“We’re not a household name, absolutely not,” says Barsuk Records co-founder Josh Rosenfeld, sitting in the woody, light-suffused conference room of the label’s Interbay offices. “We’re not a household name in the neighborhood I live in.”
That smart aleck tag is typical of Rosenfeld’s capricious self-deprecation, a signal of modesty but also pride in having kept afloat for 15 years a Seattle indie rock label named after a dog — a milestone the label celebrates this week with five nights of concerts.
Indeed, though Barsuk has delivered nearly 150 releases since 1998, among them Death Cab For Cutie’s 750,000-selling “Transatlanticism,” Barsuk has always operated in the shadow of its grungier big brother, Sub Pop.
Initially conceived in 1994 as a fake imprint to release a 7” single by This Busy Monster, Rosenfeld’s and Christopher Possanza’s band, Barsuk, like Sub Pop, is possessed of a combination of idealism, entrepreneurialism and contrarianism peculiar to Seattle.
When the partners started, they knew little about the business and were unlucky enough to launch just as the digital revolution was about to torpedo it. Battle-scarred, they are now more attuned to the bottom line, but Rosenfeld still talks about Barsuk as if it were a service organization, not a profit-making business.
By contrast to Seattle’s image as the capital of bad-hair-day grunge and neofolk, Barsuk has championed crisp, pretty pop music with an accent on songwriting, synthesizers and melody. The focus has led to success — and respect.
“Josh Rosenfeld has done an awesome job at Barsuk,” says Sub Pop executive Vice President Megan Jasper. “For Barsuk to do that on their own, for that long, says that Josh is a really smart businessman and it says that they sign relevant, meaningful artists.”
Barsuk (pronounced bar-SOOK) means “badger,” in Russian, and was the name of a pitbull-lab once owned by Possanza, who has a graduate degree in Slavic linguistics from the University of Washington. Possanza, 47, the quieter, more reticent of the partners, used to design album covers for imaginary bands when he was a kid, an obsession reflected in the high level design of Barsuk album jackets.
Rosenfeld, 40, a charmingly loquacious native of Telluride, Colo., went to high school in Bellingham after his family moved there. After coming to Seattle with his girlfriend, Emily (they are now married and she is a partner in the business), to study at the UW, he was invited by Possanza to play bass in This Busy Monster. In those days, young Bellingham band Death Cab for Cutie was their opening act. But on a road trip to the Austin industry showcase, South By Southwest, says Rosenfeld, he realized Death Cab was serious about making it in music and he and Possanza weren’t.
“It was a telling distinction that made us make this label be our main thing,” he says.
As luck would have it, he picked a winner for the label’s first official release, Death Cab’s 1998 “Something About Airplanes,” and in the same way that Nirvana’s success subsidized Sub Pop, Death Cab protected Barsuk from high winds to come.
Since then, the label has offered a slew of lovely albums by Death Cab, as well as The Long Winters, Phantogram, Nada Surf, Rilo Kiley, Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter, Pedro the Lion, Ra Ra Riot and Menomena.
Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, who by a quirk of fate turned out to be Rosenfeld’s cousin — unbeknown to either of them when she signed — embodies some of the label’s most attractive qualities, especially on her beautifully sung, whimsical, deadpan essay-like song, “Science vs. Romance.” (Listen to it here.)
“If there’s one uniting principle, aesthetically, about the label it’s that we love good songs,” says Rosenfeld.
The other guiding principle is that Barsuk see its mission as helping artists, not just making money.
“Artists need services,” says Rosenfeld. “They need help.”
Those “services” include everything from promotion and management to basic life skills such as managing money on the road. They also include paying fairly. Unlike major labels, which may offer a 15 percent royalty after production expenses are recouped, Barsuk splits profits 50-50. This isn’t unheard-of in the indie world, but it’s generous and difficult to sustain.
Artists have repaid Barsuk in kind. Incredibly, the contract terms that resulted in such a big paycheck for Barsuk when Death Cab signed with a major label were not suggested by Barsuk, but by the band itself. How Seattle is that?
“It’s changed a lot in 15 years,” Rosenfeld admits. “But at this point I would say still, the number one thing that gets us excited about a band is that we love the music.”
Barsuk Records 15th Anniversary
Thursday-Sunday at Showbox at the Market, Neptune Theatre, Neumos and The Tractor Tavern, featuring Nada Surf, Mates of State, Sunset Valley, Say Hi, Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter and surprise guests. Tickets are $15. Full schedule available at barsuk.com.