Sometimes for bands, the stars align just right. Labels clamor for the artist. The terms of the deal are more than fair. Offers for maximum-exposure tours abound, and press—both mainstream and indie—is eerily pitch-perfect. And the whole thing goes to hell anyway.
That all happened for Be Your Own Pet, who had their pick of a handful of labels, both indie and major, desperate to sign a combustible teen punk band from Nashville. Unfortunately, it wasn't just the band's music that proved to be combustible.
After British Radio One deejay Zane Lowe played the band's song "Damn Damn Leash" the day he heard it in 2004, the band were soon fielding offers from XL Recordings, Vice, Capitol, Hollywood, Rough Trade, V2. Because there was so much interest, the band had only to choose the best deal, and the label folks they liked the most.
It didn't hurt that Sonic Youth guitarist and indie icon Thurston Moore was heading up Ecstatic Peace, whose recent merger with Universal gave them major-label funding for an avant-garde roster.
"We picked who we vibed out with the most and trusted the most," says guitarist Jonas Stein. "It was that combined with the deal. But every deal was pretty much awesome. It was helpful that Thurston Moore was in charge with Ecstatic Peace, or at least the face of it. They seemed really nurturing when we met them. They seemed old enough to feel like we trusted them. Enough life experience where we felt comfortable. I think Vice is a cool label, but we were like, only 16 and 17 years old. Not everyone is ready to party as hard as Vice."
Label heads took them on endless meetings, letting the band choose local restaurants like La Hacienda and Royal Thai. Since none of the members of the band were over 18, labels were forced to court the four teen punks as well as their parents, who would have to co-sign their record deals and chaperone them on tours.
They ended up signing two deals—one with Ecstatic Peace and one with XL in the U.K., where the band had already established a fervent following thanks to Lowe's interest. Soon they were indie darlings, loved equally by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. The combined advances left the foursome with "around a hundred thousand dollars" to split, according to Stein.
And their experience with the label was overwhelmingly good for the most part. Nobody lost their A&R guy to a merger. The label never told the band how to dress.
"We were treated like a major-label band, but we were 16-year-old punks," says Stein. "We were so well taken care of. We'd go to New York, and we'd get three or four hotel rooms."
And suddenly, they went from playing local shows—house parties and Guido's Pizzeria gigs to friends—to wowing industry types and international fans.
"It was a huge switch," says Stein. "Eight months after our first show we played three shows in London, and all these kids are singing 'Damn Damn Leash.' I had a couple of Red Bulls before—I wasn't old enough to sneak drinks behind the parents yet. But I got so anxious. I was like, what the fuck is going on."
Things weren't without tension. Stein recalls that things first got a little sticky when the label pressured them to do the Warped Tour.
"We would get all these great opportunities, but it didn't feel real," Stein says. "We got the opportunity twice to go on the Warped Tour but we turned it down the first time. We were all stupid enough and naive enough to say that sucks. It just seemed lame to us. It still seems lame. I know some good bands have played it. A lot of people love it, but we just weren't the kids that said, sweet, let's go to Warped Tour." Still, it didn't cause much of a rift with the label.
The closest thing to a battle came as the band was busy preparing for their debut full-length release, Get Awkward. This time, they reared up against a classic major-label booby trap: censorship. Universal's top brass felt the lyrics to three songs on the record were "too violent for the band's demographic." That included one of the record's best songs, "Becky," a punky doo-wop about teen homicide whose most violent line is "Me and You / We'll kick her ass / We'll wait with knives after class."
Universal declined to offer an explanation to press, though it seems likely the conglomerate simply didn't want to risk finding itself embroiled in another high-school-killing controversy. Stein takes the argument a step further.
"Whoever made the call has their perception of reality skewed," he says. "They're matching up our demographic with kids who listen to crazy vulgar rap—which I'm a fan of, by the way. I think it was because we were teenagers, and female-fronted, and they were like, no, you can't have a bunch of suburban teenage white girls listening to this shit because their parents have money and they can sue us if one of them kills themselves or something. But you can release vulgar rap records about killing and shooting people. I don't think they are as concerned about that culture. It kind of makes you think, is it sexist or racist undertones going on with that decision?"
Even so, he was impressed that Universal's general manager Andrew Kronfeld called him within five minutes of Stein sending him an email about the issue—a luxury Butterfly Boucher would likely envy. Kronfeld placed the blame on the label's legal team and said there was nothing that could be done. Universal gave them the option of re-recording the lyrics but the band refused.
Here the story would end bitterly for many bands. Instead, XL released the three songs in the U.K., and the band felt somewhat appeased.
The label pressed them to do Warped Tour again. This time, Thurston Moore helped do the convincing.
"We'd get an email from Thurston that was all cheerful that would say, look, we had to do this before too, and the best thing you can do is go out there and rip their faces off," Stein recalls. "And he had a good point."
Good enough to persuade BYOP, who agreed to join the lineup. But before they could honor the commitment, the pressure of constant touring, instant fame and growing up in public took its toll on the young bandmates. To escape, they did the only thing they could.
"We just broke up," says Stein. "The label wasn't really on our minds. It was just time to do something else. We [would be] on the road for months at a time and come home for two weeks. Out six, in for two. Living that lifestyle for that long—it's fun and you'll have a blast, but you have to have the right dynamic of people to do it for a long time, but that's nearly impossible to find. We had a good dynamic, but we were just growing up and getting older, and it just got to us."
Looking back, Stein says, it was impossible for a bunch of teenagers to fathom the level of commitment required to the industry, and that shortsightedness made them take for granted a deal that most bands would kill for. Ironically, for all their punk-rock, devil-may-care attitudes about playing major-label ball, one thing the band members did was manage their money. According to Stein, no one blew their advance on the expected silly stuff, like a lifetime supply of Pixy Stix. Stein has invested in real estate and added to his motorcycle collection. Four years since the deal, he's still living off advance money today.
Ecstatic Peace also released the debut record for Stein's side project Turbo Fruits. Talking about BYOP now and the ordeal, Stein sounds like a college dropout who's decided to re-enroll in school and pay his own way, vowing suddenly to take the whole endeavor seriously. He's funding his own band's record and there'll be no hotel rooms for the band's upcoming tour dates.
"The people we worked with were great, but I think there's a lot of outdated morons at major labels spending too much money on young bands," he says. "And we were fortunate enough to be one of them. But now I feel more fortunate and am having more fun being on a low budget, being more involved and sleeping on floors than I ever was having hotel rooms every night."
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