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Clip: Greg Kot on Touch & Go's Corey Rusk

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  • Carl Z.
    Anyone here going to the 25th anniversary shows in Chicago?
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 20, 2006
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      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
      skateboarding buddies.

      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
      revenue flowing.

      "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."

      - - -

      Shining moments

      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
      blue-collar roar.

      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
      most moving.

      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
      British agit-punks.

      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.
    • thekrueg1
      ... I m going Friday for sure (my daughter and several of her friends and I are volunteering), and would like to go Sunday, too. It may be heretical, but I m
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 22, 2006
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        > Anyone here going to the 25th anniversary shows in Chicago?
        I'm going Friday for sure (my daughter and several of her friends and
        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
        the reunions.

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