Exclusive Interview: Bullet Tooth Founder/CEO Josh Grabelle
by Comb Magazine
There’s no question about it; the music industry is in a state of transition these days. Piracy continues to be an issue and digital downloading is being replaced with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Constant advances in technology are allowing musicians to cut a record that would have cost thousands in a professional studio fifteen years ago. The price of purchasing music continues to drop, forcing musicians to make the majority of their income through heavy touring; something a lot of young acts aren’t cut out for. With less value placed on physical media such as CDs, marketing becomes less focused on visuals such as album art, packaging, and promotional images. Labels such as Roadrunner began laying off employees and shutting down offices worldwide, while others such as Hydra Head were forced to close up shop entirely. No one is sure exactly what the future holds but one thing is certain; it has never been more difficult to be successful in the music business.
Josh Grabelle knows this. As ex-Trustkill and current Bullet Tooth head honcho, he’s no rookie. After launching Trustkill in 1993, Grabelle has almost two decades of experience running an independent label under his belt. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about what it takes to survive in this business. While record execs everywhere have been throwing in their two cents about the business side of things, we at Comb were most interested in what all these changes meant for the more creative individuals working in the industry. We recently sat down with Josh to get his perspective on, among other things, the more visual aspects of the music business.
Technology is shaping the music industry. How is Bullet Tooth adapting and where do you see the recording industry in the next 5 – 10 years?
The last 10 years since Napster hit we have been slowly transitioning to digital downloads, and the next 5 years after that we will, and are, transitioning to streaming. The future of the music industry is no doubt giving everyone access to all music, at any time, anywhere, on any device, and the best music wins. The major labels spent a few decades tricking fans into spending $10 – $15 for an album with 1 good song and they never cared if you ever listened to it after you bought it. If you hated the album and threw it out, nobody cared, they already got your money. The future will be about releasing the best music from the best bands and giving people a reason to listen to it over and over.
Let’s be honest. How important is a band’s “image” these days? Even in the metal and hardcore scenes, where not having an image is sort of an image itself?
Image has always been important. Even in smaller circles and niches the “no image” concept WAS an image, as much as people will argue that fact. When Nirvana and Pearl Jam knocked all the hair metal bands out of the spotlight with their casual looks, THAT was in fact an image. NYC hardcore bands with their jeans, wifebeaters, flight jackets and fatguy towels, or camo shorts and shaved heads, THAT is an image also. When I’m looking at a potential signing OF COURSE image is important, but, it’s not as important as great songs, structure, writing, vocals, lyrics, stage presence, and work ethic. Those all come FIRST. I can make any kid LOOK cool with some clothes and a haircut, but I can’t make them write better music.
These days in metal it’s all about tight jeans. How much longer until Jncos make a comeback? Also, how many pairs are folded away in your closet waiting for a second chance?
Ha Ha, I never owned a pair thank god. I did however have some baggy pants when I was still actively skateboarding in the late 90s. They were kinda ridiculous. Every fad comes and goes. It’s all cyclical.
How important is visual artwork in an industry that is placing less value on physical media?
Design and packaging are still very important to me. Your artwork speaks to kids on a subconscious level, as most people will make up their mind about what type of music your band plays or what you sound like based on the packaging or album cover alone. I get VERY involved in the art process for every album I’ve ever put out. I love doing things outside the box as well, like in years past I did CD booklets that were actually a 16 month calendar, or CDs with foldout posters, and even included trading cards in CDs. There are a lot of cool things you can do with vinyl as well, for example, I did a 12” clear saw blade vinyl with red blood splatter for the Saw VI Soundtrack, and early next year we will be releasing a glow-in-the-dark 7” for Death Ray Vision.
In terms of style and subject matter, what do you look for in album covers and layouts?
I want every record I release to have artwork that can translate to band merchandise (posters, tee shirts, etc) and stage show (backdrops, scrims, etc). Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I have to choose my battles with a band. I will tell them when their artwork sucks and advise them how to make it better, but it’s also a battle of making the bands happy vs basic commerce. When I’m looking at potential artwork for an album I just want it to be memorable, something that you will think about in your mind while you’re singing along to the album. When I listen to Misfits songs off of Earth AD all I can picture in my head is the super rad artwork from the album cover. THAT is what I want fans of my band’s music to do while listening to their new albums.
