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Punk Thrives on Vagrant

While the majors suffer, business booms for the emo-driven indie

September 12, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Rich Egan, a thirty-two-year-old Minor Threat fan in a black T-shirt and gym shoes, swings open the door to his hotel room and finds a playground deluxe enough to host a Limp Bizkit after-show party.

"This suite -- it's not very punk rock, is it?" he says to his partner, Jon Cohen, thirty-three.

The two friends share an incredulous laugh at the penthouse luxury that their once-modest ten-year-old label, Vagrant Records, has suddenly afforded them. Only a few days before, one of their bands, the tunefully earnest, barely-out-of-their-teens quintet Saves the Day, had debuted in the Top 100 of the Billboard album chart by selling 15,000 copies of their first album, Stay What You Are, for the label. Now, Saves the Day is spearheading the nine-week, fifty-two-date Vagrant America Tour, one of the most ambitious indie package tours ever launched and also one of the most successful, with sellouts across the country.

At a time when the megacorporations that dominate the record business are slumping -- revenue is down eleven percent at Warner Music, BMG Entertainment is absorbing first-half losses of $150 million, and album sales overall have declined eight percent -- Vagrant is enjoying its best year ever. Income at the Los Angeles label is expected to at least triple. Vagrant has doubled its income in each of the last four years to become a company that makes several million dollars a year, the owners say.

Vagrant's success has been forged by bands that tour relentlessly and share a love of melodic songwriting that draws on elements of power pop, hardcore and emo (an ultra-sincere, heart-on-sleeve brand of punk). And Vagrant is starting to make noise in the mainstream, thanks to the success of bands such as Saves the Day; the Get Up Kids, whose 1999 Vagrant debut, Something to Write Home About, has sold 140,000 copies after tours with Weezer and Green Day; and the Alkaline Trio, whose recent From Here to Infirmary has done sales of 50,000. Those figures won't have 'N Sync looking over their shoulders, but they are more than enough to keep Vagrant profitable.

"All the bands on Vagrant have a better royalty rate than any other label, with the exception of Touch and Go, which splits profits fifty-fifty with its bands," says the Get Up Kids' Matthew Pryor, twenty-four. "If we keep selling records, it makes more sense financially to be on Vagrant. If we're going to bomb, it's better to get the cash upfront on a major. But we're not bombing -- our last royalty statement was for $90,000."

For the Get Up Kids and the other bands, the Vagrant America Tour amounts to something of a victory lap. They travel in a convoy of four buses and a semi truck, a veritable indie-rock invasion force that is playing to sold-out crowds of more than 1,000 each night. It's not exactly a corporate juggernaut like the Vans Warped Tour, which last year piled up $8.2 million in revenue. But at $12 to $15 a ticket, Vagrant America could pull in more than $800,000, with far lower expenses than most major rock tours.

"It's amazing to realize you can be an indie-rock band and achieve everything you want to achieve in a live show," says Pryor.

To accommodate the bands, staff and roadies, Egan and Cohen sprang for thirty-two hotel rooms in Chicago alone to cover a four-night stay. "This is the one blowout for the tour," Egan says as he orders 2 a.m. room service, winding down with pizza and beer after the first Chicago show. He and Cohen remember a time when room service had a different connotation. "Soon after we started out, we moved to an office in East Hollywood, above a Thai restaurant," Egan says. "These huge cockroaches would come up the walls and crawl out of the computer keyboard."

Egan and Cohen grew up hanging out at punk shows in Los Angeles while drifting through college and waiting tables. One day they pooled their tip money to put out a few seven-inch singles by bands they loved. "I dragged Jon kicking and screaming into the music business," Egan says. "He's been keeping me from sinking ever since."

"I may have been kicking and screaming, but I knew Rich had a plan," Cohen says. From then on, their roles became defined: "Rich built the boat, and I try to keep it afloat," Cohen says.

This year the staff has expanded to include ten employees besides the owners, who share the wealth with their bands. "The people at Vagrant are hands-on," says Dashboard Confessional singer-guitarist Chris Carrabba, twenty-six, who turned down half a dozen other offers before signing with the label. "They care about the people in the bands, the kids buying the records, the music itself."

A few hours later, the music is all that matters to Carrabba and 1,100 of his closest friends at Metro on the first night of the Vagrant America Tour, in Chicago. Though Carrabba is the second act on the bill, the crowd sings along like closing-time revelers throughout his brief but galvanizing set.

"You're Jesus!" one fan shouts. Afterward, the zealot identifies himself only as Raymond and shyly shakes Carrabba's hand. Dee, seventeen, another fan, does the same. "I can feel frustrated and lonely, and then I put on one of his records and it helps me deal with everything," she says.

"This audience is looking for music that is well written, that moves them and that they can feel a part of," Carrabba says. "You can have a great emotional reaction to a Goo Goo Dolls song that is played on the radio all the time, but these people are looking beyond that. I got a note from a fifteen-year-old girl who said that my song 'For Justin' kept her from killing herself. I write songs to purge my own feelings, but if it helps someone else, it completely becomes their song."

Dashboard Confessional sold 35,000 copies of their latest record, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, from March to August, mostly through word of mouth and touring. Most Vagrant bands play upward of 200 shows annually, and they do it eagerly.

"I never in a million years dreamed we'd be on a tour bus," says Chris Conley of Saves the Day, as he jots down that night's set list. "We set out to play tunes in our basement, so I look around and realize we've accomplished everything we've wanted to accomplish. We are playing to people every night who want to hear our music. This is it. There is nothing better."

That sort of talk makes the punk-rock fan in Egan smile: "Kids are smart. They get sick of being force-fed crap, and their form of rebellion is to find stuff that isn't like that. That's why indie rock is taking off again like it did when I first got into this business. It's not elitist, it's honest, and the kids sense that. We've found that if you don't take kids for granted, don't treat them like sheep, if you give them the opportunity to discover a great band that isn't on MTV or radio all day, they will."

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