by Alexander Skidmore.
Barsuk Records is Seattle-based independent label that formed in 1994 by Christopher Possanza and Josh Rosenfeld of the band This Busy Monster. The name of the label is after Christopher’s dog, which is Russian for “badger.” Since 1994, they have released over seventy albums with their forty-one or so artists.
Like many independent labels, Barsuk started as a means for This Busy Monster to release their own material, starting with a few 7″ singles.
It was not until four years later, in 1998, that they released their first CDs – This Busy Monster’s Like Icicles and Death Cab For Cutie’s debut album Something About Airplanes. Barsuk released and distributed both albums through nothing but a mail order and in local stores. They were only made available outside of the northwest by Amazon’s pilot program.
Rosenfeld was able to quit his day job by 2000 to focus entirely on the label and putting out releases thanks to the sales of Airplanes – which also helped the label to secure a national distribution deal. But in 2001, after signing John Vanderslice, Rilo Kiley & The Long Winters, their distributor declares bankruptcy and the label loses a lot of money.
Barsuk survived since the owners did not take a salary and that it operated out of a house in Seattle’s Central District – a very affordable neighborhood. Once they got back on their feet, they moved their offices to Georgetown.
2003 was a huge step for the label as their only four releases did extremely well – Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter’s Reckless Burning, Nada Surf’s Let Go, The Long Winters’ When I Pretend To Fall & Death Cab’s Transatlanticism.
Transatlanticism went on to sell its 500,000th copy in the United States by 2007 – becoming one of a select group of indie releases to reach this landmark in the internet era. This is especially impressive due to Barsuk’s business model, wherein the label and bands share profits from releases and quality art takes precedent over bottom-line considerations. This fact also helped the label to continue to profit when record sales were declining. The artwork from Menomena’s 2007 release Friend or Foe was actually nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Recording Package.”
Barsuk has also managed to stay afloat by embracing the use of licensing their songs. Death Cab has had songs featured in television and film (The O.C., Six Feet Under, Californication, Wedding Crashers). Commercials, television shows & films have featured many other artists including Nada Surf, The Long Winters and Jim Noir.
Barsuk isn’t afraid of what’s to come for the recording industry. They’ll continue to sign great bands and release great albums for as long as they can. They are another fine example that this industry is alive – you just have to know where to look.
Other Barsuk artists include: Aqueduct, Chris Walla (of Death Cab), David Bazan (formerly of Pedro The Lion), Harvey Danger, Mates of State, Phantogram, Ra Ra Riot, Rocky Votolato, Say Hi, Smooth, Starlight Mints, The Wooden Birds, They Might Be Giants, Travis Morrison (of The Dismemberment Plan), Viva Voce, What Make Milwaukee Famous and more.
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