It was 2003 and the five Dayton natives were about to take the stage for a Victory Records showcase in Chicago. Over the previous two years, Hawthorne Heights had been living like most fledgling bands, working minimum-wage convenience-store jobs between grueling tours in a battered van, barely compensated for performing their emo anthems in basements and half-empty clubs across the country. They would return to Ohio tired and broke, without a nibble of interest from record labels, agents, or managers.
After months of sending off demos and bombarding industry types with e-mails, Tony Brummel, owner of Victory Records, finally gave them a chance.
It was divine vindication for the earnest rockers. Victory was the pinnacle of indie cool, the nation's second-largest independent label. Its roster read like the who's who of modern American hardcore, from Bad Brains to Hatebreed, Earth Crisis to Grade. Brummel had become the official spokesman for angsty teens everywhere, constantly railing against the evils of "faceless" labels with a Maoist urgency. "Victory is you, it's me, it is the street, the music," he reminded his loyal followers. ". . . [It] cannot be bought or sold. You either embrace it or get the hell out of the way."
For the pierced and inked, the label was the embodiment of what was right, pure, real.
The band took the stage before a handful of Victory staffers, who were dressed in their best black hoodies and studded belts. The group's three guitarists shredded into a cacophony of fast, screechy riffs as singer J.T. Woodruff transitioned between flat-out screaming and painfully honest poetry. The crowd stood with arms crossed, says a former staffer. They never showed too much enthusiasm at these events, lest they unnecessarily lift the band's hopes.
After the show, the Daytonites packed up and headed home, with only the promise of a phone call.
One former staffer remembers driving back from the showcase with Brummel. "All he kept saying was that they're from a small town in Ohio, untainted by all the industry bullshit," says the ex-staffer, who asked that his name not be used for fear of endangering his current job. "That was the most outlying aspect of the band for him -- their naivety and purity."
Brummel soon signed the group to a four-record deal. The next year, The Silence in Black and White was released.
As the band hit the road nonstop, touring with acts like Fall Out Boy, Victory pumped millions of dollars into marketing the record. Commercials for the album aired as frequently on MTV as ads for Fructis shampoo. Brummel paid handsomely for special promotions, making sure it was the most visible CD in record stores across the country. He was investing the kind of money reserved for major-label powers like Justin Timberlake and Aerosmith -- not unknowns on an indie that touts its "anti-corporate" sensibilities.
It worked. The Silence in Black and White sold over 800,000 copies and sat on Billboard 200 for 60 weeks, a feat unheard of for an indie act. It was Victory's best-selling debut. Hawthorne Heights had gone from slinging cigs at a Dayton convenience store to being adored by 14-year-old girls everywhere.
When the band's follow-up record, If Only You Were Lonely, came out in 2006, Victory pushed even harder. The CD debuted at No. 3 on Billboard. The band's van was quickly replaced with a decked-out tour bus.
But beneath the newfound stardom festered a less jubilant tale.
Last year, the band posted a "manifesto" on its MySpace page, announcing that it was leaving Victory "in part due to the actions of the man who sits at the head of the label, Tony Brummel." Victory's owner, the band asserted, "cares more about his ego and bank account than the bands themselves."
Hawthorne Heights complained that Brummel hadn't paid a cent in royalties, despite selling 1.2 million records. The group also claimed that Brummel's aggressive marketing schemes had tarnished its image. It described working with Brummel as "being in an abusive relationship" in which he constantly threatened to cut off promotion of their records if the band questioned his moves. "We were afraid, as many of the bands on Victory are, to stick our neck out for fear of being 'beaten,'" the manifesto said.
Success quickly devolved into a lawyer fight that's still being waged today. Hawthorne Heights is seeking $1 million in damages, accusing Brummel of not simply withholding its royalties, but of "heavy-handed, overly aggressive, unethical and illegal schemes and tactics."
Brummel has dismissed the band's claims, stating that the case is "really just about greed," according to court documents. But Hawthorne Heights isn't the only band to have rebelled against Brummel. Many of Victory's best-sellers -- including Taking Back Sunday, Atreyu, Hatebreed, and Thursday -- left the label after bitter fights over alleged unpaid royalties.
