By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
There was a time not long ago when Lookout! Records was just four desks in a studio apartment. The few purchase orders that trickled in were simply piled in a corner, while the East Bay punk label's no-name bands remained relegated to the underground. At a time when grunge music had pushed punk back to the fringes, Lookout!, with its roster of local hardcore and ska bands, was happy just to be there. Then, a strange thing happened: Green Day's Dookie.
Although the multiplatinum album was a major-label release on Reprise, Lookout! -- which signed the band in 1989 and put out its first four records -- had held onto Green Day's back catalog. Demand, needless to say, suddenly outstripped supply in the one-room apartment.
"We would get orders for 70,000 Green Day records at a time, and it was just mind-boggling," says Lookout! co-owner Molly Neuman. "They were on magazine covers, and here we were, out of a bedroom, with a crazy, lucky accident."
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That "accident" -- the mid-'90s period when punk and alternative bands, helped by MTV and Lollapalooza, came storming out of the underground -- provided a turning point for Lookout!. Now, celebrating its 15th anniversary, the company is hardly a one-room operation -- or, for that matter, a purely punk rock label -- and its part in that altrock boom makes it something of a role model for indies that have sprung up since. And like all role models, it needs to be careful of the example it sets: The label still paints itself as a punk rock stalwart, but recent moves toward music videos and pop-sounding bands like Communiqué and the Donnas have led some fans to question Lookout!'s authenticity.
Yet while Green Day is often held up as one of the ultimate punk rock sellouts, Lookout!, ironically, has managed to achieve financial success while remaining humble, not to mention remarkably relevant in the bands it chooses to sign. Though it's no longer the big fish in a very small pond, Lookout!'s wide-reaching catalog and mainstream business approach have kept it from becoming another relic of the punk revival.
At his desk on the second floor of Lookout!'s offices -- a drab space in downtown Berkeley that could just as easily house a temp agency if not for the boxes of CDs packed into every nook and cranny -- the youthful, blue-eyed Christopher Appelgren, 30, hardly looks like a hardened executive at an influential label. He's clad in a PUMA warm-up jacket and surrounded by stuff that would make a teenage punk fan proud: a stereo, a Specials poster, a stack of original Green Day posters, and iced tea sipped from one of those giant, 64-ounce convenience-store cups.
Appelgren discovered Lookout! as a 15-year-old, back when the roster included locals like hardcore band Neurosis, ska-revivalists Rancid, and queercore act Pansy Division. Lately, Lookout! has morphed into a more punk-influenced indie rock collective, with the critically acclaimed, ska-inspired sound of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, the emo-esque Pretty Girls Make Graves, poppier artists like the Oranges Band, and Appelgren's garage rock outfit, the Pattern, arguably one of the Bay Area's most prized rock bands.
Lookout! was founded in 1988 by Lawrence Hayes and David Hayes (no relation), and Appelgren began working for them -- creating art and ads for five bucks an hour -- as a high school senior in rural Humboldt County. In 1990, Appelgren finished school a semester early and soon moved to the Bay Area to enroll at the University of California and work out of Lawrence Hayes' Berkeley apartment. But after just one term, Appelgren flunked out of school and decided to devote himself full time to Lookout!.
In 1994, Green Day broke, and then Rancid. Orders were flooding in, and the small staff was overwhelmed. So Appelgren's then-girlfriend Neuman -- the drummer for influential Lookout! riot grrl band Bratmobile -- came in to handle marketing and promotions. But having studied filmmaking at Evergreen College in Olympia, Neuman, 32, who is now married to Appelgren, admits her early job duties were somewhat improvised.
"Being in Bratmobile, we had a lot of press," she explains. "So I had a bit of a clue, but not really. Rather than hire an expert, we just figured it out."
The Green Day success allowed some room for trial and error as Lookout! tried to figure out its next step after such unexpected growth. Neuman and Appelgren married in 1996, and a year later, Lawrence Hayes decided the label had become a larger project than he'd envisioned and opted to transfer ownership to Appelgren. (David Hayes had already moved on to found another record label, and these days Lawrence is out of the label biz and works as a musician and writer for Punk Planet.) Appelgren now owns 80 percent of the Lookout! LLC, while Neuman and Cathy Bauer, the general manager, each hold 10 percent. Today, the label employs 11 full-time staffers and comes complete with a health plan and 401(k).
"We had to shift gears from the original model of indie labels," says Neuman, in a very indie-looking office packed with CD-covered filing cabinets and a thrift-store lamp. "We're trying to be a business -- selling records, marketing bands, and making money so we can stay around for 15 more years."
So far this year, Lookout! has released 11 records, while consistent best sellers -- like ska legends Operation Ivy -- serve as a testament to its roots. But as the label heads' tastes have changed, so has Lookout!'s output.
"What's commonly regarded as a Lookout! sound -- Green Day, Screeching Weasel, the Queers -- hasn't been the Lookout! sound for eight years," says Jesse Townley, a former employee and member of former Lookout! bands Blatz and the Criminals.
In addition, the label no longer represents a tightknit local scene. The upcoming anniversary blowout will bring together bands from far-off cities like Baltimore, D.C., and Vancouver, but while many of the groups don't know each other, they share common musical DNA.
"A lot of people are like me, where Lookout! was the soundtrack to their teenage years," Appelgren says. "Now, we can bring together bands with different experiences with Lookout! at different time periods."
Perhaps the biggest change between then and now is Lookout!'s newfound marketing savvy. Whereas before, national press and record sales were a happy accident, today Lookout! is armed with a PR handler and an e-mail newsletter 17,000 strong, currently abuzz over the label's most recent breakthrough, the Donnas.
After four early releases on Lookout!, the Donnas recorded Spend the Night for Atlantic Records. With sales of 400,000 copies, constant airplay, and countless magazine articles, it's fair to say the band has generated some interest. And while big-time sales and the Donnas' perky sound don't exactly jell with the punk rock ethos, the band provides an edgy antidote to a musical climate dominated by teen pop and hip hop.
Still, Townley -- now head of mail order at legendary local punk label Alternative Tentacles -- suggests that since Green Day, Lookout! has been too concerned with its next big thing.
"I wish 'em the best, but I don't think they're going to find another Green Day, just like we can't count on another Dead Kennedys," says Townley, whose Blatz left Lookout! because the group was dissatisfied with the label's royalty structure and corporate distribution ties. "You can't force it. Their strength is local underground, and a lot of ex-Lookout! folks are frustrated with the potential that's not being reached. Lookout! should stop trying to be something that they're not."
Indeed, Lookout!'s big successes have forced Appelgren and Neuman to adopt a healthy dose of professionalism. But at the same time, the hits have allowed the label to take risks with more diverse bands. So while Lookout! has grown less punk in its sound, the fact remains that the hardcore music its employees grew up with simply isn't in demand now, and Lookout!'s adaptability has proven to be its biggest achievement.
"We know, as an independent label, that we're not going to change the industry," says Appelgren. "But we can affect its psychology by being smart and cool and interesting."
Punk rock has always been about changing the system, and Lookout! hasn't forgotten that. It's just that now, the label manages to do it from the inside out.