Touch & Go's Downsizing: Revisiting the Great Butthole Surfers Debacle

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Today's announcement that Chicago's Touch & Go Records is radically, traumatically downsizing has major implications for indie labels in general: Owner Corey Rusk's official statement, as reported in the Chicago Tribune, lists the labels for whom it will no longer be able to provide manufacturing and distribution: Jade Tree, Drag City, Merge, Kill Rock Stars, Estrus, etc. There aren't enough Arcade Fires available to help soften the blow.

And while most of today's reaction focuses on the label's quarter-century legacy -- Big Black, Jesus Lizard, Slint, TV on the Radio -- it's equally instructive to recall perhaps the most momentous incident in the label's history: Rusk's court battle with the Butthole Surfers, who cut six albums on T&G based on a 50/50 handshake deal the band sought to terminate after jumping to a major and hitting it temporarily big with "Pepper," one of the oddest and least pleasant one-hit-wonder situations of the alt-rock era. Read this 1999 Chicago Reader piece on the battle right now: It's engrossing, heartbreaking stuff (the fucking court decision quotes Yogi Berra), and while T&G's defeat clearly didn't bankrupt the label, it reads as a pretty devastating end of the innocence for Rusk, proof that handshake deals and contracts that overwhelmingly benefited his artists might not be viable after all.

As for the Surfers, well, at least they got a nice award out of it.

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