Industry Profile: Tony Brummel
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Tony Brummel
Victory Records founder Tony Brummel is one of the most accomplished American label entrepreneurs of the past 25 years.
Fiercely independent, fiercely passionate about his label and bands and music, and fiercely protective of what he feels his label stands for (“I don't have a record company, I have a lifestyle company”), the 38-year-old Chicagoan has long shown his mastery of the music biz.
If Brummel is meticulous, if he is marvelously disciplined, those qualities have stood him in good stead. What he has achieved with Victory-- America’s leading independent rock label—he’s got from paying attention to fundamentals.
His tenaciousness and passion for the music of his label is shared by a staff of 40--a significant factor in the successes of so many of Victory's acts when coupled with the company’s grassroots’ marketing strategy of touring, street-team promotion, and band-as-brand development.
Brummel may be a master showman but he has also been the discoverer of a sizable number of talented artists.
Victory’s catalog of rock, metal, post hardcore, emo, ska and pop punk has included releases by Hawthorne Heights, 1997, Taking Back Sunday, Atreyu, A Day To Remember, Bury Your Dead, Thursday, Bayside, Aiden, Funeral for a Friend, Streetlight Manifesto, Voodoo Glow Skulls, and many others.
Chicago's hardcore scene developed around north side bars and venues in the early ‘80s with such bands as Naked Raygun, Strike Under, Articles of Faith, the Effigies, and Big Black. Late on, Life Sentence, Lost Cause, and Insult To Injury surfaced locally.
Growing up in Chicago, some of the first concerts Brummel went to see (when he was 12 and 13) were punk and hardcore shows with Youth Brigade, Social Distortion, The Exploited, Cro Mags and Bad Brains.
Later in his teens, meeting bands like Earth Crisis, Strife, Snapcase, and Integrity, Brummel became interested in helping out bands in the punk and hardcore scene.
At 18, studying to be a history teacher, and waiting tables at night, Brummel started Victory Records in August, 1989. After four years of releasing 7-inch records, Victory released its first full-length CD. The same year, Snapcase's debut album, "Lookinglasself” sold 30,000 copies. Brummel then hired his first employee, and got the company’s website up.
By 1997, Victory had a staff of 15; had national distribution with RED Distribution in the U.S.; and was being distributed in Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Sweden.
In 2002, Victory sold a 25% minority interest to MCA Records. However, less than 14 months later, Brummel returned MCA's equity purchase funds and dissolved his relationship with the company.
In 2004, Victory got noticed by all of the music industry’s key players when four of its bands--Taking Back Sunday, Atreyu, Bayside, and Silverstein--appeared together on Nielsen SoundScan's Top New Artist chart.
The following year, however, when Brummel learned that Taking Back Sunday's album "Where You Want to Be" had been certified “gold” by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, he fired off an e-mail informing the music industry trade body that the album had been certified without his approval.
"This is another attempt by the RIAA and its major label partners to victimize, abuse and belittle an independent record company," he complained.
The first week of March, 2006, Victory shipped more than 800,000 units of Hawthorne Heights' "If Only You Were Lonely," an unbelievable number for an independent label release. In its opening week, the album scanned 113,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, good enough to land at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.
However, in August, 2006, Hawthorne Heights sued Victory and Brummel to get out of its recording commitment after a falling out. Two years of legal wrangles followed with the band legally unable to record. However, following the death of Hawthorne Heights’ guitarist Casey Calvert, there was a reconciliation between the two parties.
Hawthorne Heights drummer Eron Bucciarelli said, "We now regret having begun the lawsuit we filed in 2006. We should not have listened to those, who, for whatever reasons, were then advising us to pursue this strategy. We are sorry for having put Victory Records and Tony Brummel through this ordeal, and regret any negative publicity that may have resulted. Many false, hurtful and incorrect statements were made, especially on the Internet, none of which were true.”
Victory Records’ headquarters is a 17,000 square foot warehouse in Chicago's West Loop that includes the label; the VSP merchandising division; and Another Victory Publishing which controls the copyrights for many of the label’s artists.
