Empire of the Mind
From the cozy confinesof his West Campus efficiency, Peek-A-Boo Records "CEO" Travis Higdon has transcended the dime-a-dozen world of indie labels by marketing a myth along with the music.
Okay, maybe myth is too strong a word for Higdon's tendency to portray Peek-A-Boo as a giant corporate enterprise rather than a one-man cottage industry. But it works. Seeing a well-starched Higdon giving the thumbs-up on the front of Peek-A-Boo's annual report/discography creates a sense of perpetuity that few similarly sized labels have. Who cares if it's all a product of Higdon's clever imagination? Victor Kiam, Ted Turner, and Dave Thomas would be wise to watch their backs.
Higdon inaugurated the Austin-based Peek-A-Boo in 1995 by releasing a 7-inch by his band, The 1-4-5's. However, the label's germination can be found in the pages of the long-running Peek-A-Boo fanzine. This free, photocopied publication combined the organic DIY punk aesthetic with an almost fanatical enthusiasm for disposable culture and cheap beer. In an era dominated by overwrought angst, Peek-A-Boo switched out Prozac and flannel for cotton candy and Sanrio Gift Shop trinkets. Not everyone bought into Peek-A-Boo's happy-faced tactics, but you had to admire Higdon and crew for trying.
"We all put work into it and made it available free to the public," says Higdon. "If you like it, you like it. If you don't, it's free, so you can't complain."
Higdon furthered this civic-minded collectiveness with the Bicycle Rodeo compilation LP. Fourteen mostly local bands appeared on the theme album, and all pitched in by playing benefits to defray costs.
"The shows didn't totally pay for the record, but they paid for most of it," recalls Higdon. "Then I sold the record at Sound Exchange for $4 and it paid for itself with that."
There's a certain congruence of purpose in Mr. Higdon's Neighborhood that either harkens back to Motown or ahead to Lookout! By focusing on a just-to-be-polite-sized sliver of Texas music, Peek-A-Boo has cultivated a sound for itself. That sound is dominated by the rudimentary pop-punk stylings of bands like the 1-4-5's, Junior Varsity, and Teen Titans. On the other hand, the label also released Silver Scooter's The Other Palm Springs, one of the most polished and fully realized pop albums of 1997.
"When you think of the really successful labels, they have some kind of identity that people can relate to," explains Higdon. "I just thought I'd focus on Texas music and sell Peek-A-Boo as a Texas label. It's kind of garage; there's pop, there's punk, there's some really stupid music, and there's some really well-thought-out music."
Higdon's initial motivation to start putting out records was "love of the bands," but the road to insolvency is paved with similar stories. Eventually, financial realities come into play.
"Am I trying to have a business here, or am I trying to put out records that I love?" asks Higdon. "A lot of times, I put out a record that I really love even though I know the band's going to break up or nobody's going to care about the record and it's not going to break even, but I just want to do it. The more of those you put out, the less records you can put out. You get deeper and deeper into the hole."
Not helping matters is the glut of indie material clogging shelves at the handful of record stores that actually consent to sell the stuff. Higdon says this is particularly true with vinyl singles. Ironically, the much-heralded 7-inch revolution may be the concrete block that's taking vinyl down for the second time.
"Vinyl's just getting increasingly harder to sell," relates Higdon. "The first record I put out was the one I sold the most of, and even that wasn't very much in the grand scheme of things. I sold over 1,000 of my first release, but none of the later ones have broken 1,000.
"The stores are overcrowded because it's been really convenient to put out a record over the past few years. Everybody starts a label and the stores get flooded with records. Unfortunately, some of them aren't very good and they stay on the shelf. The record shop owner stops buying so many records, the distributors won't take them, so you wind up with all these records in your apartment."
In spite of Peek-A-Boo's small scale and limited distribution, Higdon's tenacity has paid off. Silver Scooter chose Higdon's handshake deal over an offer from Crank! (an L.A.-based label with distribution through Epitaph) precisely because of the comfort level in dealing with a smaller, closer-to-home label. Higdon estimates he's moved 2,000-3,000 copies of The Other Palm Springs. Not bad for an indie release, but Higdon thinks the album should have done better.
"That goes back to me being a tiny little label," he says. "I don't have the ability to sell that many records, but I think The Other Palm Springs is as good as a bunch of records that sold 10,000-20,000 copies last year."
One thing that helps Peek-A-Boo level the playing field is a strong presence on the Internet. According to Higdon, the label's Web page (http://www3.pair.com/travesty/main.html) serves a much broader function than selling music online.
"It's just something to establish contact," he says. "When you think of spending $100 to $500 to put an ad in a magazine that might reach a few people before being thrown away compared to $15 a month to have a Web page up all the time where anybody can find it, the Internet just makes sense."
Higdon also uses the Internet to line up tour dates for Peek-A-Boo bands.
"It's real easy to keep in touch with all these people who've made contact with us," he says. "We'll get an e-mail saying, 'I really like Silver Scooter. Please let me know when they're coming to town.' Six months later, we'll send them e-mail saying, 'They really want to go there, but they can't get a show. Can you help out?' We keep all those contacts on file and use them for any Peek-A-Boo band that wants to go out on tour. Right now, the Kiss-Offs are booking a tour the same way."
Since Higdon is also a member of the Kiss-Offs, the question about which connection he tends to play up when booking out-of-town shows naturally comes up. The answer is a lesson that all bands could benefit from.
"I tend to say, 'This is Travis from Peek-A-Boo' and talk about the band as a separate entity," Higdon confesses. "It sounds more official if I'm booking this band than if I'm in the band saying, 'Please give us a show!'
"It's kind of weird when you're putting out your own band. People might think, 'God, what an ego,' but I've never seen it like that. If you're going to have your own label, why wouldn't you put out your own music? You've written the songs, you know where you're coming from, so you know how to present yourself."
Higdon hopes to take Peek-A-Boo beyond the level of cottage indie one day. To that end, he recently spent two weeks learning the ropes as a "little slave" at Lookout! Records in Berkeley – an established indie with similarly humble beginnings. Although achieving the success of a Lookout! or Epitaph is a long shot, Higdon's game plan is to keep doing Peek-A-Boo until he runs out of time, money, or both.
At the very least, Higdon can rest assured that Peek-A-Boo Industries has promulgated a small wealth of music and fun while preserving a blip of scene evolution for generations to come. Not bad for an empire of the mind.