And it's not just bands that say Brummel has become the corporate archvillain he so publicly loathes. Former employees speak of the Victory owner as a control freak prone to unhinged outbursts.
"There was an air of creepy big-brother surveillance," says Kristin Bustamante, a former Victory saleswoman. "He bred a culture of fear in his employees. You were scared to leave and scared to stand up. It's like an abusive relationship. It was, bar none, the worst experience of my life."
Adds another former staffer: "All I can say is thank God I wasn't in one of his bands."
Tony Brummel has told his story many times.
Like most of the kids who buy his records, the Chicago native caught the hardcore bug in his adolescence, drawn to the unfiltered anger of acts like Black Flag and Social Distortion.
He started a few unsuccessful bands and sunk all his cash into records, shows, zines, and merch. For Brummel, hardcore wasn't simply music -- it was a way of life. He shaved his head, kept his stout frame covered in tattoos, and spoke in angsty slogans. If you weren't with him, you were against him.
In 1989, at the tender age of 17, he moved out of his parents' house and started his label with "$800, determination, and a vision," he boasts on a Victory promo flier.
Brummel declined Scene's interview requests, as did family members. Yet in previous interviews, he proudly notes that he never went to college and never got help from his folks. The label's mascot is a bulldog, in keeping with his underdog ethos.
At first, it was just a hobby. He sold 7-inches from his driveway and hosted shows in the basement.
But by 1993, Brummel was spending every waking hour building his roster and brand. He wrote emphatic press releases that set Victory apart from the industry's coastal pantheons. "Victory is my company," says one flier. "There are no board meetings. There is no corporate office. There are no investors forcing us to make a certain amount of profit. There are no fat, 50-year-old men sitting around a table, strategizing on how to capitalize on our culture, music, and lifestyles."
But it wasn't until 2001 that Victory became a true force. Thursday's second album, Full Collapse, was picking up steam. It sold over 300,000 copies and kicked off the emo craze. Brummel knew he was on to something.
He went on an emo binge, signing bands filled with baby-faced boys, screechy guitars, and heart-on-their-sleeves lyrics. "I've always said that Tony's true genius is that he realizes there is a nonstop supply of kids who just want to get on the Warped Tour, and if they get on Victory, they know that will happen," says Patrick Grueber, former head of the label's radio-promotion department.
Victory became emo's flagship with acts like Taking Back Sunday, Atreyu, and Aiden. Brummel applied the same '80s-hardcore, "fuck corporate rock" attitude to his roster's new sound. Instead of relying on radio play and magazine covers, he dumped millions into building street teams of loyal, obsessed fans, who'd infiltrate shows from L.A. to D.C. Eventually, you couldn't go to a concert without being handed a Victory flier or sampler.
He built his staff from the same base, stocking his office with idealistic scenesters who saw him and his label as God. Brummel expected his legions to live and breathe Victory. This wasn't just a job; it was a life. Everyone was given a BlackBerry so they'd be accessible to Brummel 24-7. "The BlackBerries were just leashes," says a former employee. "He wanted to know what you were doing constantly."
Once, Brummel even bought the entire office New Balance sneakers. "We thought it was kind of cool," says a former staffer. "But after a while, if you didn't wear them, he'd be like, 'Why aren't you part of the team? You're not supporting the label.' People would just leave their shoes in the office and then change them when they came in."
Brummel, they believe, was quickly becoming the corporate despot he so constantly railed against. And as the label became more successful, his guerrilla marketing tactics grew more aggressive.
He launched public attacks on Apple CEO Steve Jobs, accusing the company's iTunes website of "stealing music's soul" by allowing people to forsake the album format for single-song purchases. In an e-mail soaked in paradox, Brummel leveled the same charges his own employees threw at him. "Music consumers would look at your tactics as worse than those employed by the major record companies," Brummel wrote Jobs in an e-mail. "I am surprised Apple operates in such an authoritarian manner when its public image is that of a company run by creative types."
While his outbursts were in line with the us-against-them attitude that drew kids to his crusade, they also earned Brummel enemies.
