Clip: Greg Kot on Touch & Go's Corey Rusk
- Anyone here going to the 25th anniversary shows in Chicago?
The man who survived the music wars
For 25 years, Corey Rusk has forged success from goodwill
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published August 20, 2006
Corey Rusk's handshake precedes him. Most people may not know who Rusk
is, but his word-is-bond handshake is known, respected and even
revered worldwide. It's one of the few sure things in a music culture
defined and defiled by fads, short-attention spans and abysmal ethics.
On the strength of that handshake, and the punk idealism of the
mohawked skateboard kid he once was, Rusk has turned Chicago-based
Touch and Go Records into one of the most successful independent
labels in rock history, and one of the longest-lived. Rusk entered the
world of recordmaking a quarter-century ago when there were no CDs ,
and his hobby-turned-business has continued to defy industry trends by
expanding and thriving in the era of downloads.
The four multinational conglomerates that dominate the record industry
have reported declining sales for several years; executives blame
illegal Internet file-swapping for their ills. Yet Rusk says the
Internet has afforded fans an opportunity to hear music more
adventurous than anything on commercial radio, and it has leveled the
playing field for independent labels and the bands they champion. "All
the major labels are whining about how the Internet is killing their
business," Rusk says, "and we and a bunch of other independent labels
I know just had two or three of our best years ever."
On the weekend of Sept. 8-10, Touch and Go will celebrate its 25th
anniversary with 25 of its bands and artists, including improbable,
hell-has-frozen-over reunions by the revered Big Black and Scratch
Virtually every one of the bands playing on the bill was signed with a
handshake instead of a written contract. Rusk splits profits with the
bands on his label 50-50 after recording and marketing expenses are
recouped; bands on major labels rarely receive more than 12 percent of
each album sale once expenses are repaid.
"If you went to the Harvard School of Business and presented the Touch
and Go model as a way to run a business, they would laugh you out of
the room," says Santiago Durango, a former Big Black guitarist who is
now an attorney with the State Appellate Defender's office in Ottawa,
Ill. "He's created a successful label that is not based on exploiting
bands, and that makes him unique in the music business."
"Corey has demonstrated that all the conventional wisdom about running
a business is a load of crap," says Steve Albini, who will appear at
the festival with two of his bands, Big Black and Shellac. "He's
proven you can be honorable, have high standards and treat people
decently and survive and thrive. The fact that he put out some of the
best records ever is just a plus."
The 42-year-old Rusk reports that the label had its most successful
year ever in 2005. It has expanded from a teenager's bedroom operation
designed expressly to put out a 7-inch single by his hard-core band
the Necros to a multimillion-dollar-a-year operation housed in a
three-story 18,000-square-foot Ravenswood warehouse with 25 employees.
Touch and Go has released more than 300 albums, and its subsidiary
Quarterstick more than 100.
Bonding with bands matters
Only one band in the label's history has ever sued Rusk to extract
itself from his handshake. In 1999, after a three-year legal battle,
the Butthole Surfers regained sole rights to the six records and
long-form video the band released on Touch and Go in the '80s. The
band won because their handshake agreement with Rusk for those
releases didn't specify an end date. Rusk was heartbroken, not just
about losing the band, but about having a series of longstanding
friendships shattered. He did not change the way he does business,
however. He'd still rather deal in mutual trust than lawyer-brokered
contracts. And he won't sign a band until he develops a personal bond
with the band members.
"His honesty and work ethic are unbelievable," says David Yow, singer
in Scratch Acid and the Jesus Lizard, which both recorded for Touch
and Go. "We used to joke that James Brown is the second hardest
working man in show business. Every now and then he takes time off,
but he didn't use to. He'd work 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
When I was in Scratch Acid [in the early '80s], we were on a label in
Texas when we first met Corey, and he explained how they did things at
Touch and Go. We went back to our old label and explained to them that
we'd like a deal like that, without telling them it was something
Touch and Go was already doing. The [label owners] said, `That's
ridiculous. Nobody in the world would do that.' That's when we left
and signed with Corey."
By then Touch and Go had set a standard by which countless indie
labels would measure themselves. "It is largely due to the groundwork
that Touch and Go laid that enabled Bloodshot and numerous other
indie-rock labels to grow and thrive in Chicago," says Bloodshot
Records co-founder Nan Warshaw. Rusk's label provided "a model for us
When he was 13 in 1977, Rusk discovered punk, and was forever freed
from the world of Boston and Fleetwood Mac. Back then, punk was the
kind of music that could get a kid beaten up in a high school parking
lot. But living in a nothing-to-do Toledo, suburb, Rusk heard the
music of the Sex Pistols and Ramones and immediately knew what he had
to do: He shaved his head, sprouted a Mohawk, and formed one of the
first hard-core punk bands in Ohio -- the Necros -- with three of his
Rusk's parents divorced, and he ended up living with his grandmother.
