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Too Much, Too Fast
The things that define you can also haunt you, and Lookout has formidable ghouls in both Green Day and Larry Livermore. The label's cofounder -- his original partner, David Hayes, jumped ship in 1989 -- is a mythical East Bay figure, a then-forty-year-old guru who came down from the mountain of northern Mendocino County, beheld the vibrant pop-punk scene seizing the 924 Gilman warehouse, and immediately grasped its genius and marketability. "With both Operation Ivy and Green Day, I knew within thirty seconds of the first time I saw them that they had the potential to be great, and that I wanted to do a record with them," he recalls via e-mail. "My admirers call me a genius, and my detractors say I was just plain lucky."
Like most underground labels, Lookout began as a devoutly homegrown affair that held disdain for major-label greed and stood for DIY punk ideals like fairness and friendship before commerce. "I didn't expect it to get too big, though in the back of my mind I certainly thought it was possible," Livermore says. "I knew that the bands we were seeing at Gilman were as good as or better than anything I was hearing on the radio or seeing in other clubs, so I thought that if there was any justice, some of them should make it big."
The early Lookout bands were largely tied to the Gilman scene, with local stalwarts such as Crimpshrine, Neurosis, The Mr. T Experience, and Samiam filling the roster. When the majors eventually came calling, Op Ivy imploded at the prospect of fame and fortune, but Green Day proved willing and extremely able. "To me it mostly meant writing more zeros on the checks and realizing I probably wasn't going to have to go back on welfare anytime soon," Livermore says.
But the downside of Lookout's newfound success was immediately evident. With serious cash now at stake, the band-versus-label spats that plague any label only got more heated: One ugly dispute between Livermore and Chicago punk band Screeching Weasel arose from Lookout's complicated royalty arrangement, a painstakingly detailed 60/40 split between band and label, respectively, of both costs and profits. Frontman Ben Weasel insisted he was getting ripped off, a charge Livermore vehemently denies; Bill Michalski, a friend of Weasel's who went on to serve as Lookout's accountant from August 1998 to August 2000, admits the bookkeeping could easily generate confusion and dissent. "You get a UPS bill -- there was a package sent to promoters in Europe," Michalski says, offering an example. "Four bands would go on tour, and you had to figure out by weight how much the promo materials weighed for each band, and divide that up between their releases. Everything was expensed out that way. Because of that intricacy, Ben Weasel just assumed they were trying to cheat him, because he didn't understand it. But they weren't trying to cheat him." (Ben Weasel declined an interview for this article on the advice of his lawyer.)
The dispute drove the parties to the brink of a court battle. And while Livermore was prepared to take that step to earn vindication, his most enthusiastic young employee -- Appelgren -- stepped in and appealed on Screeching Weasel's behalf. "Our agreements all say that our contract is based on friendship and trust, and here was a situation where that friendship and trust was breaking down," Appelgren recalls. "And I thought it was more important to try and come from that place. Kind of an idealistic approach, I guess."
Livermore eventually relented: He and co-owner Patrick Hynes agreed to sell their stake in Lookout to Appelgren, whose first big move was to re-sign Screeching Weasel to a new, less opaque royalty arrangement, albeit one Michalski suspects actually cost the band money. Soon thereafter, Weasel convinced Appelgren to purchase Weasel's own small pop-punk label, Panic Button, a move Livermore now cites as a financially devastating act of appeasement: "I'm not in position to give an exact dollar figure, but put it this way: It would have easily been enough to pay off all of Green Day's back royalties." Appelgren concedes it was a bad move. "I would not recommend buying a label to anyone," he allows.
Despite his efforts, Screeching Weasel eventually jumped ship and now works with South Bay imprint Asian Man. And while the circumstances were more complicated than the classic label-screws-band sob story, Weasel's allegations made the rounds of the credulous underground, adding to an accumulating lore of Lookout business squabbles.
It's tough, however, to really get to the bottom of that lore, since many key players are reluctant to go public -- Appelgren wouldn't discuss specific disputes, and even bands that allegedly were wronged tend to be tight-lipped. Avail, a vaunted East Coast punk outfit once rumored to be preparing a lawsuit against Lookout, declined an interview, citing good friendship over bad business.
Indeed, Green Day may have been the first band owed enough to risk an unflattering public fight. The delinquent royalties accumulated gradually, and fairly recently -- Michalski and Townley say Green Day was largely paid up as the '90s drew to an end. Not fully paid up, though. "I think they were stiffing everybody equally," Michalski says. "I don't think it was a decision to do that -- I think they just made such bad business decisions, they just found themselves with no money to do it. When I was there, Green Day and Op Ivy were always top of the list -- we paid them before we paid anyone else. [Lookout was] aware of the fact that those guys could sink or swim the label."
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