B y T i m o t h y G a s s e n
MUSIC THROBS THROUGH Lee Joseph as his life's blood. "I grew up collecting records, and radio in the 1960s made music an integral part of my existence," he says. "My Mom has photos of me as a 2-year-old running around with a 45 in my hand."
The former Tucsonan continues to run around with 45s--he's celebrating the decade anniversary of his own Dionysus Records label. The 37-year-old music fanatic also has retained his sense of humor and perspective through the hard years of independent record company work. "The theme of our anniversary is 'A Decade Of Decadence,' and the theme for the next 10 years is 'A Decade Of Dollars,' " he chuckles.
Laughs aside, making ends meet in the cutthroat Los Angeles music business has been a struggle. "Dionysus has survived for 10 years because I've kept part-time jobs and because the mail-order catalog really supplements the label," Joseph says.
"It's never been a problem getting our records into mom-and-pop stores, but there are a lot of cities, a lot of markets, where chain stores are the only place to buy records," he says. "The mail-order part of my business has filled that void."
The Rincon High graduate honed his entrepreneurial spirit while still in Tucson in the early 1980s, managing the now defunct Roads To Moscow record store and marketing his own Iconoclast International cassette-only label.
He was already a talented musician with a worldwide following through his band Yard Trauma, and the exodus to Los Angeles in 1984 led directly to forming his own record company.
"Dionysus was definitely a garage label, partial to what some people called 'retro-'60s' stuff, and that's why I started the label," he remembers, "because there were a lot of great bands doing that music.
"For me the interest in rock music from different eras has never been nostalgia--music is something that's eternal," he adds energetically. "People don't think of classical music as being 'retro,' for Christ's sake!"
Joseph slowly built his label and reputation, and soon expanded releases to include a wide range of styles. "Later on, I started releasing anything I liked, and that's when we decided to start the 'Hell Yeah' subsidiary label," he says. Described by Joseph as "over the edge and out the window," Hell Yeah's output is definitely more abrasive, eclectic and less specifically genre-oriented.
The dedicated music collector also became a major player in the growing re-issue market. "Bacchus Archives is my re-issue label," he says proudly. "At first it included just stuff from the 1960s, but that's really branched out."
A big hit now for Joseph is the re-release of 1950s "exotica" music. The mostly instrumental genre, which colorfully melds Polynesian and Afro-Cuban rhythms with small orchestras, is "basically popular music from the 1950s, pop music of the day." The current interest in "exotica" has pumped new life into all of Joseph's labels.
Success has also found Joseph in the corporate world. He's now vice-president of Epitaph Records' new merchandising company, Anti-Inc.
"I started doing radio and press promotion for Epitaph when the label was much smaller, in '91," he recalls. Today the independent label is suddenly the size of a major, created mainly by The Offspring's mind-boggling sales motherload. Epitaph's growth meant the multi-million dollar company could create a larger role for Joseph's marketing talents.
Anti-Inc. will sell "everything that's cool--punk, garage, rockabilly and psychedelic music, posters, books, T-shirts," he says. Joseph recently supervised the distribution of 400,000 Anti-Inc. catalogs--quite a step up from the modest mailings of his initial one-man operation.
Joseph's mail-order prowess will be put to full use with Anti-Inc., so he'll soon be ending his own Dionysus mail-order business. "Dionysus is now going to be a full-time label," says Joseph, "with the day-by-day operations run by Aime Elkins. She's also hired my ex-wife, who's doing promotion and the remaining mail-order."
The label has become more assertive, and is poised to make the giant leaps other independents are now making. "What I've been doing with Dionysus for 10 years is just now starting to catch on. People like garage music now," he says triumphantly.
"There's also an awareness of indie labels," he continues. "People are more open-minded than ever, thanks to the fact kids want to trace the roots of punk rock, because it's been around for 15 years. So they're interested in the roots of garage and surf and rockabilly--it's Americana."
Neither is Joseph blind to the fact The Offspring's "alternative" sales are nearing the 10 million mark. "I'm not expecting any Dionysus artist to sell millions of records, but you never know," he says with another laugh. "Our new Hot Damn album is going to be a hit, I can tell you that."
The acclaimed producer and songwriter stresses he certainly doesn't need to hear any more demo tapes. He's set his label roster firmly, and has learned from his decade in Los Angeles not to waste time on bands that won't work as hard as he does.
"I've had many run-ins with musicians who think the world owes them something," he says with a smirk. "I like level-headed, down-to-earth people, but that's hard to find, because anyone who's creative also has a chemical imbalance."
Add up the struggle, sweat and personal sacrifice, and Joseph still comes out far ahead on the ledger with his more than 200 releases.
"I like being able to crack open a release from one of my labels, then put it on the turntable and say, 'Man, this is a cool record!' "
For free mail-order catalogs write: Dionysus Records, PO Box 1975, Burbank, CA 91507; Anti-Inc., PO Box 1765, Burbank, CA 91507.
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