Some folks sell encyclopedias to get through college, others peddle magazines. But Chuck Warner, head of the rock obscurities label Hyped to Death, isn't like most people.
"I sold punk rock to get through seminary," Warner, 44, said recently from his St. Louis home, which is crammed with records.
Warner received his master's degree in 1994 from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but he didn't enter the church. Instead he followed a more earthly calling: reissuing rare rock, pop and punk singles on CD, selling them to diehard fans who treat music like a religion.
"It's kind of a crusade," Warner said.
With few exceptions, you haven't heard of the bands Warner packs, 30 at a time in alphabetical order, onto home-burned discs. The titles sound like academic research compilations: Hyped to Death #32: Southern & West Coast Punk 45s from V to Z; the bands sound anything but. That disc, for instance, boasts Yeah Yeah Yeah's meaty, finger-pointing 1988 rumble "Hey You," a short, sharp 1980 rant by Vktms called "100% White Girl" and Voodoo Idols' 1982 new-wave jerk "Do the Kirk."
Over the past few years, Warner has issued 31 titles in several series. The namesake collection focuses on North American punk, Teen Line covers power pop and pop-rock from 1975-1985, Homework centers on American do-it-yourself experimental sounds from '77 to '82, and Messthetics hits U.K. punk from '77 to '81. All sets include detailed liner notes.
While the groups are unknown, many of them played key roles in developing the underground rock network that would eventually produce outfits such as R.E.M., Nirvana and Fugazi.
The series have by and large been welcomed by the groups they feature even though Warner creates the compilations without the bands' permission and without paying royalties.
Diana Quinn, singer/guitarist for Washington, D.C.'s rejuvenated Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, learned of the label from someone who saw a link to her homepage on the Hyped to Death website ( www.hyped2death.com).
"Someone out of the blue wrote an e-mail and said, 'I heard about you on this CD,' " said the 45-year-old Quinn, who still plays in several bands while also serving as weekend manager for CBS News' capitol bureau. Tru Fax's "Pinned Under a Jet" and "The Twin" appear on Hyped to Death Vol. 21.
"I wrote back and said, 'What?' And I looked up the Web site and saw it. I felt flattered, but then I was like, 'Well no one asked me.' But I guess that's sort of the punk way, too, so it didn't really matter. If that means more people will get introduced to us, well that's great."
Guitarist and singer Brian Gallick, a.k.a. Joe Con of New York's Squirrels From Hell, heard of Hyped to Death from a reporter. He was 23, he said, when his band cut "I Can't Stay" (RealAudio excerpt), which turned up on Teen Line #1, Hyped to Death's biggest seller at about 150 copies.
"Our only complaint would be that it's old," Gallick, 44, said. "It's not where we are now. But I guess as a historical record it is of some value."
During the mid-'70s, Warner spent his summers running a record stand in Harvard Square. He owned the Throbbing Lobster label in the '80s, and by 1988 had begun an on-again, off-again business selling rare singles by catalog. In 1998 he began including cassette samplers with the catalog, and when home CD burners became affordable he started selling his compilations.
"At this point, we're creating genres of interest," he said. "Power pop and especially with the Homework stuff, where bands are being recognized as part of a scene, nationally and locally, where there hadn't been the interest or the awareness before. We're also getting to write the history as we go along. So one of the attractive things for a band is if they're on one of these things, they're written into the history."
Finn Seth, 35-year-old bassist for the Tearaways, said he planned to track down Teen Line #2 for several songs by his own band that he hasn't heard in 15 years. The Tearaways were an earlier incarnation of Seth's current band, whose "Jessica Something" was released on the more mainstream Poptopia! Power Pop Classics of the '90s (1997) collection.
When the Santa Barbara, California, band released "Don't Feel So Bad" in 1981, it was the early days of punk self-releases in America.
"At that time it was still the big boys were putting out the records, and that was the only way you were gonna sell any records back then, was through a major label," Seth said. "Now it's a little different than that. [Hyped to Death] is kind of cool, because I really call that music the lost music."
Warner stores thousands of vintage singles in 200 or so tomato packing boxes. He transfers the best songs onto his computer, assembles a compilation, then burns CDs to order in batches of four. The discs sell for $10. He's says it's an unprofitable operation, which isn't hard to believe when he spends up to six hours cleaning up the audio on a single song.
If any band objects to being included, he's pledged to remove the group from future copies of a compilation, erase them from the liner notes and pay a seven cent royalty for all copies of the disc already sold. So far, no one has demanded off the label.
"There seems to be a decision point coming, and coming rather soon, about, OK, how professional am I going to get about this?" he said. "What decisions am I going to make about manufacturing, and obviously about taking care of the bands? I don't want this to be a bootleg enterprise. At this point I don't have any problem with the case I make to the bands: my best seller is 150 copies. But if the numbers increase, I'm gonna need to add the whole royalty thing into all the other stuff."