Victory Records has had its share of popular albums. Why do you still feel the underdog?
I would say that the chip on my shoulder has gotten bigger. It hasn’t gotten smaller.
Victory is a label that some love to hate and others love to love.
As much as some of the majors might despise our existence, there are just as many Indies that despise our existence as well.
What’s the reason?
Because we are aggressive. There are artists that want to be with passive people because that makes them feel comfortable. The artists that are on Victory are attracted to Victory because we are aggressive. And that is what they want. I am in this to win. When I die I want people to look at my tombstone and to say, “That was a crazy motherfucker who gave a shit. He liked the music; and he wanted to win.”
What do you make of all the songs written about you?
I don’t know anything about that. I have no idea what you are talking about. At the end of the day, if people aren’t talking about you, you aren’t relevant. Look at all of the bad things people say about Barack Obama, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.
[Brummel has been snidely referenced in several songs, including: MK Ultra's "Bring Me The Head of Tony Victory"; "Standing In Front of Bulldog Records" and "Tony Victory Knows How to Party" by thrash core band Charles Bronson; Get The Kid With the Sideburns" by 90's hardcore band Reversal Of Man; and "V.R.S." (Victory Records Sucks) by Good Clean Fun.]
Victory has to be considered a mainstream company today.
But we are always doing different things.
Indie labels have always led the way in the music industry.
The music business started with a slew of great Indies in the ’30, 40, ‘and ‘50s. Even into the ‘60s and early ‘70s. These guys were passionate about what they were doing and about the artists they were working with. When the multinationals got involved, (the business) became a different thing.
The majors are in the record industry. We’re in the Victory Industry. People will debate me on that but that is the way I see it. We are doing our own thing via our own methods. I know that we are looked on as insurgents. Other indies look upon us as insurgents because we don’t play the game. We do our own thing.
While you have said that you respect some aspects of the record industry, you have also been critical of its business philosophies, especially when it comes to breaking bands.
I don’t really care about (the record industry). I care about the Victory industry. And the Victory industry is about us marketing and promoting our artists through our proprietarily marketing platforms to create exposure for them.
The records are still going to be in the stores, and they are still going to be available on the Internet to purchase.
Our job is to promote Victory artists via Victory methods. If other people want to jump on our bandwagon, cool. And if they don’t, then we still know that we got our artists in front of potential consumers.
If other people, say MTV, MuchMusic or MusiquePlus (in Canada) want to get on board and embrace one of our artists, that’s fantastic. And we want them to. But if they don’t, we’re not going to let that video collect dust on a shelf. We are going to exploit it as much as we can via our own methods.
I’m not going to criticize majors or other Indies. But I do think that a lot of (indie) labels are doing their artists a disservice because they are dependent on other people doing things for them.
You sub-distribute a handful of other indie labels, including Rise and Standby.
There are labels looking for strong partners. Victory is more than some company acting as a sub-distributor because we are first and foremost a label. So there are a lot of services that we can provide because I have a large staff. These labels can put out great records, and they don’t have to staff up because I already have the staff in place.
We’ve got a good pipe for people to go through. And because we have strength with a lot of our stuff, they can piggyback on that. But that being said, this isn’t the Salvation Army. Nobody is going to put a statue in the park for us. I can only put out X amount of records with my staff.
But how do you increase your business? If you have a pipe, why not make that pipe available to other people for releasing records? And do you know what? If one of those labels has a huge record I’d rather have them have that huge record with me than with somebody else.
Are your distribution deals usually on an international basis?
Every deal is different. But typically the needs are international. If you are a one or two person operation in this day of age, if you don’t have critical mass, people don’t want to talk to you. They don’t have the time. They are trying so hard to sell the things that sell for them already. It’s not like even five years ago when distributors would try to experiment. People don’t have time to do that any more. And its not even the 80/20 rule (revenue split) anymore. It’s the 90/10 rule now and, in some cases, it’s the 95/5 rule.
You have a staff of 40. That’s large.
