Interview: Jeff Casazza, Run For Cover Records
by Trevor Johnson
Any conversation on the groundswell of new hardcore and emo has to quickly reference Boston, Massachusetts. Seemingly just as quickly, one must attribute a great deal of the city’s good punk name to Run For Cover Records and its founder Jeff Casazza. With releases from Tigers Jaw, Hostage Calm, Modern Baseball, Transit, and Title Fight, just to name a few, Run For Cover has carved an indelible, impressive groove into northeast independent music. We recently talked about this and much more with Casazza, including where he sees the label going in the years ahead.
Where are you from, what is your background in music, when and how did Run For Cover start? Why did you start a record label? How did your first release come about and come together? Did the second release happen in a similar way?
I am from the north shore of Massachusetts, but spent my early teenage years even further north in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire. When I was probably 12 or 13 a friend I skated with frequently started getting into graffiti and would make these handmade graffiti zines and we’d just walk around selling them to people for a few bucks on the street. I started contributing small writings and silly record reviews and things like that, and although on such a stupid and small scale, doing that with him sort of made me realize you can just make whatever the hell you want and sell it. This somehow led to me spending lot of time in high school classes on a laptop emailing every record label I had heard of requesting promotional materials for a music ‘zine’ that didn’t really exist yet. I started receiving advanced copies of every release from Victory, EVR, etc., I would review them all, write editorials, interview bands, review concerts, and started Sub-Stance Magazine. This was around 1999-2000. I started getting all these records in the mail. I got Full Collapse, Tell All You Friends, After the Eulogy, that first Fall Out Boy record who’s title escapes me, and some other classic records before those bands actually had any real success. I obviously hadn’t heard of Taking Back Sunday or Thursday before their breakthrough records, but hearing this stuff essentially all at once and before anyone really knew about it sort of blew my mind. In 2000 American Nightmare, AFI and Converge were probably my favorite bands and once I was into that stuff there was no turning back.
When I got a little older, like 16-17, I was super into the Boston hardcore scene and just from ordering records from other labels, and going to shows stuff I met a few key people who made me realize that putting out a 7″ record isn’t some crazy thing only corporations or people with tons of money. A lot of people don’t think about how easy and (sometimes) cheap it can be to produce pretty much any kind of product and just do things yourself. When I was in school, if it came up that I owned a record label people would either be like “yeah? whatever you say” or “What is a record label?” This was in business school… In general I think young people have a skewed idea of small business and what one person can do with some hard work and a small amount of money. I have a particularly crafty group of friends, most of whom have their own companies or projects. I have friends who under their own companies make guitars, pedals, watches, leather products, soap, etc. A lot of people think making a guitar takes a million dollars something you have to go to school for, but really in the simplest form you just have to learn how to do it. Realizing early on that creating a product and selling it isn’t out of reach was very important thing in my life. Putting out a 7″ was as simple as having the recorded music, filling out some forms and mailing it along with a check to a pressing plant. Of course you need a website, an online storefront, etc, and that’s all stuff I figured out how to do along the way out of necessity and not wanting to rely on other people.
Was there an event or a moment that made you go for it with RFC? What made you actually take the leap and throw yourself into this fully, rather than having it be a hobby or something you were unsure of?
I never thought it was realistic for this to be a real job, in fact there were times I was positive it was going to fail just as a hobby. I remember one time in particular in 2008 or 2009 where I just felt that it wasn’t going anywhere and I was just over it. I remember being so bummed that I just didn’t care anymore. I was trying to find someone to help me out but none of my friends gave a shit at the time. Not wanting to do it anymore was a weird feeling, but somehow I kept going. In 2009-2010 we released stuff from Title Fight, Tigers Jaw, Transit, Fireworks, Man Overboard, The Wonder Years, Balance and Composure, etc and at that point things were really taking off for those bands, but I was running the label out of a small bedroom while going to college full time. We desperately needed to expand and couldn’t, so it was a pretty frustrating situation. On top of having no room for anything, I also had no time. I would be doing mail-order until 4am, physically couldn’t respond to every email we were getting and every record was delayed. It was cool to see so many people paying attention and buying all these records, but it also sucked at the same time because it was physically impossible to manage and I felt like I was just blowing it. I lost a lot of sleep over it. I felt like I was letting people down and it was just a bummer. At this point I sort of realized that it could potentially be a real business, but things had to change. I put a little more effort into school, at least enough to pass my classes, and finally graduated after 6 years of mostly going part time. Its been a few years now since I graduated, but thinking about to the moment I realized I was done with school and could put every second of my time into RFC was the actual happiest moment of my life. I hated school, I even got kicked out of college once, and ended up coming back and finishing. It still makes me happy to think about finishing.
2010 seems to have been a huge year for Run For Cover in terms of releases and growth in popularity. Has every year since then been bigger? What did you learn in 2010 specifically that you use every day?
