Around the time Brett Gurewitz was launching Epitaph Records in 1981, his father was lecturing him to take guitar lessons. The Bad Religion guitarist and punk-rock entrepreneur never sat down for courses with a guitar instructor, although he did go to school to learn to be a recording engineer.
However, no amount of schooling could have prepared Gurewitz for the next 25 years of his life.
Epitaph Records brought a new era of punk rock to the masses in 1994 when the Offspring’s “Smash” turned into one of the biggest rock records of the decade. The success of the label’s roster, from Bad Religion to Rancid to NOFX, re-energized the punk genre nearly two decades after its birth and put independent music on the radio.
And when the mid-’90s punk trend fizzled out, Epitaph reinvented itself. The label signed iconoclastic singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who became the centerpiece for the label’s adventurous imprint, Anti- Records. Today, Anti- is home to arresting singer/songwriter Neko Case, cut-and-paste artist Tim Fite, political rap act the Coup and soul vets Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples, among many others.
Epitaph also has a partnership with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong in his Hellcat Records and a relationship with Sweden’s Burning Heart Records that brought garage rockers the Hives to Epitaph’s stable, albeit briefly.
With offices overseas and in Canada, and a staff of more than 50, Gurewitz acknowledges his label is considered to be a “major indie,” but indie is still the operative word.
The kids who subscribe to staunch punk zines like Maximum Rock’n’Roll and Punk Planet may not always agree with Epitaph’s signings or its partners. But Gurewitz has navigated the label through 25 years of industry changes, and has done so without selling out.
You were a teenager, still living with your parents, when you started the label. What do you remember of your parents’ early reactions?
I think they thought it was cute. My dad encouraged me that I would have to take guitar lessons if I were serious about music. He wanted me to get some education and learn about it.
I said that lessons wouldn’t help me with the kind of music I was interested in. He kept insisting, but I didn’t do it. My dad’s a self-made man, an entrepreneur, so I think the burgeoning entrepreneurism in his living room was thought of very kindly. They’re still around, so it’s been nice to come full circle. I was taking advice from my father on running a business, and now my father comes to me for advice.
He told me that the most important thing is honesty and integrity, and having character in your business relationships. If you do that and have a good reputation, no money can ever buy that, and it sticks with you forever. I’m not going to say I haven’t done some shitty things in my life, but I’ve always been a clean-dealing businessman between my customers, my competitors and my recording artists.
The obvious follow-up: The “shitty things”?
Well, I regret all the bad things I said about the Offspring in the press when they left. We were kind of airing our dirty laundry and speaking out emotionally. I should have kept that all to myself. That’s the main thing.
How has being an independent label changed in the past two decades?
We won a Grammy for Solomon Burke a couple years ago. We have Motion City Soundtrack, who are one of the best pop-punk/indie/emo bands out there. We’ve released hip-hop artists [Atmosphere, Sage Francis]. All of that was unthinkable when we first started.
We truly had a niche then. We were Southern California hardcore. That’s what we called it. The way to be an indie back then was to have a sound and a niche. That’s what we had to do. Nowadays, sounds and niches are like an automatic shuffle in Vegas. A new niche is new every three weeks, so we have to stay on top of everything.
And the Internet.
From an A&R standpoint, I no longer have a world of underground bands to myself and a few other indies. Majors are looking at the same bands. In that sense, the competition is much stiffer. When I see a band, I’ll see another indie label and two other major labels. We’re all fighting for the same bands.
Didn’t that happen in 1994 and 1995, when every label wanted its own Offspring or Green Day?
No, not really. It was still kind of proprietary, even then. The majors would say, “Wow, how do you do that?” They still didn’t know where we were finding those bands. Now, they have little crews of 16-year-olds scouring MySpace. And I may be looking at a band a major may be looking at, but I’m not going against then. Once it turns into a bidding war, I’m throwing in the towel.
Has Epitaph ever had a mission statement?
Yes, but I have never formalized it by writing it in a pithy little way. When I first started the company and it was just me, my goal was to be friendly with my artists, no matter what. I wanted it to be a family. At the time, the culture I came from, every band was getting ripped off by their labels. Indies weren’t thought of a place you could get a fair shake. I like to think that image changed in part because of our influence. That’s one of the things I’m proud of. I eventually became a little bit more sophisticated, and I realized that record companies don’t make records.
If you get caught up in it, you can start believing that you make records. Your bands make the records. If you have a coffee mug company, you can make coffee mugs. But if you’re a record company, you sign artists, and they make records. It’s similar to an art dealer. You own a gallery and you represent a painter, and you create an environment where he can flourish and paint. In exchange for doing that, you have earned your participation.
