When Seattlites Josh Rosenfeld and Christopher Possanza formed Barsuk Records and began releasing albums in 1998, the label was merely a fun little hobby. But the hobby soon grew into a job, as the label became an influential fixture in both the Seattle and national music scene. Over the past 15 years, Barsuk Records has helped shape the modern perception of indie rock. In many ways, Barsuk was to the indie rock boom of the early 2000s what Sub Pop was to the grunge movement of the '90s. The label has also provided a home to some of Seattle's best indie rock bands and singer-songwriters including the Long Winters, Jesse Sykes, David Bazan, Say Hi, Rocky Votolato, and—most notably—Death Cab for Cuite. The label managed to survive the music industry's digital downturn, and this week it'll celebrate a decade and a half of existence with four nights of sold out concerts spread across town.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Rosenfeld about how Barsuk has changed over the past 15 years, existing in Sub Pop's shadow, and unsustainable business practices.
How did the idea for these Barsuk’s 15th anniversary concerts come about?
Well, we hadn’t really done an anniversary celebration or really anything that’s pulled all the bands together. We thought about doing one five years ago around our tenth, and we have this hilarious mutual joke going on with Sub Pop because they’re ten years ahead of us, so our big anniversaries keep lining up. And that year we were just sort of behind the ball and they had their big 20th anniversary stuff going. This time around, we got out ahead of it pretty far and it seemed like bands were interested in doing something and kind of getting the whole family together. Because we are all kind of nice Seattle people here, we were all able to coordinate with Sub Pop and make sure that we’re not overlapping our timelines and figure out a way we could both have a celebration in the same year.
Is there a feeling that Barsuk is somewhat in the shadow of Sub Pop?
There is. I mean, not in a hyper-competitive way—and certainly not in a resentful way on any level—but there’s definitely a feeling of being a record label in Seattle operating in Sub Pop’s shadow in certain ways over the years. In general, we know and love the people who work at Sub Pop, and we’ve had a good relationship with them forever. We share some artists in common and our bands tour together and stuff. Both Sub Pop and Barsuk have a fair amount of interest in being involved in the Seattle community, and in supporting each other. It definitely would’ve been easy to just say, oh well, Sub Pop is doing some big thing this year and it will probably involve the Space Needle, and they’ll have the streets of downtown rearranged to see a Sub Pop logo when seen from above. [Laughs] Our style and their style are very different and the ways in which we are approaching our celebrations are fairly different. I think there’s a little bit of a conscious desire to not try to copy their ideas about stuff. We actually have toyed with things in the past, like, “Crap, let’s just do like a sweet sixteen.” But in the end, it’s fine.
What do you think are some of the defining characteristics of Barsuk and artists on the label?
In the early days of Barsuk, we were a very Seattle-centric label, because Barsuk started the way so many good indie labels have started over the years: Cause Christopher and I were in a band (This Busy Monster), and we were playing shows with other bands we liked and we started to figure out how to put out our own music and sort of help other bands put out their music. When we were first starting the label we didn’t know what we were doing, we were just guys in a band who worked at record stores. We got help in trying to figure out what it is like to be a record label from people like (Sub Pop’s) Megan Jasper or Chris Takino at Up Records. It grew out of this local community, so almost all the bands that we signed were from Seattle or the Northwest.
Then we started to sign a few bands that toured with bands that were on our roster, like John Vanderslice in San Francisco. It wasn’t until maybe four or five years in that we started to sign bands that were from far-flung places. We signed Nada Surf in 2003, and actually Nada Surf to me is a really great example of a band that I’m really proud of working with. Because at the time we signed with them to put out their album Let Go, they were part of this spate of bands that had been signed to major labels—actually a lot of them were signed to Electra—who had a record come out with a hit on it and then the label wasn’t hearing the hits in the future and they got dropped. I think a lot of people felt like Nada Surf at the time were these kind of like one-hit wonder, career-is-now-over type of bands, and they made a tremendous album that, frankly, no one was really interested in. But we heard it, and we loved it, and we got a little bit of cool kid blowback when we said we were going to be putting that record out, ‘cause people just thought of them as this major label novelty hit band, and I think a lot of people now acknowledge that that album now is a little bit of an indie classic. We’ve just had this really strong focus from the beginning on putting out music that we really like, that we believe in, and sometimes the earth agrees with us and we sell a lot of copies and bands get huge, and sometimes people don’t agree as much, but that has kind of been the guiding principle of Barsuk over the years.