As Hawthorne Heights' second record was about to hit stores, Victory shot off a "manifesto," calling on the band's fans to engage in a war against rap, according to court documents.
R&B and hip-hop star Ne-Yo was releasing a new record the same week. Both were vying for the No. 1 spot on Billboard. Victory directed fans to intentionally hide Ne-Yo's CDs at record stores, while moving Hawthorne Heights' CDs to more prominent places. The label claimed the No. 1 spot rightfully should be reserved for rockers, not rappers. "Victory at all costs, Victory in spite of all terror, Victory however long and hard the road may be; for without Victory, there is no survival," closed the two-page directive, which was distributed across the web.
Though the sloganeering seemed quintessentially Brummel, the "manifesto" was signed by Hawthorne Heights.
But the move backfired. Media and fans saw the label's call to arms as thinly veiled racism. This wasn't a case of major versus indie, but suburban versus urban, white versus black.
It also exposed the crevices in Victory's anti-corporate leanings. "These tactics and hype nullify Victory's indie-vs.-major battle," wrote The Onion. "If an indie's copying a major's business aggression, the line between the two disappears. You can't wave the indie flag, then tell your street teamers to hide CDs."
Hawthorne Heights quickly distanced itself from the statement. "We didn't write that -- our label did," drummer Eron Bucciarelli told MTV News.
Brummel, in turn, shoved the blame on an underling, Abby Valentine, who worked in promotions. "It has come to our attention a joke e-mail sent to some of our street team members by a junior ranking staff member was posted on the Internet and has created some commotion," he wrote in an e-mail. "First of all, the message was by all means a joke."
Valentine resigned two days later. She declined comment for this story.
But Hawthorne Heights finally had enough of Brummel, citing him as the source of the "manifesto," according to court documents. The band began to talk publicly about his name-calling and charges of disloyalty, accusing him of deceptive accounting practices and shady contracts.
They weren't the first band with stories to tell.
The day Hawthorne Heights' rant went up on MySpace, Victory was just a distant, painful memory for Ramsey Jabbar, better known as Ramsey Dean. But it inspired him to write his own 11,000-word essay about Victory. He titled it "The Horror."
"I didn't just know where the bodies were buried," he wrote. "I was the grave-digger."
Dean was already an industry vet when he signed on as Victory's vice president in 2002. He admitted to being seasoned in the sketchy ways of the music industry, claiming that his first job was trying to rig the Billboard Top 200 for a New York marketing company.
In the days before Nielsen SoundScan, this was easy. All Dean had to do was tell record stores to put his clients on their handwritten Top 10 lists, regardless of actual sales, and they'd be taken care of. The peak of his career, he says, was getting AC/DC to No. 3 on the charts, when they really belonged at No. 30.
"[The music industry] attracted the dregs of society," he wrote. "We always had backstage passes. Drugs and strip clubs were practically in the job description. And it seemed corruption was our main function. Corruption in the music industry is really a company's only edge."
It wasn't a startling revelation. Since the first record was pressed, labels have been bilking artists out of their royalties. When your main product -- musicians -- is long on creativity and short on business smarts, swindles take little imagination. And radio stations are always happy to play your bands -- as long as there's cash moving under the table. It's how the game is played.
Still, Brummel was in a league of his own, Dean wrote. " . . . The things Brummel was asking went against everything me and this miscreant-filled business believed in."
Dean claims that when it came time to pay out royalties, the amounts would total in the millions. But if a band had run afoul of Brummel, he would order Dean to dump the cash into marketing to prevent them from collecting.
Taking Back Sunday, for example, eventually sued Brummel and Victory, alleging that Brummel was not simply withholding the band's rightful royalties, but misspending them in the name of vengeance.
"Brummel has publicly revealed his spite and anger at TBS because it chose, as was its right, to leave the Victory label and enter into a new recording agreement with Warner Brothers Records," the lawsuit alleges. "Furious with the band's decision, Brummel designed ways to avoid paying TBS its royalties in order to punish TBS for its exit from his label."
