Kerplunk 

The rise and fall of the Lookout Records empire.

Page 6 of 8

The Donnas rattle cages by design: how they look, what they play, what they represent. For Livermore, the all-female quartet is the epitome of Lookout's wasteful, overpromoting, quasimajor ways: "They threw so much money at the Donnas, it might have been more efficient for Lookout simply to send a $15 check to every kid in America and tell them to use it to go buy a Donnas record."

Appelgren laughs that off: "We did not spend that much money on the Donnas. I promise." Tristin Laughter, the label's former publicity guru and one of the six employees let go post-Green Day, concurs. "The Donnas got tons of national press and attention from almost the moment we signed them," she writes via e-mail. "Interest in the Donnas had a lot of sources: their charisma, charm, humor, the fact that they were so young, women, they played rock 'n' roll, the fact that they were kind of post-feminists, the Runaways vibe, etc. etc. etc."

Yes, et cetera. The Donnas began as four underage tarts from Palo Alto with a blatantly Ramonesy pop-punk style -- dressing alike and taking the names Donna A, Donna R, Donna F, and Donna C -- who dominated Lookout's roster from 1998 (American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine) to 2001 (The Donnas Turn 21). Horny teenagers and horny old rock critics immediately adored them -- it's entirely possible the band received more column inches of press than every other post-Green Day Lookout band combined, a media obsession that only escalated as their photos got more glamorous and their sound veered farther from the Ramones and closer to Mötley Crüe. Managed by Lookout co-owner Neuman, the band's ascension to the majors (Atlantic released Spend the Night in 2002, which spawned the hit single "Take It Off") and the cool-kid major leagues (a slot on 2003's Lollapalooza tour) was inevitable, but it inevitably rankles fans of bands like Crimpshrine who find it all a bit crass.

Even the Donnas' labelmates bitched at Appelgren, justifiably jealous at the effortless acres of magazine coverage the band farmed. Like his ex-publicist, Appelgren says he had little to do with it: "A lot of what happened to the Donnas was not because we spent more money -- maybe they were more novel, but we were responding to demand. We didn't create that demand."

Regardless, the Donnas effectively cemented Lookout's newfound image as a label willing to promote like a big shot and tinker with a sound some fans still hold sacred. Michael Burkett, aka Fat Mike, finds fault with both of these aspects. He's the frontman for beloved West Coast punk band NOFX and impresario of Fat Wreck Chords, a label remarkable both for the consistency of its sound (melodic punk) and its sales goals (a couple hundred thousand units). "Thanks for saying 'consistent,'" he cracks. "Some might say our bands all sound the same." His ultimate aim is less ambitious than Lookout's, but far more attainable: "We're not a label that breaks bands," Fat Mike notes. "We fix bands." Indeed, Fat has worked with several Lookout defectors, including Avail and Screeching Weasel.

Burkett takes the Larry Livermore approach to promotion: Screw it. "Lookout didn't end up making money on the Donnas, with all the money they spent," he says. "I mean, the fuckin' Donnas were on the cover of Spin and in Rolling Stone and shit, they were all over MTV, and they don't even have a gold record to show for it."

To support his anti-promo argument, Burkett cites another quasi-indie that often promotes like a major: Epitaph, the Los Angeles province of guitarist Brett Gurewitz, whose popular punk band Bad Religion provided the early revenues, enjoyed its own mid-'90s breakout band the Offspring, and has since combined Fat's sonic consistency (plenty of Warped-ready punk acts) with Lookout's quest for something bigger. Take the Distillers, a female-fronted scuzz-rock sensation that broke out in 2002 with Sing Sing Death House and succeeded wildly, in part because the album was promoted half to death. "Brett from Epitaph told me he spent $9 per CD marketing the Distillers [approximate list price: $13], because he thought they were gonna be big," Burkett recalls.

Even with top-selling Fat Wreck bands such as NOFX or No Use for a Name, Fat Mike says he aims to spend around a dollar per CD in promo; Lookout's approach under Appelgren veered closer to the Distillers model. Pansy Division's big push also worked out to about $9 in promo per $13 disc.

As for the classic Lookout pop-punk sound best embodied by bands such as Crimpshrine and the Queers, Burkett warily eyes Appelgren's willingness to abandon it, and cites that as one of the label's primary faults. "They signed more garage bands. Garage bands are real hip, but they don't sell," he says. "They stopped signing melodic East Bay punk bands. They went for more of the guitar-driven stuff."

The debate about how predictable a label's sound should be is as inevitable as it is complicated; Fat Mike's hard-line approach leaves little room for the sudden, lucrative breakout successes Lookout desired. Livermore also laments the loss of that East Bay pop-punk ideal, but most prominent indie labels have no choice but to diversify: Epitaph traditionally favors Warped-style punk but still backs cracked troubadour Tom Waits and hip-hop rabble-rousers including Sage Francis and the Coup. Seattle's Sub Pop -- the other great Lookout analogue, best known for giving Nirvana its start -- eventually strayed from its grunge roots, struggled to reorient itself, and is now healthier than ever thanks to comparatively sunny indie-pop tastemakers like the Postal Service and the Shins.

In these cases, the equation is simple: Good music sells, genre be damned. But Lookout's gambles -- such as Appelgren's own late-'90s garage band the Pattern, and this year's indie-rock signing Hockey Night -- have struggled to find audiences, and now seem like bad promotional bets regardless of sound or image. "Putting out records is fundamentally speculative," explains Sub Pop marketing chief Chris Jacobs. "Mostly, we try to keep our expectations and our budgets reasonable so that even our small bets pay off."

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