I just read Larry Livermore's How to Ru(i)n A Record Label, which details his experience starting, leaving, and watching the demise of Lookout Records.
I came to the Bay Area in 1993, and got into local punk that year. I saw Green Day at Slim's in San Francisco right after Dookie hit but before they blew up. I was an exciting time for music and the scene, even if I was a good three years too late. Lookout was the epicenter of it. They had Green Day, Operation Ivy, Tiger Trap, Crimpshrine, and a host of other local punk bands. Plus, their shabby aesthetic and low prices made it seem like a label run by and for the kids.
Both Green Day and Op Ivy became huge sellers for them. I think they were used to selling thousands of copies, and those bands were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. It infused the label with a lot of money, and they struggled to find a path forward. What struck me reading the book was how short-lived this all was. The label started in 1987, and was effectively done by 2005, although the writing was on the wall sooner, and they officially closed much later.
I've read Chris Applegren's description of how he ran the label into the ground after Larry Livermore bailed in the late 90s. Applegren basically thought that since Green Day went on to become bajillionaires with some serious promotion, any other band should be able to become bajillionaires with the same level of promotion. What they missed was that Green Day was lightning in a bottle, ie not the kind of thing that is likely to come along again. Also, most of the commercially successful punk bands sounded nothing like the shabby pop-punk Lookout! was putting out. The Epitaph sound was much more prevalent as the 90s closed - think Blink 182 or Sum 41. The band used royalty payments to pay bills, thus stiffing bands, thus losing their catalogue as Green Day and Op Ivy took their records to other labels.
I felt a sense of loss when the label closed, but looking back it seems kind of inevitable. The Lookout! sound was very specific to a time and place. They put out East Bay pop punk records, or East Coast bands that sounded like East Bay pop punk. Their few excursions into weirder punk (Neurosis, Filth) were anomalies. Their attempts to branch out into bands like the Donnas and the Pattern weren't successful. By 1999 pop punk was done and so the label. I have a lot of respect and admiration for what they did, and I love some of those records, but I'm not surprised that it folded. I know Molly Neuman is still in the industry. I'm not sure what the rest of them are up to.
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