This is an mp3 blog attempting to document the gross amount of music I listen to. About once a day, I'll post something I like. If you're a copyright holder on anything I host, get in touch, and we'll settle things in a steel cage instead of a courtroom.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"The Horror" by Ramsey Dean

Once again articles have been popping up about the insecure bully known as Tony Brummel, which led to the now infamous piece "The Horror" by former Victory Records employee Ramsey Dean. It's long and marked by errors, but this is rock n roll, baby. Besides, it's hardly ever less than fascinating and engaging.

Victory has been siccing their legal snakes on anyone who posts it, so I don't know if this will stay up forever. I plan to keep it up as long as I can. Who knows, maybe it'll stay here? I hope so. There's nothing more punk rock than suing people who post shit about you, Tony!

For those of you not in the know, Victory is an "independent" label run by Tony Brummel, a tempermental egomaniac who is one of the worst assholes in the music business. They started off signing shitty hardline hardcore bands like Earth Crisis and have since evolved into the launching pad for boring, bathetic, melodramatic screamers that appeal to 13 year old girls such as Hawthorne Heights, Atreyu, Thursday, and Silverstein. Basically they're the worst thing to happen to punk rock since the 80's New York hardcore scene.

Anyway, here's the article. Pictures added by me.

"The Horror" by Ramsey Dean

I watched the news boards lit up again: Reuters, AP, The Times, Yahoo, and every rag in the entertainment biz: “Due to recent events we have decided to leave Victory Records. Our departure is anything but amicable. We have decided to leave Victory in part due to the actions of the man who sits at the head of the label, Tony Brummel. Tony Brummel is a man that cares more about his ego and bank account than the bands themselves…” It was the beginning of a two-page statement from the band Hawthorne Heights, the independent success story of 2005. They were seen as a pleasant group, playing unpretentious pop-punk and the idols of 14-year-old girls everywhere. But that was just appearances. Behind the glare of stardom lurked the torture that anyone who’d been out to Chicago knew all too well.

The statement continued: “Why did they (Hawthorne Heights) sound so happy in that interview??? Like being in an abusive relationship we let certain things slide as we were afraid, as many of the bands on Victory are, to stick our neck out for fear of being “beaten,” in this case represented by the threat of not being promoted as has been the case with certain bands on the roster. We’re done being abused.” “It is impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face. And you must make a friend of horror.”

We’d all seen Brummel threaten people, both physically and, his favored form of communication, e-mail. In person he wasn’t intimidating. He didn’t appear to break 5’7” and I doubt he weighed in over 150 lbs. To compensate for this, he inked up with a bunch of tattoos including the cobweb on the elbow and “Victory” tattooed on his forearm and across his back as if it were a gang sign. Something by his own admission, he did within the course of a year when the hardcore bug hit him. To further project the image, he was a skinhead, which he shaved almost daily to obscure his receding hairline. The remnants of a chubby childhood still lurked in his face and his belly, leading me to believe his bullying attitude was programmed many years ago at the hands of a schoolyard oppressor.

Brummel was a Chicago native. He liked to boast that he didn’t go to college, but in fact, he dropped out after the first semester. I think he said he never went because of his distain for anyone who made it through. It was the same with his own musicians. The more they broke through, the more hostile he grew toward them. He’d started as a singer in a band, but his artistic efforts were denied, depriving him of the spotlight. The label he started in the wake of this failure, Victory Records, was at best a vindictive dream against those who rejected his creativity. The physical threats were usually delivered via e-mail or the phone; sometimes to the more diminutive or aged, like the computer consultant or the old landlord, in person. “You better watch out, I’ll kick your ass, motherfucker!” he’d scream, his Midwest over-enunciation giving the swear an adolescent twang. “I’m a hardcore guy! You better respect me!” was often added on, as if the reputation of this dejected genre preceded him. “He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it!” Just about every interaction turned into a crisis, with him yelling, threatening and screaming in a frantic rage that the sky was falling.

