Thursday, January 14, 1999
Teenage USA not just a pretty label Record company marches to own drummer
By KIERAN GRANT Toronto Sun
The record business isn't exactly a model for share-and-share-alike. What else can you say about an industry where record label support staff often make bigger salaries than the artists whose records they help sell? As Teenage USA Recordings co-founder Phil Klygo observes, "Most labels are about money-making." Teenage USA, a Toronto record company celebrating its one-year anniversary Saturday night at the El Mocambo, isn't like most labels, although Klygo is reluctant to say why. "Maybe together we can figure that out," he deadpans recently at Teenage USA's cool downtown headquarters, where he's joined by business partner Mark DiPietro. Even though they're not teenagers or Americans, they feel their target group is, and Teenage USA bucks every convention the music industry calls sacred. They don't take home any money. They don't hold bands to record contracts or claim ownership over recordings. They simply provide record stores with albums by artists that they think deserve to be there but can't afford to be. "It was something that was missing in this city," DiPietro says. "It's a co-operation thing. We put out records with the bands. We don't own the masters. They're free to licence them to other outlets." Adds Klygo: "We put out nine records last year. We've signed no bands. We don't do that." Teenage USA was actually built on the ashes of Klygo's former "hobby" label and fanzine, Skullgeek. The newer label's flagship discs include local singer-songwriter Lonnie James' This Land Is Your Land, and avant-pop-rockers Mean Red Spiders' Place You Call Home. Both were critically acclaimed and sold relatively well. James' album is already out of stock. The label says that rather than print up more, there's a bigger demand for a brand new album, which will come out this spring. "That's a testimony to what we've done in the year we've been around," Klygo says. "We've got name-recognition together; people know we're for real." Says DiPietro: "If there's money to be made, we all make a little." Teenage USA's share, of course, goes back into Teenage USA. That still doesn't cover it, so Klygo and DiPietro finance their bills and office space rent with money from their night jobs working at bars. They also get support from a "silent partner," David Bluestein, honcho at local talent bookers, Courage. Some of the bands may only see a $10 return, muses Klygo, but it's something. "We are seeing the sales go up," he says. "When we get into manufacturing 2,000 CDs instead of 1,000, we'll start to see something. When you manufacture 500 CDs and you give half away for promo, you're not going to make your costs back." Meantime, Teenage USA is deepening their inroads into the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and just published Teen Geek Guide #1, their first fanzine. Is it worth it? "A lot of people in the industry would think we're crazy for what we're doing," DiPietro admits, "but we want to build a strong base slowly. Right now we're catering to the hobbyist, the critical music listener who has a wide variance of tastes." "Those are the people who come out to the shows," says Klygo. * Saturday's gig features performances by Teenage USA-sanctioned acts Mean Red Spiders, Neck, Gaffer, Lonnie James, Picastro, and Si Si P. Cover is $6. * Local band 122 Greige launch their debut Teenage USA CD Jan. 28 at the Rivoli with Mason Hornet and Wayne Omaha
INDIE eye - Thursday, January 14, 1999
Teenagers of the year
BY STUART BERMAN
The Dating Game would kill for a match like this. 'Twas the summer of '97 when Mark DiPietro (a former EMI rep who bailed when his employers signed Econoline Crush instead of the Sadies) made Phil Klygo (proprietor of the Skull Geek label and 'zine empire) an offer he couldn't refuse: "With your ear for talent and my experience in the biz, we could take over the world! Or Toronto indie-rock, at least." And from that point on, the G.T.A.'s finest noisemakers would be united under the banner of... Teenage U.S.A.? "We're trying to be borderless," says Klygo in defence of his label's rather unpatriotic moniker. "What gets stamped as 'good' is typically done by teenage America, and Canadians kind of follow that. So the idea of being plugged into the ear of the teenager... that's what we want to be doing." "It's really about the spirit of being a teenager," DiPietro adds. "When you're a teenager you have ideals -- you know what's good and you know what sucks. And I still feel like a teenager, like I haven't grown up yet. I don't have a real job!" It all began auspiciously enough, with a December '97 split seven-inch from two Skull Geek holdovers, Pecola and Smallmouth. But with the early-'98 release of ex-Superfriend Lonnie James' This Land Is Your Land, the Teenage riot erupted big time, from the dreamy psych-drones of the Mean Red Spiders to the pile-driving scientist rock of Gaffer, the lo-fi folk-punk of Cecil Seaskull and the turbo-charged jangle pop of Neck. So much for defining a "Toronto sound." "They're all doing honest things," DiPietro says, "that's the key. Lonnie's not trying to be Hayden, Mean Red Spiders are not trying to be My Bloody Valentine. The indie scene gets jaded the fastest, so you really have to be different and special. I saw Mogwai play at CMJ in New York, and I was thinking, 'Pecola could be blowing them off the stage -- they deserve that same amount of praise.' But no bands from here have been able to make that step. We're just trying to make that step. Eventually, I want a kid in Boston to want to be on Teenage U.S.A., like people in Toronto want to be on Touch and Go." "Our approach with bands has changed over this past year," Klygo explains. "We've realized it's really important to work with bands that are serious about what they're doing and willing to put in as much time and effort and financing as we are. I think there's a certain level of na´vetÚ that we're a label putting out records, so we must have money. But we're only two people, doing as much as we can, and it really helps when bands are willing to work for it." In a tip of the hat to another American tradition -- colonialist imperialism -- Teenage U.S.A. are invading indie markets worldwide, thanks to effective Stateside college radio promotion and far-reaching distribution deals with Southern, Parasol and Revolver. And as if the local roster weren't enough to handle (the full-length debut from veteran bliss-rockers 122 Greige is set for release this month), Klygo, DiPietro and faithful assistant Leesa Berry are wading through demos with return addresses ranging from Chicago to Serbia. "This week I found out Parasol are selling Mean Red Spiders CDs in Japan," DiPietro reveals. "There's a kid in Poland who's trying to help us out. Our stuff gets played on Yugoslavian radio! These little things all start to add up. Like, Lonnie went on Open Mike with Mike Bullard and he was happy because his mom in Calgary was able to see him. The Spiders were in the CMJ Top 200 for 12 weeks, and Neck are being played on a hundred stations across America. You've got to look at these little things, because you're not getting paid." And with all three staffers still holding down their bartending jobs (Klygo at Ted's, DiPietro at the Dance Cave, Berry at Lee's), the Teenage U.S.A. mission statement for 1999 is obvious: drink more booze! "Every time people spend money at Lee's or the Dance Cave or Ted's Wrecking Yard," DiPietro declares, "they're helping pay for Toronto indie-rock!" "So if you don't tip," Berry interjects, "you'll never listen to good records again!"