Talking with Frontier Records founder Lisa Fancher is a fascinating journey into the early days of punk rock and how the Los Angeles scene came together during the late 1970s. From writing the liner notes for the Runaways’ debut album to starting her own label, Fancher has spent the last thirty years immersed in a genre known for anarchy and pushing musical boundaries.
Fancher’s journey began in the 1970s with a job at Greg and Suzy Shaw’s indie label, Bomp Records, while, at the same time, serving as fan club president for The Dickies and publishing the Biff!Bang!Pow! fanzine. In 1980 she founded Frontier Records, which started with punk and eventually expanded to encompass genres such as alt-country, goth, and paisley underground.
Chances are, the first time you heard the Circle Jerks it was a Frontier release. Same goes for Suicidal Tendencies, whose breakout hit, “Institutionalized,” was on the label. Other bands that have called Frontier home at one time or another include TSOL, Christian Death, The Long Ryders, Thin White Rope, Young Fresh Fellows and American Music Club.
Frontier celebrated its 30th anniversary this year with a party at Los Angeles’ EchoPlex Nov. 7 that was hosted by the Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris and included The Adolescents, TSOL, The Avengers, Deadbeats, Stains and The Flyboys on the lineup.
Pollstar recently talked with Fancher, covering topics like punk’s early days as well as the state of today’s music industry and various points in between. Sometimes outrageous with a knack for speaking her mind regardless of where the chips might fall, Fancher is the embodiment of what she has been selling for the past 30 years. In other words, she’s pure punk.
How did the 30th anniversary party turn out?
That was probably the most stressful thing ever. I can’t imagine people who regularly do big shit, like Coachella or something. This was tiny. There was something going on all the time. Not major drama, but something needed to be addressed. Problems with ticketing. Add a new band, got to change all the ads. Then people weren’t happy where they are on the bill.
I wrote blogs every day leading up to the show – Monday through Friday – so I was staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning writing so I could file them the next morning. It was insane.
By the time the show came, I was punch-drunk from lack of sleep. I get to the show and they only had 25 tickets for sale, which is great, but really bad because there were hundreds of people outside waiting to buy tickets. The whole day was an out-of-body experience.
But the good news is it went really well. No fights, nobody got hurt, nobody got punched out like the good ol’ punk days. Everybody played their sets and were fantastic. From what people wrote about it afterwards, everybody had a good time and didn’t have anything to complain about. That is, other than the heat inside the building which was, approximately, one million degrees.
Do punk fans grow old gracefully? Were there any fans from the early days?
The ones that still go out looked great. They still follow music or wanted to see their old friends. My new young friends were like, “I can’t deal with this.” I was surprised by the number of people who flaked out because they knew how packed it was going to be. People who suffered through that line and got all the way in there.
How “underground” was the L.A. punk scene in the early 1980s?
It was definitely more underground, if you want to compare it the New York scene with punk magazines. We had our own magazine, Slash. Not many people broke really big from it. X is still around, still amazing. It wasn’t unbelievably obscure, like maybe Delaware’s punk scene.
Was there any radio support?
College radio. We had a shot at getting on Rodney’s [Bingenheimer – KROQ] show on Sunday nights. He was crucial to the scene. But that was the situation in the late ‘70s. You couldn’t count on radio to play local bands because that wasn’t what they were there for.
But wasn’t that one of the attractions to punk? That it wasn’t covered by corporate media?
Absolutely. Also the subject matter was too harsh. Until we got to the paisley underground stuff, there was nothing they would even consider playing. That worked out for us because you’re supposed to be offending your parents, not being cool with them.
And talk about “ironic.” When I got Suicidal Tendencies on the radio with “Institutionalized,” it was like, “Wait a minute. I’m conflicted about this. No, I love it.”
Can a punk band get too popular?
I would say Green Day jumped the shark. To see Billy Jo performing his stuff on Broadway, I dunno. If I was a Green Day fan it might rub me the wrong way.
Then again, I just saw Rancid do two nights at the Music Box. It was for Flea’s music conservatory thing [Silverlake Conservatory Of Music]. They’re just as good as they ever were and they’d never do something like that [Broadway] in a million years. And they’re one of the bigger bands that could headline pretty much anywhere. Alkaline Trio, the same thing. Once you do something like that, it’s hard to go backwards.
But would anyone want to go back? Having your music played on Broadway is a pretty big accomplishment.