It didn’t matter if it was a label head or an intern; but the kids there couldn’t see what I saw: he was just trying to mimic what he’d heard about David Geffen, Irving Azoff, Walter Yetnikoff and the other icons of the business. He wanted their legend as much as he wanted their fame. Instead of a bulldog, the label mascot should have been a parrot. Technology put him in arm’s reach of everyone and he wore his Blackberry like a six-gun. The whole company down to the receptionist was outfitted with one, which they were expected to nurse 24/7, and he fired at will, straining their relationships outside of work with his never-ending need for attention. The messages reached for vehement vitriol, but were received by the office and the industry, as nothing more than colicky complaining. 20 e-mails a day from him was considered a slow day. The broadcasts were constant, starting before six AM and continuing all through the night. Brummel complained of insomnia, even naming the Victory Records tour “Never Sleep Again” after his condition. Employees would often wake to a barrage of messages from him, demanding to know why they weren’t responding.

From: Tony Brummel
To: Staff

I have a meeting to prepare for and now I am pissed off and aggravated. I took a 15 second shower, threw on my clothes and am wet because of this. I do not care if anyone feels this is petty. I am pissed off about this. It is childish and ridiculous. You guys are driving me nuts. I am going to start writing people up for being ignored. I am tired of following up on my following ups. Obviously, you guys are playing some kind of game against me. Are you trying to drive me fucking crazy on purpose???? HAVE YOU LOST IT OR DO YOU PEOPLE THINK I AM A MORON??? I NEED PEOPLE HERE THAT HELP ME!!!! MOVING FORWARD I AM ELIMINATING PROBLEMS AND FRUSTRATIONS. I CANNOT TAKE IT ANYMORE. I NEED PEOPLE HERE THAT ARE PART OF THE CAUSE. AND THAT DOES NOT MEAN CAUSING ME PROBLEMS, HEADACHES, FRUSTRATIONS AND MORE E-MAILS. I HAVE NO PROBLEM WHATSOEVER WITH HAVING LESS PEOPLLE HERE IF THAT IS WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO. THERE ARE PLENTY OF PEOPLE HERE JUST DOING ENOUGH TO SKATE BY AS IT IS. When I send a message it is very important that you respond to it and do so in its entirety. I do not have the time to follow up the way that I have to! If I have to follow up I will have to start writing peope up. I need help to get the company to the next level. I want to win and I am going to! I hope that all of you have the same goals and desire. I AM GOING TO BE EVALUATING MANY THINGS OVER THE COMING WEEK. THERE WILL BE SOME CHANGES COMING. I ALSO FEEL THAT MANY OF THE MESSAGES THAT I SEND ALL OF YOU ARE PASSED OVER, NOT READ, NOT ACTED UPON AND RIDUCULED. That is not acceptable. If you think that I do not know what I am talking about then why be here?

They were endless; a constant stream of threats, castigation and abuse. Why would an employee go through that? Much like the bands that dream of stardom, music aficionados will sacrifice to get into this dying business, enduring hellish conditions just to get closer to that dream job at a record label. Brummel knew that, exploiting it to the fullest and riding roughshod over their dreams. “There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine.” It was no accident that I go to be the caretaker of Anthony K. Brummel’s memory, anymore than being in Chicago was an accident. I was no angel. Kind of like Henry Hill’s “I always wanted to be a gangster,” I always wanted to be a record guy. I knew what it was going in, but I was attracted to the lifestyle and, so I thought, the money. Out of college it seems like a great idea. I lived off of open bars and hors d'oeuveres for years (alcoholism was considered a natural cause of death in this business) and owned thousands of CDs, none of which I paid for. But now, as the business slid into its death throes, we were dropping like flies. Nobody expected to retire from this line of work. In a lot of ways it was like the mafia. It was controlled by a small group of families (Universal, Warner, Sony/BMG and EMI), it attracted the dregs of the society, we always had backstage passes, drugs and strip clubs were practically in the job description, and it seemed corruption was our main function. Corruption in the music business is really a company’s only edge.

