It's a desolate Monday night at Casola's Pizzeria on SW 17th Avenue in Miami, just south of where I-95 ends and close to where suburbia begins. On weekend nights, the joint is jammed with loud, drunken clubland refugees soaking up the evening's booze with the mammoth slices. But tonight the joint is quiet and feels haunted by the ghosts of 1995 to 1997.
Back then, South Florida's music scene was bursting across the street at Cheers, now a Quiznos Subs. The lesbian-meat-market-turned-all-ages-punk-club seeded and nurtured the careers of nearly every local band that made it big: New Found Glory, the Vacant Andys (which featured future Dashboard Confessional singer Chris Carrabba), Against All Authority, Shai Hulud, Strongarm, and the Crumbs, among others. The venue fostered a thriving, vibrant scene where high school kids and 20-something punkers and hipsters congregated, up to 300 at a time at the small, cigar-box-shaped club, whose legal capacity was 89. Cheers was the kind of place where ska-punk stars Less Than Jake performed for half their normal guarantee just for the atmosphere and to play for the kids.
"It could have been the shadiest operation ever, but I never even drank there," Miami expat punk-rock impresario Amy Fleisher says as she gazes from her table at Casola's to where Cheers once stood. Thirteen years ago, a then-16-year-old Fleisher was passing out photocopies of her fanzine, Fiddler Jones, in the Cheers parking lot when she was approached by the club's owner, the late Gaye Levine. The tanned, wisecracking 40-something music industry vet didn't understand punk rock, but she loved the youthful energy it brought in the door.
"I showed her my magazine, and we became friends," Fleisher recalls. "She saw me as a way to find out what the kids were listening to. I'd sit in her office and booking agents would call her, and she'd turn to me and ask, 'Does anyone like Snapcase?' And I'd say yes or no. And I'd get to pick the opening bands — which wound up helping me a lot because I was putting out records by those opening bands."
On March 16, 1996, Fleisher booked her first show at Cheers, featuring pop-punk bands Quit, Milkshed, and the Vacant Andys. Levine paid her 50 cents a head, and Fleisher made $60 that night. After saving $600 from promoting shows over the next several months, Fleisher invested the money into her first release on Fiddler Records, a single by the Vacant Andys.
The entire process of her first record was captured for posterity in Brant Sersen's documentary Release. ("All my failures have been well-documented," she says, chuckling.) The vignette featuring Fleisher is a perfect frozen-in-time slice of her life as a teenaged punk mogul. The ponytailed pixie holds court on her bed, the room's walls plastered with posters. She's then shown booking the record release party, making a flier at Office Depot, and later putting on a brave face when the show tanks. A crushed Fleisher glumly gathers herself together for the camera and spins it thusly: "Only about a third of the people I expected showed up, which really sucks, but the records sold well. So I should be happy about that."
Fleisher soon had plenty to be happy about, for her touch in signing bands proved golden. Her label's fifth release, New Found Glory's It's All About the Girls, broke nationwide. It eventually sold more than 80,000 copies, as New Found Glory went on to pop-punk stardom and multiple gold records for major labels. Fleisher went from calling local record stores and placing five CDs with them on consignment to becoming a sought-after commodity by national distributors. And as her bands grew out of the Cheers scene, she went with them, road-managing and driving for multiple tours during her semester breaks from the University of Miami's film school.
In fact, Fleisher's love of music and the road proved too strong for film school, and she dropped out to run Fiddler. Her time was then split between road-managing, meeting bands, releasing records, and bugging Chris Carrabba to record the acoustic material that eventually became Dashboard Confessional's first album, The Swiss Army Romance.
In March 2000, Fiddler released that album while Carrabba was serving as singer for Pompano Beach emo band Further Seems Forever. The record blew up, and within a few months, the first pressing of CDs had sold out and Carrabba left Further Seems Forever to pursue Dashboard Confessional full-time. Unable to meet demand, Fleisher sold the record to MCA subsidiary Drive Thru for $15,000. As if that didn't move fast enough, that same year found Fiddler showing her wares to Rich Egan, owner of Vagrant Records, then the epicenter of everything popular in emo-styled rock. Fleisher remembers: "He took a look at the Dashboard CD and said, 'You put this out? You want a job?' "
Fleisher moved to L.A. to become Vagrant's head of A&R, and two months later she brought Dashboard Confessional to Vagrant, ensuring Dashboard's fulfillment of its musical destiny. Unfortunately, that was to be her last signing at Vagrant, and after nine months of being a jill-of-all-trades in the understaffed Vagrant office, she quit. While still maintaining Fiddler, she enrolled in the advertising program at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. "I always liked making the ads," Fleisher explains. "I would do these crazy full-page Fiddler ads with dinosaurs and marked term papers in Alternative Press, and it got to the point where they would give me a deal so they could have a spread, and a lot of people were more interested in the ads than in the records we were putting out."
