The Austin American-Statesman
February 18, 1999
By Chris Riemenschneider
Selling 3,000 CDs doesn't sound like much when you're speaking in big-record-company tongues. Fortunately for Austin and its oddest breed of bands, the only tongue that Travis Higdon speaks in is the one sticking out at the corporate music kingdom, in full Bobby Brady brat-hood.
The founder, president, CEO and Kinko's runner for Peek-A-Boo Records, Higdon runs the most successful apartment-size label in town. Working out of his West Campus efficiency, where his bed bumps up to piles of boxes containing new CDs by Silver Scooter and the Kiss Offs, the 26-year-old DIY entrepreneur jokes about the modest size of his corporation. The three clocks on the apartment wall, marked "Austin," "London" and "Tokyo," are "to keep track of the other Peek-A-Boo offices."
Refreshingly juvenile and smart at the same time, Peek-A-Boo may not be huge, but it is important. It's probably the only local "record company" that would have ever dealt with such decidedly non-commercial bands as the Prima Donnas, the Kiss Offs, Junior Varsity and the 1-4-5's. Likewise, it's the only local label that Spoon and its frontman Britt Daniel have ever worked with, and the one that Silver Scooter turned to for its second CD, even after garnering interest from bigger companies.
And why wouldn't Silver Scooter return to Peek-A-Boo? As Higdon, a computer worker by day, pointed out, the local fuzz-pop trio's first CD, "The Other Palm Springs," sold about 3,000 copies on Peek-A-Boo. "Elektra Records didn't do any better with Spoon's CD," he said. Neither did Warner Bros. Records with Sixteen Deluxe's album.
"I wouldn't put out a CD or even a single if I don't think it's the best CD or single I've ever heard," said Higdon, offering a clue to his secret. "I'd stop doing this if there wasn't always something around the corner that I thought people would want to or need to hear."
That fanatical approach defines Peek-A-Boo. The label started as a fanzine (called Peek-A-Boo), a National Lampoon-like spoof of the Austin punk scene that Higdon wrote with members of the Teen Titans around 1994. It was the kind of snotty fanzine read by wannabe-hipster writers at the Daily Texan, where Higdon tried his hand at writing seriously about music that year as a University of Texas student. After receiving a copy of the Toadies' "Rubberneck" CD to review, he returned a couple days later and nervously admitted/grandstanded, "I can't review this kind of commercial garbage."
Stuck up, perhaps. But the stiffly-dressed, well-coiffed Higdon knows what he likes, a point that comes in more handy as a self-made record-company mogul than it does as a music journalist. In 1995, he put out Peek-A-Boo's first release, a seven-inch by his helmet-clad band the 1-4-5's (R.I.P.). It was reviewed in Maximumrocknroll, and within days the orders started rolling in from as far away as Japan. That paid for a few more singles by his friends' bands like the Teen Titans (R.I.P.) and the Prima Donnas (R.I.P.). Then came the far more permanent full-length album the "Bicycle Rodeo Compilation," a vinyl effort featuring everyone from Spoon and the 1-4-5's to the Lord High Fixers and Death Valley. Each act on the album played a benefit show to raise money for the compilation.
"It seemed so natural and easy," Higdon said of the label's birth. "Or it seemed easy enough for me to keep going."
Music Business 101 dictates you don't have a record company until you have debt, and in '96, Higdon finally entered the world of high-financing when he took out a loan for $10,000. It all went to pay for Peek-A-Boo's first CD, the Silver Scooter debut, which not so miraculously went on to pay for itself.
"We had a lot of confidence in Travis," said Silver Scooter singer Scott Garred, who now calls it a "point of pride" that his band is still involved with Peek-A-Boo. "If he knows how to make money off of vinyl singles, which is close to impossible these days, there's no telling what he can do. He's turning out to be a very savvy businessman. He's also building a history, I think."
The other members of the Kiss Offs, with whom Higdon plays guitar and sings, jokingly refer to him as "The Suit." Britt Daniel, who has put out singles on Peek-A-Boo under Spoon and his solo alter-ego Drake Tungsten, called Higdon a "whip-cracker... he really kicks his bands in the ass when they need it."
In reality, Higdon is rather soft-spoken and kid-like, hardly the corporate hard-nose his friends might have you believe. He's the one, after all, who put together the "Silver Scooter Word Search" and decided to print the "Lego vs. Playmobil Debate" on the Peek-A-Boo Web Site. His bands are wildly unique, and so is his approach. Still, he shudders at the idea that Peek-A-Boo is a decidedly Gen-X operation.
"There's nothing slacker about us," he said. "All the bands I work with are hard-working. Silver Scooter sold 3,000 CDs because they went out and toured a lot... and because, to at least some extent, I spent a lot of time on it. Really, I spend most of my time away from work on Peek-A-Boo stuff. It's something you have to do out of love, or it isn't worth it."
These days, Higdon is up to his jet-black bangs in record-company mumbo-jumbo. With his loan for the Silver Scooter CD paid off, he has taken out another, larger loan to put out two more CDs: one by the Kiss Offs, and another Silver Scooter disc. They both hit stores this week, making Peek-A-Boo Records look more and more like a real record company. He now has an outside promoter drumming up radio and press support for the label, and he hopes his modest distribution deal will get the discs in more stores and, if anything, the CDs will make enough money so he can go onto the next releases. But he doesn't have many plans beyond that.
"I'd like to make money at this and do it full-time, but I don't expect to," he said, pointing to the now-defunct Trance Syndicate Records and its makeshift mogul King Coffey. "I really respect what he did, the way he supported all these great bands with his own money. He probably didn't make any money off them, but he wound up documenting a lot of the music in Austin that otherwise wouldn't have been documented. I guess I'd like to do that, too."
Spoken like a true, puristic, music-loving, nose-thumbing brat.