Seattle's Barsuk Records: 15 Years of Dogs and Death Cab

Music Features Barsuk Records
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“Here’s what’s interesting about it,” The Long Winters’ frontman John Roderick explains from a Westin hotel lobby in Seattle, noting why Barsuk Records’ 15th anniversary isn’t exactly indie’s own version of a high school reunion. “You meet people that you didn’t know in high school and they turned out to be amazing people. Or you meet people who were jerks in high school and it turns out they aren’t jerks anymore. It’s very rare that you meet someone who was a ding-a-ling in high school and they’re a ding-a-ling now. You know, Matthew [Caws] and Nada Surf, Ben [Gibbard] and Death Cab and Jesse [Sykes]. All these bands have all evolved, and I’m still close with them. So it’s less a reunion and more of a kind of reminder to not forget the trip we’ve been on together.”

It shouldn’t take 15 years of solid output to prove that Barsuk Records was not grown by ding-a-lings. But the label—founded in the late ’90s by Josh Rosenfeld, his wife Emily Alford and Christopher Possanza—got credit where it was due this month with a celebratory, four-day jaunt through its birthplace of Seattle. Moreso than many marking-of-time events surrounding significant albums, Barsuk’s felt like a family affair; You might catch Roderick’s deep laugh echoing above the crowd between sets from recent signees Minor Alps or Barsuk mainstay David Bazan. Or you might almost bump straight into a guy near the box office at The Neptune before getting close enough to realize—oh, hey, that’s Ben Gibbard. Any artist who had a microphone placed before them over the weekend echoed the praise of what was called a fair, thoughtful label. But before Seattle descended on four different sold-out shows over the weekend, before hundreds of thousands of copies of Barsuk’s finest premium-packaged albums were shipped across the States, there was a band called This Busy Monster and its business-savvy members who’d start something that would grow bigger and last longer than they could imagine. And before that, there was a pit-bull/lab mix named Barsuk.

It started out the way so many of these things do. Rosenfeld’s This Busy Monster had released a series of seven-inch records, but with no hand to shake or dotted line sign, the guys pressed their own music starting in 1994. Like any budding act, you want to look official, so a record label was born out of necessity, and Rosenfeld and co. started to release music under the first major name that came to mind—Barsuk. It was the name of Rosenfeld’s beloved 3-year-old dog who, to this day, graces the spine of every single CD or LP in a simple blue, black and white line drawing. But although the band had released albums in the early ’90s, it wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that this would start looking like a viable business option.

“There are 400 labels like that, where nobody will put your band’s record out,” Roderick says. But unlike most small vanity labels used as a medium for one’s own releases, Rosenfeld’s label has survived (and stayed truly independent) over a decade of music defined by some of the most significant adjustments in the way we consume music. His label, defined for many by the releases’ inventive packaging, survived Napster, Spotify, the Great Recession and a shift toward digital album sales. But if you ask Rosenfeld the key to success as a label in any era, he says the strategy is pretty easy: Just make sure the first major band you sign is Death Cab for Cutie.

“They were part of this really great music scene that was happening in Bellingham, Wash., around that time. Bellingham is a smallish town, a college town about an hour and a half north of Seattle. And there was a really good label out there called Elsinor that was putting out cassettes of bands that were playing up in Bellingham. Our band had played with Ben’s previous band a few times, and I met [guitarist and producer] Chris Walla a few times because he was a Posies fan, and This Busy Monster opened for the Posies in Seattle.”

The early relationship with these soon-to-be indie darlings, which started around 1998, wasn’t complicated. Rosenfeld signed and released albums pretty much the same way in these early years—with a handshake and the promise of an 80/20 split for Death Cab, the majority going to the artists (it would shift to 60/40 in later years as overhead costs for the label grew). And although the sonic aesthetic of many early Barsuk bands didn’t share much with that other Washington across the U.S., it’s hard not to point that finger at the business model echoed in artist-favored punk labels like Ian Mackaye’s Dischord Records.

