Sam Chown and Geoff Earle aren’t new to the music business—they were in bands throughout the 2000s. But they were finding it hard to get any attention from record labels.
That changed when they started Grand Theft Zamboni, and began addressing their respective new albums—Shmu’s Shhh for Chown, and the Stiletto Feels’ The Big Fist for Earle—as music made by other artists.
Labels began listening to the albums more, now that it wasn’t (obviously) being pushed by the artists who had created them, but it wasn’t long before the wrong people heard about the label. Zamboni, the trademarked company behind the machines that resurface ice rinks, wasn’t happy about its name being used, and wrote Grand Theft Zamboni an email.
They responded with a very dry, lighthearted wit, which prompted another email. And then another. Soon, the exchanges went viral.
“I don’t know if you thought this from reading it, but I feel like the woman from Zamboni thought it was funny,” Earle told the Daily Dot. “But I can’t tell, ya know? I always thought she was just going along with it, but she may have been secretly pissed the whole time.”
We talked to Chown and Earle about the label’s beginnings as a shell name to give their albums a credit boost while shopping them around, and its transition into a fully functional label—now officially going by GTZ Records, after a final email from Zamboni seemed to close the matter—that had a SXSW launch party with sets from Black Milk and Deerhoof.
From a front to a reality, they’re releasing their first albums in a month.
“The thing about that is that neither me or Geoff expected the Zamboni people to come after us,” Chown said. “I was actually warned by my lawyer from the get-go that Rockstar video games were more likely to go after us, because of ‘Grand Theft,’ even though they don’t have a trademark on the term ‘grand theft.’ They’re still a much more popular and common and well-known product that people recognize. So that was the biggest surprise for me.
And then you get the ice machine company to come after you instead.
Earle: Yeah, man, like we didn’t even know that that was a brand that had a trademark. Because it’s like Xerox or Kleenex, apparently. I call it the Zamboni because it’s just the name of a machine that a guy named Zamboni invented, which is true, but since there are no other machines, that’s a protected brand.
Anyway, it was weird. We made the label name and had a launch party during South by, so we’re brand new—we haven’t put out a single record yet, but we will. In a month, our first album comes out. But we hadn’t even gotten started… like, the day before the launch party, we got the cease and desist, er, the original email from them. Which was kind of shitty, but I don’t know… at least it was an opportunity to kinda troll somebody, or at least see if we could get a rise out of them.
Did you have to change anything before the launch party, or could you kinda bide time by trolling them a little bit, to where you could just change things afterwards?
Earle: Yeah, I guess that’s probably the other point: We did just start, like, the back-and-forth so that we could figure out what to do while we were in the interim. It was kinda like, “Well, what can we tell them to cause them to….” You know what I mean? The email exchange itself took a couple of months, so we did bide some time. But we did end up changing the name because, um, I dunno… they were gonna sue. It was pretty obvious.
So it’s just GTZ Records at this point?
Chown: At this point, yeah.
And how did the launch party go? Was that the party that Deerhoof played at? I’m starting to get kind of old, so that was the band that stuck out to me. Like, “I know people that have shirts of them!”
Chown: They’re one of my favorite live bands, so it was a dream for me to be able to book one of my favorite live bands on Earth. Also, Black Milk played, and I didn’t know this until I booked them, but they’re apparently really popular. Even more so than Deerhoof. More normal people like Black Milk—Deerhoof is, like, a niche band. Because Black Milk has, like, electronic and hip-hop crossover, so you have kids that like beat music, and, ya know, EDM, but then also kids that like hip-hop. I mean, I guess Deerhoof is like rock music, but I guess it’s more an acquired taste, because of her voice—a lot of people don’t like the cutesy voice.
The beautiful thing about South by is that everyones’s rates are down—they’re cheaper than normal season rates. So you can get a band like Deerhoof or Black Milk for a tenth or a twentieth of the price that they normally play for. If you were to book a party, and get one of those bands to play, let’s say, now, it would be a lot more expensive. So that’s kind of the beautiful thing about South by: It’s a great time to do a launch party for your record label, or whatever it is, because every single band in the universe is in the same exact place, and they want to do the same thing that somebody like me wants to do—which is play as much as possible, or just get the most of it, out of the experience.
Earle: It’s a shame about the name, because I remember now that the drummer of Deerhoof, the day before our party, put on his Twitter, like, a Photoshopped image of him stealing a Zamboni. Which, I love that, because that’s exactly the picture that I had in my mind. The thing that was funny to me was, “Why don’t I call this Grand Theft Zamboni Records,” and the image I had in my mind was a cop chasing a hick with a pitchfork, getting away on a Zamboni. So I’m happy that Greg Saunier was also on the same wavelength.
What background do you guys come from, coming into starting the label? What was your inspiration, and what made you think, “Oh, we can start our own label?” when you realized you had everything you needed?
Chown: We’re both musicians first, we both have bands that we’re in. I’m in a band called Zorch, and then I also have a project called Shmu, and Geoff has a band called Stiletto Feels that he just started, but Geoff is also in a band called Fresh Millions. For me, I came from a place where I finished a record, I [shopped it around], and I got crickets. I decided to rerecord a lot of it, with a full live band (I generally record everything, and play all the instruments), so after I did that, I realized it was a lot better. I actually did get a couple of record labels that were like, “This is really good… maybe.” But in all those incidences, “maybe” ended up really being a “no.”