Fleisher's advertising acumen paid off with a surrealist ad campaign for Austin, Texas, post-punk act Recover. The somewhat-morbid campaign featured the Texas teenagers wearing designer clothes amid three nude girls, and it created a sensation. Before the record was released, there were bidding wars for both Fiddler Records and Recover. The music industry apparently believed Fleisher had struck gold a third time.
Fleisher believed her own hype and took a leave of absence from Art Center. In November 2002, Fiddler signed a distribution deal with MCA Records, spurning multiple offers to sell her company and work as an employee. "I didn't realize that the whole music industry shuts down over the holidays," Fleisher recalls. "It was like pulling teeth to get that deal done — and by the time I could get ahold of anyone, MCA was out of business."
In March 2003, MCA folded into Geffen Records, which inherited Fiddler's contract and fired the A&R rep responsible for it. "I was told by my lawyer that we were being moved to Geffen and to expect a call from Jordan Schur, their president," Fleisher recalls. "I never heard anything, so I freaked out and visited my parents in the Keys. The second night, I got a call from Schur while I was at dinner with 14 members of my family. So I went outside, and he told me: 'So I don't really know what you're doing, and I don't really want to know what you're doing, so we need to figure out what to do.' I told him it didn't matter, because we had a contract. That's when I discovered that contracts don't matter."
While Fleisher's contract did keep Fiddler bound to Geffen, getting the disinterested major label to lift a finger proved difficult. "Say we wanted to get a sales sheet uploaded to the Geffen server. It was impossible, because no one would give us a password, and we'd miss the deadline," Fleisher says. "There were two people there who would help us out, just because they saw what was going on, but it wasn't their job to help us." During the three years under this arrangement, Fiddler Records released only five albums.
In 2005, Fiddler escaped Geffen and signed with Sony/RED distribution, a deal that would prove to be the label's last. "They brought me a giant fake check for $1 million when I signed the deal," Fleisher says, smirking. "It started off on a really good foot, but then a month after we signed, the CFO who brought us there left, and we were orphans again." According to Fleisher, corporate execs lost all interest when Fiddler's Juliette and the Licks album didn't immediately become a hit: "They were happy to fly to L.A. and see [Juliette] play Paris Hilton's perfume party and rub elbows with Hollywood. But I couldn't get them to pay for her tour support."
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Weary of fighting with her distributors, trying to find ways to sell CDs in a digital world where no one bought them anymore, and trying to keep her bands happy, Fleisher dismantled Fiddler in 2006, nine years after starting the label. After a short tenure as the editor of Death + Taxes magazine, she returned to Art Center to fulfill a promise to her mother that she would finish college by age 30.
With her graduation coming up this spring, Fleisher has reentered the music business with the first single on her new label, Jackie Darling — a partnership with label/distribution hybrid Hello My Name Is Records. Jackie Darling's first artist is XO, a side project of Say Anything members Jeff and Jake Turner. After stumbling upon XO on MySpace, Fleisher contacted them, discovered they had a finished EP in the can, and decided to get back in the game.
"It seemed like all the puzzle pieces fit without it being a hassle. I liked having a record label, because I liked putting out records. But at the end of the day, Fiddler, it was just this crazy business," she says. "With Jackie Darling, I can put out whatever I want — even a book."
Fleisher glances across the street at the old Cheers and laments how many of her favorite bands are throwing in the towel because of rising costs and diminishing returns. "The thing about bands was supposed to be, 'Maybe' we'll make it; 'maybe' it'll happen. 'Maybe' we'll become rock stars. And it feels like that 'maybe' might be gone." She pauses and considers the gravity of her words. "Don't get me wrong. I am the 'maybe' kid — I am the 'maybe' spokeswoman!"