A hit song is nothing more than a collective opinion and more often than not, the last thing that formed that opinion was the music. Hits are made by controlling the avenues of exposure. A radio programmer could tell you the song isn’t good and you’d have to say, “How can I make it sound better?” Since they survived on our ad dollars (the big picture) it was an offer they couldn’t refuse." "I’d started my career at an independent marketing company back in New York. Outfits like these are popular in this business; they serve as middlemen for things a major corporation wouldn’t want direct ties to. My first job was rigging the Billboard Top 200. Best Buy was one of my best relationships. The peak of my career was getting AC/DC to #3 on the Billboard chart when they should have been closer to #30; my work earned me my first platinum record. From there it was just one scam after the next. You get numb to it after a while. I felt guilty when I sold a promotional copy of a CD; but I was making $150 a week. It was below minimum wage but the company’s scam was that I was a “consultant”. Quite the title for someone who was an intern a week earlier; and an intern who had already graduated college at that. I was actually losing money working for them, so to even it up, I started dealing some of the CDs on the side. Selling promos was even like dealing drugs in the Mafia: Everyone did it, just don’t get caught. When you find out later none of the money is going to the artist anyway, the guilt goes away. I was just getting over on someone who was getting over on me. I was in sales & distribution, just one head of an eight-headed snake. Eliot Spitzer was trying to cut off the radio promotion head, forcing the labels to plea bargain on payola. But it wasn’t going to do much. The bright side was that, much like the mob, we were also in our twilight. The glory days were long passed and wouldn’t be coming back.

The business had been shrinking since the mid-90’s, with the CD reaching saturation. Other, more advanced, entertainment options like video games and the internet turned music into background noise for most people. The days of idols were gone. Even the groupies disappeared. Now there was the digital dilemma, or maybe it was the digital coup de grace. We all knew it was coming, we just didn’t want to do anything else. This business is more of an addiction, but it was becoming harder and harder to stay tweaked. Like a bar brawl on the deck of a sinking ship, we were more concerned with beating each other than finding a way to survive. The advent of the digital age condemned the model we operated on. The record business was run like the Carnegie Deli. We sold you more corned beef than you wanted on your sandwich. And we charged you for it. Maybe you only wanted one or two songs, but we made you buy the whole album, and every deli in town was the same. Now there would soon be more iPods in circulation than the top selling albums of all time. And they were being filled not with the nine songs of chafe we were making our margins on, but the singles, for a mere 99 cents. Unlike the advent of the LP, 8-track, cassette or CD, the digital download meant people would be buying less chafe. Tony made a very public battle against iTunes, firing off one of his infamous e-mails, refusing to sign up for the service unless he was given special treatment:

From: Tony Brummel
To: Steve Jobs

Music consumers would look at your (Apple) tactics as worse than those employed by the major record companies. I am surprised that Apple operates in such an authoritarian manner when its public image is that of a company run by creative types. This “take it or leave it” stance is anti-entrepreneurial, anti-creative and anti-American...My staff and my artists are asked every day why Victory’s content is not on iTunes. When the explanation is given, people understand why we are not in business together. In fact, it bothers them. The power of word of mouth is undeniable, especially in the age of the Internet. It may take awhile to resonate but when it does, people typically react accordingly.

He thought that by holding out and publicly castigating Steve Jobs for not having the music of the “#1 Independent Rock Label” they would most certainly bend over backwards for him. In a classic bit of egomania, he followed by sending around an editorial to his own statement, which he again circulated. The peculiar thing was his affection for Steve Jobs. At one point he bought everyone in the office New Balance sneakers, which he insisted they all wear as a sign of cult-like solidarity. He’d heard Jobs did the same thing at Apple, buying all 100,000+ employees a pair. He seemed to believe that with the right footware, Victory could be the next Apple. Any time he fired off these impotent rants, we were all required to forward them to our contacts and forward all responses immediately. Invariably, responses were light and the rest of the day would be cluttered by e-mails from him, deriding my contacts for not being moved to words by his latest piece. “I was going to the worst place in the world, and I didn’t even know it yet.”

