Interview: A Conversation with Vacant Lot Records founder Gregg White; Punk Rock Anti-Social March 6th

Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, I woke up bright and early and headed across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, to meet Vacant Lot Entertainment/Vacant Lot Records Gregg White for a little brunch at the infamous Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe. The conversation was full of bloody mary’s, greasy-ass (and delicious) grub, and reminiscence of the good ‘ol days…

Gregg, VLE, and company are gearing up for their very first show in the San Francisco area this next Sunday, March 6th at the legendary 924 Gilman St. venue. Touted as the Punk Rock Anti-Social, the early Sunday show will feature SoCal’s Sic Waiting as headliners, with support from LA’s True Rivals, Fozzy’s Hero, and local Bay Area favorites Sarchasm. As if the line-up wasn’t reason enough to spend an evening in Berkeley, Vacant Lot Entertainment will be giving away a guitar for FREE, signed by each member of all the bands performing. All you have to is buy a piece of merch and you will be entered into a drawing to win a brand new Epiphone Les Paul. Pretty rad.

You can read the whole interview/conversation below, where Gregg and I talk about VLE’s origins and influences, current signings, and what it’s like to run a small, independent record label in the SF Bay Area.

If you’re lucky enough to live in the area, mark your calendars for March 6th for what is sure to be the first of many Sunday shows from the punks over at VLE.

Dying Scene (milhouse): Tell us a little about how Vacant Lot Entertainment began and what you’re all about.

Gregg White (VLE): VLE just kind of stemmed from the whole throwing DIY shows in empty spaces or any kind of club you can get in. We started in Detroit in 2004 after playing in a band called Flat Broke. We kinda had some recognition in the local scene and stuff, dealing with the few promoters to go around like Black Iris who does Black Christmas who was like one of the only promoters. So to get our band in some of these clubs we had to start doing it ourself. So I started VLE in Detroit pretty much as a booking agency and concert promoter. It kinda stemmed into doing our own shows at the Magic Stick and all the local clubs in Detroit, and back then there was a lot of things going on and, not so much houses, but people had storefronts that we would rent out so they kind of turned into these little underground show spaces. They certainly weren’t licensed by any means, and I don’t think there was a single all-ages show in the entire city.
I love Detroit and the whole music scene out there, but I hate the Midwest, as a place to live. The idea was to come out to LA with my drummer and we were going to start a new band. Flat Broke was great and cool and all, and my drummer ended up going back to Detroit a year after and I was out there alone. I just never had the opportunity to get another project going and it was eating me alive. It was so detrimental to not be involved in the music scene and everything so coming from a background of running VLE in Detroit and knowing about booking shows, there was just always something in me that said, I need to go back to doing this. I started working with a few bands in LA and a few bands in Detroit and then signed a band out of New York called Dead on a Friday and we started getting this whole thing going. We put on a show with Left Alone and Voodoo Glow Skulls and a couple guys down there and it was a really good experience. Putting on shows has always been what VLE has been about but what realization came to me is that, as a show promoter the shelf-life on your product or services is that day. If you’re going to throw a show you’re going to make your money back that day or you’re going to take a loss. It’s a one-time deal. So when I started working with bands more on the label side, records kind of have more of a shelf-life – you got a good month of promotion and they can sell really well right when it comes out and trail off, or vice versa.

How did you make the transition to the Bay Area?

Personal reasons and career choices led me up to the Bay and it’s kind of me and my fiance that run things. She’s the real deal – from LA and Latina and super into the backyard skacore scene which is huge down there. She puts on the [Anti-Pop Punk Show] podcast and helps me and it’s pretty rad. We do it when we want to, it started out kind of being like a monthly or bi-monthly thing and we had some support from Podunk Radio and Third-Wave ska and a couple of internet radio stations.

Your moniker or statement is “Skate. Street. Melodic. Punk.”. Can you expand on this?

