Julian Casablancas Talks Running Cult Records: ‘I Never Know If It’s Something To Be Proud or Ashamed Of’

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Six months after The Strokes signed to RCA in 2001, Jack Rovner left his position as label president. “That was the beginning of the internal struggle with labels,” says Julian Casablancas. By 2009, the band was three albums into its five-album contract with RCA and Casablancas was gearing up to release his solo debut, Phrazes for the Young -- and wanted to do it on his own terms. That same year, he launched his label: Cult Records.

Casablancas has never been interested in the business side of his career -- “it’s more of a necessity” -- but Cult was a way to combat the major label machine and fully express his creative vision. He says as an artist, you are expected to work on lyrics, songs, guitar solos and videos, “and that’s where I want to stop. But if it’s delivered by people who are marketing shit that’s totally different from what you’re doing, it taints the whole expression. Cult was a way to avoid those struggles.” Cult now has four full-time employees working out of its Tribeca office, a corner loft made of bamboo walls (Casablancas’ doing) and adorned with art.

The label celebrated its 10th anniversary with a two-day pop-up experience in New York’s Soho neighborhood last month. Its roster boasts The Strokes, The Voidz, one-man act Promiseland and punk rock four-piece Surfbort. Cult has also released music from Karen O, The Growlers and The Virgins. “I never know if it’s something to be proud of or ashamed of,” Casablancas says of Cult. “But it’s definitely an amazing outlet to have.”

In 2016, he brought on Nasa Hadizadeh -- the two met when she was interviewing The Voidz for the cover of Alt Citizen, the zine she founded and still runs. (It will host its first ever showcase with DIY on June 20.) “She’s everything,” he says of his label’s manager. Says Hadizadeh: “I feel like he got to clone himself with me. He always wants to do so much, but now I’m here to take care of all the things that he cares about in a way he feels is right.”

Why did you want to start your own label?

Casablancas: In working with labels, sometimes you have to bow to their destruction of art. It’s not really an intelligent business model in this day and age.

Did anyone ever tell you don’t do it?

Casablancas: Maybe [producer] David Kahne was the most like, ‘If you spend money on marketing a record, you might as well just take the money and flush it down a toilet,’ because it’s a risky thing. It’s a gamble. That’s what major labels do, they invest in 10, 20 or 30 things and one of two or three or four pays off and that’s how they sink or swim. I’m more doing things that I believe in artistically, but it’s a much smaller volume, so nothing has really exploded. But that wasn’t the goal. When I would meet artists I would say the same thing: “I guarantee we’re going to do something cool, but I can’t guarantee financial success or big record sales because that’s not really the game we’re playing at this moment.” If anything, I would say let’s work on a thing and maybe best-case scenario this will help you get a lot of money from a major label.

Julian, how would you best describe what Nasa does?

Nasa is everything -- future empress queen of New York. She runs Cult. We have a few more people now, but she is essentially Cult Records. The current incarnation is pretty slimmed down, it’s more about being efficient, not just doing arts funding. Trying to be less ambitious and make a little money.

Nasa, how involved is Julian?

We’ve gotten used to working with him texts or phone calls because he’s so busy and all over the place, but he is incredibly involved from the smallest detail to the biggest, macro plan. From how the sticker looks -- “It’s not shiny enough” -- to “This is how we’re going to conquer New York.” I love that attention to detail. It makes everything a little more special.

Ten years ago, what were some of the challenges with getting Cult off the ground -- and what challenges still remain?

Hadizadeh: You can’t compete with labels who have a huge integrated system where if they put out a song, [everyone is] going to cover it or are going to acknowledge it at the very least. It’s just this ongoing network. Our network, yes we have our own and it’s very special and people love what we do, but it’s very hard to compete with someone who has so much. If you have 80 people working a record versus four, it’s going to be a different experience, simply enough. We’re connecting with people who think, “I like this and I’m going to support this,” not “I have an agenda and I’m going to support this.” It keeps it pure, but for every release we put out it could have definitely reached more people.

Casablancas: The challenges are just the challenges of the music industry, there’s so much stuff that it’s pretty hard to stand out. You can go overboard thinking about marketing and all that, and it’s not my forte. But really, it seems the game now is about winning the internet. In a way it’s more open, but people seem to be only concerned with YouTube or Spotify. It’s so scientifically based on numbers, so it seems like the pop stuff has a billion views and things that are good only get 3,000 views. How do you find a middle ground? You either need a huge song, or you’re struggling.

What has been one of Cult’s best success stories so far?

Casablancas: There have been enough successes to carry [the label], but no Scrooge McDuck, swimming in gold success. To be honest, it’s almost more like near misses. There were a lot of things in discussion that almost happened that we didn’t do. The big Phoenix record we were in talks for, HAIM we almost signed. Those kinds of successes make labels and then they can carry on for 10 years. But if we did the Phoenix record, we might have fucked it up. I’m happy that they did well, and that’s where I’m not a good business shark.

Hadizadeh: [The Voidz'] Virtue was so fun to work on. It was a co-release with RCA, but Cult Records prepared all of the art, made the marketing and rollout plan, and then let them do the heavy lifting. I was like, ‘I wish this could be the case always.’ Also, Julian just let me do my thing with Surfbort and that turned out really well. [Frontwoman Dani Miller] is a huge star now, she’s the face of Gucci Beauty. I was like, ‘Cool, I do know how to spot them in a crowd.’

How do you find artists you want to work with?

Hadizadeh: I go to shows. All my friends are in bands, everyone I know is a musician at this point, so I see what scenes are manifesting and who’s getting the most attention. I discover local acts that way. As far as discovering music at large, 30 people are contributing to Alt Citizen right now, and they’ve all been approved of having good taste, we have a process of who we let in, so I trust them.

What thought have you put into the next 10 years?

Hadizadeh: We want to keep putting out good music and get The Voidz out in front of more people. Some of Julian’s most creative energy is put into that project. We were talking about doing a festival down the line, which has been a dream of mine, and more events involving the community that supports us.

Casablancas: I feel like if the right opportunity comes it would be nice to be a subsidiary of a bigger label and have an office with a bigger budget, because I don’t really want to spend my own money on it, necessarily.

What is your ultimate goal for Cult?

Casablancas: I would love everything we put out to sell millions of copies and have billions of streams. You have to have that thinking, but it’s not how you define your happiness. I never want to sacrifice anything artistically for that success. I’m just hoping that we can be a small part of the underground community, which is now where art, I believe, thrives in this day and age. We’re one of the 50 horses jockeying for attention on the nine-zillion lane highway. We’ll see where we end up.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.