What is one thing/trend you are tired of seeing in bands album art/merchandise/promo items?
So many albums come out lately that are just layered Photoshop images of skulls and “scary” stuff and it’s just not memorable and doesn’t POP to me. They’re bland and boring. Sometimes simplicity is the way to go like Fugazi “Repeater”. Band name, album title, and live photo. BOOM. Done. Kids need to stop overcomplicating shit with 100 different layers of window cracks, splattered blood, and clouds.
What Trustkill or Bullet Tooth artwork have you personally created? Walk us through your creative process.
I’m not so much of an artist as I am a designer. I am good when I can take some fantastic artwork or photography someone else created and manipulate it to how I want it to look in a CD or vinyl layout. In the Trustkill days I designed mostly everything in the beginning, including albums from Eighteen Visions, Walls Of Jericho, Harvest, Endeavor, Most Precious Blood and more.
Most of the Bullet Tooth albums have been created by Travis Roberts, including Kid Liberty, Deception Of A Ghost, The Paramedic, Serianna, Dead Icons and I, Omega.
I’ve also designed albums for other labels and artists like Earth Crisis, Buried Alive, Jessica Simpson, Converge, Disembodied, and more.
Bullet Tooth obviously values artistic freedom as much as any proper indie label should. But was there ever anything, whether it’s lyrics, album art, merch designs, or musical ideas that you as the head honcho simply had to put your foot down and say no to?
Either we create the artwork ourselves or I trust someone in the band enough to create it all together, like Ryan from Throw The Fight and Mike from Death Ray Vision, both of whom are accomplished designers. So the answer is NO, thank god, cuz that would be awkward. Ha Ha!
Has Bullet Tooth ever considered branching out to genres outside the realms of hardcore and metal?
Funny you should ask that… Bullet Tooth will ALWAYS be a metal and hardcore and hard rock label. That is what makes sense for Bullet Tooth. However, there HAVE been artists I have discovered along the way that I would LOVE to work with but they just didn’t make sense for BT, so, I just recently started a new label called Gypsy Diamond which will be a brand for pop and electronic music. I already have two signings and have some great stuff planned for 2013. Check out Una Jensen and Kelsey Chaos!
Your life is being made into a feature film. Who plays Josh Grabelle and what bands would be included in the soundtrack?
Ryan Reynolds will play me and the soundtrack will be Eighteen Visions, Poison The Well, Bullet For My Valentine, and Throwdown. Larry David will play my dad and Barbra Streisand will play my mom. I’ll be funnier and better looking.
What character from Workaholics best represents you as a person?
I wish it were Blake but I’m gonna have to go with Anders as I am typically the more responsible one out of my friends. Although I HAVE been known to light fires and do REALLY dumb shit, so maybe Adam too.
What is the best thing a band can do to get noticed by a label? What is the worst thing a band can do?
The best thing they can do is write GREAT SONGS and get out there and DO WORK. If they do both of those things, I will notice. Bands who wait around for shit to happen are the WORST. They need to have ambition and be constantly working on their songs, performance, style, and overall vibe. There are 1000 great bands out there that have NO SUBSTANCE. You need to be MORE than great. It’s just like any other form of entertainment, like there are tens of thousands of 20-somethings in Hollywood who think they will land a huge role in a feature film, but only like 20 of them a year do it. Why do kids in bands think any differently? If everyone could have success as a musician then EVERYONE would do it. It’s hard as hell. It’s rough. Most people aren’t cut out for it. That being said, spend some money on some great demo songs and send them out to labels. That is really it. Don’t spam label Facebook walls or get all your friends to Tweet about you, it is super obvious when they do that. We see right through it.
What can fans of the label look forward to in 2013?
We will have new music and albums from Serianna, NightShade, Death Ray Vision, Dead Icons, Affiance, I, Omega, and Throw The Fight! Plus some other surprises, one that I am REALLY excited about in particular as I have worked with them before, and spent a night in jail with them. Other than that just hopefully signing another few fantastic hard working bands that are creating music that is undeniable and honest.