Headphones on. Door closed. Ears open. Like many of us, John T. Frazier’s passion for music began when he was a teenager, listening alone in his room. Frazier remembers what he calls “moments,” when the music—often blindly chosen through DIY mail-order catalogs like crank! A Record Company—would connect with him in a personal and powerful way, engendering pure excitement and feelings of kinship. Frazier has been living for those moments ever since.
Today, Frazier is the owner and CEO of Spartan Records, a rock and indie label based out of Seattle. At Spartan, Frazier develops and promotes young talent, but also specializes in reissuing limited-series vinyl for niche audiences, such as the Mae and Sense Field catalogues. You may also know Frazier from his tenure as the marketing director for Tooth & Nail Records (2002-2012), or a similar gig before that at Drive-Thru Records. In those days, Frazier worked with everyone from Anberlin to Underoath, navigating the highs and lows of mainstream crossovers. Frazier is now the captain of a new ship.
“The industry has changed quite a bit,” Frazier tells Behind the Setlist. “All I can do, really, is stay true to myself. I’m just trying to create a musical universe that I’m happy to live in.”
It’s a sentiment that can only come from John T. Frazier. He’s the spartan warrior with a soft touch. A committed, hard-working family man. Passionate, but easy going. Weathered, but not jaded. Put him on the spot and he’ll offer endearing timidity (“Speaking about the label from an authoritative perspective is hard”). But warm him up and he’ll wax poetic like the most seasoned of entrepreneurs (“The goal is to make an impact on people in a positive way”). It’s the typical nice guy routine, minus the routine. Frazier’s the real deal. And his musical universe is expanding.
Scan Spartan’s active roster of 15+ artists and you’ll hear quality songwriters hitting indie and pop at various levels of accessibility. American Opera, Young Fox and Square Peg Round Hole provide a diverse sample of the label’s sonic range. Amidst the variety of artists, however, is a unified vision. For Frazier’s goal isn’t just to promote a band or sell a vinyl record. Rather, he’s trying to build something long term and meaningful. A brand might be too pithy a word. A safe house, too dramatic. Earned trust about captures it. Spartan Records wants to earn your trust.
It’s a throwback mentality—the idea that an audience will blindly follow a record label no matter where it goes. Frazier had big success helping build a brand at Tooth & Nail, but his personal inspiration goes back further. He credits crank! A Record Company, Revelation Records and, to a smaller extent, Geffen Records, for inspiration. “People appreciate the attention to detail,” Frazier says, “a super high-quality thing they can hold in their hands, something that looks and feels beautiful. I want to do what those labels did. That’s what has always inspired me.”
Frazier remembers the day he first started paying attention to labels. He was 14 years old and on a family vacation in California. “I had this walkman,” he explains. “All the tapes had the same Geffen Records logo on them. The address was stamped right on the tape, so I asked my dad if we could stop and see it. We took a picture [laughs]. That was the first time I started recognizing labels.”
Later as a student at James Madison University, Frazier became the program director at WXJM, the college’s radio station. From there he was offered an internship at Geffen. It was a dream-come-true opportunity, but the experience wasn’t exactly what he had hoped for. In person, Frazier discovered that some of the people at the company who were working for his favorite bands (Jawbreaker and Sonic Youth, for example) could care less about their music. He recalls trying to talk to Geffen employees about the Jawbreaker record: “No one had even listened to it!” The experience made him realize that if he was going to commit his life to music, then he would have to go somewhere where the music had more meaning and where he could make a bigger impact.
“I ended up getting a job at crank!,” Frazier explains, “to specifically work with an e-commerce platform that they were launching. It was technically a marketing job, but everybody did a little bit of everything. [Primarily], I worked with indie labels to help them sell music in this new online store.”
crank! was a precursor to Frazier’s marketing gig at Drive-Thru Records in 2001, right as New Found Glory was gearing to blow up. Drive-Thru’s feats turned heads at Tooth & Nail, and from there Frazier was recruited. “The goal [at Tooth & Nail] was to put a more concerted effort into giving their bands more mainstream attention. The first record I ever worked on was Further Seems Forever’s How to Start a Fire.”
