At 10 years old, Captured Tracks founder and owner Mike Sniper was already doing business at the lunch table. “There was this kid who was really into heavy metal, and my sister gave me all her heavy metal tapes because she was getting into other stuff,” he says. “I didn’t like heavy metal, and she had gotten me into Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Ramones, Buzzcocks–so I started to trade with him for that stuff. Just like any kid, you’re into whatever anyone’s telling you to be into. “
That last off-the-cuff comment belies Sniper’s astute ear, which has shaped his Brooklyn-based label since he packaged and distributed its first releases in 2008 from the basement of Academy Records in Flatiron. This weekend, Captured Tracks celebrates its fifth-year anniversary and the opening of its first brick-and-mortar store with a two-day festival, abbreviated as CT5. The lineup, including freak-rock auteur Mac DeMarco, the hazy dream-pop of Soft Metals, and Blouse’s chilly darkwave, indicates just how far the label has come. At the first Captured Tracks Festival in 2009, this year’s headliners and flagship artists Wild Nothing and Beach Fossils had yet to release albums that would take off–Gemini and Beach Fossils, respectively–going on to sell thousands of copies and establishing the label’s tastemaking reputation.
“They weren’t even listed on the poster,” says Sniper. “Kurt Vile was fourth on the night he played. It’s really weird how things worked out.” Dustin Payseur, frontman for Beach Fossils and something of a mascot for Captured Tracks (he’s also engaged to general manager Katie Garcia), adds “That was, like, our second show. For me, looking back at that moment, I couldn’t believe I was playing with all those bands.”
How the tables have turned. Captured Tracks have their own offices now, with new desktop computers and a big backyard; Dum Dum Girls, who headlined CT1 and whose self-titled debut 12″ was Captured Tracks’ first release, are signed to Sub Pop now; Kurt Vile has gone on to become a gentle, long-haired guitar god; and Beach Fossils are selling out the Bowery Ballroom. “Five years is a long time for music,” says Payseur. “Bands change, bands break up, bands get bigger, bands drop off–so much changes. Especially now, it’s so much faster than it used to be.”
He’s referring to the ever-tightening hype cycle, more often than not these days dictated by the Internet’s quick turnover rates, which can see a band rise to prominence and be forgotten about within a frighteningly short time span. It’s been a boon to Beach Fossils, whose first song, “Daydream,” placed in The New York Times (not to be outdone, Wild Nothing’s Gemini was branded with Pitchfork’s coveted Best New Music) as much as a source of indigestion for Sniper. Committed to working with artists’ first releases, he faults larger indie and major labels for using those sources to find artists, often already on their second or third releases, as opposed to seeking them out cold or thoughtfully considering every demo like the Captured Tracks team.
“We do our own A&R, we find our own bands, we put ’em out, we take chances. We’re not relying on Pitchfork or Fader or whoever to tell us what’s good first,” says Sniper, who believes at least 25-percent of a label’s roster should be new artists. “My thing is, with a label like Matador, Sub Pop, Merge, any of those–I don’t understand why they have an A&R staff they pay to go look at what, Soundscan? And Pitchfork Best New Music? And then try to sign bands? The reason I’m really pissy about it, and I talk about it every chance I get, is they’re devaluating what a label is.” He suspects part of the reason major labels didn’t try to poach Payseur after Beach Fossils came out is because Captured Tracks didn’t put bar codes on it (“I just thought bar codes were dumb. It wasn’t a thought-out plan”), so the record didn’t make it onto Soundscan.
Sniper’s label thrives in such a notoriously difficult industry where others constantly pay for eating their own tails because he takes risks. “That’s the only thing that separates us from all the other labels that came up around the time we were growing up. It’s not because we had better music, it’s not because we were better distributed. It’s because I wasn’t afraid to say, ‘Fuck it, we’re putting all our money in this thing,’ or ‘We’re hiring another person,’ or moving into a bigger office,” he says.
A little while ago, they did just that. Captured Tracks moved into a new, bigger office on Calyer Street in Greenpoint–within a four-block radius of a mind-boggling number of other labels, including Mexican Summer, Ghostly, Sacred Bones, and Secretly Canadian–that boasts such amenities as a bowlful of Reese’s peanut butter cups and antique arcade games like Pac-Man and Frogger. The real attraction, however, is the adjacent Captured Tracks store. To be unveiled at the CT5, it’s the culmination of Sniper’s years and years of working in other record stores like Academy, Co-Op 87 Records, and Princeton Record Exchange. The space will be “75-percent” (Sniper likes using percentages) record store with an artist-curated wall selling items hand-picked by Captured Tracks artists, anything from favorite guitar pedals to old clothing. “Have you seen the Amoeba ‘What’s In My Bag’ thing? This is going to be that on steroids,” Sniper says.
If the store is his undertaking, his “baby,” the festival became Garcia’s. “I fucking hate throwing a festival,” Sniper says. “You can ask anyone who works here how much I hate anything to do with it. It was mostly everyone else wanting to do it.”
“That’s a total lie,” Garcia tells me later over the phone. “I heard him say that, and I’m going to call him out. I didn’t have the idea to have a five-year festival.” He had his doubts, she says, but he and Ground Control booker John Chavez had been talking about it for a long time. Sniper even went so far as plan the festival around Captured Tracks fans 15 years from now. “As a fan of things I wasn’t around for,” he says, he wanted them to think, “Oh my god! Can you imagine going to that show?”
At the end of the day, though, it was Garcia who convinced her boss and coordinated the lineup, a process made easier by the fact that all the performers belong to the same label. Filling in for Soft Moon, who couldn’t make it due to scheduling conflicts, she says, “There’s also going to be a secret special surprise. But I can’t tell you.”
She does after some convincing and a promise not to print it. We can guarantee that, 15 years from now, they’ll still be talking about it.