A lot of indie labels don’t have proper infrastructures. They don’t have proper financial controls. They don’t have proper (inventory) systems. A lot of (their business) is shooting from the hip. You have to have people on the right seats on the bus in order to execute the business plan. God forbid that you have a record that blows up. You are going to be left with your pants down because you don’t have a system and an infrastructure in place.
You killed Victory’s radio department two years ago. Why?
It wasn’t going anywhere. We had 4 or 5 people doing it. So we redeployed those assets into new media and really invested in our own proprietary platforms. With radio, you are trying to play a game but the playlist is controlled by major label content. I’m not going to win at that game.
How important is publicity?
At the end of the day, you never know what is going get somebody to buy a record. But it is extremely important to create awareness and hopefully create legitimate excitement. But it is such a fine line. There are so many artists you will read about in Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angles Times, the New York Times, and New York Post. Then their record comes out, and you never hear about that artist again.
The main thing for us is trying to create legitimate excitement on the street. So we get music to someone who is a tastemaker and he or she tells 15 or 20 of their friends, “Hey, you have to check his out.” I always wanted to be the guy on the block that knew about band X before everybody else did.
Street teams are important?
They are absolutely important. These are people who volunteer their time because they believe so much in the Victory brand.
Was there an industry backlash over your comments on iTunes in 2005?
I don’t think there was a backlash. Virtually everyone from every sector of the music industry reached out to me in support. But publicly nobody supported me. Everybody said (to me) that I had it spot on. That I did the right thing. But when push came to shove, no one had my back.
With the digital market, the music industry is back to being a singles business again. Isn’t the album “the” experience for many people?
I’m the worst person at Victory when it comes to picking a single. I won’t even do it. I don’t sit in the meetings. I don’t participate. I let the staff do it. Because I listen to the album. (The importance of the album) is one reason why we have five people in our new media department.
We spend so much time and energy agonizing over liner notes, packaging, paper. What kind of (paper) stock is the album going to be on? Should we do some kind of special printing or have varnishing? All of this just to make the album something that someone wants to take home.
I’m only 38. When I was 12 or 13 coming home with albums, I would digest everything about the album I had just bought. Where did they record it? When was it done? Who are their friends? Who is on the thanks list? What are the lyrics? You can’t do that when you download (a track) off of a website. It makes (the music) more disposable.
Your family lived in Nassau, Bahamas, from 1977 to 1981. You got to see Bob Marley at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Center December 15, 1979 on his “Survival” tour.
It was a very special thing to see as a kid.
Who takes a kid in fifth grade to a Bob Marley concert?
It wasn’t a matter of taking a kid. The entire island was there. I think that 90-year-old invalids that hadn’t been out of their shacks in 20 years were there. I was 30 feet up in a tree with my friend Albert watching it. The Royal Bahamian police were out there with their pit helmets. Bob came out late with a joint that looked like five Cuban cigars taped together. Nobody did anything. It was Bob Marley.
How did your family end up in Nassau?
My father was in construction. We moved every two to four years whenever a project ended. Chicago was our base because we have a real large family here.
You started Victory in an apartment?
Yeah, it was actually a closet. I lived in a place with a bunch of guys and we had an underground club in the basement. The Victory office was a side closet on the second floor. That is where all of the boxes of vinyl were stacked up and the mailing lists, T-shirts, envelopes.
There were precedents then in the heavy metal field with Roadrunner Records and Metal Blade being founded almost a decade earlier. You knew you weren’t in the mainstream music business from day one.
What we were selling was underground music. If people listen to the first full-length album on Victory (“Firon” by Salt Lake City jazzcore band, Iceburn in 1992) they were an experimental prog-rock band. Sure, they came out of the punk underground hardcore scene but the album almost sounds like something that King Crimson might have done. It’s interesting how any brand can get pigeon-holed. But if people really dig in, they might realize that they don’t know what they are talking about.
“Firon” was your first album?
It was our first CD as well. That was in the blister pak days.
You put out 7-inch records initially?
