It's been a big month for Syd Butler, bassist for Les Savy Fav and, as he calls himself, the “head guy, main dude, president and CEO” of Frenchkiss Records. About two weeks ago the label released Les Savy Fav's first album of new material in six years, Let's Stay Friends, to widespread critical acclaim.
Butler, 35, founded Frenchkiss in 1999 and has grown the business into the popular independent label now home to such varied acts as Thunderbirds are Now!, Fatal Flying Guillotines, Rahim, and The Big Sleep.
Though Les Savy Fav's The Cat and the Cobra was the first album Frenchkiss released, Butler never intended that the label be merely a vehicle for the band. “I wanted to work with bands that were trying really hard to approach music differently,” he says. A self-described “Dischord brat,” Butler drew inspiration from that label's powerful roster of bands and the close community of musicians and fans it worked hard to foster in his childhood home of Washington, DC.
This personal approach to label management has become increasingly rare in Butler's home of New York City, where the music scene has been under the microscope since local bands like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs won international fame early in the decade. Still, Butler remains confident in the power of small record labels. While a major label might have the resources to “poach” an act by outbidding him, Frenchkiss commits to its artists rather than dropping them after an unsuccessful album. He is fond of the saying, “A slow dime is better than a fast nickel.”
In the beginning, Frenchkiss signed mostly bands whose members Butler knew personally. Most of these early groups, he explains, were playing “music that didn't fit in anywhere else.” Erick Jackson, 35, of The Apes describes the DC-based group's initial interactions with the label as casual. When Butler, who had attended Rhode Island School of Design with the band, asked whether they would be interested in signing with Frenchkiss, Jackson remembers thinking, “Yeah, that's cool. Let's make a record.” (The Apes have since moved on to Gypsy Eyes, a small, hometown label that will release their new album, Ghost Games, in February.)
This lack of emphasis on marketability still remains with the label, though Butler's initial signings were successful enough to support significant growth since 1999. Now Frenchkiss receives several thousand demos a year, many in the form of requests to listen to songs on artists' MySpace pages. When he hears something he likes, Butler begins a conversation with the band and attends a performance in order to determine “how [the musicians] respond to a live situation.” He admits that though he doesn't like to put pressure on bands he'd like to sign, “Sometimes I fall in love with a band and chase them around the country,” hoping to get them on board.
Beyond sheer musical talent, an artist's personality is an important factor in Frenchkiss's signing decisions. Butler will not work with any band that he can't imagine going out for beers with and needs to feel assured that all the musicians on the label are “good people” who will represent Frenchkiss well. It is vital, he says, for bands to be approachable to their fans. Despite the flood of possible acquisitions, Butler sticks to his original philosophy, seeking out authentic acts who “have an itch they can't scratch until they're making music.”
As a musician, Butler is well acquainted with this compulsion to create, and Frenchkiss prioritizes the individual needs of its diverse bands. “I can relate to musicians better than I can relate to A&R people,” he explains. “I've made that drive from San Francisco to Seattle. I know what their needs are on the road, because those are my needs, too.”
Frenchkiss acts remark upon the rarity of Butler's approach, even within the independent music world. The Big Sleep signed with the label in 2005 and released the album Son of the Tiger the following year. Guitarist Danny Barria, 31, appreciates that the label's small roster enables his band to receive ample attention. “When you don't have a zillion bands,” says Barria, “you don't drop the ball.” He also commends Butler's willingness to give the group space. “Syd is as hands-on as you want him to be,” he says, noting that when a band is in the studio, it needs the freedom to write and record without interference from a label.
Butler traces this philosophy to his annoyance as a child with hockey coaches who yelled, “Shoot!” as he neared the goal, as though he didn't already know what to do. “That kind of energy,” he says, with characteristic candor, “drives me fucking insane.”
While Butler doesn't know what the future will bring for Frenchkiss or for the indie world in general, he has a good idea that change is inevitable. “The paradigm of a label will be shifting,” he explains, as it becomes easier and easier for artists to record at home on the cheap and many bands have begun releasing albums with little, if any, assistance from labels or management companies.
In another corner of the industry, Butler laments the state of music journalism. He wishes that, for once, journalists would talk about his band's music instead of relying on anecdotes about lead singer Tim Harrington's onstage theatrics. “People used to write about songs and records,” he says. “Now they write about antics.”
For now, though, he has a lot to look forward to. In addition to Les Savy Fav's week-long European tour beginning October 20th, Frenchkiss will put out an unprecedented six releases in the coming year. Among these is a new album called Quantum Fucking, due out later this month from The Fatal Flying Guilloteens, about whom Butler enthuses, “Their live shows kick [Les Savy Fav's] asses.” He is also excited about the new Big Sleep record, slated for a February '08 release. “They're just hitting their stride,” he says.
It may be possible to imagine a music industry without record labels and management companies, but here's hoping that there will always be space for people like Syd Butler who still privilege the power of music over the allure of the bottom line.
Official site: www.frenchkissrecords.com