So I figured, OK, why don’t I just start my own record label? We can build our own distribution, get a team of publicists through research, just by emailing people and through [our past contacts], and then throw events and build an email list through events, and just do it like that. If somebody else isn’t going to do it for you… I guess I was tired of being in a position where I was like, “Hey, I’m an artist. Do stuff for me.” I’d rather just do it for myself, is really what it comes down to.
Earle: I feel like the reason that Sam and I, it was really Sam’s idea initially, to do it, and the reason I probably fit in well to that thing is that, well, we’ve both had bands that achieved, like, minimal success. Mine was: If you didn’t live in Austin, in a certain area, you wouldn’t know about my band. [There is] a sort of success that tends to fizzle very easily. I think the frustration of having people not even listen to your music was kinda the deal with wanting to put something together. The other frustration being that, like… it seems like most record labels have a plan to sign, I dunno, 20 people a year, and six of those people will pay off. I guess the mission statement for us is to not sign anyone that we think is not going to pay off. We don’t want to take on projects that we feel are a waste of time.
The entire plan, and I don’t know if this is bad to tell you—but whatever, we pretty much already hinted at it—was to get people to listen to our music by pretending we weren’t ourselves, basically. We sent out our songs to record labels and nobody cared. So we started, ostensibly, a record label which had no assets, no content, nothing, and then sent our same albums to people under the guise of “I’m from a record label, and I found this musician, and this musician’s really good. You should listen to his music.” And we got so many more responses. Which was disheartening, really. It was like, “Oh, no one cares.” People only care if you care about someone else—not if it’s your own music.
So we’ve essentially…tricked ourselves into having a really good publicist, and a radio promoter, and we’re having a distribution chain and everything. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy: We have lied our way into existence. So I guess that’s probably why we had kind of a whimsical response to a threat of legal action. It was like, “Ah, well, the whole thing is like a construct, mentally speaking.” I shouldn’t be saying that, because in a month the thing ceases to be a construct. I mean, we’re getting the vinyls back soon, and we’re sending them out, so we’re actually now a record label. But if you had asked me in March if we were a real record label? No. Not then.
Chown: It’s not like we lied about who we were at any point. For example, if I emailed, let’s say, a booking agent, I never said, “I’m representing this other person,” I just never mentioned that I’m the same person that’s in the band as the person who’s running the record label. I don’t even say “represent.” It’s more like, “I run a record label, and I’m putting out these two records.” So it’s up to them to figure out, “Oh, that’s just the same guy who’s in the band.” I’m not lying about anything, really, I’m just telling the truth, which is, “I’m running a record label, and here are two releases I’m putting out.” That’s a fact. Sure, I’m not saying, “Oh, I happen to be in this band, too,” because that would blow the whole thing. As soon as people are, like, “Oh, you’re in that band? Ah, then I don’t care.” Which is kinda what Geoff was alluding to before.
Earle: I think it has to do with this weird self-recording fallacy, where everyone thinks their shit’s awesome, and so [record labels] are so used to people thinking that their shit’s awesome that it’s almost like the minute that you’re like, “This is my own thing,” they’re like, “Oh, nevermind.”
Are you guys looking at any artists to sign in the future? And what kind of artists would you go after?
Chown: It seems like a lot of the artists that I like are not very commercially viable, so it’s kind of a weird thing where it’s like, “Man, I really like this band, no one’s ever heard of them in Austin, because usually bands that are really good at music are shitty at promoting it.” Obviously that’s not the case every time, but in a lot of the cases it is, and especially with creative types. So there’s a lot of bands in Austin that I really like that no one has heard of, but I feel like there’s a chance that, if I invest in them, we could lose all this money, which is a really tough thing, and it sucks that the whole industry is set up to disincentivize people who are not good at promoting themselves. Because that’s the position that artists are put in now. There’s no money to have managers and tour managers and all that shit.
Earle: Overall, the idea is to slowly trick the populace into listening to music that they wouldn’t normally listen to. There’s a lot of bands that are really great at promoting, that I just kinda feel like are safe, or boring, or just do things normal. And I think it’s a matter of releasing enough records that are progressively more and more daring or interesting or weird, until we have a big enough name to where, if we put someone on who isn’t popular, they can become popular or gain footing. That’s at least the ideal. The ideal is not to make lots of money. I think that’d be a terrible reason to go into the music business. The ideal is to eventually be able to break people who we feel like aren’t going to get any attention otherwise. Hopefully our records go over well, and we can start putting people on who would otherwise flounder.
Chown: And fast-track them through a lot of the bullshit. A good example would be somebody saying, “Hey, I don’t know anybody, I have no connections, but my music’s really good.” And then we can say, “OK, here’s a publicist. You don’t even have to email, like, hundreds of people to get to that point.” We can just hook it up, because we’ve done that work.
Photo via kadluba/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Fernando Alfonso III