Q&A: Pete Wentz on the state of Decaydance

July 15, 2010 by Mike Shea

Q&A: Pete Wentz on the state of Decaydance

With the recent signing of former Chiodos frontman Craig Owens and the quickly exploding the Ready Set, Decaydance Records is solidifying itself as a stable, for-the-long-haul record label (an oddity in a world where labels look more like the coastline of California in 2012 than anything else). Birthed and nurtured since its 2006 inception by FALL OUT BOY bassist/31-year-old music mogul PETE WENTZ, the label’s early alliance with Fueled By Ramen helped create the likes of Cobra Starship, Gym Class Heroes, Panic! At The Disco and the Cab. Now, moving into its “second generation” of acts as Wentz describes it, the label has aggressively sought out a new wave of alternative pop artists including Hey Monday and Four Year Strong. Decaydance is also behind the solo release of GCH frontman Travie McCoy and Wentz’ mysterious new band, Black Cards. AP grabbed a moment of Wentz’ precious time to talk about Decaydance, how it functions and where it fits into the music industry of 2010. As with any conversation with Wentz, he tends to take the conversation from what you were talking about to Point B, then to Point D, F, K, P, G, back to D and then, if you’re lucky, back to whatever it was you were talking about in the first place. So instead of cleaning up the conversation to make it sound cut-and-dry, we thought we would just let Pete be Pete.

Journalists can come up with stereotypes for this answer all night, but describe a typical Decaydance artist.
To me, a Decaydance artist is a career artist. I think I’ve been asked what it takes to get on Decaydance a bunch of times, and I think at some point we went through something where you think you have a Midas touch—like you can make something happen for anyone. A lot of labels go through that. But, ultimately, there’s just something inside each of these different bands. I think Four Year Strong couldn’t be more different from Travie McCoy, who is different from Cobra [Starship]. We try to allow bands to be creative, have a say and we take the idea of the artists have of themselves and develop that before they’re on a major label or when they’re on [one] already, in some cases. The greatest quote I’ve heard is from [CEO of music for Warner Music Group] Lyor Cohen, who said, “Never chase the song, chase the songwriter.” I want to see bands that have longevity, who have a spark in their eye, you know? I saw a spark in [Cobra Starship frontman] Gabe Saporta’s eye when everyone thought it was over [after Midtown disbanded]. I thought it had just begun. For some of our artists, you’ll see people who are completely green. I want someone I can still be working with five-to-eight years from now—not a flash in the plan or where you flip [the band] to the majors and move on. For me, I’ve always been more of the street side—I talk to the bands. You can call me at 3 a.m. I’m the guy who talks people off the ledges, for as many as I’ve been talked off of, too. Decaydance has become a gang after all of this time. I think the most important thing is that you fit in with the gang. We have barbeques. Travie is the godfather of my son. Cobra stayed at my house two weeks ago. [Bands on the label] need to be kindred spirits with each other and with me.

It sounds like you’re suggesting that Decaydance is a clique of artists. If that’s the case, then how do you make it an inviting place for outsiders to come in and fit into it?
There are two ways we go about doing that. We’ve brought in artists that we weren’t sure how they would fit in and they don’t work out, so you learn from your mistakes. You have that warning. You go out on a limb. It’s hard to say that. “Hey, I made the mistake. I screwed up.”

The other thing we have done is split the company up. Whereas I’m the head of A&R, we kind have default checks and balances where I’m able to go to [label managers] Jonathan [Daniel] or Bob [McLynn] for other opinions. The building is run almost as a parliament. We’ll almost go through having votes, going around with,  “What do you think the first single [on this album should be]?” But, at the end of the day, the band ultimately have the biggest say.

As far as signing bands throughout our history, we kind of have a “first generation” of Decaydance artists and now we have a “second” generation in which we’re developing new artists. With the first generation, it’s now about re-invigorating them. The first gen sees how much the new generation—like Four Year Strong—are hustling and want it. [Bands like FYS] probably would never have made it with the first gen [of Decaydance], but they did things like Chat Roulette and the lip dub videos. It all kind of reminds me of Fall Out Boy around the Take This To Your Grave period in how energetic they are in their shows. So, the first gen sees all of that happening and it makes them hungry to step it up. At the same time, the second gen of bands has become interested in Decaydance in general because of the first generation’s success and can see and learn from the first gen. We try not to make decisions out of fear. We also learned the power of saying no.

Describe the “power of saying no.” What does it mean?
It’s really easy to say yes, but saying no to things sometimes is much more powerful, and you ultimately end up in a much better position. We learned a lot about controlling our own content along the way. I will help out and do favors for friends or certain bands, like point my Twitter to their iTunes store. To be honest with you, it’s the right decision to do things like that every so often. But a lot of times it’s creating a community, creating a culture, and it doesn’t always have to lead to this thing that people have to pay for. Ultimately, people do want to buy merch and tickets to support their favorite bands, but they don’t want to feel like it’s the only thing going on. So we develop things that are fun and free and the more involved the kids are with the artist, the more they learn to appreciate them and support them on tour. That helps the artist make art.