Her basement became Touch and Go's first recording studio. "Being into
punk rock, we were freaks who were looked down upon. But the music was
a great outlet," Rusk says. "It was a way to interact with other
people that were doing interesting things. It was a way to visit other
cities and pay for the gas."
One of those cities was Lansing, Mich., where the Necros' early shows
were booked by a couple of slightly older fans, Tesco Vee and Dave
Stimson, who published the punk fanzine Touch and Go. While still in
high school, Rusk self-released Necros' singles under the Touch and Go
name, with Vee handling the promotion. The third Touch and Go release,
a Necros 7-inch EP, was co-produced by Minor Threat singer Ian
MacKaye, who would go on to form Fugazi. MacKaye also had started the
Washington, D.C., punk label Dischord, which is still going strong and
whose business practices mirror Rusk's.
After graduating high school, Rusk moved to Detroit to be closer to
the punk scene there. When Vee eventually moved to the East Coast,
Rusk took over operation of the label with Lisa Pfahler, who would
eventually become his wife. Initially, he saw Touch and Go as an
outlet for his friends' hard-core bands, the kind of extreme groups
who still terrified or repulsed most established labels. He and
Pfahler opened an all-ages punk club in Detroit, and ran the label
from an apartment above.
"For a couple of years, I don't think we slept more than two hours a
night," Rusk says. "We didn't have enough money to staff the club
properly, so we were booking the bands, running the sound board,
cleaning up the club afterward. We were never close to financially
Chicago has been a good fit
In 1986, Rusk and Pfahler moved the label to a house near Foster and
Kedzie in Chicago. They had tired of the "bombed-out urban decay" of
Detroit, Rusk says, and Chicago was the closest logical choice: a big
city with resources for running a growing label. "It felt like home,
where people have a work ethic and get stuff done," he says.
Rusk fit right in. Though he and Pfahler eventually got divorced, the
label continued to expand its reputation with astute signings. Albums
by Big Black, the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid redefined the
intersection of noise and rock in the '80s, and created a template for
lesser bands to profit from the sound in the '90s alternative-rock
Just as Nirvana and Lollapalooza were on the horizon, Touch and Go
introduced a quirky Louisville band named Slint, whose "Spiderland"
injected an unsettling brand of hushed chamber-rock into the
increasingly agitated indie landscape. The '90s brought the rise of
Urge Overkill and the Jesus Lizard, the decade's most volatile and
entertaining live rock band; the third coming of the revered British
agit-punks the Mekons; the ultramelodic punk of Pegboy; the
trance-rock of Girls Against Boys; and Shellac, a punk supergroup of
sorts that included Big Black's Steve Albini, bassist Bob Weston and
drummer Todd Trainer. Recent years have seen the emergence of
innovators such as TV on the Radio.
Rusk is typically modest about his role as a tastemaker, his ability
to find and nurture bands that would influence future generations.
"I'm always trying to find something that's interesting to me, and I
suppose it's less interesting if I've already heard it," he says. Some
of his bands, such as the extraordinary Dutch agit-rock collective the
Ex, sell only a few thousand copies of each album. The label's top
sellers, such as Big Black's "Songs About [Expletive]," barely crack
six figures. By major label standards, these albums would all be
busts, or worse. But under Rusk's frugal business model, just about
all of them turn a profit.
Touch and Go releases fewer than 20 albums a year; a typical major
label releases twice that many in a month. But just about every one of
Touch and Go's albums is still available; most major-label releases
are dropped from the catalog unless they sell steadily. Rusk and his
bands can make a profit on an album that sells fewer than 10,000
copies. Most major labels don't consider an album financially viable
unless it sells at least 500,000 copies.
One reason that Rusk has kept the label operating at a high level is
that he puts being a music fan ahead of being a business man.
"It's unbelievable," says guitarist Andy Moon of the two-decade-old
Ex. "It's almost expected that people in this business will behave
badly, so it's surprising that this guy has been so well-liked for so
long. The reason, I think, is that he's doing it for the best reason
in the world: He genuinely likes what he's doing. He loves the music,
he loves the bands..."
Rusk's back-yard 4th of July parties typify his attitude. He invites
his friends -- many of whom include Touch and Go band members and
employees -- to the home he shares with his wife, Diane, and indulges
two of his passions outside music: barbecue and fireworks.
"There would be 30 to 100 people there," Albini says. "He is a fine
barbecue artist and he and I share an enthusiasm for pyrotechnics. At
times it got life-threatening, which is the best way to express how
fun it was."
Can friends be business partners? Conventional business wisdom says
they can't, Rusk says, why not. "To me, it's counterproductive," he
says. "Because I love their music, I want to work with these bands for
a long time."