The day Hawthorne Heights sent out The Real Manifesto, I’d been trying to forget I’d ever worked at Victory, particularly since I’d left Manhattan for the job, but later that day I got a phone call. I’d be getting a subpoena. I thought it odd when only a few hours later the thing came; but this one was for another former Victory band with unfinished business, Taking Back Sunday. Things were getting interesting. Taking Back Sunday was Victory’s largest band, who managed to bail out and go to Warner Brothers. They’d now join Hawthorne Heights in their claims of malfeasance. The phone rang all day. Tim Smith, who managed Atreyu, the company’s third biggest band said they’d hired Marty “Mad Dog” Singer, a Hollywood lawyer with an A-list of clients that included Arnold Schwarzenegger and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Atreyu’s accountant turned up over $700,000 in unpaid royalties and they wanted answers. “Expect a subpoena if it goes down,” he said. I was starting to feel like Joe Valachi, the wiseguy who revealed the secrets of the Mafia to a grand jury.

It was true, there were millions in squandered royalties buried in the Victory books. And I didn’t just know where the bodies were buried, I was the grave digger. Hawthorne Heights hired attorney Rhonda Trotter of Kaye Scholer. She was also a big gun who’d won a case for TVT Records, my former employer, where reneging to TVT on a Ja Rule album turned into a $135 million judgment against Universal, and then-President, Lyor Cohen. Brummel knew they were serious, and the lawyers gave him a chance to settle quietly, but he was like a serial killer: Murder was fun, but he lived to see his deeds in the newspaper, even when it cost him. Instead of coming to the table, he instructed his lawyer to dismiss the entire claim as “frivolous,” knowing it would launch a wave of publicity. A

s the adage goes, any publicity is good publicity. If there was a contest for Worst Boss, he’d want to win just for the press. Victory Records was his long lost band and his ticket to stardom, and like any tabloid star, he needed controversy to keep his long lost fame. I received many calls that day; Brummel was the kind of guy who made enemies faster than he made money. The swell of schadenfreude was overwhelming: bands, industry people, ex-employees; all hoping Victory would be blasted like the Bismarck this time. Tim said other bands were lining up to get their due. Thursday and Hatebreed, two other bands that since moved on to major labels, were considering similar action. This was the Victory way of doing business. Brummel saw it as part of the indie D.I.Y.(Do It Yourself) ethic. The lawyers were thinking of a more familiar term: R.I.C.O." "“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct.”

Victory had quietly known success in the past, taking more than a year to break artists that start-up urban labels could accomplish in a matter of weeks. But Brummel had a thing for hardcore, and despised the way the “Jiggy” people, as he often called them, were able to turn a hit so easily. He perverted the hardcore ethos of “being in it for the long haul,” “fighting the good fight” and it being “a way of life” to workplace slogans, ironically to satisfy his capitalist ambitions. In addition to the brow-beating e-mails that the staff was barraged with during the day, they were asked to stay late. The 6:00PM e-mail of “I’M STAYING LATE, WHO WILL STAY LATE WITH ME???” was common, a transparent equation he’d worked out where the more hours a salaried employee worked, the less he was actually earning. I was once ambushed at 9:04 with “YOU’RE LATE!!! WHERE’S YOUR SENSE OF LEADERSHIP???” finding out things like grace periods were considered a sign of “weak” companies. Like schoolchildren, doctor’s notes were required when sick, employees would be “written up” and even sent home when they made him “frustrated,” he would withhold compensation when he felt it hadn’t been “earned” and he even charged employees, right on their pay stub, $1.75 per week for coffee, something he felt he shouldn’t have to pay for.

There were also cult-like rules: only current Victory music could be played in the office and that employees weren’t allowed to associate with ex-employees. He took Caligula’s “Better they hate me, so long as they fear me” approach to management. Each morning employees were required to stand before him for their “daily measurements,” a process where they would need to recite the accomplishments for the previous day and what they planned on doing today. He would flippantly belittle and editorialize at will, and then ask that what was said be typed up and sent to him, it seemed only so he could further pick apart the words. It was a redundant exercise because each employee was also required to file and End of Day report (or as we affectionately called it, the End of Days report) where again the accomplishments of the day were listed and the evening could be spent bouncing Blackberry messages as everyone tried to justify their existence.

