Barsuk Records celebrates 15 years with a sold-out week of music

Barsuk Records celebrates 15 years with a sold-out week of music
Mates of State, one of Barsuk's many bands, plays the 2013 Bumbershoot Music & Art Festival. Mates of State play Thursday night at the Showbox at the Market. (Joshua Lewis / KOMO News)

If you ask Barsuk president and co-founder Josh Rosenfeld if this is how he thought it'd all turn out, his answer is a resounding "no."

"Absolutely not. In 1998, this isn’t even how I hoped it would pan out," says Rosenfeld about the Seattle-based record label, which helped launch bands like Death Cab For Cutie, Rilo Kiley, and The Long Winters. 

Now, the label that Rosenfeld created with bandmate Chris Possanza when "no one else would put out our music," is turning 15 years old -- and they're doing it with four nights of concerts, all of which have sold out, and which benefit Gilda's Club, a local organization that helps those dealing with cancer.

"It’s been a very pleasant surprise," he says of the success, both of the celebration and the label itself.

The week's five concert lineups include Barsuk bands like Ra Ra Riot, Mates of State, Nada Surf, Phantogram, Aquaduct and Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter, and will pack venues ranging from the Showbox at the Market to the Tractor Tavern. Which is impressive, considering the label's humble roots. 

"The label started as an offshoot of the band This Busy Monster that Chris Possanza and I were in in the early 90s," Rosenfeld explains, noting that, because they couldn't get signed by another label, they decided to release it themselves. But it wasn't until they started pressing copies of an album called "Something About Airplanes" for a little band from Bellingham that they really considered it a record label.

"We sort of started to count it as a label in 1998 when we put out the first CDs, which was our's and Death Cab for Cutie's...We knew Ben [Gibbard] and Chris [Walla] already, and the only reason we ended up putting that CD out is because we had figured out how to press CDs."

From there, the label, whose name means "badger" in Russian, but is actually the name of Possanza's dog, a black labrador that is featured in the company's logo, began to grow They signed more artists -- though Rosenfeld is quick to point out, not so many that the bands don't know each other.

"We haven’t even really worked with that many bands, considering how long we've been around."

The label's small sizes, says Rosenfeld, has helped them weather the many challenges that the music industry as a whole has faced.

"We're fairly nimble," Rosenfeld explains, though he's quick to point out that it's the music and the community support that have helped the label thrive.

"It sounds like a stock answer, but mostly what has kept us around, honestly, is the musicians we’ve worked with...we have really, really great music that we’ve put out, and really great musicians who are rad people. We’ve just figured out how to make it work."

And while 15 years is certainly a landmark worth celebrating, Rosen admits a party in their own honor is a little out of character for the humble label.

"It is not really in keeping with the usual Barsuk way to do a celebration of ourselves," he laughs,
"but this year, it definitely felt like increasingly a triumph that we exist."

"We just thought that it would be a fun excuse to get everyone together."

The celebration is more than just a way to pat themselves on the back, though; the proceeds from each of the sold-out shows are being donated.

"We knew we wanted to go with a local charity, and pretty immediately, it occurred to us that tons of our friends and people who work at the label and people in bands have been hit with cancer."

"There’s a lot of money and attention paid to research -- and rightly so -- but when you get cancer, often, you just need information and support, and people here in our community can get that for free from Gilda’s Club."

"It's just the right thing to do," says Rosenfeld. And, he says, while he's excited that the shows have all sold out, it's what he had hoped would happen in a community as supportive of music as Seattle is. And, says Rosenfeld, there's a lot to be grateful for.

"It is undoubtedly true that we are really, really fortunate to have the support we have here. The fact that there are enough people here to support musicians and music...it’s not that way in other cities. Most cities don’t have this."

Barsuk's 15th anniversary showcase takes place November 7 - 10th. Full lineup and more information is available here.