Since it’s inception, Vagrant Records has been a dominant force in the world of indie labels. Rich Egan, along with business partner Jon Cohen, founded Vagrant records in 1994 (1). Vagrant has since transcended from being just another record label into becoming a recognizable brand, known especially for putting out emo pop bands in the late nineties and early millennium. Vagrant almost singlehandedly launched the new wave of emo pop into the conscious of mainstream listeners, all while taking slack from others in the underground scene. It all began with Rich Egan, a man with punk roots who wasn’t afraid of the exposure that some DIY enthusiasts fear.
Egan has never been shy about his influences in starting Vagrant Records. (Although he seems camera shy since a photograph of the man can not be found. Don’t be fooled:the picture to the side is Ian Mackaye.) His passion can be traced back to his love of punk rock bands like Black Flag, Husker Du, and Social Distortion. Also apparent was his love of DIY mastermind and founder of Dischord records Ian Mackaye. “I distinctly remember seeing “Another State of Mind” when I was just a real little kid–and the part on Ian Mackaye & Dischord just floored me,” says Egan (2). Although Egan idolized Mackaye, he would have a different approach than the D.C. legend.
While Mackaye waxed politics and discussed social issues, Egan seemed more concerned with the emotional value of music. In fact, the song that inspired him most was a sort of punk ballad by The Replacements called “Unsatisfied.”
Egan says of the song, “It’s the most heartbreaking, amazing song…It was completely revolutionary to me” (3). Vagrant records would become a collective representation of Egan’s personality: punk rock that wasn’t afraid to show it’s emotional side. This formula would be critical in Vagrant’s success of not only selling records, but making a personal connection with fans all around the United States.
Eagan’s career in the music business started in 1991 while working with a talent agency in L.A. Becoming dissatisfied with the job he was working, Egan decided to get himself fired from the agency so he could focus full time on trying to make a record label work. (In true punk rock fashion, Egan has claimed to have hit another employee in the eye with a paper clip in order to get fired.) When asked in an interview with Punkbands.com his inspiration for starting Vagrant, Egan replied “I wanted to put out music I loved and was naive enough to think I could” (2). Egan had an idea and a dream, but no one, not even Egan, could surmise that this dream would turn into one of the most dominant forces in independent music.
Vagrant’s first release came in the form of a 7-inch box set called West x North South. The set was put out in 1994 after Jon Cohen bought into the company for only $6,000. Realizing the success of the set, Egan quickly followed it up with another compilation called Before You Were Punk. The disc is made up of pop punk bands, such as Face to Face and Blink 182, doing covers of new wave songs. The release was widely successful, going on to sell 70,000 copies total (3). Egan’s decision to make his first few releases compilations was very smart, since this was the way most teenagers found out about new music before the widespread use of P2P file sharing sites. Egan was already doing what he would become known for: making a record label into a brand.
With their new found success, Vagrant was already becoming a force to be reckoned with when five kids from Kansas came along to change the course of Vagrant’s history. Matthew Pryor, Jim Suptic, James Dewees, Robert Pope, and Ryan Pope, collectively known as The Get Up Kids, were fresh off a modestly successful release on Doghouse Records called Four Minute Mile. The album had sold in the neighborhood of 15,000 copies when the band approached Egan to become part of his management company Hard Eight (3). Egan attempted to secure The Get Up Kids a major label deal, but after months of trying, they instead ended up signing to Vagrant.
In 1999 The Get Up Kids released their first album on Vagrant Records, the seminal Something To Write Home About. Vagrant’s belief in the band was shown most by Jon Coen who convinced his parents to mortgage their house in order to finance the album (3). The gamble paid off. This release would change everything for Vagrant and the genre of emo in general. Egan says of the album, “The Get Up Kids were the head of the indie-rock class at that point. So when they signed to Vagrant, which was largely unknown [then], it made all these other bands look to us” (1). These other bands would be Saves The Day and Dashboard Confessional, just to name a few.
