music one, but rather looks at both as two sides of the same coin.
“It’s not that we’re inoculated against dipping sales because we sell merch,” he says. “For us it’s more like we sell sweatshirts and we also sell records.”
In the back office behind the retail store in Williamsburg, Fool’s Gold employees work cutting promo videos and updating the company blog in a cozy space buttressed by boxes of clothing (they take turns manning the register up front). The label has a stacked release year, with new full length albums coming from Danny Brown, Duck Sauce and recent signings Party Supplies and Grande Marshall, a producer and rapper respectively. If things go well, the company is considering moving from the retail location to a larger, less cluttered office.
“We want to get to a place where we can hire someone else because there’s room to put them,” Catchdubs says. “There’s only so much Tetris you can play in a space like this.”