I know, and that’s the thing. Most of your fans are under 13. Once you build up the cred and let go of it, you’re not going to get it back. I should have such problems. I can be bigger about people making a lot of money, but it would be nice to have problems like, “do people still like me?”
Where were women in the music industry food chain when you started Frontier Records?
Pretty much in the dressing room, being somebody’s girl friend. There were a lot of female booking agents. It’s always bothered me as to why women were bass or keyboard players but never Jimi Hendrix. Where are the great female guitar solos? I think Joan Jett’s great, but perfunctory. Do they just not put in the hours that it takes to be a Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page? I know it’s not a physiological impossibility. On the greatest guitarists of all time, they [critics] just add a token like Joni Mitchell.
Any women club owners at the time?
Not that I know of. Usually women were publicists, rock critics, booking agents. I was a record collector ever since I could actually get out of the house and ride the bus to the record store, but I didn’t see any female record collectors.
I always say don’t settle for being a nurse when you can be the doctor. Why be the secretary when you can be the boss?
By the same token, there weren’t many women in punk bands at the time you started Frontier.
Some called the Go-Go’s punk. Pandoras came later. I thought the Go-Go’s were a punk band because they couldn’t play very well. Obviously you wouldn’t put them anywhere near Black Flag. Punk was a male, kind of aggressive thing.
(Frontier Records 30th Anniversary Party)
What were the first records you bought?
There were the ones you got for your birthday when you’re seven or eight, because you begged for Beatles records. I was going to swap meets looking for everything, like rare Bobby Fuller singles. I was into Creem magazine. I would track down whatever they told me I should have, whatever Lester Bangs said to get. I had to throw away all my uncool records.
So which ones did you throw away?
I feel really bad about it. Creem was really merciless to people like Cat Stevens and I loved Cat Stevens. I realized down the line that there’s nothing wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with Tea For The Tillerman. And especially his ‘60s stuff. There’s certainly nothing with him when he was doing “I Love My Dog.’ So I had to re-buy those things.
I was lucky I had three older sisters with pretty good tastes. Creem had me listening to the Yardbirds instead of The Monkees, or something.
What was the biggest problem facing you when you started the label?
That I had no idea what I was doing. I worked at Bomp so I had a lot of insight. No. 1 was coming up with the money and No. 2 was getting credit, all that stuff. Taking bands into the studio, making sure they were sober and playing their stuff and not fighting over something. Much of it was the mechanics of spending money, having diplomatic skills and keeping it all on track. Making sure people don’t go over budget because that wasn’t even a possibility.
Where were you when you started the label? Working out of your home or an office?
I was working out of my parents’ house. I still had day jobs. I took a lot of personal calls at work, but Greg and Suzy Shaw (Bomp Records) were always cool. I stored records in my parents’ garage. And Bomp let me store some.
How did you handle distribution?
I went through GEM, which was the biggest. I sold directly to stores. When I had a new release, I threw it in my sweet Pinto and drove it all over.
Did you sell at shows?
Not really. They didn’t have a mechanism for selling at shows.
Were you the kind of label head that exerted influence on bands in regards to content and performance when they went into the studio?
Musically, not at all. I always made sure they played the songs they wanted to do, the way they wanted to do. I would make sure they didn’t show up two hours late or else the record wasn’t going to be finished. A lot of people think you’re going to keep spending, but nope. Everybody was cool and cooperative, but there were times…
Do people outside the biz share a common misconception that it’s all music and fun 24/7?
Absolutely. Because people think everyone is really high or it’s so great and there’s so much money flying around. Obviously, there are the echelons of rich people, but down here there’s very little glamour. It’s all club-size things where nobody feeds you. It’s not like going to Europe and the clubs are nice to you. These are all like, not getting paid, not finding a booking agent and stuff. That is, until you get to the next level. But when you get to the next level, a label like mine has been long ditched. Somebody has paid you off or made you go away.
What do you think is wrong about the recording industry today?
Even more than when I used to complain about it in the ‘70s and’80s, is there is no nobody left who knows anything about music. When you get people who don’t know anything about music signing bands, then you get the horrible garbage that’s on the radio, hence people don’t care about it and have no connection to it because it’s so anonymous and canned.
I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back to the way it used to be. It’s good for indies, but it’s that much harder to break bands. You have mega-national corporations running these companies. It’s nothing like it was when I was growing up and there were tiny labels like Del-Fi or something. No hint of humanity at all. It’s great that there are labels like [indie label] Merge, which can get someone to the gold record level. I wish it was me.