Yeah. It was basically the same (music) that has evolved into what we are doing now. I’d classify it as underground rock. It was bands that were more melodic punk, more hardcore or more metallic hardcore. What we are doing now is a version of what was happening in 1988 and 1989. It is all fruit that has fallen from the same tree.
Every musical genre has its own roots despite splintering into sub-genres.
There’s always a metamorphosis but the roots are still the same. If you can get to where the roots are, it makes sense that the roots are what they are.
Hardcore, punk and metal fans are quite loyal.
People that are into rock are very loyal. They stick with it.
Victory has stayed a rock label because that’s what I am passionate about and that is what the staff is passionate about. There are other genres that we could probably get involved in and make money, but it wouldn’t be motivating enough for me because I just wouldn’t love it.
For Victory, our whole motto is hard work, effort and grinding it out on records that people tell us are never going to sell. Then a year and a half or two years later the reaction is “Wow, they sold 300,000 copies of a band like that.” You really feel the whole David and Goliath thing going on in our building. Where if it was just about money and hits and finding some commodity that is going to sell for two or three months then it’s just business. And that’s not very exciting to me.
Selling 30,000 of Snapcase’s “Lookinglasself” was a big deal in 1993.
Back then, you had (large) regional distributors, a lot of independent distributors, and thousands of independent record stores. If you were selling 20,000 or 30,000 albums in 1993, people thought you were a millionaire. Little did they know that I was sleeping on the floor. Instead of buying a bed, I bought a desk and was pretty much eating spaghetti every night. But selling 30,000 records, everybody assumes that you are the next Richard Branson.
You didn’t have national distribution at that point either.
We were selling direct to a lot of the indie stores across the country. And we were using a slew of distributors like Caroline, Cargo, and Important on down the line.
Did you get stiffed much by retailers?
No. Because I was always a phone guy. I would always keep a good rapport with the people who cut cheques. I was probably more pro-active than some of the (indie) labels that did get ripped off.
Even before going with RED Distribution for national distribution in the U.S. in 1996, you were making distribution deals for the world.
We had various distributors in various foreign territories starting back in 1993 and 1994.
How much of your business today is outside North America?
It fluctuates depending on the quarter. I believe last year it was 19%. That 19% would be higher but in territories like Italy, and Spain that weren’t massive for us in sales but were considerable, sales there are now virtually nothing. Germany is still very strong but it is nothing compared to what it used to be (for us).
Why the changes?
Just piracy. In Germany, they are very into CD burning. In Italy and Spain it is straight up piracy. But this is the same thing that everybody is dealing with. It’s not a Victory thing. Everyone has this problem.
From the beginning you sold merchandising, T-shirts, and hats.
Merchandise was a component (of the business) from the beginning. It went with the lifestyle. The first record we put out was from this small band from California, Inner Strength (“Time For Reality” in 1989). If someone ordered that via mail order they’d ask “Do you have a T-shirt?” (If you were a fan) you wanted both. You wanted to be branded with it if you were into the band.
But everybody wanted to be the (fan) pioneer back then. A lot of people still do. They want to be the ones to say, “I was the first one on my block to be into this band. You know it’s true because you saw me wearing that T-shirt six months before you other goof balls were.” It is sort of like a coat-of-arms sort of thing.
The merchandise component has grown considerably for Victory.
We don’t even outsource our merchandising. We have been manufacturing our merchandise since 1997. I got sick of using third parties to print our artists’ merchandise. So I hired guys who worked in screen printing factories and shops, and I bought equipment. Now, we’ve got a 10,000 square foot space with robotic machines and T-shirts being cranked out 16 hours a day.
Multinationals are only now getting into these affiliated revenue fields with 360 deals. Detractors says that many of 360 deals from labels are little more than a cash grab.
If people want to talk about 360s (with majors), I can’t really comment on that. I understand where you are going. But we have been doing (merchandising) from the beginning because it has always been part of the culture and the lifestyle of what the artists needs. It has been about what they can provide, and what we have always done.
Indies have traditionally needed different streams of revenue to survive. The Indies in the ‘40s and ‘50s all owned publishing houses.