Yes, every year since 2010 has been more successful than the last. In 2010 I learned that I could absolutely not run this company out of my bedroom or by myself anymore. I learned how much room a few thousand LPs with gatefold jackets takes up in your apartment. I learned that having freight deliveries of 5 huge pallets to my apartment and having to break them down box by box on the sidewalk in front of my apartment is not ok. Honestly, that year I only learned what I was doing incorrectly.
Is that consistent with how you succeed as a label in your opinion? Is it trial and error in most new instances? What’s one thing you had to guess completely on and got right? Do you still use that method today?
Hard question to answer because a lot of what I was doing wrong was due to circumstance, being in school full time and running the label out of a small apartment in Boston by myself. Really what I was doing wrong was thinking that I could successfully manage the company in that setting. I wouldn’t even say I ‘thought’ it was possible, but I didn’t really have a choice. The huge turning point was hiring Tom who I knew from playing in Hostage Calm. We hired him in 2011. I believe and 2012 he moved from Baltimore to Boston to work full time and that’s sort of when we were able to start trying to push the company forward.
I see Tom from Hostage Calm and Alex from Basement in the Tuesdays with Tay videos, they seem to be a part of the Run For Cover operation; are you friends with the bands you work with? Do you feel it’s important to keep a working relationship or do you work harder for friends? Do you ever fall into wanting to be a strategist for these bands or do you more or less let them do their thing?
Yes, both Alex and Tom have worked here for a while and are integral parts to what we do. Alex does all our video work and some other random stuff, and Tom is our label manager and him and I pretty much handle everything. We’re definitely friends with our bands. Not in some goofy “this label is a family” type of way, and obviously I can’t personally speak to every person in every band on a daily or even weekly basis, but there’s some people who I talk to regularly about non music things, some people I am scheming with about their band on a daily basis, and some people I won’t talk to for a few months then we’ll hang at a show and it will be the most fun I’ve had all year. I’ve talked to Mike from Creative Adult about everything under the sun on a friend level and I hadn’t even met him when you first sent me this interview.
We definitely let bands do their own thing. I can’t even imagine trying to mold a band or artist into being something we thought would be more successful. The whole point for me, is finding bands that are already good enough, not something we need to distort to fit our persona beliefs of what will be successful because when it comes down to it, I have no fucking clue what’s going to be successful. We find bands and artists we like then let them do whatever they want. I think everyone we’ve ever worked with would agree that’s how we do it.
You run a big operation, how many of the guys in the office each day are full employees, how many are there simply to help and how many come to hang out and little else?
We currently have 7 full time employees. Surprisingly people don’t ever come hang out and take advantage of our work environment because all of our friends are either on tour or working at the same time. Our friend Vass will come hang and do his art thing here just to get out of his apartment, but generally we have a pretty quiet office setting. It’s more often that people come and just help us put records together or whatever which is super appreciated. A lot of the time there isn’t even music playing in our office. Sometimes I walk out of my office blasting music into a completely silent room of 6 people working.
How much of an authoritarian do you have to be? Are you a “first to the office, last to leave” type of guy? What have you learned about being in charge of a bunch of guys that are clearly friend and around your age but also play a hand in your wellbeing and whether or not you pay your rent?
I don’t really have to be authoritative. I think everyone understands that this is a pretty awesome work environment and we need to work hard if we want to keep doing it. Most everyone besides Tom and I have clear responsibilities, so it’s pretty easy to tell if things are getting done. We skate every day and mess around a lot, but also make sure every order gets sent out every day and things are getting done. Definitely not a ‘first to leave last to leave” type of guy at all, people here would laugh if you asked them that, but in my defense it’s very rare for me not to go home at 5pm and work till 2 or 3 am, which makes it nearly impossible to wake up at 8:30 every morning. Everyone else here likes doing other things with their life in addition to working here, so they’re much more buckled down at work. In my mind I’m like, well I am gonna be working ‘til 3am, what’s the big deal if I wake up at 10?
As you said, Tigers Jaw has been with you guys through most of your existence. Can you explain what it means to you to have a band as a constant? To watch them grow? They recently went through a tough time, what was that like for you as someone who likely has a friendship and a working relationship with them? On the flip side, what has it been like to watch them “get up off the mat” so to speak?
I was really bummed for a while. Brianna called me one day and just told me everything was up in the air and not really looking great. The record probably wasn’t happening, they didn’t think they could do the whole European tour, didn’t know if the US tour could happen, etc. It sucked in a lot of ways, not only a huge hit to RFC, but just not having them be able to finally take advantage of actually being a band and touring a bit which they haven’t ever done consistently and has always been a goal for Ben and Brianna. There last record came out in 2010. All 2,500 or so copies of the first press were assembled in my bedroom. That was our biggest pressing ever at the time. The first pressing of CD’s were made with unmastered WAV files and had stick clicks at the beginning of every song. The volume was about 50% as loud as it should’ve been. We had to have them press new discs, send all the CD’s back and have them switch out every copy. Amateur hour! Still, they have never been anything but 100% grateful and kind about everything, even when the stupidest mistakes were being made. Thankfully that stuff doesn’t happen anymore.
