By Daniel Kohn
By Imade Nibokun
By Arrissia Owen
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
The Maine were just kids when Fearless Records asked them to come to California. It was 2007, and some members of the Tempe, Arizona, pop-rock quintet were still in high school. But MySpace buzz and hooky songs with plaintive vocals led the Huntington Beach-based label to express an interest in signing them to a record deal. And so the Maine borrowed one of their parents’ Suburbans, loaded it up and drove across the desert to play a concert Fearless had booked at the Alley in Fullerton.
The show was not, strictly speaking, a success.
“I remember there were five band members and five middle-school girls with their cell phones, one for each member, right in the front,” says Fearless general manager Todd McCarty. “That was it.”
The performance matched the turnout. “They were pretty miserable live, and they knew they were miserable live,” Fearless founder/president Bob Becker recalls. “The singer had his back to the crowd the whole time. I don’t think everyone [from Fearless] walked out of that club going, ‘Oh, my God, we have to do this.’”
And yet, they did do it. Within days, Becker offered the Maine a chance to be on the label, which had previously been home to such acts as the Aquabats, Plain White T’s, Sugarcult and At the Drive-In. “I saw something in them, some potential,” he says of the Maine. “And we sign bands on potential. The live thing, I never worry about that; a band can become good live through practice.”
By most standards, his bet paid off. The Maine’s debut full-length album was one of the top 40 albums in the country—among the top 15 rock albums—as measured by the Billboard charts. Their follow-up debuted at No. 16 in the Billboard 200 this past June. And the Maine’s live show has improved; they sold out a recent headlining date at the House of Blues in Hollywood. Now they’re co-headlining the first Fearless Friends Tour, which comes to Anaheim’s House of Blues on Nov. 11.
There’s one problem, though: The Maine are no longer signed to Fearless. The success of their first album attracted the attention of Warner Bros. Records, a subsidiary of one of the “Big Four” major labels. When the band play the Fearless Friends tour, they’ll be just friends to Fearless.
The story arc of the Maine is all-too familiar to the label. For more than 15 years, Fearless has labored as one of the curators of the Hot Topic zeitgeist, spotting and sponsoring devotion-catching acts in emo, pop punk, melodic hardcore and even, in the case of the Aquabats, ska. Becker and company have dug up promising bands, helped them cultivate a rabid fan base, and then said goodbye once major labels took notice and scooped the bands up for globe-conquering success. It happened with Plain White T’s, who landed a No. 1 worldwide hit after moving from Fearless to Disney’s Hollywood Records and wound up sitting next to Ringo Starr at the Grammys. It happened with At the Drive-In, who put out their commercial and critical breakthrough Relationship of Command on Capitol Records’ Grand Royal. It happened with Sugarcult, and it happened with Mayday Parade.
It might not happen again. Fearless is close to striking a deal with a major label, which, Becker says, will allow them to hold on to the talent they find. Such a deal would bring challenges—both logistical and of appearance. But as long as he keeps working the same way, Becker says, the label will continue to be successful. After all, it’s not like the audience ever goes away. “There are always kids,” Becker says. “Kids are always popping up, popping in and popping out somewhere.”
* * *
Fearless was a punk-rock label when it started in 1994, but now that tag hardly fits. For one thing, punk-rock label bosses aren’t supposed to have sun-filled offices directly overlooking the blue waters and bobbing boats of Huntington Harbor. But under a wall of framed gold records, Becker, 47, sits each day in a room with view of the docks.
Each Tuesday brings the label’s “marketing meeting,” during which a dozen or so staffers gather around a long conference table in the room next to Becker’s office. Most employees are dressed as casually and hip as you’d expect—well-kept band T-shirts or flannel button-downs and crisp, dark jeans. Becker, though, manages to be even more casual—shlumpy, perhaps—in distinctly un-hip cargo shorts.
A showing of the rough cut of a music video for Arizona emo-metal band Blessthefall kicked off a recent meeting. It played less like a music video, though, and more like a video-production project from a student group of class clowns. The music rushed by in the back, secondary to dialogue and sound from a plot based—almost scene-for-scene—on that of The Hangover. After its more-than-seven-minute runtime, the lights came up and the feedback came in a patter from those around the table. The consensus: less live-action, more music, and shorten it. “It’s pretty cheesy,” said one attendee, “but I think the kids will like it.”
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.
“If we can do it and we have the manpower to do it, then we should,” he says of his label’s marketing efforts. “You know, when you see a band start buzzing, you start seeing their name in different places, and you’re like, ‘Why do I keep seeing this band name?’ Some of these little things can amount to bigger things.”
For Plain White T’s, the method—combined, of course, with melodic, heart-on-sleeve punk anthems—essentially worked. A little song called “Hey There Delilah,” off the the band’s second Fearless album, worked its way into the midregions of the alt.-rock charts.
