Lookout! Records...a sinking ship?

Lookout! Records...a sinking ship?

There was a time in my life, namely those halcyon days from roughly 1992-1995, that Berkeley's Lookout! Records could practically do no wrong. Operation Ivy was a huge revelation to me, up there with Minor Threat, when I discovered punk rock. Screeching Weasel's My Brain Hurts remains one of my all-time favorite pop-punk albums. Avail's Dixie blew my mind. Not to mention Tilt, Monsula, Fuel, Cringer, Crimpshrine...the list goes on. And, of course, Green Day, who got their start at Lookout! and went on to massive success.

Strangely, though, several prominent bands who started their careers at Lookout! have taken the rights to their old records from the label. Screeching Weasel–who were synonymous with Lookout!–left, ditto Avail. And this week: Green Day, the band who brought in previously unimaginable amounts of money to Lookout!. According to Punknews.org, Green Day supposedly yanked their albums due to unpaid royalties. Because of this, Lookout! had to lay off most of its staff and downsize its release schedule. (That gives you an idea of just how lucrative back catalogues can be.)

Lookout! went into full-bore damage control, posting a blurb on its news page that ostensibly "set the record straight" on the whole affair, but it didn't really say much. Even worse were comments left on a message board by Larry Livermore, who founded Lookout! and discovered Green Day, but sold his stake in the label years ago.

It's about money, and also about bad faith. Lookout has been failing to pay Green Day (and other bands) for years now, and apparently using the money instead to put out a series of terrible records that very few people wanted to buy. Gambling on new bands is part of what a record label does, but you don't do it with other people's money. Green Day could have taken their records away several years ago when Lookout first breached their contract, but they were generous enough to allow Lookout to keep licensing the records in hopes that the label would get back on its feet. 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. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but it kind of makes me sick to see what's happened to a label I put so much of my heart and soul into.

Ouch. It's uncertain what this means for the future of one of the most successful independent labels of the past 20 years, though their current roster–such as Ted Leo, The Reputation, Troubled Hubble, and others–can't feel too good about the situation.

Bands who have left the DIY, anti-corporate indie-rock world for the "big leagues" of major labels like to say they've been screwed over by indie labels so many times that the whole "indie vs. major" debate is moot. Events like the Green Day fiasco give those arguments more weight, and indie labels on the whole take the hit. It's too bad on a lot of levels. Hopefully Lookout! will recover, but its reputation may be forever tarnished.