The skate-punk scene that I grew up with in the Fat and Epitaph and all that stuff is here in the Bay Area. First and foremost I just want to work with bands that put out good punk music. We only have six bands and I think everyone one of the bands is completely different from themselves. Flat Broke is a street punk band, Fozzy’s Hero is a skate punk band, Dead on a Friday is a melodic punk band, and Sarchasm is an alternative punk band so yeah I would hate to label myself strictly as a skate punk label – I mean, that’s our credo ‘skate. street. melodic. punk.’ – but that’s because that’s what I am interested in. I mean, with street punk, and punk in general in a lot of ways, the pendulum swings so wide. I don’t think that our label needs to have that ‘specific’ sound like Fat or Asian Man or Pirates Press. My taste in music is so broad that I can’t see myself saying I only want to work with bands that sound like Fozzy’s Hero or something like that.
I think for the most part, especially smaller labels, we let the bands kind of do what they want to do. If there’s something they bring to the table that may be a little too far away from what the label is doing we may try to reign that back in a little bit, but I would say that the bands are free to do what they want. In terms of touring and performing – we try to help out any way we can and try to make those connections for them. And the way that this [March 6] show all transpired, I can’t thank Sic Waiting and True Rivals enough for bringing on Fozzy’s Hero for a three-day run. It’s good for Fozzy’s Hero, it’s good for them to have us also pushing that tour, so it’s a good collaborative effort that bands need to network and get together with each other and line that up. I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of a band wanting to do something on their own but I think on the music creativity side of things a lot of labels right now are looking for what’s outside the box.
And to your point, people submit things to Fat Wreck all the time and they select what they want, but I think even with a signing of PEARS, they’re trying to see something a little bit away from the spectrum that they usually work with. I mean Sarchasm is a great example on our label, in the fact that they’re more of the alternative/indie side of punk rock rather than something skate punk something like Fozzy’s Hero or Dead on a Friday which has it’s own scene going on right now. Like look at The Swimmers and everything they’re doing – it’s that sound and it’s that generation. It’s not necessarily something I want to dive right in and do, but I can appreciate it for what it is. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that on all label sides. If a band is good, a band is good.

So let’s talk a little bit about the bands on VLE. First, there’s the local favorite, Sarchasm, who will be releasing a new album this June…

Sarchasm is one of our big pushers, being that those kids have so much enthusiasm about what they’re doing and so much drive. Mari just organizes her band really well, and they do what they can (they’re all going to college) and Alex, their bass player is over in Ohio in Oberlin and Sophie is getting ready to go to Philadelphia for school and nine times out of ten that is going to put pressure on the band and prevent things from happening, but whenever they get together they book shows and they play shows and they do it. They’re coming back for Spring Break for like three shows just to play in the Bay Area cuz they love doing it. Their new record comes out in June, then they’ll be heading up to the Pacific Northwest for about 10 days then Southern California for four or five days, so it really takes a band like that to do it. Someone like Fozzy’s Hero – they just went on tour to Texas and back over the summer, but doing that is a bit more difficult as you become older.
Sarchasm is really doing a lot of good things here in the Bay so we’re really trying to push them because we’re here. We get a lot more face time with them. They’re also the only band on our label that is actively a part of the LGBT community and I love that. This is the Bay Area and I don’t give a shit about any of that politics. I’m a punk rocker.

Then there’s your East Coast signing Dead on a Friday…

Dead on a Friday…I can’t say enough about these guys. They’re currently in the middle of getting a new guitarist which is a bummer but we knew those guys from playing in Flat Broke and they put us up in New York quite a few times when we went through and they were the biggest underrated band in my opinion and we signed them knowing they have kids and they can’t tour as much and all this stuff. It’s kind of one of those things where you sign-on-scene. Dave Fox is a phenomenal singer and songwriter, and has his own sound and I firmly believe that New York doesn’t appreciate the sound that they have and think they would have better success on the West Coast only because of what the scene is like out here (I’m working on getting them out here). But at the same time it’s like when you’re trying to get your bands on all these festivals and you keep getting the same response for the same band out of the five you submitted, you know you have something. So, 2016, providing this all works out with the guitar player, is going to be a big year for them. I’m pushing them very hard to come out here for a couple weeks.

Have you thought about working on a East Coast Punk Rock Anti-Social since you have a NY-based band?

I would love to. We’re in the market to sign two new bands, which will be announced probably this summer. Hopefully one of which at least will be an East Coast band.

As a record label, I’m sure you receive plenty of submissions; are you at the point where you are set with your current line-up or are you looking to sign more and more?

We are still scouting, however we do have a significant amount of submissions, but at the same time nothing has really wowed us. Nothing has come through that has been something that I knew I needed to work with. I think that the ability to tour will be the pre-requisite for any future signings moving forward. How bad do you really want it. You can’t be a record label without any bands on your label, so we sign bands whom we’ve known for a long time, and who are good and put their best foot forward in terms of the quality of the music they’re putting out.
I think there’s too much emphasis on locality….right now we have a band out of Pittsburgh, we have a band out of New York, we have a band out of Southern California, we have a band out of Toronto, and we have a band here in the Bay. If we can get them all to the point where they’re all gig-swapping and everyone is sharing responsibility for setting up good shows then that’s the ideal.
I think the three heavy hitters we have right now are Fozzy’s Hero, Sarchasm, and Dead on a Friday, who have all put out releases either this year or last year. They’re just tremendous releases. The bands that we have put out before were good, but the problem that we have as a label is the committment our bands can have to tour. That is something that we really didn’t focus on when we started the label. Touring is absolutely essential to the survival of a record label, and if you’re not out there performing and singing for kids, you’re going to be king of your local market and that’s it. The complication is when you have bands with wives and kids, bands with 40 hour-a-week jobs, members that have dogs or whatever – everybody who holds onto that reason that they can’t go out on tour can only get you so far. That’s a hurdle that we’ve felt with almost every signing that we’ve had.

