Around the time Brett Gurewitz
was launching Epitaph Records in 1981, his father was lecturing
him to take guitar lessons. The Bad Religion guitarist and
punk-rock entrepreneur never sat down for courses with a guitar
instructor, although he did go to school to learn to be a
However, no amount of schooling could have prepared
Gurewitz for the next 25 years of his life.
Epitaph Records brought a new era of punk rock to the
masses in 1994 when the Offspring’s “Smash” turned into one of
the biggest rock records of the decade. The success of the
label’s roster, from Bad Religion to Rancid to NOFX,
re-energized the punk genre nearly two decades after its birth
and put independent music on the radio.
And when the mid-’90s punk trend fizzled out, Epitaph
reinvented itself. The label signed iconoclastic
singer/songwriter Tom Waits, who became the centerpiece for the
label’s adventurous imprint, Anti- Records. Today, Anti- is
home to arresting singer/songwriter Neko Case, cut-and-paste
artist Tim Fite, political rap act the Coup and soul vets
Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples, among many others.
Epitaph also has a partnership with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong
in his Hellcat Records and a relationship with Sweden’s Burning
Heart Records that brought garage rockers the Hives to
Epitaph’s stable, albeit briefly.
With offices overseas and in Canada, and a staff of more
than 50, Gurewitz acknowledges his label is considered to be a
“major indie,” but indie is still the operative word.
The kids who subscribe to staunch punk zines like Maximum
Rock’n’Roll and Punk Planet may not always agree with Epitaph’s
signings or its partners. But Gurewitz has navigated the label
through 25 years of industry changes, and has done so without
BILLBOARD: YOU WERE A TEENAGER, STILL LIVING WITH YOUR
PARENTS, WHEN YOU STARTED THE LABEL. WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER
YOUR PARENTS’ EARLY REACTIONS?
Gurewitz: I think they thought it was cute. My dad
encouraged me that I would have to take guitar lessons if I
were serious about music. He wanted me to get some education
and learn about it.
I said that lessons wouldn’t help me with the kind of music
I was interested in. He kept insisting, but I didn’t do it. My
dad’s a self-made man, an entrepreneur, so I think the
burgeoning entrepreneurism in his living room was thought of
very kindly. They’re still around, so it’s been nice to come
full circle. I was taking advice from my father on running a
business, and now my father comes to me for advice.
BILLBOARD: DAD’S ADVICE?
Gurewitz: He told me that the most important thing is
honesty and integrity, and having character in your business
relationships. If you do that and have a good reputation, no
money can ever buy that, and it sticks with you forever. I’m
not going to say I haven’t done some s—ty things in my life,
but I’ve always been a clean-dealing businessman between my
customers, my competitors and my recording artists.
BILLBOARD: THE OBVIOUS FOLLOW-UP: THE “S—TY THINGS?”
Gurewitz: Well, I regret all the bad things I said about
the Offspring in the press when they left. We were kind of
airing our dirty laundry and speaking out emotionally. I should
have kept that all to myself. That’s the main thing.
BILLBOARD: HOW HAS BEING AN INDEPENDENT LABEL CHANGED IN
THE PAST TWO DECADES?
Gurewitz: We won a Grammy for Solomon Burke a couple years
ago. We have Motion City Soundtrack, who are one of the best
pop-punk/indie/emo bands out there. We’ve released hip-hop
artists (Atmosphere, Sage Francis). All of that was unthinkable
when we first started.
We truly had a niche then. We were southern California
hardcore. That’s what we called it. The way to be an indie back
then was to have a sound and a niche. That’s what we had to do.
Nowadays, sounds and niches are like an automatic shuffle in
Vegas. A new niche is new every three weeks, so we have to stay
on top of everything.
BILLBOARD: AND THE INTERNET.
Gurewitz: From an A&R standpoint, I no longer have a world
of underground bands to myself and a few other indies. Majors
are looking at the same bands. In that sense, the competition
is much stiffer. When I see a band, I’ll see another indie
label and two other major labels. We’re all fighting for the
BILLBOARD: DIDN’T THAT HAPPEN IN 1994 AND 1995, WHEN EVERY
LABEL WANTED ITS OWN OFFSPRING OR GREEN DAY?
Gurewitz: No, not really. It was still kind of proprietary,
even then. The majors would say, “Wow, how do you do that?”
They still didn’t know where we were finding those bands. Now,
they have little crews of 16-year-olds scouring MySpace. And I
may be looking at a band a major may be looking at, but I’m not
going against then. Once it turns into a bidding war, I’m
throwing in the towel.
BILLBOARD: HAS EPITAPH EVER HAD A MISSION STATEMENT?
Gurewitz: Yes, but I have never formalized it by writing it
in a pithy little way. When I first started the company and it
was just me, my goal was to be friendly with my artists, no
matter what. I wanted it to be a family. At the time, the
culture I came from, every band was getting ripped off by their
labels. Indies weren’t thought of a place you could get a fair
shake. I like to think that image changed in part because of
our influence. That’s one of the things I’m proud of. I
eventually became a little bit more sophisticated, and I
realized that record companies don’t make records.
