Labels are at Beck's call; 'loser' may win deal for new artist.
November 27, 1993
v105 n48 p1(2)
The most-requested song at modern rock KNND (The End) Seattle
isn't by hometown favorites Pearl Jam or Nirvana, but by a Los Angeles-based
artist known as Beck who is at the center of one of the most dramatic buzzes
to come out of the L.A. music scene in a decade.
The song garnering the attention is "Loser," available only as a 12-inch single released by the Hollywood, Calif.-based
independent Bongload Records. It features a unique blend of folk, blues, and hip-hop influences, and
lyrics that make it, according to KNND MD Marco Collins, "the ultimate slacker anthem."
The song has made Beck--whose last name is Hansen--the subject of a fierce
bidding war among Geffen, Capitol, and Warner Bros.
Several top executives from Capitol and Warner Bros. were in attendance at a recent gig, in which Beck opened for Possum Dixon at the Roxy Theatre
in West Hollywood.
Sources close to Beck say a deal with Geffen is imminent, but his attorney,
Bill Berrol, says it's not done. "There's a difference between serious discussions and a concluded legal document."
While the offers for Beck are rumored to be in the $1 million range,
Berrol, who put together the Afghan Whigs' deal with Elektra, says "the focus is
not the on the financial aspect, but long-term artist development and personal
While Bongload co-owners Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock sit in meetings with Berrol and various label representatives, 22-year-old Beck Hansen
has been concentrating on the music rather than on the bidding war.
"He isn't really reacting to it," says Beck acquaintance Bennett Rogers, a clerk at Aron's Records and member of local band Charles Brown
Superstar. "He's a folk singer. He's doing his own thing. That's what he always
What Beck does is write and record--a lot. Although the "Loser" 12-inch and "MTV Makes Me Want To Smoke Crack," one side of a split 7-inch single
released in May on Flipside, are his only releases to date, three Beck albums are slated to be released in the next year on three different
Under his unique agreement with Bongload--which will act as a production company for Beck when his major-label deal is signed--the artist is free
to record for other indies.
In early November, Beck spent a few days in Olympia, Wash., recording material with Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening that will be released on
Johnson's K records. Flipside plans to put out an album of pre-"Loser" Beck recordings, while Bongload has an album that was to be released on
the heels of the single, but has been shelved while Rothrock and Schnapf
deal with the major-label feeding frenzy.
More than two years ago, Rothrock and Schnapf were at a show at an L.A. coffeehouse called Jabber-jaw when Beck jumped on stage between acts with
an acoustic guitar. The duo liked what they saw and invited him to their
homes to record material.
It was at a January 1991 session in Karl Stephenson's living room studio that Beck recorded "Loser" and its B side, "Steal My Body Home."
However, "Loser" was not released until last July. By that time, Beck's live shows and demo tapes had already created a stir among local A&R
types, and he had secured a deal with BMG Music Publishing.
"We put out the 12-inch with a song from the forthcoming LP, and then all the fervor started," Rothrock says. "And we never got to put out the
According to Rothrock, "Loser" was designed to appeal to college radio and the clubs, and that is where much of the buzz originated.
Bongload sent a limited mailing to college stations on the West Coast, including KXLU and KCRW in Los Angeles. Both stations added the record.
Chris Douridas, music director and host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on public radio station KCRW, also works as a
consultant for Geffen. He recalls the first time he heard the record. "!A&R executive^ Tony Berg
played it for me at Geffen, and I flipped," he says.
Upon returning to the station, Douridas discovered a copy of "Loser" in that day's mail and immediately added the title.
"I remember saying to Tony, 'When KCRW starts playing this record, all hell is going to break loose,'" Douridas says.
His prediction wasn't too far off the mark. "Immediately I started getting
calls from people wanting to know who this guy was," Douridas says.
Douridas was so enthused by the record and listener response, he tracked Beck down for a live-in-the-studio session, which also served to promote
the singer's gig that July night at a downtown L.A. coffee-house.
Douridas says of the radio appearance, "He went through a variety of songs,
from the Woody Guthrie urban folk stuff to the quasi-rap, hip-hop stuff to the demented cabaret like 'MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack.'"
With airplay on KCRW and KXLU, the "Loser" 12-inch started to move at local independent retailers such as Aron's in
Hollywood and the Rhino Records stores in Westwood and Santa Monica.
Says Rhino independent buyer Brady Rifkin, "It was slow at first. Then the airplay on KCRW started, and now it's selling like crazy. I can't
think of any self-produced indie record that has sold like this."
Stephanie Payne, domestic buyer at Aron's, reports, "We've sold 100, if not more--at least 10 or so a week."
After the first pressing of 1,000 was exhausted, Bongload issued 5,000 additional units; that pressing, too, has almost run dry. However, the
label has no plans for additional pressings. Notes Berrol, "There's nothing
like a demand that goes unsatisfied."
SEQUEL TO 'CREEP'
In September, KNND MD Collins, a former L.A. resident, was speaking on the phone to a friend about music. "He told me I have to check out this
song," he says. "He said it was the ultimate sequel to Radiohead's 'Creep.'"
Yet Collins was not able to find "Loser" in Seattle. "Finally, I called up my friend and told him to go to Aron's and buy it and send it to me."
Collins took the record to PD Rick Lambert, who at first was a bit hesitant--not
only was the artist an unknown signed to an independent called Bongload,
but it was only available on vinyl.
"Neither of us have turntables in our offices, so I had to go to the production
room to listen to it," Lambert says.
Taken with Collins' enthusiasm and the record's unique sound, Lambert agreed to test the record at nights. "It wasn't like an automatic add,
but it sounded so different, and we were looking for stuff like that at nights," he says.
HARD TO FIND
The fact that the record wasn't available in stores in the Seattle area was also a consideration. "When we decided to plug it in full rotation
we knew it wasn't available, but we thought that was cool," Collins says.
"It's something you can only hear on this station, and kids will stay home
with their tape decks trying to tape it off the air.
"A song like this makes my job worthwhile," he adds. "His songwriting doesn't reflect his age. It seems like he has been around a lot longer
than 22 years. He reminds me of Tom Waits, and his warped and twisted juxtaposition
of words is reminiscent of !William^ Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch.' And he looks
15, that's what kills me."
After KNND added the track Sept. 28, it became the station's most-requested
song. In mid-November it was voted the top song by 2-to-1 over the No. 2 request, Pearl Jam's "Daughter," on the station's nightly "People's Choice
Aside from listeners, KNND has also been flooded with phone calls from other stations, both college and commercial, asking where they can get
Creighton Burke, MCA Concerts Northwest director of marketing and promotions,
also called the station. He wants to promote a Beck gig in Seattle, but so far hasn't been able to locate the singer. "Everyone in this office
loves the song," he says.
Commercial modern rock pioneer KROQ Los Angeles also has added "Loser" and is promoting the track in its "New Music Revolution" spots,
juxtaposed with a cut by R.E.M. with Natalie Merchant.
"We know very little about him," says KROQ MD Gene Sandbloom. "There's a huge buzz on the record, and it has got one of the biggest, brightest
hooks I've heard in a long time. We wanted to be a part of it while itwas still on the indie level."
Meanwhile, Beck is said to be in the studio working on more new material, and is unwilling to take any breaks for interviews. Bongload may release
the full album in the coming weeks, "before a major can get around to it,
and to keep the momentum going," Rothrock says. And Beck remains unfazed
by the frenzy. Says Schnapf, "He's great, he's smart. He knows bullshit
when he sees it."