Last week, Lookout! Records President Chris Appelgren announced on the label's website that the seminal Berkeley, Calif.-based punk rock label had completely closed shop. The label, which hasn't released any new material since 2005, will no longer offer their catalog in print or on digital services. Billboard.biz emailed with Lookout! Records Co-Founder Larry Livermore who discussed the label's history, it's current economic state and, of course, Green Day.
Billboard.biz: What are the origins of Lookout Records? I understand there is a connection with the DIY punk culture of Berkeley and the 924 Gilman Street venue.
Larry Livermore: Originally, in late 1986/early 1987, [the label] was mainly a vehicle for self-releasing an album by my band the Lookouts. I had been publishing a magazine, also called Lookout, for a couple years at that point, and guessed - partially correctly - it wouldn't be that big a jump to expand from print into records. The record was not a great success, partially because of its poor quality (we weren't ready to record), but equally because I lacked an effective distribution network. During 1987, through both my band and magazine, I became heavily involved with Gilman Street (I was one of the original organizers that helped build and open it on Dec. 31, 1986), and observed an explosion of exciting new bands that had emerged along the lines of the "if you build it they will come" concept.
The Lookouts "Spy Rock Road" album released on Lookout! in 1989
(Photo: Screen grab from larrylivermore.com)
Having had experience with the mechanics and logistics of releasing a record, I began to think it wouldn't be hard to put out records for some of the Gilman bands who were better than most of what was being sold in stores and played on the radio. However, because Gilman at the time was a very insular underground scene, almost no one from the larger world had heard of the bands flourishing there. If I didn't put out records for them, very possibly no one would. In the autumn of 1987, I joined forces with a friend, David Hayes, who felt similarly and who also had experience with recording bands, but who had no capital. I had about $4,000 in savings, and the two of us used that to produce four 7" records that came out in January 1988.
At best we were hoping to break even, but we sold out the first pressings and made enough money to re-press and take on more bands. A lot of credit for this goes to Mordam Records, which, though it had started as an indie label releasing the first Faith No More album, it had morphed into a distribution consortium representing a couple of dozen small labels like ourselves which remained at the heart of Lookout's commercial success while I was there. After two years, my original partner David Hayes left the label because he and I had different visions about what sort of bands we should work with (I preferred poppier, more accessible ones; he was partial to a darker, more aggressive and experimental sounds) and about how large and successful the label should be (I felt it should be open-ended and allowed to grow as big as popular demand dictated, whereas he wanted to keep it smaller and simpler, i.e., where it didn't become a full-time "job"). From the beginning of 1990 until I left in 1997, I ran things myself with very talented employees, one of whom would eventually take over as head of Lookout after my departure.
You left the company in 1997. Why was that? Did you sense the economic turmoil that would plague Lookout! in the following years?
I left in large part for personal reasons, but also, ironically, for some of the same reasons my original partner left at the end of 1989: because running what had by the mid-90s become a multi-million dollar company had become burdensome and stressful. Had I been in better shape personally, I probably could have adjusted better to the challenge of transforming a tiny indie label run out of my bedroom into a company with 14 employees, a suite of offices, a roster of several hundred artists, and the attendant lawyers, accountants that necessarily attach themselves to an operation of that size, but unfortunately, such was not the case. I did not, however, foresee any of the economic turmoil that was to come; quite the contrary, I left when I did because I felt very confident that Lookout! was on such a sound footing that it could look forward to many years of continued success. We had a back catalog worth millions, a large surplus of cash, and absolutely no outstanding debt (we had never taken on debt in the entire history of the label, apart from the typical 30, 60 or 90-day terms offered by some of our suppliers). There was no reason to suspect that - provided Lookout! continued to operate along the same principles it always had - that it wouldn't continue to go from strength to strength, even if we couldn't always expect the kind of spectacular growth that followed in the wake of Green Day's commercial breakthrough in 1994 and 1995.
Much of the label's roster rescinded rights to their masters, most well-known of which was Green Day in 2005 when they cited unpaid royalties to "1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours" and "Kerplunk." Was that expected?
No, this was not at all expected when I left the company, as we had an excellent relationship with the band and had always paid them on time and in full. It was perhaps the most fundamental principle of Lookout! to conscientiously pay the bands, because they were the label's foundation and so many other independent or DIY labels had developed a reputation for not doing so, and most of all, because it was right. I don't know exactly when the new owners stopped paying Green Day and other bands; by the time I started hearing rumors about bands being unpaid and confronted the label owners about it, it may already have been too late to rectify the situation, because they had already spent the money on promoting other bands that had flopped in trying to transform Lookout! into something more resembling a typical major label operation -- throwing lots of money at lots of bands on the premise that a handful of them will hit it big and make back all the money that was lost on the failures.
That approach may work for a highly capitalized corporation, but not for a company the size of Lookout, who, as well-funded as they were, didn't have that kind of money to throw around. When budgeting for a new release, I always aimed to break even, and that often meant putting little or no money into promoting and publicizing unknown bands (for example, the first Green Day album cost $675 to record, about $100 to promote -- two fanzine ads and some promo copies to college radio -- and went on to sell a million copies). The new owners chose to gamble on heavy promotion and on building a more "professional" operation they could turn one or more bands into the "next" Green Day. Unfortunately, and ultimately tragically, they did that gambling with other people's money.
What is your relationship with the band like now? I understand you are currently working on a compilation with Billie Joe Armstrong.
I love the band as much as ever, and still see them whenever I get the opportunity. The compilation I'm working on came about when Billie, who over the years has occasionally asked me to let him know about what new bands I find exciting, called and asked if I'd be interested in putting together a collection of my favorite underground bands, much the way that I used to do back in the early Lookout! days. There's a back story, too; Billie's son Joey, who's 16 - the same age, as it happens, that Billie was when I asked him to do the first Green Day record - now plays in a great young band called Emily's Army, and last summer they came out to the East Coast and played a series of shows with some of my favorite bands. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, on returning home, Joey inspired his dad to think about looking further into a scene that -- while not attracting the attention it did in the 90s -- is as dynamic and filled with potential as ever. At least that's how I like to imagine it happening; at any rate, "The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore" (the title is an allusion to "The Thing That Ate Floyd," a 1988 Lookout! compilation) has now been recorded, features 16 brilliant bands, and should be out on Adeline Records in early May.
The cover of Larry Livermore's upcoming compilation album he worked on with
Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong (Photo: Screen grab from larrylivermore.com)
Last Friday when the news broke, you tweeted, "Requiem for a dream? Or just time to say goodbye to something that really ended a long time ago?" Did the label's end (and its cause) feel inevitable?
Lookout was a dream, and ran like one for a long time, but the magic had gone out of it long ago. The label's downward trajectory probably began when they changed the types of bands they dealt with and the business practices they used to promote them, but once they stopped paying their bills - especially, but not only, to the bands - yes, the end was almost certainly inevitable. I had written into the contracts of all the bands I signed a provision allowing them to take back their rights and master recordings if the label ever fell more than six months behind in payments. By the time Green Day and Operation Ivy (our other biggest seller, who also sold in the neighborhood of a million records) pulled their catalogs, Lookout was years behind and those bands had lost hundreds of thousands in unpaid royalties. If anything, the bands were remarkably patient, probably out of loyalty to the Lookout! they had once known. But for the last several years, once most of its bands were gone, there was no way Lookout! was going to recover, and I give credit to the owners for recognizing that and pulling the plug when they did. And hopefully this will provide the opportunity for some of the other bands who hadn't yet regained their rights and recordings to re-release them through another label or on their own, and bring back to the attention of the public some great music that for too long now has been languishing in obscurity.