Kerplunk 

The rise and fall of the Lookout Records empire.

Page 7 of 8

Appelgren, ultimately, has tried at every turn to avoid resting on his label's financial and artistic laurels. "We put out these definitive bands in these styles of music, and I would like to move on and put out definitive bands in new places," he says. "Green Day was initially not allowed to play at Gilman because they didn't sound punk enough. And if you think about how they've gone on to define punk for millions of people, it's interesting, and I'm always kinda thinking that maybe there's something else new and exciting that can do that same thing."


Lookout's Austerity Plan

Lookout may be wide open for hindsight-saturated criticism, but most of the barbs are oversimplified. Despite the Donnas-style sonic experimentation, the label has always valued consistent purveyors of pop punk, from the bratty Queers to the literary wit of Mr. T Experience. And its more indie-rock dabblings have brought success -- politically charged punk troubadour Ted Leo, recording as Ted Leo/Pharmacists, has released three albums and a few EPs to impressive sales and beaming accolades from the Spin/Pitchfork set. Leo, who has reinvested some of his royalties in an effort to keep Lookout afloat -- "Sucker," Michalski cracks -- has nothing but praise for the label he may now have to abandon: "They have really, really, really made me feel just absolutely great about working with them, for years. And if this hadn't happened, even without a contract, I would've continued to work with them."

Even Lookout's more vocal critics fall short of personal shots: "I think Chris and Molly and Cathy are awesome people," Fat Mike says. "I think they're all swell. I've always gotten along great with Chris. I think he's always tried very hard." Livermore himself admits the rules have changed completely: "When Lookout first put the modern form of punk rock on the map, it was easy, because we had almost no competition. Now there's almost cutthroat competition from some very professional operations, and who knows if I'd be able to keep up with it if I were still in the business?"

But Larry's criticism has been the hardest for Appelgren. When Green Day's decision was made public, Livermore -- who now resides in England and says he's crafting his memoirs -- resurfaced, and his sharp-edged message-board posts defended Green Day by trashing Lookout. Comments such as "No matter how rich a band is, they shouldn't be expected to subsidize a failing label forever, especially when that label isn't doing anything particularly worthwhile" made it into Pitchfork and the local press.

"When I saw those posts, I spoke to Larry -- I was really upset, and I thought, 'If you want to say something, if you have an opinion, or if you want to know really what happened, you should contact me,'" Appelgren recalls. "There was always a sense that I had something to prove to him, 'cause when he left Lookout, he thought he was leaving because it was done. One of the ideas he proposed was, 'Why don't we just end it? Why don't we just stop it here? Quit while we're ahead?' And I felt like that wasn't doing a service to these relationships we'd had, I felt like we were successful, and while maybe he was in his forties at the time and I was 23, I felt challenged, and I felt like I couldn't go to him for advice or counsel. I was trying to prove to him that I could pull this off."

Now Appelgren has a chance to shock everyone by pulling Lookout out of this mess, but it's an enormous one: He is in considerable debt to Green Day royaltywise -- "While it might not be a fortune by Green Day's standards, by almost any other band's (or person's), it would be," Livermore offers -- and with no new bands and records to generate fresh interest, and income, it's unclear how he'll dredge up that kind of cash. "Chris says they're gonna continue; they're gonna release records in 2006," Townley notes. "To be blunt, I'll believe that when I see it."

Lookout hopes to have its long-range battle plan in place by the end of the year. Perhaps the label will indeed break new bands and records again someday, or perhaps merely survive on sales of its still-impressive back catalogue. In the meantime, Appelgren has plenty of time -- and space -- to contemplate.

"I think the thing I've done wrong that's clear to me is not addressing issues when they're smaller, not addressing issues of financial shortfall before they became more and more difficult to manage," he concludes. "I think that's really the root of our problems. Maybe it all comes down to being a little bit naive. Or a lot naive."

Cole Haddon contributed reporting to this story.

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