“We had just kind of idealistic feelings about what major labels were like and what record labels were like in general and we decided we were going to be the most artist-friendly label we could be,” Rosenfeld says. “The first deal that we did with Death Cab, which was just a handshake deal, was an 80/20 profit split in the band’s favor. This conversation, sitting on the porch of the house I was living in in Bellingham, about how we would make 1,000 copies and that would be how much we’d ever need in all likelihood.” Rosenfeld says that last bit with a straight face before all involved in the conversation can’t help but laugh. Death Cab’s Something About Airplanes would go on to sell a few more than 1,000 copies and allow Rosenfeld to quit his research day job.

“It still felt like it was probably going to be a hobby, but maybe a hobby I was going to spend some time doing,” Rosenfeld says. “But there was an inkling maybe this could turn into a real big thing. I don’t think it started to feel like something that was going to go until two years after that even, even though Death Cab started to grow and we started to sign other bands, it felt like it was probably not going to go anywhere permanent. Quitting that job was definitely like the first moment of ‘Let’s see what happens.’ [Barsuk wasn’t paying my] salary for the first year after I did that, so it was still a hobby, technically.”

But Death Cab’s success gave Rosenfeld options, one of which was bringing on more artists—some who would become staples for the label. “It felt easy. I just remember thinking why do record labels have so many people working there? All you do is put records out. Then, you take it to the record store and they sell through, and you go to your local college radio station and they play it. And if people like it, they start buying the record and it works out, organically. Of course, as time went on, it became clear that’ s not how it goes.”

With the release of the band’s second full-length for the label, its leaders looked outward to develop the roster. John Vanderslice was the first post-Death Cab signing, followed shortly after by up-and-comers Rilo Kiley and The Long Winters. Not bad for a group who was still running their business out of a house in Seattle’s Central District, a cheap option at the time. “It was on the corner and our neighbor across the street was dealing drugs,” Rosenfeld says. “Our other neighbor across the street was dealing drugs and our neighbor behind us was dealing drugs. [He] was one of the most interesting characters I had ever met. Kind of a crazy methadone addict, attracted a lot of pseudo friends and sold drugs for them.”

It wouldn’t be long before Barsuk would move its offices to Georgetown in 2002.

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“We were all thrown together because we were all in these eclectic bands that weren’t punk, and they weren’t grunge, and they weren’t alt-country or whatever the other formats were,” Roderick says. “We were all making this kind of weird music that booking agents didn’t know what to do with. So we weren’t quite a community yet, but we did play shows together.”

Barsuk was growing, but things can’t be Something About Airplanes-easy forever, right? In 2001 the label learned its first hard lesson after its distributor, a company called DNA, essentially dropped off the face of the earth with a bankruptcy claim. And the timing couldn’t have been worse—the news rolled in right as Death Cab’s much-hyped Photo Album was at the printers—a move that Rosenfeld eventually credits with not only a financial loss (“[it was expected to be] what amounted to about 75 percent of our annual revenue that year”), but a soured reputation (at least temporarily) that would leave the quickly growing Rilo Kiley looking for another label for its next release. But it wasn’t a big-business approach that kept the Seattle label afloat when it got rough—in fact, it was the opposite. Their headquarters (there weren’t any) and staff (again, there wasn’t a formal one) made it so the mishap wouldn’t sink the label.

“If we had been a full on business at that point with a staff and overhead, it might have killed us. We were fortunate in that we were operating out the side of that house and we didn’t have any staff, so that certainly made us much more cautious about business relationships.”

That rough year didn’t end Barsuk as it might have another label, and it was a good thing it didn’t. In 2003, the label had its most successful year to date, “batting 1,000,” as Rosenfeld says with four massive releases: Death Cab’s Transatlanticism, The Long WintersWhen I Pretend to Fall, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter’s Reckless Burning and Nada Surf’s Let Go. Much like most years in the music biz, the gathering storm of the label made its first big strike at that year’s South By Southwest—but not without a hitch.

Nada Surf were arrested in West Texas on their way to the show: pulled over, arrested and put in jail, like with stripe-y pajamas,” Roderick says. “We were all there at the venue waiting, and most of us had not met Nada Surf yet. I had talked to Matthew on the phone, and we’d expressed a lot of mutual admiration for one another, but most of the people at Barsuk, this was their first meeting with Nada Surf—and they got arrested.