Of course they did. I started Another Victory in 1998 out of frustration. When some of our early artists started to sell records, the first people that would call, even before royalty statements were even due, were these music publishers. And they weren’t placing anything. In fact, in many cases, they weren’t even sending out promos. All of the placements were coming because people were contacting the label. So I’m thinking, “Why are we paying these people mechanicals? Why are they getting a cut on sync when we are the ones doing all of the work?” I really started the publishing company out of attrition. I didn’t know anything about publishing.
But publishing wasn’t yours to just take. It belongs to the songwriter with the band.
But the artists were frustrated because they weren’t getting over-the-top advances and they knew that we were doing the work. So my pitch was, “I’m going to give you an advance, and you are going to get the value.”
There are some great publishing companies out there but, for our size and for what we do, we are constantly making and creating special things to try to get the artists noticed, and in front of people who’d normally would not care (about these types of acts). We do all kinds of special packaging, so many different things, for the music supervisors. Some (music supervisors) just want the Beyonce song and that is it.
Have you been successful with placements?
We’ve been successful because we are a one-stop shop. We can sign off on master use and sync immediately which makes these peoples’ lives easier. So we get a lot of people calling at the 11th hour. The bigger publishers don’t get back to these people that quickly. Because of that, we get a lot of extra business. Thankfully, that’s more exposure for the artist. The more exposure, and if it is the right exposure, it hopefully helps record sales. So sometimes we have an incentive to not bully these people for money because being the record company as well, we can also see the benefit. If it is the right thing, we will give (a song) for a cheaper rate because it might propagate record sales.
Does your label make recording deals conditional on attaining merchandising and publishing?
Yeah, because it wouldn’t be fair to the other artists that are down with the Victory program. It’s “This is what we do.” It is no secret. That being said, we have never been in a bidding war (for a band). The artists that are on Victory are on Victory because we want them and they want us.
You make a union with someone because you are smart enough that you’ve done research on them, and they are smart enough to have done research on you. Based on those two cognitive smart decisions, you decide to be together. If it just about money or who is going to offer the biggest advance than that is never going to work out.
Earth Crisis' "Gomorrah's Season Ends” became the label's first album to crack the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart in 1996.
Earth Crisis was a pivotal band in the foundation of Victory. The first Earth Crisis 7-inch and CD-single (“Firestorm”) was Victory #12. Snapcase’s “Lookinglasself” was Victory #13. Those guys were with me from the very beginning. I am still in contact with those guys.
Why did you feel the need to take Hate Breed to Universal in 2001?
I didn’t. They felt that they needed to go to a major. What can you do when an artist and their manager is doing everything they can to leave you because someone wants a bigger cheque? To this day the record that Victory put out (“Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire”) is the most popular Hate Breed album. We also got paid a lot of money (to license the band).
In 2002, you did a deal with MCA for 25% of Victory. But the deal was rescinded the following year. What happened?
It wasn’t meant to be. I saw MCA as a company that was pretty anemic in rock. I had people asking me why not do a deal with Island or Columbia. I figured that “MCA is the most anemic in the genre. That’s where I can have the most value.” The spirit of the deal said X but, when push came to shove, when it was time to sign the final agreement, it said something else. So that didn’t work for me. We never released anything.
Did you do the deal for a cash infusion?
No. I felt that it was something that would make sense for us. And it was only a minority interest share of 25%. I figured we would have access to their marketing and promotion and some of the bigger things that we couldn’t do or weren’t doing. It was a great learning experience. I thank Universal for giving me that opportunity so I can never do it again.
[Victory, however, signed a deal for distribution in Canada with Universal Music Canada in 2005. The deal was extended in 2007.]
More people know who Victory is because of Silverstein and Taking Back Sunday hitting the mainstream. Many people didn’t know about the label before those two acts.
I could say that about an act that sells 10,000 units. You could be bringing in people into the fold with any album. A lot of times, I think that with the bigger albums, you just have the lemmings effect.
