Punk Rock Songs: A Brief History and Analysis of Epitaph Records by Michael Aurand
“A Logo and a P.O. Box”
In 1981, 19-year-old recording student Brett Gurewitz, guitarist for the So-Cal hardcore band Bad Religion, borrowed $1000 from his father in order to press and self-release his band’s first EP. Gurewitz named the label after the King Crimson song of the same name. Although initially intended to be an outlet for Bad Religion’s records, the band members were shocked when their first self-financed and self-released EP sold over 10,000 copies, and interest in the band, as well as their affiliated label, began to increase at a rapid pace. Eventually, what once consisted of nothing more than “a logo and a P.O. box,” would go on sell millions and millions of units with acts like The Offspring, Weezer, Social Distortion, NOFX, Dropkick Murphys, Rancid, Alkaline Trio, L7, Tricky, and many more.
Although the label would eventually become one of the most famous and trusted sources for punk and hardcore music, Epitaph’s rise to success wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. Their initial wave of interest in the 80’s was met with an almost mutual amount of controversy. Bad Religion’s infamous logo, known as the “crossbuster,” consisted of a very plain image of a crucifix covered by a red prohibition circle. According to frontman Greg Graffin, who would later claim in the band’s live documentary Along the Way to somewhat regret choosing the logo as the band’s main marketing image, early shows would often be met with protesters from local religious groups, particularly Catholic churches. This confrontational approach to the band’s relationship with the public would make the task of being taken seriously as a real record label even more daunting and difficult than it would have already been.
The controversy didn’t do much to deter the label’s ultimate success, however. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Epitaph began releasing records by several other notable California-based punk bands.
1994: Punk Rock Goes “Mainstream,” and brings Epitaph with it.
1994 proved to be the game-changing year for Gurewitz and his label, as Bad Religion, NOFX, Rancid, and the newly-signed band The Offspring all released big-selling records. The latter of these, The Offspring’s “Smash,” has the distinct honor of being the most commercially successful independently-released record of all time, selling over 12 million units to date.
Why the 50-somethings Who Run this 30-year-old Label are Here to Stay
The reason Epitaph Records has sustained such a long career in such a constantly-evolving industry (known for it’s merciless, Darwinian-like disposal of weak, unnecessary talent) is because the label caters to a specific, but quite large, niche demographic and is always putting out records that they want to hear. As the climate of the punk scene has changed over the course of Epitaph’s 30+ years of existence, the label, and the subsequent roster of artists it hosts, has changed with it, while never completely alienating the D.I.Y. principles on which the label was founded in the first place.
No Sibling Rivalry Here
In addition to it’s own roster, Epitaph is also home to several notable sister-labels. Among these are ANTI-Records, Burning Heart Records, Fat Possum Records and Hellcat Records (which was founded as a partnership between Gurewitz and Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong). Between these sister-labels, all of whom operate in conjunction with Epitaph, a wide and diverse range of artists have released very successful albums. These artists include Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, and Nick Cave (ANTI-), The Hives, Refused, and Flogging Molly (Burning Heart), The Slackers, F-Minus and the Distillers (Hellcat), The Black Keys, Andrew Bird and Dinosaur Jr. (Fat Possum), as well as many many more.
Because of their trusted name and legacy, many established artists have signed to Epitaph after their contracts with other labels have expired. A notable example of this is Weezer’s “Hurley,” which was released through Epitaph in 2010 after Weezer’s previous contractual obligations with Interscope had been fulfilled. In addition, 2011 saw the addition of Social Distortion to the Epitaph family, as their seventh studio album “Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes,” their ‘comeback’ album after a six-year hiatus, was released through the label.
21st Century Digital Boys
The label has also never been one to shy away from emerging technologies and tools to bring their music to a wide audience. Epitaph’s website, Facebook, and blog all feature widgets and media players which streamline the experience of their music directly to the media-savvy demographic it’s made for.
With it’s rich history, strong reputation, legendary catalog and dedicated fanbase, Epitaph is a highly influential indie label that looks to only get bigger and better in the years to come.