“They got out of jail and were racing, and it wasn’t clear whether they were going to make it or not. They got there just in the nick of time—the show was already running, they just ran up onstage and we all kind of pitched in to get their stuff together. Also, it was a beautiful, warm night in Austin and everybody played marvelously. It was one of those SXSW shows where South By had grossly underestimated the interest in this show. So there were 4,000 people down the block that couldn’t get in. The crowd outside was getting restless. Even at the time we knew that that was an extraordinary night of music that could not be repeated and no one else could touch it.”

And although some albums were clear favorites (no one could argue with the quality of Death Cab’s big-time breakout), the recent signing of Nada Surf made some on the label uneasy (and not because of their time spent in the slammer—a kind of funny thought now for anyone who’s had an aside chat with any member at a show).

Rosenfeld, who had signed the band on the strength of the album, snubbed any indie snobs that were uneasy of the former Elektra-signed band. Rosenfeld cited quality over “cool.” It was an album that would put Nada Surf back on the map, and they’ve called Barsuk their home ever since.

“I’m really proud that we put it out,” says Rosenfeld. “They had their hit ‘Popular,’ but I just had this feeling about them which was like during that time, was like the peak of indie-rock snobbery, this was a major-label band that had some novelty hit and they weren’t good. When I told people we were putting out an album, several people were like, ‘No, what are you doing? Don’t destroy everything you’ve built.’...I’m glad that is an example that we didn’t succumb to a conventional, hipster, indie-rock thinking”

“They were undeniable,” Roderick says of Barsuk’s 2003 releases. “The years that we spent on tour with Nada Surf, it’s very seldom that you can open for a band 80 times, and still want to stand on the side of the stage and watch their whole set. You know, I never stopped learning from watching Nada Surf or Death Cab, or Jesse or Vanderslice. Those things that they taught me had an incredible influence on what I did. So now we’re all back together, playing these shows together.”

And although the label hit a peak that couldn’t be replicated again, it’s done just fine for itself in the years after, taking on artists like Mates of State, Bazan, Menomena and Ra Ra Riot. The label still hasn’t started churning out music at a faster pace, electing to put out only four releases or so that it believes in yearly, regardless of the busy musical platform that exists today. “I don’t feel like most of the music coming out today really clears the quality bar,” Rosenfeld says.

Also, as you’d expect, some help from Death Cab has helped keep them afloat. The band, which credits Barsuk with the full weight of its success, made one final contribution to the label before answering the many, many major-label calls they were getting after The Photo Album, which would help the label build in years to come after the band eventually settled on Atlantic as its major-label home.

Transatlanticism was the first one where we started to do [written] contracts, and it was because Death Cab said we were going to start talking to major labels. ‘They might start waving money in our faces and it’s possible that there might be a situation that feels right for us, but we really want to make sure that no matter what happens with us, you get compensated for helping us build all these years. So we want to do a three-record deal with you now so we’re obligated to you. If something happens that we want to pursue, you’ll have to get paid too.’ The thought that they would ever do that is nuts.”

For Rosenfeld, Alford and Possanza, it’s been trial and error all along, but they’ve crafted a process that’s left an entire set of fans—these two writers included—checking up on any dog-stamped release that might tumble through.

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?As you’d expect, the weekend of shows were nothing short of a treat for fans, with early staples like The Prom swinging through, and an unbilled Death Cab for Cutie making an acoustic appearance for a crowd of several hundred, and Roderick wowing the crowd with not only The Long Winters’ excellent take on When I Pretend to Fall, but just about as much even-paced, roar-inducing stage banter. The two of us had headed out to Seattle with a mutual admiration for the label—hell, it’s basically what we bonded over when we first started working for Paste. But it wasn’t until the drive back to the airport that we’d determined its real value, reflecting on a compilation called Barsuk Treats that would basically usher in the label’s staple 2003 albums. We have our story, as everyone does, about how they discovered their favorite music that defines their lives. Each night, hundreds of kids (regardless of age) gathered to relive many of theirs.

Fifteen official years have come and gone, but Rosenfeld’s plan still remains the same when it comes to music: create an artist-friendly environment, release good albums regardless of hipness and see where it leads. So far, it’s worked.

“There were a lot of labels that started around the same time as Barsuk and a lot of those labels aren’t around anymore. It’s really, really helpful to have Death Cab be the first band you start working with when you start your record label basically. ... The expectations we had starting a label, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t really expect that it would go anywhere. But it did.”

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