“We were having great success with Drive-Thru,” Frazier continues. “At that time we had our own stage at Warped. We had huge bands like New Found Glory. So to jump over and have such success right away with Further Seems Forever was exciting. We were No. 1 on the Heatseekers chart when it came out. It only got better from there with bands like Mae, Anberlin, Emery, mewithoutYou and Norma Jean. Underoath being the biggest thing.”
Frazier remembers the insanity of helping break a band of that caliber. “It was an amazing feeling. Underoath was so big. We were really making a ripple in culture. I don’t know how to replicate that in this day and age. It was years of cumulative work, and sometimes things just take a life of their own. When a band is that size, the paradigm shifts and doors start to open automatically. That’s the most amazing thing.”
14 year-old Frazier outside of Geffen
Frazier (middle) with Mae at “The Everglow” photo shoot (2004)
As history goes, empires fall. The music industry began its sharp decline soon after Underoath’s reign, and Frazier admits the transition didn’t come easy. He recalls campaign goals that were no longer realistic, such as selling more records with each new release. The metrics for success were being rewritten and labels struggled on almost every front. “We went from such a sales-driven mentality—go to Best Buy and buy this thing on this certain day. It came to a point where we had to realize that we no longer accomplish what we used to. We really had to grapple with it. That was pretty hard, personally, to deal with.”
Frazier stuck it out at Tooth & Nail until 2012, treading through the industry’s murkiest of waters. The bands changed. The fans changed. Expectations from every corner of the industry changed. It was an experience that could have left him disenfranchised, but Frazier—ever the committed soldier—doubled down on his dream. He pursued Spartan Records full time in 2013.
By all accounts, Spartan Records is the perfect fit for Frazier, whose diverse experience equips him to tackle the complex and taxing demands of owning a label in 2017. On any given day he’s listening to submissions, researching new artists, developing artwork, designing social media ads, strategizing PR, or (God forbid) working on accounting. “Take all the time you need,” Frazier laughs. “After this interview, I have to work on accounting.”
But it’s not just the demands of the job that keeps Frazier showing up every day. He finds fulfillment at Spartan doing what he calls creating—that is, helping curate and deliver new music—so people can have those moments that were so crucial to his early life. “The excitement and passion is what keeps the gas tank full. If I wasn’t connected to what I was building, then I couldn’t do it with a clear conscious. I’ve always needed to do what I love.
“Sometimes a band comes to me and they have the record done, and I connect with it and we agree to work together. Other times I’m involved on the ground floor every step of the way. But for me, the exciting part is always the music.”
John Bee is the brainchild behind American Opera, one of Spartan’s recent signings. Spartan released Small Victories on June 30, Bee’s debut full-length studio album. Talking to Behind the Setlist, Bee says of Frazier, “As soon as we started talking, I felt like I had known the guy for years. He made me feel completely at ease. He’s such a hard worker. He’s fun, inspired and passionate about what he does. I love Spartan. It’s a real honor to be a part of the label.”
Brooks Paschal of Tooth & Nail fame (Sullivan) also recently chose to release the debut album of his new project, Surprises, with Spartan—due out next year. Why did he choose Spartan? “Because I like John’s brain,” Paschal says. “I loved how the last Sullivan album turned out, and I love the back and forth with ideas. There was never a thought of releasing this album with anyone else. John Frazier is a gut guy. He just likes what he likes and the other industry factors have to sit in the back seat. That is exactly what Surprises is to me, so the match was perfect.”
Bee and Paschal confirm the portrait that has been painted. Frazier is the spartan of the old school who never lost his way. While he’ll be the first to admit that he still has doubts (“There’s times when I’m thinking, What have I done?”), Frazier admits the seemingly unending series of challenges also invigorates him. He fights for his own, obsesses over quality and gives back to the people who are good to him. Hard work and authenticity, it would seem, are the primary stratagem of Spartan.
“It’s a choice to be authentic and there’s a price you pay. But the only thing we have to go on is that if we do it enough, it’ll start working. And it’s been working. I see that with Spartan.”
Learn more about Spartan Records online.