The thing about Barsuk is that it has grown in this really cool kind of self-sustaining way. The way we structure our deals with bands from the beginning is, I think, a very equitable, easy to understand, non-exploitative thing, going both directions. Actually, I think labels get screwed over by bands maybe more frequently than they are screwed over by labels, but in our case that hasn’t been the case. During a time in the last several years when the music business and the record business in particular have been really hurting, we’re doing all right. We’re hurting a lot less than other people.
How do you feel things have changed at Barsuk over 15 years in terms of the label’s sound?
I think our taste has developed over 15 years and changed a little bit in terms of what kinds of things feel to us like they could be a band we could release. In the early years, most of the stuff we were doing fit fairly nicely and even helps to define the kind of what people think about as indie rock from the ‘90s. I want to clarify: I don’t think we were like, pioneers of sound necessarily, but I think, you know, Death Cab has definitely, in their way, helped to define a certain sound. I think our artists fit into that.
And then a few years in, we signed Jesse Sykes. Her first record that we put out is a rerelease of Reckless Burning, which another local label, Burn Burn Burn, had already released. That one sounds like it’s this kind of glacial Americana, it almost sounds like a Richard and Linda Thompson record. And that felt like, “Oh, I don’t know what are people going to think if we put this out,” but people liked it. And it was kind of a similar thing when we signed Phantogram. That wasn’t a particularly Barsuk-y sound, but it has worked well. So, I think the common thread through all of it is all the artists that we work with have got at least one thing about them that’s like really extraordinary and unique that sets them apart from their peers. That’s what we try to do.
How has Barusk’s business model changed since its inception?
On the business side, things have changed massively. [Laughs] Well, we’re still very idealistic, but we’ve become a lot more pragmatic over the years, because when it started off it was literally this hobby thing that we didn’t think was ever going to turn in a career. And our first deals with bands were, like, hilariously lopsided. Like we were offering bands 80 percent of profits and doing things that were completely not sustainable from a business perspective. And to their credit people like Death Cab at one point were like, “Hey, Josh, you can’t keep doing this, you need to keep more of the money.” [Laughs] And to have those interactions with artists, I think that’s a really great anecdote about the kind of vibe that has existed at the label for our entire history: this very collaborative and, hopefully, mutually very beneficial in every case type of relationship.
If you weren’t running Barsuk, are there any other lines of work that you think you might’ve been interested in pursuing?
I probably would be either a teacher of elementary school children, or a mechanical engineer, or an accountant. [Laughs] I used to be a musician, which is how Barsuk started, but you’ll notice that’s not on my list.
Beyond starting with a bunch of Seattle artists, are there any characteristics of Barsuk that you feel like tie into a distinctly Seattle mentality?
I don’t think Barsuk would exist in any other place, and I think this is true of Sub Pop too. Seattle as a music culture is so different from New York, or L.A., or Nashville, but it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what it is that’s so different about it. In the end, I guess it kind of just comes down to a kind of feeling. Like I think Seattle always is, in the music industry at least, a little bit of a backwater, even though there is so much music business that is happening in Seattle and so many great bands that come from here and from the Northwest in general. It just feels a little bit insulated, and so there’s just less BS.
Is there any show in the Barsuk 15th anniversary lineup that you’re particularly excited about?
Oh, I love all my children the same.
Barsuk Records 15th Anniversary
Nov 7–10, various venues, sold out