The label has criticized of late for becoming more pop oriented with such acts as Taking Back Sunday, Student Rick, and Count the Stars.
Which is fine. I wouldn’t take that as a criticism. We might have some artists that are some of the poppier artists that we’ve ever had. We also have some of the most extreme artists that we’ve ever had. Extreme metal bands that are playing grind guitar for the entire album. So it’s a combination.
Your dispute with Hawthorne Heights has been well documented and there’s been a reconciliation that led to the band's third album, “Fragile Future” being released by Victory in 2008. Did guitarist Casey Calvert's death in 2007 bring everybody back to the table?
That was really a wake-up call for those guys. I think that brought them back down to earth a little bit. I think it made them realize that not only did an innocent human being die but that they needed to get a record out and to move ahead with their lives instead of playing this negative game that was a no-win situation for them.
[Hawthorne Heights guitarist Casey Calvert was found dead on the band's tour bus on November 24, 2007. His body was discovered before the band was to do a sound check prior to a show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.]
Was Casey’s death sobering to you as well?
Yeah. When I first heard about it I started crying. I couldn’t believe it. This was a guy who I had spent a lot of time with, did business with, and had worked intimately with. Regardless of other parties pulling strings, I didn’t blame all of the guys in that band for what they were trying to do (with the lawsuit). It was what it was.
If, as a 100% privately-held independent record company, you sell a lot of records for an artist people are going to come after your shit. That the reality of it. You are damned if you do (sell records), and damned if you don’t.
You started Victory’s web site in 1994; and started doing e-commerce in 1995. Now, you are creating your own TV shows on the internet.
It is fantastic. Everything is produced in-house. We have the green screen room and HD cameras here. We know through I-Tunes that we have more than 400,000 subscribers. And there are other people who can watch it via other means. We’re not going to get our videos played on the big U.S. or international TV networks but they are certainly getting exposure. We’ve created a platform so they do get exposed.
How many unique hits on the various Victory sites?
I don’t know off the top of my head. We have all of our sites cross-pollinated and cross pollinated with the artists websites. Victorstream.com (shows) more activity than Victory Records.com (on tracking statistics) because people are leaving it open on their computer for two and three hours at a time. It’s a free streaming website. We created our own streaming media player. It is almost like a virtual jukebox that somebody can open up on their computer screen. If that person leave it up for five hours, it totally skews the stats.
The Victory websites are destination sites. Probably nobody makes Sony, Warner, EMI or Universal their destination site.
It is like comparing apples and oranges. We’d be crap if we tried to be in 10 different genres. Someone is ignorant if they think they can go to Sony’s website and expect to drill down and get really awesome information on some band that they are into.
For the majors, I don’t think it is fair (to make the comparison) because they aren’t brands anymore. All they are companies that generate billing to keep stock holders happy. They are not lifestyle companies. They are not brands. They lost all of that.
Do you utilize Twitter and MySpace as well?
Of course, my guys are going to utilize the other things that are out there, like Twitter and MySpace. But it is all about to promote our own internal properties which really showcase our artists. How are you going to really make your artists stand out on MySpace? You can use it but you use it to drive people to the artist’s own website or something else that you have created for the artist. So you get people out of the jungle, and onto your own piece of land.
Do fans identify closely with Victory bands?
It freaks me out. We get photos every week of different people from around the planet with Victory Record tattoos. I’ve never seen anyone with an Universal or an EMI tattoo. I don’t think a tattoo is some kind of special vaildator but it freaks you out when you started something out of your closet, and there are human beings getting a trademarked, copyright logo on their bodies because they like what your artists do so much.
How does Victory grow?
We have to keep getting better. We have to stay passionate. We have to continue to have staff that make an extreme effort and who do focus and are willing to sacrifice. There are a lot of people out there with skill. But effort is more important than skill. If you’ve got people that are passionate; if you’ve got an outlet; if you’ve got music that people will potentially like and you push, push, push, you are going to have success. But it is going to be hard work.
Many people think that this is a sexy business. To me, it has always been hard work. It has never been easy.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.