The Get Up Kids toured almost non-stop after the release of Something To Write Home About. Hitting the road with bands such as Weezer and Green Day only further embedded the band and Vagrant into the mainstream (4). The touring started to take it’s toll on the band. They also became increasingly dissatisfied with the emo pop sound that had made the group’s career. Matthew Pryor, lead singer of the band says, “ I grew tired of the octave-chord thing when we were making our last record” (5). Like most bands within the genre and most songwriters in general, the band felt the need to evolve from the emo core sound into more mature sounding songs and records.
The band would go on to release two more full lengths, 2002’s On A Wire and 2004’s The Guilt Show (4). Although The Get Up Kids broke up in 2005, Vagrant would continue to have success with the side projects of the band including Reggie and the Full Effect, New Amsterdams, and Terrible Twos. Egan sums up his thoughts on The Get Up Kids as follows: “ The Get Up Kids MADE our label—if it wasn’t for them [and Face To Face] nobody would give a shit about us” (2). Vagrant had successfully infiltrated the mainstream market, but they were not about to slow down for anyone.
Saves The Day and Dashboard Confessional
Vagrant’s next big act would hail from the suburbs of New Jersey. Blending the elements of punk with power pop, Saves The Day would quickly become one of Vagrant’s biggest bands. After releasing two albums on Equal Vision Records, 1997’s Can’t Slow Down and 1999’s Through Being Cool, Saves The Day signed to Vagrant for their third release. The album, entitled Stay What You Are, became wildly successful selling more than 200,000 copies. The videos for singles “At Your Funeral “ and “Freakish” became staples on MTV2 (5). With their clean cut look, the only thing that seemed to separate Saves The Day from N’Sync was the music. Saves The Day seemed to embody Vagrant’s motto down to the last word: to cool for the mainstream and to lame for the subculture.
The last piece of the puzzle for Vagrant’s dominance of emo culture was a soft spoken artist from Florida named Chris Carrabba. Sporting arms sleeved in tattoos and a pompadour style haircut, Carrabba would soon become the poster boy for emo culture as Dashboard Confessional.
Starting out as the lead singer of Florida’s Further Seems Forever, Carrabba decided to part ways after recording just one album with the band. He explains his departure into a solo career by saying, “When I started Dashboard six years ago, I was reacting to these other bands I had been in. At the time, I needed something simpler” (6). It seems that “something simpler” meant a heartfelt brand of music that could almost be likened to a more independent version of The Goo Goo Dolls.
Dashboard Confessionals first album on Vagrant, The Places You Have Come to Fear Most, gained much attention for Carrabba and Vagrant due to the popularity of his single “Screaming Infidelities.” In 2002, Carrabba won an MTV2 award for artist of the year. His new found success led to the taping of an MTV Unplugged, and the resulting CD/DVD of the show went platinum in sales. Also helping matters along, Dashboard Confessional’s song “Vindicated” was included on the SpiderMan 2 soundtrack (6). Confessional and Vagrant were seemingly filling a void within popular music. A Newsweek article sums it up well by saying, “Vagrant has zereod in on teens who can’t stomach bubblegum pop, and built a hip national brand even though the rest of the music industry is too depressed to get out of bed” (7). Carrabba continues on with Vagrant to this day, never taking the leap on to a major label, even though he very well could have.
Realizing his bands were taking off, Egan decided to take his label on the road to showcase every band on the label. Calling the tour Vagrant America, bands like The Get Up Kids, Saves The Day, Alkaline Trio, Reggie and the Full Effect, No Motiv, and others went across the country in the summer of 2001 to bring Vagrant to the fans (8). Egan knows his audience well too; he only charged between $12 and $15 per ticket to make this show affordable to most teenagers looking to go (9). Although nothing new, the idea of a package tour for a label was not necessarily being done a lot in 2001. Egan showed great business smarts by striking when the iron is still hot and not letting fans forget about the label.