That sounds nice, but you can’t always be friends, especially when the time comes to drop a band or not renew a contract.
I was terrible at doing that in the early days. I thought if I signed a band, I had to keep putting out their records. But the truth is, you take a shot because you believe in a band, but you have to sell records to keep your lights on.
If you believe in them and you do your best to try, and if for whatever reason you can’t make a go of it-end up being in the black with the band-then you’re not doing you or the band any favors. You’re only keeping them from getting a square job, and you’re weakening your company. It’s very difficult to have those conversations, but I’ve learned that I’ve had to. Flogging a dead horse is not doing the right thing.
With Tower closing and so many indie retailers closing, shelf space at existing retailers is becoming only more expensive. How do you break a new band in that climate?
I guess it depends on your definition of breaking a band. My definition is getting them to the 100,000-unit mark. I’m not saying that’s a huge hit, but that’s my world. If I do that, I’ve broken them. And it’s much easier to get to 100,000 units today. It’s so much easier to get the word out, and it’s easier to get the word out fast. If it connects with the audience, you can get it in their hands in lighting speed. The real power today is that the Internet has become radio on demand.
As digital sales increase and physical sales decline, how is Epitaph preparing?
Keep in mind that as a fairly decent-sized indie, we have much less to lose if there’s a full conversion to digital. We have no vertical integration. We don’t own any pressing plants or distributors. We’re big enough to have all our masters on all the important digital sites, and we’re small enough to not have the encumbrance of these giant brick-and-mortar distributors that the majors have.
For me, there’s less to lose with a sale on iTunes, and what I have to gain is pretty nice. There are no returns. There’s no overstock. I never again have to worry about overpressing.
What are your thoughts on digital rights management technology?
It’s frustrating for me. This is what I would like to see: I want to see a universal DRM. For any individual who buys a song, it should go on record somewhere that that person bought the song. Then the individual has that song and has access to it forever. The data should be kept in a bank, in the way you keep your money in a bank.
So wherever you buy it from, be it a PC or a handheld mobile device, it goes into the bank, a digital locker. You never have to back anything up. It’s like a Chase Manhattan for your family photos, your music, your TV shows. And you shouldn’t even have to buy it. If you want to watch or listen to free stuff, you have commercials. But if you own it, it goes into the data bank, and you don’t have to buy different devices and different gig devices.
Let’s discuss the label’s defining moment, the Offspring’s “Smash.” Talk about your reaction when you first heard the album. Did you feel you were sitting on something?
I can remember when I first got the finished masters. Epitaph at the time had maybe five employees. I was driving home from work, listening to the masters, and I circled around my block. I didn’t go in my house. I kept circling the neighborhood, listening to the record over and over. I listened to it at least five times in a row. I pulled in my driveway, and I don’t know what made me say this, but I said to my wife, “Honey, we’re going to be rich.” I shit you not.
I don’t believe I’ve ever told that story. I had this feeling deep down in my gut that “Self-Esteem” and “Come Out and Play” were huge hits. I felt it. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was by far the biggest record a band had submitted to me.
Prior to that you must have had dreams or designs on things you’d change if you hit it big.
I never thought we’d hit it that big. I mean, we were doing well. We were selling more than 1 million records per year before the Offspring hit. We had maybe 10 groups, and Bad Religion was selling about 100,000 records. We were making good living. What happened when the Offspring started blowing up was that a bunch of majors started coming around to buy my company.
They said, “An independent cannot do this.” They told us they could make it go multiplatinum, and we’d have to sell half our business for that to happen. But N.W.A had just had a multiplatinum record with “Straight Outta Compton.” That was an indie, Priority. So if a rap act can do it, so can a rock band. I was going to try it, and I turned down $25 million for one-quarter of my company-just one-quarter.
Did you take it personally when the Offspring left Epitaph for Columbia?
I did, and I shouldn’t have. I learned a lesson there. It’s business. It’s not personal. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the Offspring camp, and I feel extremely comfortable saying that. I hope they read that.
Were you prepared when Cali punk was no longer the sound of the moment?
No, I don’t think I was. But I think we got with it fast enough, and I realized that we did need to become more diverse. We had an Atmosphere record, we had the Anti- label, we had ownership in Burning Heart, and we had Hellcat. I was diversified enough that when I was a little slow on the uptake, it didn’t hurt us too bad.
There are some really great indies out there who have done some really great A&R. There’s Victory and Fueled by Ramen and Drive-Thru, to name a few. They kind of picked up where I left off, and now I’ve taken their nod, and I think we’re right there with all of them. We missed a half of a step, but it wasn’t too bad for an old guy.