That also runs contrary to the way the record business has operated
for the last two decades, where bands are signed quickly and discarded
twice as fast if they don't produce instant hits. Rusk's philosophy,
in contrast, is to work with bands he likes, keep their music in
circulation, and nurture it until it finds its market. Bands such as
Slint and Scratch Acid weren't immediate big sellers, but they began
finding a larger audience over time. The back catalog is the label's
safety net; when current sales sag, the vintage stuff keeps the
"Have I ever thought the label was in trouble? Most of our existence,"
Rusk says with a laugh. "Definitely for the first 15 years of Touch
and Go's existence, if you had asked me will you exist in two years, I
would've said there's a chance we probably won't. Not because we were
in financial trouble, but because I wondered how much longer people
would be buying the weird music I want to keep putting out.
"Then 10 years ago, we had to move. The building we were in was going
to be converted into fancy condos, and I realized it was going to be a
big deal to find enough space for what we'd turned into. I basically
had to commit to the idea that we'd still be here 10 years from now.
Now it's 10 years later, and we're still here. I'm glad I managed to
take that leap of faith."
Rusk nearly wasn't around to enjoy it. A longtime motorcycle
enthusiast, he was in a Grand Prix race in Daytona in 2001 when he
crashed and was run over by another bike. More than 20 bones were
broken, and his spinal column was pushed into his stomach. He went
through multiple surgeries, and his wife was told at first that he
wouldn't live because of internal bleeding, and later that he would
never walk again because surgeons essentially had to bolt his pelvis
and spine back together with more than 20 screws. He's walking again,
however, without a trace of a limp, in large measure because he
approached his rehabilitation much like he's taken on everything else
in his life: with dogged determination.
"The concept of slacking off is so foreign to me," Rusk says. "In
rehab, [the recovering patients] would slack off all the time. The
rehab people would tell them what to do, it would hurt, and they'd
stop. It's not like you're slacking at school and as long as you get a
`C' you're going to pass. You're talking about how well your body is
going to work for the rest of your life. It hinges on those few months
of rehab after surgery. Seeing that, I realized why the doctor's
expectations of my recovery were less than what it ended up being. It
had to be because that was the average effort being put into rehab. It
was weird. I really think that as good as I am doing right now, it's
because I never slacked off."
- - -
Here are a 10 of the greatest hits released on Touch and Go, and its
subsidiary Quarterstick (listed chronologically):
Big Black, "Songs About ... " (1987): The final album by the band that
spawned postpunk's most notorious and aggressively innovative guitar
tandem, Steve Albini and Santiago Durango.
Butthole Surfers, "Hairway to Steven" (1988): The final frontier of
psychedelia, as these Texans evoke the sound of inmates jamming while
the sanitarium burns down.
Pegboy, "Three Chord Monte" (1990): A mere EP, but the towering
"Through My Fingers" and "My Youth" epitomize Chicago punk's
Slint, "Spiderland" (1991): Louisville quartet explores an eerie
netherworld of shadowy guitar textures.
Jesus Lizard, "Liar" (1992): A brainy, brawny noise riot that nearly
matches the intensity of this quartet's jaw-dropping live shows.
Girls Against Boys, "Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby" (1993): A sleazy
trance-rock trip that anticipates the disco grooviness of Franz
Seam, "The Problem With Me" (1993): Among the quietest and most
introspective records ever released by the label, and also one of the
Dirty Three, "Horse Stories" (1996): Violin-led Australian trio blends
drones akin to Scottish bagpipes, the microtonal spirals of Indian
raga and the feedback-sculpting roar of rock into a richly emotional
Mekons, "Oooh!" (2000): A salty late-period classic from veteran
Calexico, "Garden Ruin" (2006): These masters of noir-soundtrack
atmospherics adopt a more direct, song-oriented approach.
-- Greg Kot
- - -
Touch and Go 25th Anniversary Celebration
!!!, Girls Against Boys, the Shipping News, Supersystem, Ted Leo, Big
Black, Didjits, The Ex, Killdozer, Jon and Kat, PW Long, Man ... Or
Astroman?, Negative Approach, The New Year, Pegboy, Tim Midgett and
Andy Cohen, Sally Timms, Scratch Acid, Shellac, Uzeda, Arcwelder, the
Black Heart Procession, Brick Layer Cake, Calexico, Cash Audio,
CocoRosie, Enon, the Monorchid, Pinback, Quasi, Seam, Tara Jane
O'Neil, Three Mile Pilot.
Sept 8-10 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $15; 773-227-4433.
>I'm going Friday for sure (my daughter and several of her friends and
> Anyone here going to the 25th anniversary shows in Chicago?
I are volunteering), and would like to go Sunday, too. It may be
heretical, but I'm more excited to see the label's younger bands than