If you get caught up in it, you can start believing that
you make records. Your bands make the records. If you have a
coffee mug company, you can make coffee mugs. But if you’re a
record company, you sign artists, and they make records. It’s
similar to an art dealer. You own a gallery and you represent a
painter, and you create an environment where he can flourish
and paint. In exchange for doing that, you have earned your
BILLBOARD: THAT SOUNDS NICE, BUT YOU CAN’T ALWAYS BE
FRIENDS, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE TIME COMES TO DROP A BAND OR
RENEW A CONTRACT.
Gurewitz: I was terrible at doing that in the early days. I
thought if I signed a band, I had to keep putting out their
records. But the truth is, you take a shot because you believe
in a band, but you have to sell records to keep your lights on.
If you believe in them and you do your best to try, and if
for whatever reason you can’t make a go of it-end up being in
the black with the band-then you’re not doing you or the band
any favors. You’re only keeping them from getting a square job,
and you’re weakening your company. It’s very difficult to have
those conversations, but I’ve learned that I’ve had to.
Flogging a dead horse is not doing the right thing.
BILLBOARD: WITH TOWER CLOSING AND SO MANY INDIE RETAILERS
CLOSING, SHELF SPACE AT EXISTING RETAILERS IS BECOMING ONLY
MORE EXPENSIVE. HOW DO YOU BREAK A NEW BAND IN THAT
Gurewitz: I guess it depends on your definition of breaking
a band. My definition is getting them to the 100,000-unit mark.
I’m not saying that’s a huge hit, but that’s my world. If I do
that, I’ve broken them. And it’s much easier to get to 100,000
units today. It’s so much easier to get the word out, and it’s
easier to get the word out fast. If it connects with the
audience, you can get it in their hands in lighting speed. The
real power today is that the Internet has become radio on
BILLBOARD: AS DIGITAL SALES INCREASE AND PHYSICAL SALES
DECLINE, HOW IS EPITAPH PREPARING?
Gurewitz: Keep in mind that as a fairly decent-sized indie,
we have much less to lose if there’s a full conversion to
digital. We have no vertical integration. We don’t own any
pressing plants or distributors. We’re big enough to have all
our masters on all the important digital sites, and we’re small
enough to not have the encumbrance of these giant
brick-and-mortar distributors that the majors have.
For me, there’s less to lose with a sale on iTunes, and
what I have to gain is pretty nice. There are no returns.
There’s no overstock. I never again have to worry about
BILLBOARD: LET’S DISCUSS THE LABEL’S DEFINING MOMENT, THE
OFFSPRING’S “SMASH.” TALK ABOUT YOUR REACTION WHEN YOU
HEARD THE ALBUM. DID YOU FEEL YOU WERE SITTING ON
Gurewitz: I can remember when I first got the finished
masters. Epitaph at the time had maybe five employees. I was
driving home from work, listening to the masters, and I circled
around my block. I didn’t go in my house. I kept circling the
neighborhood, listening to the record over and over. I listened
to it at least five times in a row. I pulled in my driveway,
and I don’t know what made me say this, but I said to my wife,
“Honey, we’re going to be rich.” I s— you not.
I don’t believe I’ve ever told that story. I had this
feeling deep down in my gut that “Self-Esteem” and “Come Out
and Play” were huge hits. I felt it. I didn’t know what that
meant, but I knew it was by far the biggest record a band had
submitted to me.
BILLBOARD: PRIOR TO THAT YOU MUST HAVE HAD DREAMS OR
DESIGNS ON THINGS YOU’D CHANGE IF YOU HIT IT BIG.
Gurewitz: I never thought we’d hit it that big. I mean, we
were doing well. We were selling more than 1 million records
per year before the Offspring hit. We had maybe 10 groups, and
Bad Religion was selling about 100,000 records. We were making
good living. What happened when the Offspring started blowing
up was that a bunch of majors started coming around to buy my
They said, “An independent cannot do this.” They told us
they could make it go multiplatinum, and we’d have to sell half
our business for that to happen. But N.W.A had just had a
multiplatinum record with “Straight Outta Compton.” That was an
indie, Priority. So if a rap act can do it, so can a rock band.
I was going to try it, and I turned down $25 million for
one-quarter of my company — just one-quarter.
BILLBOARD: DID YOU TAKE IT PERSONALLY WHEN THE OFFSPRING
LEFT EPITAPH FOR COLUMBIA?
Gurewitz: I did, and I shouldn’t have. I learned a lesson
there. It’s business. It’s not personal. I owe a great debt of
gratitude to the Offspring camp, and I feel extremely
comfortable saying that. I hope they read that.
BILLBOARD: WERE YOU PREPARED WHEN CALI PUNK WAS NO LONGER
THE SOUND OF THE MOMENT?
Gurewitz: No, I don’t think I was. But I think we got with
it fast enough, and I realized that we did need to become more
diverse. We had an Atmosphere record, we had the Anti- label,
we had ownership in Burning Heart, and we had Hellcat. I was
diversified enough that when I was a little slow on the uptake,
it didn’t hurt us too bad.
There are some really great indies out there who have done
some really great A&R. There’s Victory and Fueled by Ramen and
Drive-Thru, to name a few. They kind of picked up where I left
off, and now I’ve taken their nod, and I think we’re right
there with all of them. We missed a half of a step, but it
wasn’t too bad for an old guy.