When they told me the record wasn’t going to happen a huge reason why that was upsetting was because we never got to actually do a record justice for the a band that will go down as one of the most important bands to the label. They’ve never had first week numbers, you’ve probably never even been able to buy a Tigers Jaw LP in a store the week of release. With that said I couldn’t be more excited about this record coming out. We have the #1 distributor in the world with an awesome team backing what’s going to be our biggest release to date. Everything has come together perfectly and I really want to do as good a job as possible for them so they don’t feel stupid for sticking with us for so long!
What are your impressions of Charmer?
I think it’s no doubt their best record. I am sure there are some people out there that can’t get past “Chemicals” or “I Saw Water” or “Never Saw It Coming” being their favorite songs but this record is just…something else. I think it’s a perfect release for them from the art to sequencing to Will’s production to the songs. Pat sings a song on the record that’s really incredible. Brianna sings a lot more, which is something I have been hoping would happen for a while. Adam’s songs are the best he’s written I think. “Hum” is one of the best Tigers Jaw songs ever and Ben’s songs in general are great. I don’t know, I just love it, I could talk about it for a long time.
Half Cloth recently debuted the new track from Self Defense Family spin-off/alter-ego Meredith Hunter. What is it like to have a band come to you and say “we want to release a split, but both bands are us”?
That’s a funny question because it actually happened in the exact opposite way. I was planning a series of split 7”s for a vinyl subscription. Self Defense did an amazing 7” for our first subscription two years prior, and with them being so prolific I knew they would be a good band to ask as we’ve put out 5 releases with them at this point. One day I just texted Pat, “Hey, want to make up a band and do a split with your alter ego’s?” He just said “Yeah sure when do you need it by?”
How did your social media presence become what it is today? You guys seem to have videos of everything and obviously “Tuesdays With Tay” has seen a huge response from fans. What is the biggest benefit to these videos?
The whole video thing has really become something I never expected it to. I think Alex would say the same thing. We hired him to create video content more or less, and we had some ideas roughly in line with what we are currently doing, but the combination of his ideas, talent, and the response from people is just so perfect. I am pretty sure he moved here and started working for us without us talking about any of the series we’ve created. He got here, came up with some ideas and just started doing it. The biggest benefit is just giving people something cool to watch and associating it with our name. People love consistent, free content and Alex nails it. Wouldn’t trade that guy for anything. I am sure people have found out about bands on our label or just RFC in general because of the videos and thats really all we can ask.
Do you see RFC turning into more of a content generating imprint? It seems like the music will always come first, but with the videos is there room to expand into other forms of content? Do you feel like Run For Cover is building/has built the type of following and support base that could allow you to expand and reinvent things for indie labels?
Hopefully! With the way things are going it seems like the video content stuff is becoming a bigger part of what we do every day. I don’t see us becoming The Berrics of indie labels or something, with such a strong focus on daily content, but I think it’s beneficial to engage people in as many different ways as possible as often as possible, so that’s what we’ll keep doing. Do I feel we have the ability to really change things? We’re not trying to reinvent anything, but on the other hand I notoriously sell myself short. Anything could happen, we’ll see I guess.
Regarding just expanding as a company in other ways unrelated to creating content, we got some stuff in the works that I think will surprise a lot of people.
Do you feel a sense of competition with similar labels?
No, not really. There used to be a handful who were all trying to sign the same or similar bands, but all the labels people associate us with have all sorta branched off into our own little sects of whatever it is we’re doing. I don’t feel competitive with those labels at all, in fact I solely want them to succeed.
What do you look for in a band? Is it much more than just “I enjoy them and they seem dedicated”?
Really just looking for stuff I/we enjoy. Sometimes it matters how ‘dedicated’ a band is and sometimes it doesn’t. Everyone here has pretty good idea of what my vision for label has been over the years and we are all on the same page about what we should put out and what doesn’t really make sense. In short, what we’re looking for is bands with great music that fit with what we’re doing and who we feel we can help.
Is there any place you’d rather run a label than Boston? What relationship do you have to the city and how does being in Boston help RFC?
I love Boston. I’ve lived in various parts of the city for 10 years now and would happily live here forever. There’s only a few places in the states I would move too but realistically if I were to move Southern California would win solely because of the weather. I love Chicago, but you’re crazy if you think I am going to move somewhere with more extreme weather than Boston on both ends. I grew up in Boston, going to shows at the Axis and Cambridge Elks Lodge, buying CD’s at Newbury comics, skating in Government Center, it definitely feels like home.
