The Self-Made Man: Brett Gurewitz
Most people don’t connect punk rock with entrepreneurial drive, but that really needs to change. After all, the punk scene’s national expansion throughout the 1980s and 1990s was built on people, often teenagers, starting magazines and small record labels to promote and distribute their music. A lot of them also booked shows and even promoted small tours through networks of friends in cities all over the country. That’s impressive when a well-connected adult pulls it off, let alone a bunch of glue-huffing kids with no money who were often states apart from one another.
One of those kids was Epitaph Records founder (and Bad Religion guitarist) Brett Gurewitz, who originally started the label in 1981 to release his band’s self-titled EP. A full-length album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, followed in 1982 and sold 10,000 copies in less than a year. Needless to say, the robust sales surprised the band, who had pressed the record themselves with a $1000 loan from Brett’s dad and were selling it primarily through mail order. Epitaph followed up with two more Bad Religion albums (one of which sucked) and a Vandals EP before going on hiatus while Brett went into treatment for drug problems.
Once he was out, Epitaph became a proper label, releasing L7’s debut album and Bad Religion’s Suffer in 1988; the latter album has been credited with saving California’s punk rock scene, which had deteriorated due to violence, drugs, and police involvement (in The Oral History of Epitaph, L7’s Jennifer Finch claims that “a lot of the SWAT team’s practice for the  Olympics’ public control was done on punk rock shows.”). Building off his band’s triumphant return, Brett signed NOFX to his label in 1989, and more bands followed in the early 1990s, including Pennywise, Down by Law, Rancid, and The Offspring, whose 1994 album Smash was Epitaph’s highest-selling release and one of the most successful independently-released albums of all time.
Through all this, Brett was struggling with drug problems and his newfound prosperity wasn’t helping (as he puts it, “I lost track of my values and wandered off my path in life. And being a drug addict already, I just did what came naturally.”). He’d been to rehab seven times already, but after an overdose in 1997 which led to an arrest for possession, he stayed out of prison by checking into the Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena, finally getting clean in late 1998. He’s been trucking with Bad Religion and Epitaph Records ever since; his record label now has a number of imprints (namely Hellcat and Anti-) that release special projects or bands that don’t quite fit under their parent label’s umbrella.
It’s important to include guys like Brett Gurewitz in this discussion of self-made entrepreneurs, because he wasn’t a child prodigy or some overachieving Harvard guy with great connections. I honestly don’t recall if Brett even finished high school. Rather, he was kind of a loser (by his own admission) who got involved in something and discovered that he had skills to contribute to a community full of other misfits who, up until punk sprouted up, didn’t feel like they really belonged to anything. Kids like Brett went from weirdos with no obvious ambition to weirdos who were talking to bands and releasing their albums and even booking venues, and all of a sudden they had some sense of importance. That’s what punk rock did, and still does, for a lot of people.
And also, not to make light of Brett’s drug history or anything, but you don’t hear a lot of stories about Internet start-up millionares smoking so much crack on the way to rehab that the smoke causes the guy driving to miss his exit. Beat that, Jeff Bezos.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.