21 April 2006

The Last Jewel In The Crown...

...that was once Lookout Records now seems to be gone. I refer of course to Operation Ivy, the ska-punks who helped launch Gilman Street and the East Bay scene into orbit back in 1987, and who, though they broke up only two short years later, have continued to grow in stature and significance ever since, to the point where they're now one of the most legendary bands the punk rock scene has ever produced.

Sometime in 1988, when Op Ivy only had a 7" EP out and it was uncertain whether they'd ever manage to produce an album, I was hanging around the Mordam (Lookout's distributor) warehouse and talking to Tommy Strange, who was more or less Ruth Schwartz's right hand man there. He expressed the opinion that what was going on over at Gilman was fun, but not of any great substance, and I countered by telling him, "You watch, Operation Ivy is going to be one of those bands that's going to be an absolute classic. They'll be like Minor Threat or the Dead Kennedys, selling more records than ever years or even decades after they break up."

Tommy thought that was the funniest thing he'd ever heard, and insisted on going from one end of the warehouse to the other telling everyone what that crazy Livermore guy had said now. To be fair, the guys in Operation Ivy thought I was just as crazy when I made that same prediction to them, but at least they later admitted publicly that I'd been right.

Anyway, Operation Ivy, more than any other band, "made" Lookout Records. Sure, Green Day may have sold more records (though not by as many as you might think; I wouldn't be surprised if by now Energy, the only Op Ivy album, has sold close to a million copies, which is somewhere in the neighbourhood of what the two Green Day titles did. But if it hadn't been for Operation Ivy, it's questionable whether Lookout would have lasted long enough or had enough money to put out Green Day's albums.

When Green Day pulled their two albums from Lookout last summer over non-payment of royalties, it was disastrous for the label, which subsequently laid off all its employees and scaled back its operations to where it was basically doing little more than selling off what was left of its back catalogue. But as long as Operation Ivy remained part of that catalogue, that was no small thing. Now, however, it appears as though the other shoe has dropped, at least judging from this notice on the Lookout website, which declares both Energy and the Hectic 7" EP "out of print."

No doubt they'll eventually re-appear elsewhere, or perhaps Lookout will even work a miracle and bring them back, but for now I'm assuming the East Bay/Lookout era is about as ended as an era can be. Which of course was also how it felt last summer with the departure of Green Day, at which time I threw out some casual comments on the Pop-Punk message board that got reprinted on punknews.org, pitchfork.com, and eventually the national media and the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. They were intemperate and maybe inconsiderate - I essentially accused the new owners of Lookout of squandering their legacy and credibility on a bunch of lousy new bands while neglecting their responsibilities to the old ones - but not particularly inaccurate.

Nonetheless, even my mother had a go at me for being so "vindicative" (my mother is a very well-read woman who rarely mispronounces her words, so I knew she was genuinely displeased), and while at the time I defended myself on the grounds that I hadn't said anything that wasn't true, in the months since I've had to come round to accepting my own part in the debacle.

Yes, it's true that I had left Lookout years before they ran into financial trouble, and have done a fair bit of feeling sorry for myself that I didn't keep more money for myself if the new owners were only going to squander it anyway, but it's about time that I take some responsibility, too. The fact is that I was in such a hurry to get out from under the burden that Lookout seemed to have become by 1997 that I didn't give enough thought to what might happen to the dozens of bands that I'd signed to the label with the understanding that their records would always be kept in print and that they'd always be fairly paid for them. I conveniently (for my own purposes, anyway) assumed that the new owners would carry on as we always had, and that turned out not to be the case.

So yes, I lost a lot of money by leaving Lookout the way I did, but very possibly the bands lost even more, something at least some of those bands could afford far less than I could. And that doesn't even include the stress and negative impact on careers that came from records inexplicably going out of print or failing to be distributed, as happened to many bands when Lookout dumped Mordam for the bigger RED, which was only interested in the big sellers.