What’s the toughest part of running a record label?
Tough question. At this point it’s really just fun and awesome. There’s honestly nothing I could complain about without sounding like an asshole. If we’re talking super specific things that have been a challenge, keeping correct inventory with tons of different vinyl variants can be tricky. Getting to the point where you’re shipping every order the day you get it was a huge step for us. There’s always 100 things any of us could be doing at any given time, so sometimes time management and staying on task can be tough, at least for me.
What’s the best part (of running a label) that people don’t know about or wouldn’t assume?
The best part is definitely having such a big aspect of my life be this really positive thing. Most people’s jobs are a large part of their life because its what they do every day. When something bad happens or something is bothering me, I can think about how the way I make a living could be almost anything else and I would hate it, but instead it’s great. Because of this, I am never bored and always have something I can work towards. I try not to take that for granted and feel very lucky.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from someone in the industry that you appreciate or look up to (feel free to name names)?
Similarly, what advice do you give kids that say they want to run a label one day or to friends of yours in the game?
This wasn’t exactly some dumbfounding moment, but back when the label was just me pretty much, Matt Pike (booking agent @ Kenmore agency who used to book a bunch of our bands) told me to stop wasting my time doing mail-order (which was truly taking up all my time), to hire someone to do it, and start focusing on expanding the company into an actual business. That might seem obvious, but sometimes you need someone who’s seen 10 other people in the same situation tell you what to do. At the time I was thinking that if we pissed off all our mail-order customers we would have no more customers, so thats what I focused on, but really anyone could be doing that part. I was the only person that had the vision or the drive to take the label past that point, so if I didn’t do it it obviously wasn’t going to happen.
Regarding people starting labels, I always just tell people to find a band and try to put out a 7″ for them. A lot of people take the approach where they go out, register a business name and LLC, pay all these fees, get some glossy website made up, and pretty much fake the whole thing before they even have a record out. I say find a new band you think is worthwhile, and figure out how to put a 7″ out and sell it. That’s what I did, so I wouldn’t even really know what other advice to give people. It’s kinda like what Nike said, just do it.
Biggest “I can’t believe this” moment thus far?
There’s been a few times where I’ve thought “I can’t believe we’re putting this record out” but really the fact that this is my job and I get to work with all my friends and do something I enjoy so much is harder to believe. A more recent, specific thing that was mind-blowing was finalizing a deal with ADA Distribution. It’s been five or six months, and already completely changed our business for the better. Just looking at their Wikipedia and seeing Run For Cover next to Sub Pop, Matador, Merge, Beggars Group, Touch and Go, Saddle Creek…Just seems too good to be true.
Is there a long-view on running an indie record label? Do you think about running a label to support a family one day?
Yeah it’s definitely something I’ve thought about, although I try not to overthink stuff like that. I feel once you do, you start making decisions based on the fear of failure.. I never want to feel like I should sign a band because it’ll make money. I try to look at labels like Matador or Sup Pop and examine how they’ve stayed relevant. It’s a weird thing because so many awesome labels fail over time, and some are seeing their highest peak of success 20 years into it. With the way things are going its very possible this company will allow me to support and raise a family, but its also possible it’ll fizzle out in 5-10 years and I’ll need to figure out something else. Of course that’s the last thing I want to happen, but its possible.
Ever seen the movie This is 40? Sort of scary. Paul Rudd owns a small failing record label and his dream is to sign Ryan Adams. (Doesn’t happen)
Name one band active right now you would love to work with for personal (rather than fiscal) reasons?
Okay, lightning round. Don’t think, just pick one: Burgers or Burritos and from where?
Tie. Burritos from El Pelon, burgers from Boston Burger company. J
Cheap beer, craft beer or root beer?
Probably Root Beer. I drink beer more often than Root Beer but Root Beer tastes way better and doesn’t make you feel sick the next day (depending).
Horns or strings?
If there are horns there’s a 25% chance it’s ska. Strings.
Day or Night?
100% night. As soon as it’s warm out I start staying up til 4 am working with the windows open.
Biggest musical guilty pleasure (ignoring the fact that you should never feel guilty for liking music, unless it’s ICP)?
My favorite bands ever are Queen, Counting Crows, and Pantera I think. I’ve heard people imply that liking all of those bands is embarrassing. I don’t care what people listen to unless it’s like Warped Tour crunk rap or something. Like Falling in Reverse? We don’t know each other!
Movies or sports?
Definitely movies, but I am not even a huge movie guy. I have trouble paying attention to anything that isn’t based on reality unless it’s Terminator 2 or Pacific Rim. I like things about real life and real people. Super hero movies are the worst thing next to sports.