It seems slightly incongruous, but an independent record label headquartered in an unremarkable building in the West Loop has the music industry scrambling to copy its success. Tony Brummel started Victory Records 15 years ago as a hobby, releasing vinyl by his favorite hardcore punk bands. In 1994, when the label released its first CD, it became a full-time venture for Brummel. The growth since has been staggering, with several Victory bands selling upwards of 100,000 records without much radio, MTV, or mainstream media support. When Taking Back Sunday’s second album for Victory, Where You Want To Be, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 in the summer of 2004, Victory firmly established itself as one of the most powerful independent labels in rock music. It goes beyond that, though, as Victory’s website dictates: “We do not consider ourselves a record label. We are a lifestyle company.” Next year could be Victory’s biggest, with high-profile albums from Hawthorne Heights and Atreyu that could debut at or near the top of the Billboard charts. As 2005 wound down, Brummel spoke to The A.V. Club about Victory’s success and why Chicago is integral to it—and keeping his Petri dish sterile.
The A.V. Club: Some label owners who have been in similar positions discovered that quick growth can be as destructive as it is constructive. Are you mindful of that kind of thing?
Tony Brummel: No, we’ve grown every year, so this isn’t anything new for us.
AVC: But it seems like it’s really taken off since about 2001, when Thursday started getting big.
TB: I don’t see it like that. I see everything happening as the natural course that I’ve always expected it to travel on. Nothing seems unnatural. You’re in my office; do you see stacks of paper on my desk? We’re very organized and well-run; and when you’re organized and well-run, you don’t have those problems.
AVC: Victory’s grown while record sales on the whole are down, and the music industry’s in a tailspin. What’s making the difference?
TB: We’re in the Victory industry. Fuck the record industry! [Laughs.]
AVC: Is it just a different approach?
TB: It’s Victory Records; it’s not Defeat Records. We’re going to win, and that’s it. All of my employees are fanatics. My bands are fanatics. I’m the leader of the cult, and we’re going to keep converting people.
AVC: That “conversion” idea goes with Victory’s underdog mentality. How much of that is reinforced by Chicago’s “second city” identity?
TB: No, we’re the first city. New York is a suburb of Chicago; it’s an hour-and-50-minute flight. Los Angeles is for flakes. Chicago is the best city in the country, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with why we’re the number one independent rock label. The cancer of those communities of New York and L.A. and the music people that are there, we’re not part of that. We’re not into their thing, we don’t network with those people, we don’t care about those people. We’re in our own business.
AVC: No huge rock labels are based in Chicago, but there are a few famous, long-running indies, such as Touch & Go. When you started, did you think, “Okay, Touch & Go’s done this for however long and has been successful. Maybe I should copy their model.”
TB: I don’t know what I was thinking. I just wanted to start a label. I don’t know any of those people, so I wouldn’t be able to speculate on what they do, or how they do it, or why they even do it.
AVC: Touch & Go, for instance, has expanded its sound over the years, just like Victory has—now you have pop-punk, ska, and even a Celtic-punk band like The Tossers in addition to hardcore. How far are you willing to expand the label’s sound?
TB: If it ties into the lifestyle and philosophy of how we do things, I wouldn’t say no to anything. But after putting out over 250 records, they’re all rock records, so I’m doubtful that would change. And I personally love—and so does the staff—the records that we put out. If I go to the gym or when I’m running on the streets in the morning, I’m listening to my bands.
AVC: You’ve been at this for more than a decade. Were there times when you thought you wouldn’t be able to continue?
TB: No, it’s all I know to do, man. [Laughs.] All we do is keep growing. At the end of the day, obviously we know what we’re doing, and the staff knows what they’re doing, and we’re all unified with the goals and the mission, and that’s it. Obviously we enjoy it, and we love it, and everybody’s passionate about it, and to me that would be a lesson for the other record companies. A lot of these people [at other labels] are just working jobs; they don’t give a fuck. They’re surfing the Internet, they’re e-mailing their friends, sending jokes. That shit doesn’t go on here. Why do you think I don’t have anybody from a major working at my company? I get all of their résumés, believe me, man, and I could pay a lot of their salaries, but why would I do that? So they could come in and infect what we’ve got going on here? It’s like, why would I put bacteria in my Petri dish when my Petri dish is completely sterile?