Anyway, long story short, I screwed up, big time, and let a lot of people down. Given my mental state when I left Lookout, I'm not totally sure what else I could have done, but regardless of that, what I did wasn't good enough. I've tried to make it up to those bands that I'm still in contact with by offering them whatever help or advice I could, but there are probably other bands to whom my name is still mud, and I can't say I blame them.

Water under the bridge? To a certain extent, yes, and many of the musicians who got their start on Lookout have gone on to even greater success than they might have enjoyed had both they and I stayed at Lookout. But for someone who was as arrogant and self-righteous as I frequently was during Lookout's heyday, it's important that I now acknowledge how and where I fell down pretty badly on the job. So consider it acknowledged, and if you're so inclined, please accept my apologies. It may all have gone a bit sour in the end, but at least enough music and memories came out of it to last us several lifetimes, and for the part I was privileged to play in that, I am and will always remain truly grateful.

11 comments:

Blake said...

Larry,

First I have to say that it is disappointing if indeed Lookout no longer has Operation Ivy's catalogue.

I've been dying to ask you some questions about Green Day rescinding their masters last summer.

I'm a huge Green Day fan who has been wrestling with their decision since it happened.

What do you think of Green Day's decision? I know you're long gone from Lookout, but it still is the label that got them started.

With the punk scene, it isn't supposed to be about the money, right? With their huge success with American Idiot, I find it hard to justify that they badly needed royalty payments from a small independent label that got their career started.

And what plans do they have for them? Remove them from a small independent label serves what purpose to the fans? New American Idiot fans want to hear their humble roots but can't. It's been close to a year without any word on plans for redistrubution. Will they eventually be put on Adeline so Billie can make an extra buck...

On the other hand, I can maybe look at it differently if the Lookout management were simply hording royalty payments and leeching off a band's success that they had no hand in. But considering they had to lay off most of their staff, I doubt they were sitting on a big chunk of change.

I apologize for the rant and Green Day bashing, again I'm a huge huge fan of them. I've ignored the sellout claims, beit for Dookie, Warning, or American Idiot, and I love their music to death, but this has been their one question mark in my eyes.

I don't know what to think of it, so I'm asking what you think of it all.

Thanks Larry

Larry Livermore said...

Blake, from the way I understand it, Green Day let Lookout slide for a very long time, and the amount of money Lookout owed them was hardly inconsiderable.

Could Green Day have afforded simply to write it off? No doubt they could have, and very possibly will end up having to anyway, since Lookout doesn't appear to have much left in the way of assets. But I don't think being part of "the punk scene," either past or present, obligates them to continually subsidise a label that was using money rightfully belonging to Green Day to make speculative and highly risky investments in other bands and record labels like Panic Button.

What it comes down to is: it's Green Day's money. If they want to give it away, whether to Lookout or to a more conventional charity, that's their business. If they'd prefer to have it in their own pockets, that's their business too. I thought Green Day were probably far more patient with Lookout than I would have been if I were in their position.

Blake said...

Thanks for the information Larry. It's good to know that Green Day wasn't biting at Lookout's ankles to get their masters. As I said in my first post, I don't agree with someone who played little to no part in Green Day's career leeching off their success.

Wesley said...

In response to another of Blake's questions: last I heard the plan was that the early GD albums would be rereleased on Adeline. It would indeed be a shame for them to go out of print.

Eric said...

What about the other masters, like Screeching Weasel, the Queers, MTX? Who owns the rights to those?

Larry Livermore said...