Today’s teenagers have many more options when it comes to spending their cash, such as video games and platforms like PlayStation and Xbox than teens did during Frontier’s early days. Is it harder to compete for a teenager’s entertainment dollars?
Yes, but unfortunately, I’m going to agree with Metallica and say it’s too easy to steal the music. Some people buy music, but it seems to have taken a back seat in people’s lives. It’s a terrible, terrible shame considering how crazy everybody was for music. People don’t even know what bands look like or what songs they do. They just get hold of a mix tape. They don’t care.
But even if you eliminate file sharing, there are still more options for today’s teenagers and young adults than there were when you started Frontier.
We’ll just talk about the honest ones. They’re far more concerned with playing video games than they are with rock ‘n’ roll. Besides the fact that I’m in the music business, it’s a terrible shame because whatever video game you’re playing doesn’t have the humanity, whether it’s a Beatles record or an AC/DC record, that says anything about the human condition.
I’m showing my age here because I think most games are about killing something. It doesn’t make your soul better or connect you with things.
Other people like the social aspect of music. You go to concerts, you meet people.
It must seem very ironic that fans love their favorite bands so much that they steal from them.
I’ll be talking to kids, and they’ll tell me they love the new Ariel Pink album. I’ll ask them if they bought the import and they say, “Buy it? I got it off of a blog.” They will go see them live but if they can find it for free, they’re not going to pay for it.
But it’s the fault of the music industry, too. They should scale back their prices.
What is the mark up on an album today?
Most prices are pretty low. Our list price on an album is $12.98. Just the manufacturing is three bucks. Jackets are shockingly expensive. Vinyl, because it’s petroleum-based, is hideously expensive. But a CD shouldn’t cost more than seven or eight dollars tops unless you’re Of Montreal and you do some ridiculous package. Just a regular CD with nothing elaborate, there’s no reason it should be near $20.
You’ve written liner notes in your career. Do you think that has become a lost art?
Yes. There are plenty of people that do it. I mentioned Lester Bangs, but those days of rock critics being well known? I can’t imagine people following anybody in any of the magazines that are left. Those days when everybody at Creem was a celebrity… the music and the writing was good.
I was obsessive about which guy in the band wrote the songs I really like when there were more than two songwriters in the group, that kind of stuff. All those details go out the window when you download it. Not to mention it sounds crappy when you download unless it was made in this era. I was such a hold-out for a CD player. I wasn’t being a cretin. I just didn’t like the way they sounded.
How do you feel about personal players – iPods and the like?
I’ve only received them as gifts, and I guess they’re pretty nifty. But I just want to have the whole darned record. I want to be able to hold the booklet and read all that stuff. So I’m not a big iPod fan. I like the convenience of it. It’s like my Kindle. I can travel and I don’t have 12 pounds of books on me. But I would never have that be my ultimate way of storing things.
Through three decades of Frontier Records, is there a band that got away that you still think about in terms of what you might have done differently?
The No. 1 band that destroys my soul that I didn’t sign was the Pixies. But they never would have reached the lofty heights that they did and I’d much rather have them be an international sensation and get what they wanted.
I was the first person from a label that looked at them, but they couldn’t wait a few months to put a record out. They were adamant that they had to put a record out instantly. So they put out their EP on Rough Trade and that was the end of that.
I tried to sign Morphine and that was sort of along the same lines. I was talking to [frontman] Mark Sandman for awhile and then Ryko got a hold of them. And they did a great job marketing them.
What would you tell someone thinking about starting their own indie label today?
I would say go ahead and do it, it’s really fun and possibly rewarding. But spend your own money. Don’t borrow it, don’t use credit cards because you’re probably going to lose your shirt. Just save it up, have a good time and do a good job for a good local band.
Also, most records that have come out probably shouldn’t have. However earnest or well-meaning they were, however nice or attractive the bands are, they probably shouldn’t have put out a record. There’s so much product coming out, it’s terrifying.
You can do it all digitally and put it on your website without issuing physical product, but that doesn’t make it any better. It just clogs the system.
So it still comes down to legwork, going to clubs and scouting bands.
Absolutely. And then if they get anywhere, they’ll leave you in the lurch.
But isn’t that pretty much the same for any indie label? That bands seen as having potential will be picked up by the majors?
Yeah, that’s the nature of the beast. You can cooperate with it, but if you think it’s not going to happen, you’re crazy. You can’t do what a major does. You don’t have enough human beings and distribution. You can even cooperate with the whole process, but it doesn’t make it fun, it doesn’t make it awesome.
Click here for the Frontier Records website.