That "nice guys finish last" cliché is such bullshit, and Barusk Records prove it. For 15 years, the Seattle-based record label has worked hard to be an artist-friendly label, and they've been able to survive and adapt in an ever-changing, often-tumultuous environment without sacrificing their ultimate goal of putting out good music made by good people. That's no small feat! To celebrate their 15th anniversary, the label has gathered together bands and musicians from both the present and the past for a four-night party, featuring performances from Nada Surf, the Long Winters, Jesse Sykes, Rocky Votolato, Say Hi, and more. (See the full schedule at barsuk.com/xv.)
I spoke with label cofounder Josh Rosenfeld about Barsuk's past and future, because even though they already have 15 years in the bag, they don't have any plans to stop anytime soon.
Looking over the last 15 years worth of artists you've worked with, obviously you have the big successes that everyone's familiar with, but Barsuk has this underappreciated side. Bands like the Prom, they came and they went, but they were so fucking great. Do you have any favorite bands like that? Either ones that broke up before they got too big, or ones you really wish had sold more records? I do indeed. And some of them are playing on these anniversary shows, coincidentally. I was very, very excited when the Prom confirmed because I feel the same way that you do about them. Similarly, Sunset Valley—I love Sunset Valley. They were around for a while, but they just never developed a big fan base for a variety of reasons. The records that they put out—in fact, most of them are not on Barsuk—are so good. I'm really excited that they're playing. I think their album Ice Pond remains one of the best things that we've ever released.
There's only so much a label and a publicist can do to promote a record, and sometimes people just don't grasp on to it. How does that feel, from a personal perspective, when you love a record and it's just not doing well? I would go crazy. I would take it personally and scream, "Fuck everything, you're all insane!" [Laughs] I have had that feeling on occasion. It's more difficult now to keep people's attention on a new band long enough to fall in love with it, and I think a lot of it has to do with the internet. There's this real fetishization of newness that the internet has helped transmit throughout our culture—the feeling that things need to be immediate. And it's extremely frustrating, to answer your question, when there's something that, for whatever reason, just doesn't get that cultural traction. A month after an album comes out, unless Pitchfork gave it 'best new music,' it gets really, really hard for it to stick with people, you know? It just gets lost in the shuffle. That is both frustrating from a business perspective and really heartbreaking because the records were put out by people we love making music we love, so that's tough.
It seems like modern fans aren't allowing bonds to grow with new music the way they did a decade ago, which is a bummer. Maybe part of the blame falls on the fact that everyone's a critic now; everyone can have an immediate opinion on Facebook and Twitter. Look at the Arcade Fire record—everyone already knows how they feel about it, but nobody's listened to it for more than a few days at this point. Still, that record's fate has been decided. It's crazy! What you just said is a really crazy dynamic. I've had this idea I've been talking about for awhile—I mean, I could never do it because I just don't have time, but it would be so great to have a blog that only reviews records that have been out for at least a year, instead of trying to support the idea that newness should be equated with goodness.
It's not a race to have an opinion about a record! As a writer, it's hard because you want it to be fresh, so you have to form opinions quickly. But I feel like I've also done myself a disservice as a music fan by listening, reviewing, and then moving on. A lot of that has to do with the glut of music, too. There's just so much music out there. From a listener's perspective, I can really see how it could almost become a neurosis, like "must absorb, must find the buried treasures..." [Pauses] I feel like we're decrying it, like "Oh, it's so horrible..." That's not at all how I feel, by the way. [Laughs]
That's why record labels are still so important. You're curating something that makes it easier for people to find musicthey might like. And that's a nice thing about Barsuk—you guys have this catalog that's just so rich with quality. There's been this anti-record-label attitude, with Bandcamp and the ease for bands to do it themselves... [Laughs] I'm aware of it.
But people forget how important it can be to be a part of the community that brings the good stuff to the top. Do you feel that artists have wrongfully shunned you guys? What we do, and what we have always done, is try to provide a really great service to artists we love—artists whose music we love and artists we love as people. I don't think that really fits with the way record label people in general think of themselves, and certainly it doesn't fit with the perception of record labels. In general, record labels are thought of as exploiters. I think the service we provide is valuable to the artists we've worked with, and the relationships that we have with them have, in general, been very helpful. And obviously we wouldn't be here without the music and the musicians either. I'm taking a long path to answer your question—I don't feel shunned if an artist wants to go try that. The artists that do realize that it's a lot of work, but they want to do that work, then more power to 'em. I, in general, don't spend a lot of time worrying about whether what we do is valid, and I'm really proud of the catalog of music that we've put out.
We've been spending a lot of time looking back, but some of the members of the roster—Yellow Ostrich, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Big Scary, Maps & Atlases—these are artists that came up in this new era, where the chances that somebody making interesting pop music is going to become a mainstream cultural icon are so incredibly slim. There was a period there after Death Cab started to get big—it was like "Whoa, the stuff that we like is getting popular! The nerds are winning!" [Laughs] I don't know, from a business perspective, that that's really part of the goal as much as it was for us even seven to ten years ago. I think that it's exciting looking back, and I'm really proud of the musicians and music that we've been associated with over the years, but, looking forward, I'm really proud of the way we're operating now and the way we've adapted to the industry.