Although Brummel was newly married to a ravishing French woman, Delphine Pontiveux, he would often work until the wee hours, where is activities included reading through employees e-mails and confronting them when he found personal messages; he had even fired a few people upon discovering they’d referred to him in an unflattering way. We clued in the newbies on the more fascist policies just because the constant firing and hiring was another major drain on company resources. Why Delphine was attracted to him was a mystery, particularly since she said her first impression was his striking resemblance to Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler. Delphine’s presence was stunning, imported as she was, but it appeared this acquisition ended up was just like all the other mis-matched Robb Reports items that cluttered his life. After approximately three years of marriage they had failed to have children, casting even more doubt on the validity of the arrangement. I recall one of the first times I was called to his office to witness one of his fits.

To see him in his office made him seem even smaller: behind a desk that was, I’d estimate, fifteen feet across by six feet deep; he’d sit in a corner of the monstrosity, beneath two computer monitors the size of large flat panel televisions. I’d find myself looking under his desk to see if his feet could touch the ground. He was ill that day. Snot ran recklessly out of his nose to distraction, as he yelled, “I won’t let you be subjected to this sort of treatment! My God, they have to know that Ramsey Dean was the one that did this!” He was referring to a promotion for a punk rock endcap I’d set up at Best Buy, the music industry’s top mover. Our distributor, RED, was trying to take credit for it, when really all it took was a phone call to a long time associate over there to put the program together. I didn’t think much of it, shenanigans as usual, but he hadn’t been there before and he felt persecuted. “And if he’d pulled over, it all would have been forgotten. But he kept going. And he kept winning it his way.” “…Tony was more upset that we had told the press that he actually wrote the letters (not us) because he was more worried about “rumors” surrounding Taking Back Sunday and Thursday’s exoduses being justified than the credibility and reputation of his current biggest band… Our situation with Tony Brummel is indicative of issues that all the bands on Victory Records encounter on some level or another. We have decided to remove ourselves from the negative situation so that we can continue to do what we love best…”

People in the industry questioned if it was a ploy by Hawthorne Heights to parlay their success into a deal with a major label, but “rumors” was a polite way of addressing the mountain of evidence that could easily be uncovered. How many bands had Brummel lost? All the top sellers. Hatebreed was first to bail. Thursday followed Hatebreed when they’d had it with Tony. Taking Back Sunday and Atreyu managed to escape in the last drama-filled year, and now Hawthorne Heights was jumping. How many employees had he lost? There was me, the sole VP at the company. Heather West, Director of Publicity; who walked out when she reached her limit. Same for Stephanie Marlow, head of Marketing. Jason Deal, the I.T. guy, got into it with Brummel when his wife developed pregnancy complications and needed to be hospitalized. I remember Brummel shouting the day before he whacked him: “She’s the one in the hospital, what does he need to be there for? I”ll destroy him!”

Then there was Katie Robinson in Marketing, where his unwelcome advances such as “If I weren’t married, I’d be with Katie,” disturbingly seemed that her consent in this relationship wouldn’t be optional. A few months earlier a promising young Long Island band, Bayside, hit a patch of black ice out on a highway in South Dakota. The van rolled, breaking the back of bass player Nick Ghanbarian and killing drummer John “Beatz” Holohan. It was the most difficult time we went through there. Beatz was the kind of guy who reminded us we were also in the business of making dreams come true. Tony quickly signed another Long Island band called The Sleeping; his great idea was to run ads with the tagline “Your Heart will stop Beatz-ing.” Katie walked out in disgust: “I was tired of working for a Wizard of Oz who makes threats while hiding behind a Blackberry.” “Tony is a man whose greed knows no bounds. After selling more than 1.2 million copies of The Silence In Black and White and If Only You Were Lonely, we have never seen a single dollar in artist royalties from Victory Records.

Tony will claim that we have not “recouped,” a term used by those in the music business which means the label has spent more money in advertising than has been made by CD sales. In fact questionable accounting practices are the culprit and we are in fact owed substantial amounts of money much like audits from Taking Back Sunday, Thursday and Atreyu have uncovered. Despite earning more than $10 million, we’ve yet to see a royalty.” They earned more than that, but after over 15 years in the business, I’d heard this song before: the successful rock star claims he was screwed. It happened all the time. There was an equation in the music business for royalties: Once you start earning money faster than we can spend it, you’ll get paid. Paying royalties is like throwing money out that could be buying the one thing this industry worshiped, market share. This business was driven by charts, unit sales, airplay, and anything else you could measure yourself by. Marketing costs (marketing, advertising, parties, lunches, etc.) can be charged back against the band’s royalties, so the thinking is that it’s better to spend the money on promotion, where it greases the wheels of the machine, than pay the artist their cut.

