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Becker got the last word: “Kids today, they want to know more about the band than just seeing them up onstage,” he said. “So we get a snapshot of what these guys are kind of like: They’re kind of pranksters. Musically, you listen, and you hear these serious guys who are banging the shit out of their instruments. But this gives them more of a human-type thing.”
Later in the meeting, Becker broke the news that a band had reconsidered whether it wanted to be involved with the as-yet-unscheduled second Fearless Friends tour, which will feature a lineup of heavier bands. “Before, they were playing [with] big balls,” Becker said. “Their balls shrank a little bit. Took some steroids or something, I don’t know.” Staccato laughter bubbled around the room. Becker continues, “Sorry.”
Becker’s straight talk and penchant for dirty jokes make him a hit with the label’s bands. Kyle Even of Colorado’s Breathe Carolina puts it this way: “Dude, Bob’s funny, man.”
Others give him similar marks. When Michigan’s Every Avenue met with the label boss for the first time while recording the band’s debut in 2008, they prepared the studio by plastering gay pornography on the walls. Becker responded by cracking up and taking the band to a strip club afterward.
“Bob reminded us of an uncle we would have back in Chicago,” says Tom Higgenson of the Plain White T’s. “You think of the music business, and you think of some douchebag in a ponytail and a suit. He was more like a guy you would hang out at a barbecue with and have a couple of beers with.”
This may be part of Becker’s success: He can figure out what the kids want to hear because, even at his age, he’s not that different from them. To him, the idea of youth is essential to the label. “The Fearless sound, I think, is a young sound,” Becker says. “We’re just putting out music that younger high-school to 25-year-olds are listening to, and it ranges from hardcore to pop punk, and then everywhere in between and even outside.”
Becker was just as doctrinaire in the early days of the label. Back in 1994, he was a finance-industry professional working in the South Bay and singing in Adolescents-inspired punk rock bands on the side. One of those bands, the White Caps, either sensing his business acumen or that his job supplied him with more cash than most anyone else in the scene, asked him to put out a 7-inch vinyl of theirs. Then another asked. And then another. Growing up not only immersed in the Orange County punk sound, but also fascinated by the technical prowess of metal bands, Becker says the advent of pop punk—essentially, the placement of melodic metal riffs over simplistic punk beats—hit him like gospel. And so the mid-to-late ’90s saw Becker and his small staff, from a sparsely equipped office in Garden Grove, hustle to put out music from as many NOFX sound-alikes as possible.
Then came At the Drive-In, a band of frizzy-haired El Paso iconoclasts who melded pop sensibilities and a slight prog fetish with hardcore punk sounds. Becker scouted them at a show at Club Mesa—the Costa Mesa dive that would eventually become Detroit Bar—and was astonished. “It was like something I had never really seen,” Becker says. “The band were just amazing live. It was something different; there was so much energy coming off the stage.” He says he signed them with less prudence than he might have shown with any other band. “I didn’t know whether we were going to sell any records, and I really didn’t care. I was like, ‘I gotta do this for my own reasons.’ That was actually kind of a selfish signing for me at the time.”
Nowadays, Becker looks back on that as a pivotal but missed opportunity: He could have pursued other bands resembling At the Drive-In and perhaps ended up with a reputation for signing Pitchfork-loved indie rock bands instead of Alternative Press-loved mall-rock acts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—Becker loves the stuff—but, he says, he still wonders what could have been.
“The problem was, at the time, I didn’t really see a lot of other bands like At the Drive-In that I could go sign,” Becker says. “I didn’t take advantage of that situation the way I probably could have, as far as using them as a cornerstone band.”
Instead, after At the Drive-In moved to a major label, and then broke up in 2001, Becker made the smartest business decision of his life: He signed Plain White T’s. The quintet had gigged around Chicago for years, but Becker saw bigger potential. He deployed a tried-and-true method for earning a band listeners: endless touring. With tours, Becker says, come small, important components that slowly build a rabid fan base. You make sure the band have stickers to plaster all over the towns they visit. You make sure the street team is engaged. You make sure the MySpace looks right. You make sure each Fearless band talk up the others.