Kerplunk 

The rise and fall of the Lookout Records empire.

Page 5 of 8

Indeed, the tail end of Livermore's reign was hardly an austere affair. When he abdicated in '97, Lookout was operating its ambitious retail store and mail-order office. It was a venture both Appelgren and Livermore concede lost money in a simultaneous attempt to battle rival label Epitaph and retailer Amoeba Music.

Yet even in the punk world, the mid-'90s alt-rock boom brought a certain logic to the "spend more to make more" strategy. Post-Nirvana and Green Day, the market became flooded with indie labels, artists, and media attention that simply hadn't existed when Larry Livermore first shook hands with Op Ivy. Young bands desperate for attention in an oversaturated and fiercely competitive national punk scene began badgering their labels for promotion. "When the band and the label are united in saying, 'We want to do this as cheaply and economically as possible,' then I think that's a great situation," Appelgren says. "If that's not the case, and one side is trying to be economic and another side isn't, that's gonna be really problematic, and you have to move to a more conventional deal structure, 'cause we had to recoup some of the money we were being asked to spend."

That pressure led to some tough decisions -- in the late '90s, for instance, Lookout switched distributors from the similarly homegrown Mordam to the more establishment-oriented, and reputedly professional, RED. This struck Michalski as a petulant abandoning-your-roots miscue, but he nonetheless echoes Appelgren's contention that the label's hand was all but forced by touring Lookout artists furious that they couldn't find their CDs in out-of-town record stores.

In any event, Appelgren was on his own, because Livermore didn't want to deal. "I was sick of it, partly because I was feeling like Lookout was turning into something very different from what I had intended, and partly because it wasn't fun anymore," Livermore recalls. "I loved discovering bands, starting new things, inventing new ways of getting things done. But what I didn't enjoy was sitting in an office fielding requests and demands to spend ever-increasing amounts of money on what I thought was a foolish attempt to mimic the bloated excesses of the major labels."

And that, for both close associates and the anonymous sea of message-board armchair quarterbacks, is the one-line criticism of Appelgren's Lookout Records: He tried too hard to act like a major. "They started acting like they had Sony or Warner Bros.' budget, when they didn't," Michalski says.

The trouble is that plenty of major-label releases also flop, despite massive expenditures on magazine ads, glitzy videos, and whatever form of surreptitious radio payola is in vogue this month. The dominant philosophy here is not exactly elegant: Throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.

As Lookout's former accountant, Michalski has several examples of shit the label threw, both mundane and outlandish. "There's just a billion little things that added up to big things," he says. "The tendency to overnight everything to everybody, even when you could send it regular mail and it would get there in plenty of time. Just dumb things like that, you know? Because that somehow made them seem more important." He also cites pricier examples of hubris, such as Lookout's ploy to break into airline in-flight playlists, a venture that never got off the ground. "That's so crazy," he says. "You must have to pay a ton of money to get songs on that shit." Michalski is particularly rankled by the label's bumbling with regard to the Warped Tour, the summertime punk-rock roadshow that hits four dozen cities, and by the late 1990s was a necessity for any label coveting the Teenage Mall of America demographic. In 2000, Lookout dropped $50,000 to secure a booth in the festival's power alley of merchandise and promo stands, but failed to spend the cash needed to properly stock it with giveaways. "Fifty thousand dollars will get you in the door, but you're gonna need $250,000 or $300,000 to make an impression on all those kids," Michalski says. "If you don't have, like, free stickers to give away or whatever -- [Lookout] didn't have money for any of that other kind of shit once they paid to get on the tour. Epitaph and everybody's giving away all this shit, and everybody's 'Woo! Hey! Epitaph,' and, like, 'Uhh, Lookout sucks, they had an empty booth.'"

Such escapades are clearly over. "We looked long and hard at our situation and what we would need to do for Lookout to continue and build back up to a secure, solvent business," Appelgren wrote in an open letter posted at LookoutRecords.com. "We're a very small business, and we had to start acting like it."


American Teen Media Machine

All this is not to suggest that Lookout didn't score some publicity coups in its glory days. For example, though they might've caused as many problems for the label as they solved, it's hard to ignore the Donnas.

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