The thinking at Victory went beyond that. Even if the bands did sell faster than we could spend, we found a way to spend it, and for one reason: not to promote the band, per se, but the Victory brand. Brummel’s contracts, which he wrote himself, were a myriad of draconian deals that egregiously cross-collateralized: a frowned-upon term used in the industry where the more stable streams of revenue like publishing and T-shirt sales, are funneled into the forever money-losing area of CD sales. Printing T-shirts can be like printing money in this business. Stores like Hot Topic would order thousands, filling the Victory war chest with additional marketing ammo. Instead of paying bands, he saturated channels like Fuse and MTV, buying all the advertising he could with their money, all touting the greatness of the Victory brand. He even took out infomercial-type blocks of time, appearing like the Ron Popeil of punk rock. Everyone knew the money was dirty, the stores that sold our stuff might as have been selling conflict diamonds, but they didn’t care where the margin came from. Tony did sometimes recoup and pay a small royalty, but it was smoke and mirrors, pennies on the dollar. He would tell a band they were re-couped, and start throwing a few bucks their way, but the big checks never came. It was done mainly to say that if they were at a major label, they wouldn’t be recouped, but at Victory, they were that much closer to that dream check. But it never came.

And if success shined on any band, so came the scorn and eventual falling out. Bands would be deemed “disloyal” or “disrespectful” for embracing their fame and their end of the bargain would be flushed into “marketing expenses.” Royalties were payable quarterly and, before each quarter ended, I’d get the amounts, totaling into millions of dollars, that were to be dumped into bogus marketing programs to prevent the band from getting a royalty. It was nothing short of malicious. “Fuck those guys, they’re not entitled to that money,” was his quarterly lament. The royalties, which ranged into hundreds of thousands of dollars, would be calculated and I’d get the amounts I’d need to spend. The last quarter I was there he laid $360,000 of Taking Back Sunday’s money on me. I couldn’t even find enough places to dump it: television advertising, print ads, sale pricing, endcaps, and then we’d play around with dating to try and make it stick, but sometimes even that didn’t purge it all. In this business people asked you to do unethical and even illegal things all the time. There is a whatever-it-takes attitude to breaking artists; as if we were fighting a war, we did it for the glory. But the things Brummel was asking went against everything me and this miscreant-filled business believed in; these were war crimes.

A very small percentage of artists ever get a record deal. Most that do, never even make it to a second album. That very rare artist who has the talent and the drive to get himself to where he sees a royalty is as rare as a four-leaf clover. But when a Victory artist had this grail in his grasp, Tony kicked it away. If “indie” was supposed to be synonymous with integrity, then he’d sold out the entire indie community. He wanted it all to belong to him because that’s what Victory Records was about; the brand, and the man behind it should be the lead story. Much like his distant idol Steve Jobs, the focus should be on the company he built and the brand he created. Unfortunately, Brummel was in the business of selling people, and they deferred on his contribution to their research and development as a product. Victory was a boutique label that cultivated the white, suburban, 14-24 demographic; kids who’d outgrown Britney Spears and N’SYNC. “Emo” was the sound they’d matured into. It was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and Victory was trying to be the new Jive Records. Tony believed that with a solid brand, the music would be secondary and he relentlessly promoted the name, even referring to himself as “Tony Victory.”

The industry bestowed a better nickname, “Victony”, because it was all so shameless. Freud would have had a field day with the way his slogans begged for attention, things like “We Run The Streets,” the conflicted “The Best Music, First” and “The #1 Independent Rock Label,” a claim the rest of the industry, including Billboard magazine, begged to differ with and was about as significant as “The #1 Midwestern Farm Team.” Even the name Victory illuminated his insecurity, along with a bulldog as the company’s virile mascot. He never owned a dog; it was something he said came to him in a dream, ironically the same image used by Mack trucks."


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