You’ve mixed a couple of your bands with groups on other labels…is this due to complications with getting all your bands together or did you want to have a little diversity (ie Sic Waiting, True Rivals)?

When you run a record label and you’re doing your own show it’s kind of like a ‘record label presents’, it’s really like eggshells to make sure everyone is being acknowledged and taken care of. Fozzy’s Hero is up from Southern California, and the main motive was to bring them up and make sure they play with Sarchasm so we have two of our bands working together. The ultimate goal was to get Dead on a Friday to play with Fozzy’s Hero and get them on the road and have our bands supporting each other to that capacity, as we sign more bands which we’re planning to do this year. Sic Waiting is a prime example where they’re signed to Felony which is a great label and they’re doing good things with them down there and I would rather acknowledge the fact that they’re on Felony – I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.
[As for True Rivals] It’s rare that a band like that (speaking of True Rivals, we do have our eye on them, I’m not going to lie) don’t already have something in the works to team up with a label. There might be a reason for that, I don’t know, but I’m definitely going to pick their brains when I meet them. We talked and stuff, but I would love to sign a band like that on to my label. But it’s all about if it’s a good fit.

So the debut Anti-Social is to be held at the legendary 924 Gilman St venue. Obviously this is not coincidental.

I first came to Gilman in 2003 when I was like 16 and I saw a show there and it just blew me away. Obviously you have the history of the venue with Rancid and Green Day and it has always been that club. So for our show, there was no other place to throw it – it was an obvious choice. And there’s a lot of other great clubs in Oakland like the Night Light and Golden Bull but Gilman is one of the best DIY, volunteer-run all-ages venue. Also, Insomniac Productions is Mari from Sarchasm’s booking agency. She does her own shows at a whole bunch of different venues, and she’s also a booker at Gilman so she’s helping bands get in there.
This is our first Bay Area show that we are officially presenting, and the reason with that is two-fold. One we felt like we needed to get out and show ourselves more here in the local community and Sarchasm was a big step for us. We want to make sure that we’re known as an Oakland-based record label. I mean, we’ve bounced around over the years but the label has always remained the same and the company has always remained the same. We could pick up and move anywhere with the label, and it’s still going to operate the same way, but here in the Bay Area we wanted to make an opportunity to get our bands together, that’s what a label is all about. We want to get our name out in the local scene and making us someone that people associate with the Bay Area and understand that we’re here and so we wanted to pair our artists with some larger artists that are doing some great things, so it’s a good opportunity for our bands to play with those guys and then we also focused on taking care of our bands. This is our first show where we have multiple VLE bands on the bill and hopefully it works out and will resonate with the kids that are there.

After this show, what is next for VLE and its bands?

Sarchasm will be going on tour, Fozzy’s Hero will be back on the road, Dead on a Friday will be doing more weekend shows in the New England area. Pretty much then going back to focusing on the releases and the signings. I would say the next Punk Rock Anti-Social show should be in like July or August. I don’t know that I’m necessarily married to Gilman but we don’t have the capacity to due full-fledged promotion at the Night Light or Golden Bull or places like that yet.

As you grow, what are some plans for the business?

The ultimate goal is to have a small warehouse with an actual studio behind it. We’re looking here in Emeryville but we don’t have the capital at the moment. We would love to basically build that all into one. We have so many people that are incredibly talented working random jobs and we want to bring them in for video and audio editing and we can create a sustainable company that, not only is it a record label, but I can employ my band members or friends and we work and record. 5 year plan. The way that we run things right now is out of a storage space. We have a 10×10 that’s fully-functional, the whole place is stocked full of CDs and shirts and albums and everything else but I would love to grow it out and put it into something that is similar to Fat, just not as big.
The really cool part of the warehouse space is you can things like parties or live shows, give away gear or come down and have a few drinks with us. We’re totally sociable people.
A record label really becomes, due to the success of one of their artists.

Do you have distribution in local record stores?

We do a lot of things on consignment, but honestly the mailorder way of doing things is probably the easiest. Getting distribution for any small label is tough as it is, until you have the amount of sales that a distributor wants to pick up, but we do consignment. So right now we have records at Amoeba, at 1234 Go!, and some other small shops. But physical stores have completely shifted more towards vinyl, so if we start pressing more vinyl they may be a little bit more receptive. One of my favorite days of the week is going to the post office and taking a carload of crap and sending it all out.

Thanks for taking the time to chat and I wish you great success as you grow.

The big success for me, would be to have my bands being invited to play with bands that they look up to. We can make a few dollars here and there and that’s great, but I really hope that these guys can make it.

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