Losers, take note: Deliberately getting dropped from your major label and committing career suicide may be the best path to success. Local music label Ipecac has the story to prove it.
The five-man label's cofounders Greg Werckman and Mike Patton (formerly of Faith No More) have been stunned by their recent successes a new distribution deal with Universal's Fontana and the addition of Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) to the roster as well as those of 2006. Last year, Ipecac signees Peeping Tom toured with the Who, Isis backed Tool, and 25-year-old Seattle rock lions the Melvins enjoyed an unprecedented renaissance. This year, Jeordie White and Chris Goss from Eagles of Death Metal will release a Goon Moon collaboration on Ipecac, and NorCal metal band Hella goes from two men to five on its latest release.
All of this creative weirdness emanates from the one-exit East Bay enclave of Orinda, pop. 18,000. The 42-year-old Werckman resides with his wife and their four-year-old daughter in the upscale suburb just east of the Caldecott and operates Ipecac from a backyard cottage. The label was launched in 1998 by Patton and Werckman, whose friendship was rooted in videogames and basketball, plus their professional artist-manager relationship.
At that time, former Faith No More frontman Patton was working on Fantômas, his side project with the Melvins' Buzz Osborne, Slayer's Dave Lombardo, and Mr. Bungle's Trevor Dunn. The project had suitors, but none seemed the right fit. Besides, Warner owned Patton via Bungle and Faith No More.
Patton and his manager took the finished Fantômas record to their Warner rep and asked to be dropped. "We played it for Howie Klein to get his permission to take it elsewhere," Werckman says. "His face just went blank. He said, 'What is this? Yeah, take it. Please. Take it out of my office. Go find a home for it.'"
Warner freed Fantômas to roam alongside another homeless Patton mutation titled Maldoror, featuring Japanese noise guitarist Masami Akita, aka Merzbow. Patton's pals the Melvins also needed a home. "We were like, 'God, should we do this on our own?'" says Werckman, who spent eight years managing Jello Biafra's label, Alternative Tentacles. "Well, it doesn't take a genius to say, 'Okay. I got this Fantômas. I got this Maldoror project where I'm not sure what would happen. I've got the Melvins. That's a record label.'
"Right away we had distributors lining up, which was very shocking," he continues. "The first record was Fantômas, and we decided that if we can find ten to twenty thousand people in the world that will buy this record, then let's give each other honorary platinum records. The week before the record came out, Caroline, our distributor, called and said, 'Hey, those twenty thousand records you made? We sold them. We need you to make another twenty.' So we were off."
In all, 43 artists have released 56 titles on Ipecac, including soundtrack rarities from filmmaker Ennio Morricone and New Jersey hip-hoppers Dälek. The Melvins dominate the lineup with fourteen releases. "Buzz came to us and said, 'Would you like to help us commit career suicide?'" Werckman recalls. "We said, 'Yeah, Buzz.' And the retailers and the distributors were like, 'Please, please don't do this.'" Ipecac went ahead and punched out seven new Melvins seven-inches one a week for seven weeks. Fans went nuts. "It's stunning. They deserve it," Werckman says.
Ipecac proceeds modestly, pressing no more than twenty thousand units at a time, and advances range from $5,000 for Pollard's latest all the way down to $650 for the Eagles of Death Metal's Peace Love Death Metal. Yet this Queens of the Stone Age spinoff band has blown past the 100,000-unit sales mark, and distribution costs hardly dent royalties from a tiny investment that has netted hundreds of thousands of dollars. "Every six months I send those guys the fattest royalty checks," Werckman says. "It's great. It's the way it should be. Even bands that are very successful when they get royalty checks from us, they're stunned."
Ipecac's minimal-overhead model means the label doesn't do big-budget videos or pay retailers and magazines for space in your face. Furthermore, the label solely inks one-album deals, and thus doesn't own its artists a poison pill for any major suitor seeking to acquire it. "Lawyers or businesspeople call us morons for only doing one-record deals," Werckman scoffs. "They say, 'You're not really anything, then.' Well, we like our catalogue. We like the records we put out. Our bands aren't rushing away. Our job isn't to own any artist. We're here to put out the art that people create."
And the artists have responded. Every day, P.O. Box 1778 in Orinda overflows with demos of edgy weirdness bands that want to be the next Bungle or Melvins. "It's pretty out of control," the cofounder says. "We get hundreds a week now. When it first happened I was so excited. ... Now I get yelled at by the post office because it's jam-packed and I don't go enough."
Ipecac's 2007 schedule affords little room for new bands, and the label refuses to hire more staff. As the rest of the team relocates to Los Angeles, Werckman says Ipecac HQ will stay local. Orinda has world-class schools, and the Indiana native can't bear to part with Zachary's Pizza, Berkeley's Amoeba Music, and Tucker's Ice Cream in Alameda. "I keep trying to convince Patton to move out here," he says. "I'm Mr. East Bay. All the way." David Downs
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