The suit goes on to accuse Brummel of devising "ways to manipulate Victory's expenditures, accounts, and royalty reporting to TBS to prevent the band from realizing its earned royalties on sales of its records."
The last quarter Dean worked for Victory in 2006, he says he received $365,000 in Taking Back Sunday royalties. Dean claims he was ordered to dump the money into promotions. Brummel would receive a few more dollars in record sales, and Taking Back Sunday would be punished for entertaining the affections of another.
"I couldn't find enough places to dump it," Dean writes. "Television advertising, print ads, sale pricing, endcaps, and then we'd play around with dating to try and make it stick, but sometimes even that didn't purge it all."
Dean says the band intended to subpoena him, but the case was settled out of court in August, with Victory admitting no wrongdoing. (The band's manager and lawyer both declined interviews.)
Brummel's lawyer, Robert Meloni, denies that Victory purposefully misappropriated the band's money. "Categorically untrue," he says. Victory "does not have the finances for any 'unnecessary' costs of any nature . . . Those allegations were just that -- allegations. They were neither true nor ever proven as being true. The TBS case was amicably settled."
Dean also claims that he was contacted by Atreyu's manager, Tim Smith, over a similar issue. Atreyu was auditing Victory's books, believing they were owed $700,000 in unpaid royalties. The band was about to sue, Dean recalls, when they accepted a check from Brummel for an undisclosed amount in exchange for dropping litigation. The band eventually left Victory.
When Dean's story surfaced on the internet in August, Meloni sent cease-and-desist orders to every blogger who posted "The Horror." Most have since removed the piece, which Meloni describes in an e-mail as making "numerous recklessly or knowingly false and highly damaging false statements of fact about Victory Records, Inc., and its owner, Tony Brummel. The instances of false, defamatory, and unusually vindictive statements are far too numerous to mention here."
Kristin Bustamante is the archetypal Victory hire. "I grew up with Victory from when I was 15 years old," she says. "My whole life I wanted to work at a record label, and I wanted to start out at an indie label."
In 2004, the Texan got her dream. After months of hounding Brummel for a job, he gave her a position in sales. She packed up her life and headed for the Windy City.
"I loved my job," Bustamante says. "But it was 50 percent of doing my job, and 50 percent dealing with Tony, answering his ridiculous e-mails."
Brummel would often berate employees for leaving the office before 6 p.m., Bustamante says. He questioned their friendships outside of work and scolded staffers for hanging out with former workers. "It was like dealing with an overbearing parent," she says. "He was so paranoid."
Every morning, the staff was required to attend a meeting where everyone would discuss what they did the previous day and what they would accomplish that day. Once, Bustamante remembers Brummel referring to Taking Back Sunday's manager, Jillian Newman, as a "cunt."
"I'm not exactly a PC person," Bustamante says. "But it sent up a red flag."
Still, she continued to do her work, afraid that if she stood up to anything Brummel said, she'd be forced to crawl home to Texas.
But after a year of working at Victory, Bustamante was fed up.
Since her up-front pay was measly, she took the job with the promise of monthly commission checks. But six months into her job, she'd received only one. "That's how he would control you. With money."
When Bustamante eventually decided it was time for law school, she sent Brummel a resignation letter. The owner even agreed to write her a letter of recommendation, she says.
But one day, when Bustamante was returning from lunch, Brummel summoned her to the conference room. "He was pacing back and forth. His face was red," she recalls.
"How are the interviews going?" he asked, insinuating that she'd been looking for other jobs.
Bustamante had no idea what he was talking about. She asked him to explain. "You fucking cunt -- get out of my office," she remembers Brummel saying.
Bustamante was stunned. She asked to get her purse from her desk first. Brummel said no. "I'm not leaving without my purse," Bustamante insisted.
She burst into hysterics, crying for her things until he finally relented. It was the last she saw of him. "That was, bar none, the worst experience of my life," she says.
Meloni denies Bustamante's claims: "This fictitious event never happened."
But it took Patrick Grueber only three months to realize that Brummel's anti-corporate tirades were little more than show.