You do deals with a variety of labels, so what determines which label you’re going to work with for a specific artist?  Are there specific rules you follow when evaluating going with Universal like with Four Year Strong, versus Sire like with the Ready Set?
I tend to go with which label is the hungriest. When Universal is so passionate about Four Year Strong, it’s obvious that it’s the place for that band. I know the only reason Fall Out Boy were on Island was because our A&R was the most passionate over there. It’s about where you’re going to get the best results in the end. If [the label is] really passionate about your artists, they’re more likely to push your artists. It’s that simple. Different labels have different strengths, so that’s also something to consider. The only thing we can’t do on our own at Decaydance is radio—everything else we can serve in the building. We can get [bands] to 80,000 [albums sold], but to take them to the next level, we need the help of regional radio. But we’ll see where that all goes since people are going out to see a lot of artists they didn’t necessarily hear on the radio. At some point, those paths will have to converge or there will be some sort of breakdown. I think there’s going to be another breakthrough. Radio works in waves. There will be another “radio” in the future. For example, I think Sirius’ Top 40 is more of an accurate reflection of the nation’s music tastes [than FM terrestrial radio].

Almost five years since its birth, is Decaydance where you thought it would be?
You know, in the very beginning of Decaydance, it was constantly becoming something I never thought it would be. First, I thought it would be a boutique label while other people had great expectations for it. Right now, Decaydance is right where I wanted it to be. Sure, maybe I couldn’t have pictured a gold record or a singles market existing the way it is does now. The music has evolved so much since the label started. The thing I like the most is that we’re into the development of artists. Every label says that, but if the band believe in themselves, then we work it until we make it work or drive it into the ground. We’re able to offer bands the best deal you can offer. A friend joked the other night that the next label deals will be the [snowboarder] Shaun White kind of deals, where eventually [a company] owns every piece of you. [Labels] may have stopped selling your music, but they’ll continue selling you. There is nothing wrong with this if you know what you’re doing or if this is what you want as an artist. It just shouldn’t be done in a deceptive way. At Decaydance, we’re able to negotiate where we allow artists more freedom than they had before, and we can offer them our services where there’s more of a package deal. What lies in the heart of the company is that we’re artist-friendly. We’re constantly fighting for our bands, whether it’s for a bigger video budget or maybe bringing in outside money.

What’s been your biggest accomplishment with the label so far?
It’s something that no one will ever know the details of outside of me and five other people. There was a time when Decaydance was very much sought after. When the first generation of our artists were so big, I was offered a couple of deals where it was like, “I can go live on an island. Fuck you. Money.” But in turn, I would’ve had to sell my friends down the river. That’s when I realized [Decaydance] was a gang. So my biggest accomplishment was not doing that. That’s why I think the artists on the label really matter to me. We do talk on the phone. We are legitimately friends. I don’t even know how many of them know I made that decision. At the end of the day, I realized I’m not doing this for the money. Sure, you want it to be profitable and I have a mortgage. But I’m very passionate about it all. I believe in [bands on Decaydance] as artists and as friends. I can’t move them around on a chessboard for myself.

How many people are working for the label currently?
Just four. People think we’re a huge staff. [Each employee] happens to have a very personal set of skills. It all works out so well for us. On bigger-level projects, we’re still able to work within the infrastructure of major labels when we’re ready to pull the trigger on behalf of an artist.

Kevin Lyman is out there every morning at 5:30 a.m. helping park the buses on Warped Tour. Other owners are very hands-off and just want to know the basics. How hands-on are you with day-to-day operations?
You love the idea of me being angelic—me flying in and handling everything. But I’m not parking the buses, believe me. On some projects, I A&R the songs or I help pick the songs. With others, it’s keeping them in good spirits. With some bands, it’s me putting them under the brand and blasting that out to the world. There’s no band where I sit there and go, “You have to do this, this and that.” I have a personal relationship with every single band on the label and I check in with them on a weekly basis. It’s funny. People have an idea that I’m flying around in a G5 [jet] and asking for the new Cobra Starship single like a mogul. It’s not like that at all.

Johnny Depp is going to start a record label. Would you advise anyone to start a record label with the way the industry is these days?
[Laughs.] Well, Johnny Depp can do whatever Johnny Depp wants. Believe me. But people ask me that all the time, like for internships and things like that. What we need are people to work for us who are “that kid who made that one music website," you know? We need people who are future thinkers. The biz has gotten very archaic—it’s all just polishing the brass on the Titanic. I would love to have new thinkers involved. In a couple of years, you’ll see that labels are desperate and just treading water. The ones that survive are futuristic and understanding. They’ll get it. At the South By Southwest festival this past spring, I heard a great quote: “10 years ago, I never thought I would be buying water and getting music for free.” Everyone has learned how to monetize music except the music industry. On some level, we’ve viewed the consumer as the enemy. That’s when the pendulum swung the other way so very far that the bands got ripped off. Then the consumer got ripped off, too, seeing bands as living in mansions and having private jets. It’s about being involved in the business of music, not necessarily the music business. Do we love what we’re doing? Are we passionate about it? If not, go to business school. There are a lot easier ways to make money. Maybe become a Nigerian princess. [Laughs.]

More bands today are complaining of not feeling as though they have any “off” time—when there isn’t someone monitoring you. You’re known for being super-connected to the public. Are you ever able to be “off?"
In all honesty, I hate shutting myself off. It’s impossible to shut myself off as far as ideas. The only thing that is separating me from my Blackberry is [my son] Bronx. It’s strange—there’s a public persona of me that does nothing for me: the side of me where it’s US Weekly, where 12 cars sit outside my house because of who I married. That side never shuts off.  I would like that to shut off sometimes, yes. “Oh, there’s the douchebag who goes to Starbucks all the time.” I would like to have that shut off. Most of my time goes into other things. But that side of me, those things that I do, those are not great US Weekly pictures, you know? I’m the guy sitting at the desk thinking about doing an endcap at Target. That’s not interesting enough. I think the same thing when I see pictures of Jay-Z. His pictures are cooler, though, because he’s in Monaco or at the French Open or something. But 90 percent of his time is either spent onstage or running his business. That’s just not as interesting of a picture. alt

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