Starting five years ago and up until recently, Fearless’ distribution contract specified that if a certain band started selling a certain number of records, a major label would get first dibs on poaching—or “upstreaming”—the band. But even after Plain White T’s started moving units, labels such as Atlantic and Warner Bros. took a listen but weren’t interested, Becker says. Hollywood Records, though, was. Negotiations ensued, and Fearless, as it often does, let the band go to the larger label. “We know what’s going on the whole time because a lot of times, the bigger company will contact us and say, ‘Hey, we’re checking out your band; what do you think?’” Becker says. “To me, it’s exciting. It’s validation that ‘Hey, we had a good band.’”
But it’s also bittersweet. “When you’re in here working all day long, and you have 15 people doing it, it’s a hard thing to put your life’s work into it and have a band go somewhere else,” says Trey Herring, Fearless’ director of finance. “But everybody here is okay with that. We see it happen, and they just get the job done because it’s the best thing for the artist.”
It’s also often not a terrible deal for Fearless. For one thing, the major label will pay the smaller label to acquire an artist with a still-active contract. For another, having a successful alum on a major label means the Fearless-owned back catalog of that artist will sell better. And there’s the elevated profile that comes for an indie label that births a major-label success.
In the case of Plain White T’s, it also didn’t hurt that the band’s most radio-ready song—“Hey There Delilah”—was on a Fearless-released record. While it had some success as a Fearless single, Hollywood’s muscle pushed it to the top of the charts (not to mention onto American Idol—repeatedly). But during its climb to No. 1, the song, even while being promoted by Hollywood Records, sent all of its iTunes profit to Fearless. Becker jokes he named his boat “Delilah” because of that. (He didn’t really.)
Regardless of how well Plain White T’s moving on penciled out for Fearless, Becker says, on some level, he wishes he could have kept them. What’s more, the pattern of Fearless bands moving to majors seems to be accelerating. Plain White T’s released three albums with Fearless before being upstreamed; the Maine and Florida’s Mayday Parade each moved away after only one album.
“The hardest part is [selling] zero to 125,000 units,” says Herring. “The majors have a hard time doing that, and we can develop bands to that. So when the band have nothing, we look great. We’ve brought them to this level, but then the major can come and bedazzle them.”
Higgenson says he only has affection for Fearless. The band’s first gig in its current lineup was in Becker’s back yard, and after Plain White T’s got big, they paid Becker a favor by bringing the newly signed Mayday Parade on tour with them. “They believed in us when nobody else did,” Higgenson says of the label. “We’ll forever be grateful for that. And Bob’s got the right idea, taking talent and developing it. That’s what it’s all about.”
* * *
A few years ago, Becker received a call from a member of the band Knockout, a low-rent Chicago version of Blink-182 that he had signed in 2003. Fearless had had its issues with Knockout: The band, it turned out, were flaky, and Becker suspected drugs played a role. And the band member was drunk when he called Becker. But, he told his label’s boss, he had a friend who was staying with him—who had nowhere else to stay—who would be perfect for Fearless.
“I thought the music was good, but I thought it would be a big pain in the ass,” Becker reecalls. “That’s one I probably should have investigated more, maybe flew out, spent some time with the guy, got to know him, realized maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. I pictured them both sitting on the couch doing drugs after I got off the phone, and shit, and I didn’t want to have that problem.”
There are other near-misses in Becker’s back pocket, too: Thrice, Newfound Glory, Hellogoodbye. He likes to say he passes on more good bands than he signs. But that’s part of the game.
“If we were really struggling, and we kept missing on a bunch of bands, I’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with me? I must have bad luck or no instincts,’” Becker says. “But luckily, we’ve had some successes, so I don’t worry about it.”
Those successes provide plenty to worry about, anyway. Becker has spent much of the past few years being courted by major labels looking to strike up long-term partnerships with Fearless. It’s only recently, though, that he felt confident a deal would be made in the near future.
Earlier this year, Becker signed a letter of intent with a major label, signaling an understanding that Fearless and the major would cement a joint-venture agreement by Dec. 15. Thanks to nondisclosure clauses, Becker can’t reveal the name of the major label nor what, exactly, the deal will entail. But he’s clear that certain things at Fearless won’t change.
“The key words we have heard are that [the major-label guys] want to let us do exactly what we’re doing and do it the same way we have been and that the only time they would get involved is when we’ve got the band to a point where the next thing we can add to it is going to radio,” Becker says. “Other than that, they’re not going to try to tell us how to run our business, who to sign, how much to pay for the bands, what employees to hire. I mean, we’ve been a successful company, and they’ve basically stated they don’t want to change that.”
Fearless would get to hold on to its most successful acts by offering them a chance to get nationwide radio play through the efforts of a major label’s radio-promotion department. It sounds alluring.
“There’s been some more and less successful partnering with majors, most of which have been less successful,” says Louis Posen, founder of Hopeless Records, the Van Nuys-based company that started a year before Fearless and has signed bands with a similar sound. He points to labels such as Ferret Records, Trustkill and Drive Thru. “They’re all great labels, great people, with agendas tied into their major-label partners. They’re all gone now. And they all did have a certain level of success at one point. There are all sorts of dynamics that aren’t there when you’re running an independent company.”