The deal with all Lookout bands, at least all those who signed when I was there (which includes Green Day, Op Ivy, Screeching Weasel, MTX and the Queers), is that the masters belonged to Lookout until or unless Lookout failed to give them regular quarterly accountings and payments. If that happened, then the bands had the right to take back their masters. Chris Appelgren, who took over Lookout after I left, gave Screeching Weasel back ownership of its masters in the belief or hope that it would foster better relations with the band and then re-licensed the masters from the band, which gave the band the right to take away its masters at the end of a contract period whether or not they were paid. He may have done this with some other bands as well, but any band who hadn't been paid for two quarters was able to take back their masters if they chose. I wrote this provision into the contracts myself for the bands' protection. As far as I know, MTX is the only band of those you mention who are still involved with Lookout.

Mully said...

I find it absurd that Green Day have been given stick for taking the masters back, they put up with late and non paid royalties for a long time, they always gave Lookout! a chance to sort it out and were more than patient waiting for their money. They could have left years ago but decided to do the right thing (probably at their expense) to stick with Lookout! as they wanted to sorta pay Lookout! back for giving them the leg up in the first place.

I doubt it's even really about the money, more the principle that they feel cheated by their friends.
I'm sure it was a hard choice for them to make but there's only so many times you can take it in the ass before you have to stand up for yourself.

tim said...

There was probably something else other than just signing "risky" bands.

GD, MTX, SW, OPIV and The Queers should have been enough to keep their heads above water, but they've also released several brilliant albums in the past few years that should have sold much better than they did.

Lookout!/Panic Button released one of the greatest rock records ever by a band called Yesterday's Kids (now called The Obsoletes, who are sitting on a fully produced album and looking for a label). It just seems like that one should have sold a berjillion copies.

Where is all that money going from Ted Leo's records? He just bailed to Touch and Go, but what happened with the cash that his albums were bringing in?

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I just know that I want the bleeding to stop. Lookout!'s brought a lot of great music into my life.

Score Card:
Screeching Weasel - Asian Man recs
The Queers - Asian Man recs
Ted Leo/RX - Touch and Go
OPIV - ?
MTX - Hasn't left yet. Another bad career decision by Dr. Frank.
YK (became Obsoletes) - 145 recs (now labeless)
Riverdales - 145 recs (labeless?)
GD - Adeline

Larry Livermore said...

Tim:

It's probably true that some of the "classic" Lookout bands could have sold a lot more records, and it's also true that Lookout in its more recent years sometimes failed to keep those records in print consistently because, supposedly, "People aren't interested in that old stuff anymore." So that probably did hurt sales, but it's difficult, impossible, really, to determine how much a record "should have sold."

That's especially true with a new or relatively unknown band. I had a pretty good track record at picking which bands would sell and which wouldn't, but still, there were times when bands I thought deserved to be massive struggled to break even, and other times when bands far exceeded my expectations.

The whole Panic Button thing, which included Yesterday's Kids, was a debacle that not only caused a lot of great bands (Lillingtons were another) to get lost in the shuffle, but also played a significant role in destroying Lookout. I wasn't involved in it at all, having left Lookout years before, but my understanding of it was that Chris agreed to buy Panic Button for what may or may not have been a fair price, but was far more than Lookout could afford, perhaps in hopes that it would help him stay on good terms with Ben Weasel. The amount that he ended up paying for Panic Button would have been enough to pay off Lookout's debt to Green Day.

Not only that, but trying to absorb a label as large and with so many bands as Panic Button had, especially when the kind of music Panic Button specialised in was no longer in favour at Lookout, was kind of like a snake trying to swallow and digest a house. It was never going to work, and everybody lost out, except of course for Ben and his partner John Jughead, who got a very substantial payout. Pity about the bands, though.

Anonymous said...

Larry,

Not sure we ever had a contract, I'm not even sure we had a hand shake agreement. For us it was an amazing thing just to be selected to be part of Lookout Records. Hard to believe it was almost 20 years ago. I guess all good things must die eventually...

Steve
LR013

Greyson said...

I do think that it was good that Green Day did what they did. As a musician know-a-days it's hard enough to make it. So, I think you have to do what you have to do in situations like that. Hey Larry thanks for signing Green Day, or I wouldn't have anything to listen to.