The genre of emo has died down in the last few years. This has not scared Vagrant however. They continue to put out punk music with an emotional emphasis: who cares what people call it, right? Vagrant’s latest releases include Ace Enders & a Million Different People, City and Colour, and The Appleseed Cast. They have also diversified themselves, releasing Waylon Jennings’ last recording ever, an eight song collection of covers that his son, Shooter Jennings also sings on (10). Vagrant also signed on the lead singer of The Replacements and the man responsible for much of Egan’s inspiration, Paul Westerberg.
Rich Egan has successfully taken a genre and record label and turned them into a brand known as Vagrant. He saw that his core group of fans were teenagers, and gave them what they craved: heartfelt, emotional music that fit into neither the mainstream nor the hipper than thou art subculture. Egan sums up his business practices with a statement that seems like it should be obvious to the head of any label, but it is not always put into practice: “From the beginning, our mission statement was treat the bands better than you would treat yourself. Put bands ahead of the label, not vice versa” (3). Simply put, this practice helps Egan keep bands on his label happy and makes other bands want to be on it. If Egan continues this practice, which is highly likely, Vagrant will continue to thrive and be the most important label in the world of teenage music. -Written by Jason Goucher with research assistance from Ryan Green, David Krenz, Chris McDowell, and Jamie Shaffer.
Note: Andy Greenwald’s book “Nothing Feels Good” was an invaluable source of information on Vagrant records and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of emo music.
Videos of Vagrant Bands
A List of Vagrant Artists from Vagrant’s Official Website
Ace Enders & A Million Di…
A Cursive Memory
The Appleseed Cast
City and Colour
Down To Earth Approach
Face To Face
From Autumn To Ashes
The Get Up Kids
The Hold Steady
HORSE the band
Murder By Death
The New Amsterdams
The Night Marchers
Protest The Hero
Reggie And The Full Effec…
Rocket From The Crypt
Saves The Day
School Boy Humor
So Many Dynamos
The Terrible Twos
The (International) Noise…
-First band signed was Boxer
-First releases were compilations West x North South and Before You Were Punk
-Key artists and releases include,The Get Up Kids-Something To Write Home About, Saves The Day-Stay What You Are, and Dashboard Confessional-The Places You have Come to Fear Most
-Do It Yourself mentality and business practices
-Successfully released pop punk and emo music
-Management Company Hard 8 started by Egan
-The Get Up Kids imprint label Hereos and Villains thru Vagrant
References and Links
1. Morris, Chris. “Vagrant Marks 10 Years of Indie Rock.” Billboard. Aug. 28, 2004.
2. “Interviews Rich Vagrant.” Nov. 30, 1999. Accessed 3/21/09 http://www.punkbands.com/interviews/93/.
3. Greenwald, Andy. Nothing Feels Good. Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo.
4. The Get Up Kids Biography on VH1.com. Accessed 3/21/09. http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/get_up_kids/bio.jhtml.
5. Saves The Day Biography on Starpulse.com. Accessed 3/21/09. “http://www.starpulse.com/Music/Saves_The_Day/Biography/
6. Artist Information, Dashboard Confessional on Vagrant’s official website. Accessed 3/20/09.http://www.vagrant.com/artist/index/11.
7. “Feeling Lucky Punk?” Newsweek. 09/23/02. Accessed 3/22/09. http://www.newsweek.com/id/65735/page/1.
8. “Vagrant America Tour Signed, Sealed, and Set To Explode.” thetripwire.com 5/23/01. Accessed 3/22/09. http://www.thetripwire.com/news/2001/05/23/vagrant-america-tour-signed-sealed-and-setto-explode/.
9. Kot, Greg. “Punk Thrives on Vagrant.” Rolling Stone. 9/6/01. Accessed 3/22/09. http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/savestheday/articles/story/5932584/punk_thrives_on_vagrant.
10.Artist Information Waylon Jennings on Vagrant’s official website. Accessed 3/22/09. http://www.vagrant.com/artist/index/41.