But Posen and Becker both point to the example of Fueled By Ramen—the Florida-based label that’s home to Panic At the Disco, Paramore and Gym Class Heroes and is now wholly owned by Atlantic Records—as an example of a pop-punk indie that did it the right way. Originally, Fueled By Ramen was a partner of its major label, and Becker envisions a similar arrangement for Fearless, he says.
“What they have going is that the band never really leaves Fueled By Ramen,” Becker says. “Once it’s developed and it’s at the point where it needs some bigger muscle, then the major label starts working it, but the band never really leaves.”
Beyond the business considerations, though, is image. Punk-rock purists may label Fearless as a sell-out for getting in bed with a major. But Becker doesn’t think that’s much of an issue anymore. “That’s kind of a weird thing: ‘Oh, they’re no longer an independent label,’” he says. “Not that kids care anymore. They don’t.”
You hear this kind of talk from Becker quite a bit. Would it have once been unthinkable for a “cool” band to license their songs for a car commercial? Sure, but when Phoenix did it for Cadillac last year, few batted an eye. So Fearless hired a full-time staffer a few months ago whose sole responsibility is setting up similar licensing deals for the label’s artists. Half-jokingly, Becker says how helpful it would be to get one of his bands placed on Jersey Shore.
The rise of Fearless’ “Punk Goes . . .” compilations signals another middle finger to punk’s old shibboleths. Started 10 years ago, the series invites various bands in the Fearless universe to cover songs out of their element, whether they be ’90s prom pop or ’70s metal classics. The “Punk Goes Pop” series released its third edition on Nov. 2. Becker knows that plenty of people scoff at the albums, and some bands have turned down requests to contribute to the compilations because they feel they’re too corny. A few decades ago, though, this would have been a bigger problem. “I don’t think if you asked Operation Ivy to cover Lady Gaga, that would fly,” muses Fearless’ newly hired A&R representative Chris Foitle. But what the hell? They’re fun, Becker says.
“I don’t think the majority of kids care about credibility anymore, and why should I?” Becker asks. “I’m too old for that. I’m through being cool.” He laughs. “I’ve got cool in reserves; I don’t need any more.”
* * *
It’s a Wednesday night in October, but the fact it’s a school night doesn’t seem matter to the fans of Atreyu, Blessthefall and Chiodos at the House of Blues in Anaheim. Wandering around the venue affords an education in the pitfalls of making sweeping generalizations about music fans. Only Blessthefall are signed to Fearless, but considering the night’s lineup, one might expect the venue to fairly bristle with Hot Topic T-shirts; flat-ironed and spiky hairstyles; and heavily eyelinered peepers. That’s not the case.
The audience looks young but not prepubescent; the tall cans of PBR they sip from speak to their relative maturity. There are some skinny jeans, but Hurley and New York Yankees baseball caps are also clearly represented.
It’s a crowd that defies pithy description.
The bands’ sounds are a different story. Though Blessthefall, Chiodos and Atreyu all have their own signatures, they inhabit a sonic Venn diagram of hardcore punk, metal and emo: catchy hooks interspersed with lamenting wails, pterodactyl screams, furious double bass drum, face-melting solos and harmonized guitars.
Still, it was a benign show: There were no fears of a riot breaking out or a random assault (all due to the vigilance of the venue’s security staff). There was instead a relatively tame vibe in the room, which was markedly at odds with the hyper-intensity of the music.
During Blessthefall’s set, singer Beau Boken, clad in a sleeveless Minor Threat shirt and ripped skinny jeans, promises a free T-shirt to the first person to make it past security and give him a high-five.
While a few ambitious fans climb over the throng, it is by no stretch a melee. One young man darts quickly past the barriers and politely high-fives Boken. Meanwhile, security is seen quietly whisking those few individuals who failed out through a side door.
It seemed like an apt allegory for Fearless. Its bands skirt the fringes of the mainstream enough to make sure the kids are interested. But in keeping with the label’s approach, all of them are palatable and safe enough for the Disney crowd. It’s not the DIY punk of the 1970s, but at the same time, there’s less arm-cutting than T-shirt designing in the typical Fearless band’s following.
“I enjoy things with energy. I think there’s a lot of energy with young people,” Becker says. “I don’t know that I get real excited going to see a bar band that’s 30 years old, where the people are just standing there and look bored, and they’re more interested in what their next drink is going to be as opposed to what the next song is going to be. When you go to a young show, the kids are there specifically to see the band, and that’s all they’re going there for. And that’s exciting to me.”
Clubs Editor Brandon Ferguson contributed to the reporting of this story.
This story appeared in print as "Know Fearless: Bob Becker’s label—the first to sign Plain White T’s and At the Drive-In—has a plan for keeping the next big thing from bolting to the majors."