Village Voice: In Defense of Ultragrrrl

The question now becomes, can she make enough of a spectacle to sell Stolen Transmission’s roster? So far, with the exception of the Horrors—already a minor sensation in the U.K., and already part of the Universal family that oversees Island/Def Jam—the buzz on the label’s acts has been rather quiet. But Lewitinn and Stevenson can’t sign the next Killers or My Chemical Romance. While they could funnel the bands (commonly called upstreaming) to Island/Def Jam, Stolen Transmission is a four-person operation with an indie-sized budget focused on indie-appropriate bands, a scale much smaller than the mainstream success of the Killers. “If a band is being coveted and approached by another label, I can’t afford it,” Lewitinn says. “Our budget is literally peanuts. The entire budget for [recent signees] Bright Light Fever is probably tour support for some band out there.”

The label’s seven-band roster, a combination of all four employees’ picks, is wide-ranging— a little bit of powerpop emo (Permanent Me), a little bit of girly California sunshine pop (Oohlas), a little bit of scary British post-punk (the Horrors). Reviews have been mixed but mostly positive, with a couple key write-ups in Spin and Blender.

With four records released in the past six months, sales are far from scintillating. Lewitinn was reluctant to reveal the numbers, lest they invite more public barbs, but SoundScan shows that the label’s best seller thus far is pop-punk group Monty Are I’s Wall of People, released last August, with 7,259 copies sold. Bright Light Fever, a band that invites comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age, did the worst, selling fewer than 1,000 copies since October 2006. Stolen Transmission’s hopes are pinned on Permanent Me. Their debut record, After the Room Clears, had already sold 3,800 copies since its January release.

That sound you hear is the Internet snickering with schadenfreudean glee. “Whoo-hoo,” cracked an Idolator commenter. “Tearing up the Billboards.”

“I would be ecstatic with 25,000,” Lewitinn says of Permanent Me’s potential sales. Clearly, the scales she’s using aren’t meant for heavyweight fighters. Billboard magazine’s indie correspondent Todd Martens agrees: 20,000 records sold “would be a huge success, especially on this record. That’s something that wouldn’t be expected to happen overnight—more over the course of two years.”

Lewitinn and Stevenson say that a grand slam is not their goal, anyway. The word they use is incubator. “That’s a model that a lot of the major labels are looking to these days, not just Stolen Transmission,” says Martens, pointing to smaller labels such as Fueled by Ramen, which grew future mega-successes Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco. But while she told Vanity Fair that she “hasn’t been wrong yet,” that’s not exactly true. Early Stolen Transmission picks like the Spinto Band and Louis XIV were less than memorable; another Ultragrrrl favorite, Stellastarr*, didn’t grip the culture the way her other favorites have. “Some artists take longer to get to a point than others,” Lewitinn says. “But we’re about developing future iconic bands, not just throwing bands out of the gate and expecting them to change the world.”

Unfortunately for her, the world expects her to do exactly that. Anything less is failure. Bring on the dogs.

“I find comfort in the fact that people who actually do know me like me a lot,” Lewitinn says, preferring that over worrying, “Oh my God, that person on the Internet hates me.” Over dinner at Clinton Street Bakery, it becomes clear that Lewitinn is unfazed by her detractors. She ticks off their charges against her: “That I’m talentless. I’m a whore. That I have bad taste in music. I make rash judgments. Mostly, that I have no talent—which is fine. I don’t need to have talent. I got this far without it.” There’s also the “groupie” label, perhaps not helped by the title “Making Out With Ultragrrrl” or blog posts like this one: “OK. My lunch with Cappa [Cappadonna of Wu-Tang Clan] went really well. We had pasta, talked about how you don’t need drugs or alcohol to have fun, and he said I had a good aura. Then I sat on his lap for a picture.”