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The Price of Victory

The phenomenally successful indie Victory Records has the majors flashing their checkbooks--but Tony Brummel isn't selling.



Tony Brummel talks like a man with something to prove. "Yeah, I've got a big chip on my shoulder," admits the owner of Victory Records. "For every person who said I wouldn't be successful in business because I didn't go to school or because I was too much of a street guy, or anyone who's doubted the label or ignored us. For me it's about winning and shoving that back in their faces."

The bands on Victory's roster play mostly hardcore, metal, or pop punk, and appeal far more consistently to teenage boys than to critics. Unsurprisingly, many of Chicago's music writers are on Brummel's list of people to prove wrong: "I think some of [them] are just elitist and not in touch with the street and what reality is," he says. "If they were, they'd know what the real deal is. The kids are the fucking business. They're the ones that buy the records."

Brummel, who's 33, has sold plenty of records to those kids. Victory is by far the biggest independently owned rock label in the midwest--last year it outsold Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, and Drag City combined. In fact, only one such label in the country, New York's Wind-up Records, is doing better business. But with that sort of success come the usual rumors: On June 1, shortly after Billboard ran a feature story profiling Victory, the New York Post reported that Warner Music head Lyor Cohen was in talks with a number of indies, hoping to acquire them or set up distribution deals. Victory was one of four labels that "music industry sources" said were "in Warner's sights."

An angry Brummel demanded a retraction from the Post (which he didn't get). "It doesn't do me any good when I've got employees marching into my office asking if we're for sale," he says. He denies that any negotiations with Warner took place, though major labels do frequently contact Victory ("There's always people calling us"). He's made a rebuttal of the Post story in an industry publication called Hits, but the Internet continues to buzz with rumors that his label is about to climb into bed with a major.

Unlike Wind-up Records, whose fortunes are hitched to multiplatinum acts Creed and Evanescence, Victory has a broad base. None of the label's records has gone gold yet, but every one of the roughly 30 bands on its roster sells at least 10,000 copies of each new album. (Past heavy hitters still in the Victory catalog include major label acts like Thursday and Hatebreed.) And Victory is entering what promises to be the biggest quarter in its history: this week it shipped roughly 200,000 copies of Atreyu's The Curse, and later in the month it plans to ship 400,000 copies of Taking Back Sunday's hotly anticipated sophomore album, Where You Want to Be. Add to that a back catalog of titles that sell 500 to 1,500 copies a week and a fall schedule that includes releases from up-and-coming acts like Action Action, Straylight Run, and Bury Your Dead, and it's clear why so many people believed that Victory had tempted the big fish at Warner.

"People see you as an indie doing [numbers] like that and they can't believe we're able to pull it off," says Brummel. But though Victory's deal with longtime distributor RED comes up for renewal next year, the label isn't about to sign on with a major--and certainly not with Warner, which cut half its artist roster and fired a thousand employees this past spring.

"They've got their own problems they have to figure out," says Brummel. "Anyone worth their salt is not going to do anything with [Warner] right now. If anything it's a press spin. Since they've done their restructuring they want to look like the uber-independent. The propaganda is that they're gonna buy every independent out there."

Some of Brummel's distaste for Warner doubtless dates back to 2002, when Lyor Cohen, then running Island Records, signed Thursday while the band was still with Victory. The nasty public dispute that resulted dragged on for a year before the two labels settled. But Brummel insists that his unwillingness to deal with Warner isn't personal: "I just absolutely despise the major record companies and see no reason to be in business with any of them."

Also in 2002, Brummel had what he calls a "learning experience" with MCA Records, which had made plans to buy a 25 percent stake in Victory. According to Brummel MCA started tinkering with the deal, so he called it off and returned the money the label had already given him. "That's typically what happens," he says. "They'll impregnate you with some cash and then a few months later, when you get to finalizing the operating agreement, that's when they try and change things in their favor. They figure that you've probably spent the first sum of money that they gave you and that you're gonna be desperate to close and get the rest of it."

Brummel also cites recent partnerships between indies and majors that've left the smaller labels crippled--Drive-thru Records, for example, lost New Found Glory and Something Corporate to Geffen. "The major's endgame is to strip-mine you of the artists that they want and then just shut you down," he says. "They're in a different business than us, and I don't find their business enjoyable. 'Cause at the end of the day it's not really about music. It's about quarterly numbers and hitting projections."

The bottom line certainly wasn't on Brummel's mind when he launched Victory. A Chicago native, he graduated from high school in the late 80s and kicked around in a series of local hardcore outfits; he started the label in '89 with less than a thousand dollars in seed money, intending to put out seven-inch singles by his friends' bands. But in 1993, with the release of Victory's second "Only the Strong" compilation and the Snapcase LP Lookinglasself, the label became a full-time concern. Victory now has 30 employees, a world-music imprint, and a healthy sideline selling DVDs and band merchandise; it also distributes smaller labels like Undecided, Hand of Hope, and Lifeforce. Last fall Victory opened a satellite office in London.

Brummel lives three blocks from Victory's offices in West Town and usually spends the five-minute walk hammering away at his Blackberry. He still puts in 17-hour days, and comes across more like an amped-up high school football coach than a rocker.

"But that's why a lot of bands are attracted to us," he says. "They like our intensity. A lot of indie labels are very passive, they have a laissez-faire approach to what they do, and I don't think like that. A lot of them want to raise the victim card and I'm not a victim. The name of my label is Victory, man. I'm in it to win it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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