Ever think about starting your own record label? Syd Butler, Founder and President of Frenchkiss Records, had that exact thought 20 years ago. When he first entered the business, he had no idea where to begin. However, a little bit of luck, a few friends in the industry, and taking that first step led him to building Frenchkiss Records. Now, 20 years later, Syd reflects back on the early days in anticipation of their 20th anniversary celebration on October 12, an evening dedicated to rocking out to music like it’s 1999.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane with Syd Butler and look at the evolution of his record label over the past two decades.
When did you begin working in music?
I grew up in Washington D.C. surrounded by a very musical community. One day someone handed me a tape and said “Listen to these bands.” I had no idea that this music existed. When I was a sophomore in high school, I started playing the bass. Shortly after I started a punk band with my friends. Since 16 years old, I’ve been an active musician on tour. That’s when I started hanging out at Dischord. During that time, I began to understand how a label works and operates.
When I went to college I met my bandmates in Les Savy Fav, now signed through Frenchkiss Records Those early days were all about hanging out and making great music. Upon graduating college, we realized how much fun we had creating music together. So we sent our demo tape to labels just like everyone else did — and no one really responded. After struggling to get the attention of labels, I was considering the idea of starting our own. I spoke to a friend who ran a record label named Touch and Go,.He said, “Listen, I’m not gonna sign Les Savy Fav, but I’ll help you with any information that you need to start your label.” So that’s how Frenchkiss started.
How would you describe Frenchkisses brand both musically and stylistically then and now?
Initially I just wanted to put out cool art rock. It was really hard for me to figure out “What’s a band that thinks creatively outside the box, writes structured songs and has a more commercial sound?” without feeling like I’m selling a band out. Even up until today, if it sounds good to me and feels authentic, I feel like I can relate to the artists and they can relate to us. There’s a lot of bands that we’ve gone after because we thought their music was really cool, but our characters didn’t align. A big thing that we tell our artists is that they’re representing Frenchkiss. It doesn’t matter if they are on the road, doing press, traveling, or whatever mood they’re in, they are still representing Frenchkiss and the same goes for us on our side. We represent the bands, and they represent us. At the core, that’s really it. I’m excited about working with people who have different tastes, genres, and backgrounds, and getting to experience their journey and hopefully help them.
We represent the bands, and they represent us. At the core, that’s really it.
You juggle a lot of different roles in the music industry. What are you currently working on?
I have my job at Seth Meyers, which is a blessing because it allows me to live in two realities. Sometimes I’m exhausted from that job and then I come here to The Orchard and I get really excited because I have such a passion for music and the energy is contagious. It’s great writing on Seth Meyers and hanging out with my bandmates. I’ve known Eli Janney, who plays keyboard, since I was 14, and I met him at a Fort Reno show in D.C. The guitar player, Seth Jabour, is in Les Savy Fav. Marnie Stern is the other guitar player who I met right when I moved to New York, and I’ve know Fred forever. I’m very grateful for this serendipitous and magical moment bringing us all together. It’s been an amazing journey.
Where do you see Frenchkiss Records in another 20 years?
Hopefully it still exists under the current climate of the music industry. I wake up everyday thinking about it. It’s like a child or plant that I’ve raised from a seedling. I really want to give a shout out to The Orchard, because without them this journey would’ve ended a long time ago. They have been incredibly supportive and Paul Hanly has been my left and right arm. So I think as long as The Orchard continues to be fantastic and exist, so will Frenchkiss.
Looking at the past decade, what were some major wins for Frenchkiss?
I relate it to baseball –I don’t even watch baseball, but I’m using it as an analogy. You have some bands that you really have to sign because they’re character players. They might get on first base, they work hard and do all they have to, and then once a year we’d have a record that would hit it out of the park. We really had all of the stars line up. Pitchfork became a huge influencer in the music we were releasing. We released a bunch of bands’ records, digital started to rise, there were so many outlets for people to listen to music, purchase and be connected to music.
Les Savy Fav was ending its touring life, Pitchfork started writing about us. All of a sudden they had a festival and asked us to play. We played in front of 15,000 people and it reignited our passion and excitement for playing music and having a career. During that time we also put out The Antlers’ record which did really well, then The Dodos record right after, which did very well. We started having more success and finding quality music, who wanted to be a part of Frenchkiss. Soon Frenchkiss had established itself. When we played the Pitchfork Festival, The Dodos were right next to me, so Americans were like “oh he’s doing this too.” When we signed Passion Pit, we witnessed a big momentum change. Putting out the Passion Pit record was a huge shift in terms of our credibility and success. After that we just kept hitting home run after home run with the Local Natives. Those records sold over 150,000 copies and that was such a game changer.
When we signed Passion Pit, we witnessed a big momentum change. Putting out the Passion Pit record was a huge shift in terms of our credibility and success.
How do you balance all of your different jobs and responsibilities?
I get so excited about so many different things, and I’m not afraid of failure, so I feel like I’m able to be as present as possible in those moments. I break up the day like a German train schedule. I have the morning with the kids. From 9:30pm to 12:30pm I focus on Frenchkiss. Then 1:00pm to 3:00pm is dedicated to writing music with Seth Meyers. Then I have lunch. And then I get back to Frenchkiss, do rehearsal, then I do the show. But everything is very compartmentalized. I make sure to fit everything in. That’s been a blessing, because when I was in my 20s I was looking for that and trying to figure out what that was. I had a much harder time juggling all of those hats. I had more of an emotional attachment to those things, where now I know I have to keep this rigid schedule in order to stay on track.
What advice would you give to other independent artists or labels?
Young bands and young artists need to understand that it’s a lot harder than they think it is. A lot of young bands go into their room or into a practice space and they record a song that they think is great and that makes sense. I tell so many people, there are two requirements when submitting music to Frenchkiss. I need two songs, not your whole record, not your ep, just two songs. Send your favorite song and then your friend’s favorite song. Usually the song that your friends like is the single. That’s how you submit to a record label. Also, when you submit to a record label don’t assume that the record label wants to release your music. I get so many submissions that say “We’ve chosen Frenchkiss for our record.” That doesn’t work. Let’s say we do sign you, we’re talking another 6 months until the record comes out, and then you have to go on tour. People don’t understand how hard it is to go on tour. You have to get into a van that’s uncomfortable and probably smells bad. You have to figure out who your bandmates are. You have to lug equipment up and down stairs, so the romance of the tour that you have never gone on is much harder than you think. Most bands can’t handle that. Bruce Springsteen still goes on tour, Radiohead still goes on tour, The Black Keys still go on tour. This is how you sell your record.
Someone once told me, “There’s always going to be a better band that didn’t show up.” Just keep showing up and be kind. Another great lesson I’ve learned along the way, and it’s that all the little relationships are so crucial to your growth as a band. Don’t be entitled.
Someone once told me, “There’s always going to be a better band that didn’t show up.” Just keep showing up and be kind. Another great lesson I’ve learned along the way, and it’s that all the little relationships are so crucial to your growth as a band.
You’re celebrating your 20th anniversary at Elsewhere on October 12. Tell us a little bit about the event.
I want it to be a community of people having the time of their lives, because that’s what Frenchkiss has been for us. Elsewhere is such a great venue because it reminds us all of the venues that existed when we were growing up. Although it’s a really nice venue and has great sound, it has a feeling of an old idea that doesn’t really exist anymore. We want a packed house, with people going absolutely bananas. I want everyone to be totally free, be vulnerable, be vocal, and just let it all go.