In some ways, Touch & Go Records shouldn’t be around to celebrate its 25th anniversary: The label works without contracts, splitting profits 50-50 with artists after recouping expenses; owner Corey Rusk only works with bands he likes both musically and personally; and he generally keeps records in print long after most of the world has forgotten about them. These traits make Touch & Go the low-key yang to the music industry’s money-hungry yin. Because of that, it can compete with bigger, more moneyed labels that aren’t as artist-friendly—it recently wooed renowned indie artist Ted Leo from a number of suitors. Leo will be one of many artists on hand at this weekend’s Hideout Block Party, where many bands from the label’s past and present (including numerous improbable reunions) will perform. Before the concerts, Rusk talked to The A.V. Club about surviving, working with assholes, and the one that got away.
The A.V. Club: Plenty of well-intentioned labels have come and gone. How has Touch & Go survived?
Corey Rusk: A lot of people that start indie labels are really great people with real enthusiasm, a talent for finding really good music, and a talent for promoting that really good music. A personality type that’s good at that is, quite often, not good at the nuts-and-bolts of the business of running a record label. It is a really serious business; it’s very inventory-intensive and very accounting-intensive. There’s a lot of cash-flow-management issues. These are all things that maybe don’t come naturally for a lot people who start indie record labels. I guess I’m a little bit lucky in that somehow both sides of my brain seem to function somewhat equally.
AVC: You’ve said, “I don’t want to work with assholes,” but you can’t always control that. With Touch & Go’s open arrangements, how do you deal with that?
CR: I kind of get depressed. [Laughs.] I do my best, certainly, to try to only work with bands I’ve met. I have discussions with them about what they’re looking for out of a label and about who we are and what we do as a label, and try to figure out if there’s a good match. Over the years, there have been opportunities for Touch & Go to work with bands that I know we would’ve sold a lot of records and made good money off of, but either I didn’t feel close enough to the music or it just seemed like who they were as people and what they were looking for was not necessarily a good match. I try my best to find people that things will work out well. But over 25 years, I guess it’s a little much to expect that it’ll work in long run. And when it doesn’t, I get depressed for a while, and then I try to get over it.
AVC: What bands do you wish you could have worked with?
CR: I’m sure there are others too, but my favorite story about that question lately is Ted Leo, who now I get to work with. When The Tyranny Of Distance came out, I heard it and thought, “Where did this come from? This is fucking great. I wish I would’ve had an opportunity because I really like these records.” Now I finally get to work with him—I feel lucky and happy about that. There’s the one-that-got-away story where it finally comes back around.
AVC: You’ve been at this for 25 years. What else do you want to do?
CR: I want to find more great bands—I guess what I’ve always wanted all the way along. What makes it interesting are the times you hear something totally different than what you heard before, and you get all excited about it. You meet the people and find out you have similar interests, you feel like you want to work together, and then you do cool shit together. I don’t have grand ambitions of dominating the world or building the next major label. I just want to continue to do a great job with the bands and records we do work with, and continue to find cool new bands to work with.