Grueber wasn't a typical Victory hire. The 47-year-old was an industry vet when he was hired to do Victory's radio promotion. He'd worked for Reprise for 14 years, leaving in 2002 when the label refused to release Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. "I was the band's biggest cheerleader," he says. "When they wouldn't put that record out, I left in protest."
An avid punk and hardcore fan since his teens, Grueber thought Victory a perfect fit. He'd heard the stories about Brummel, but believed in Victory's philosophy. "I worked for some pretty tough guys in the business," Grueber says. "How bad could it be?"
During his interview, Grueber says he was taken by Brummel's intensity and passion. When Grueber mentioned he had two daughters, Brummel explained that he came from a big family and that there was nothing more important in life.
"But it couldn't have been further from the truth," Grueber says. "He turned out to be . . . just a complete meddling creep."
Grueber's job was to get Victory bands on the airwaves, which wasn't an easy task, he says. Brummel's us-against-them tactics had so soiled the waters, radio stations "wanted nothing to do with us."
He and Brummel would often butt heads. Grueber didn't appreciate Brummel's "addiction to antagonism." And Brummel didn't like Grueber questioning his practices.
When Brummel finally fired Grueber, he didn't bother to do it himself. "He had one of his toadies at the door, waiting for me, demanding my BlackBerry back," Grueber says. "It was the most miserable 90 days of my life, especially because of his BlackBerry obsession. He harasses you 24 hours a day."
Grueber left the music industry for good, taking a job with one of Brummel's favorite former targets, Apple. "Punk rock is something I hold very important to my soul," Grueber says. "And the things I detest most about Tony is that he profited off the backs of people from my generation, and he's a total creep. He was my last dealing with the industry. I thought that if this is how it is, I'm out."
Despite the allegations, there are still many who stand by Brummel.
John Germinario used to manage Hawthorne Heights and now works with Aiden, another Victory band. "I know there is a lot of salacious stuff out there about Tony," he says. "We've not always seen eye-to-eye, but he wants to win, and I appreciate that about him. He expects a lot of his employees and of himself. I've had a lot of success with Victory -- the most I've ever had, and I've been in this business since 1989."
The same goes for Dave Ciancio, who manages Thursday.
Long before Hawthorne Heights sued Victory, Thursday hired attorneys to escape their Victory contract. They eventually moved to Island Records, accusing Brummel of withholding hundreds of thousands in royalties.
But when things didn't work out so well, they returned to Victory. "Hindsight is 20/20," Ciancio says. "Victory had a lot to do with what Thursday is today. You can hate or love anything. In the end, he's a goal-oriented guy, he is driven, he's motivated, and he is always thinking."
Even former staffers who dismiss Brummel as little more than a "fucking psycho" admit that he carries a lot of weight in music. "He's the absolute best thing and worst thing about capitalism rolled into one," says one former employee. "[Hawthorne Heights] are basically proof positive that the label is worth something. All the bands that moved to majors just flatlined. He's a fucking scumbag, but there's something to be said for the old adage of reading something before you sign it."
Moreover, few bands -- if given the opportunity to sign with Victory -- will kill their chance by squabbling over contractual details. Most aren't in the position to bargain. And many are still drinking Brummel's anti-corporate Kool-Aid. They've grown up with the Victory bulldog mascot affixed to their backpacks, accepting the notion that indie equals integrity.
"I really try to encourage artists not to be motivated by some unrealistic vision of what indie is supposed to mean," says Elizabeth Gregory, a Nashville music lawyer. "It is still business. But when you're dealing with these youth that are so idealistic, it's so easy to manipulate them by talking about how you are not corporate America."
Brummel's branding is certainly still working. He scooped up yet another Ohio band, signing Cleveland's Driver Side Impact after they performed at a Chicago showcase. "It was so nerve-racking," singer Branden Langhals told Scene earlier this year.
Like Hawthorne Heights, Langhals grew up on Victory bands. In May, they released their first record, The Very Air We Breathe, produced by the same team responsible for Taking Back Sunday and Thursday.
Despite all the negative publicity, this remains a business -- especially for starving bands with no other suitors.
One poster on Absolutepunk.net put it best: "If you were living on the streets, and George Bush offered you a three-course meal, would you take it?"