Features, Interviews

Fate, Dogs and U2: A Conversation with Tiffanie DeBartolo

With two novels, a record label, and a film starring Ione Skye and Jennifer Aniston under her belt, Tiffanie DeBartolo is a woman who has done it all. She’s aptly titled “Chief Executive Super Goddess” at Bright Antenna, a label that’s home to The Wombats, Cheerleader, and MONA, to name a few, but somehow still manages to get to bed by 10 pm every night. Luckily for us, Tiffanie just happens to live in the same small Bay Area town as our editor Reina, and they were able to make plans to meet after work one day. Below, Reina talks to Tiffanie about Bright Antenna, the Bollywood adaptation of her novel, and her 35 year love affair with U2, amongst other things.

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“It’s an even better story,” Tiffanie DeBartolo tells me about the inspiration behind the movie (yes, you read that correctly, the MOVIE) she wrote and directed in 1996. We’re sitting at a table in Mill Valley Beerworks–the hip, fairy-light-strewn brewery restaurant in town. It’s loud, but the passionate jangle of Tiffanie’s voice rises above tech-guy yacht chatter from the table next to us: “I wrote the movie right after I graduated from college. Scott–who is my husband now–I met him junior year of college in this acting class. I was one of those girls that never wanted to get married. I thought,  ‘I’m going to live in France and have lovers, and be really cool. I’ll never get married, I’ll never have kids,’ whatever, you know? And he walked into the room on the first day of class and I literally heard a voice in my head say ‘You’re going to marry that guy.’ So I just fell madly in love with him, but he wouldn’t go out with me. He always says, ‘You always forget to tell people the reason I wouldn’t go out with you is because I had a girlfriend.’ Which, whatever, is a minor detail to me, but is apparently an important detail to him. So I was in love with him for 4 years. Literally 4 years. Junior year, senior year, then he moved to Boulder to go to grad school, and I moved to LA because I thought I wanted to be an actress and a filmmaker. I was so heartbroken thinking he’s rejected me and I’m never going to see him again. So then I thought, I’m going to write this movie about him and someday he’s going to see it and just be like, ‘What was I thinking? She was the love of my life and I rejected her!’ So my whole goal was to make this movie so that he would see it and come running back to me. I wrote the movie and I sent it around to a bunch of random indie film companies, and one of them called me saying they want to make the movie. So cut to: I make the movie, it’s being edited, and I’m still thinking someday Scott is going to see this and he’s going to realize what a fool he was. And during the process, I got an email from him saying ‘Oh, how are you?’ because we were friends in college, and he goes ‘I just broke up with my girlfriend’ yada yada yada. So I said, ‘You have to go on a date with me.’ And so he gave me a weekend, I flew out to Boulder, and we had this 3 day long date and we’ve basically been together ever since. We were doing this long distance thing for a few months, and after maybe 6 weeks or so, he came to visit me in LA and asked when he would get to see the movie, at which point I was thinking, ‘Shit. Uh oh.’ So I told him that it’s kind of about him and he was like ‘What?!’ But I didn’t tell him that until I knew I had him, because I didn’t want to scare him and send him running.

Reina Shinohara: You’re right, that is a great story! It’s like you were fated to be together.

Tiffanie DeBartolo: I know, right? But that was really my impetus for writing that film. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna have a great career.” I was thinking, “I gotta get this guy to fall in love with me.” It’s crazy. When I think back on it now, it seems insane. It’s crazy how many people throughout the whole process, my friends, my family, would just say, “He must be an asshole! He won’t go out with you. Get over it!” And I would just say, “I know I’m meant to be with him.” And the great news is that I am more in love with him now than I was 25 years ago. So I was right. He’s so awesome.

RS: This whole story is a dream. It’s almost like a movie. So what made you decide to start up the label here in Mill Valley?

TD: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. I was on vacation in France with some friends and one of the friends was this record producer who lived here. So he’d had maybe three bottles of wine and we were talking about how sad the state of music was, and how every song on the radio sucked. And in this drunken stupor, he just says, “You know what we should do? We should start a label!” And I thought, “Yeah! That sounds like a great idea! Let’s do it!” At the time, I was a full-time writer, writing novels. My husband and I just thought that it would be something we would be able to do on the side, you know? And it would take an hour or two out of our day. We lived in New York and Boulder, Colorado at the time and we were sort of going back and forth. And after maybe 6 months of trying to do this label–our friend was based here, in the Bay Area–we realized that we had committed to something that took a lot more time than we ever thought it would, and if we were really going to try and make it into something special, we had to move here and be based here. So for the first 7 years, our offices were in Oakland, but when our lease was up last summer, we moved our offices here because we were just so sick of the commute. Now we can walk to work and we are so grateful everyday that we don’t have to get in our car and drive 45 minutes to the office. So that’s how we ended up in Mill Valley. I think Mill Valley is historically a music town and a lot of great musicians lived here and still live here. Once we were all out of Oakland, it just all made perfect sense. The thing about us is that, we’re pretty different from most labels in the sense that all we really care about is the music, you know? We have an emotional connection to the artists that we work with and the bands that we choose to work with. And so it makes sense that we’re sort of near home because we kind of look at Bright Antenna as a family, as opposed to a business.

RS: I actually wanted to ask about the name Bright Antenna, because I was on your site and I saw that it links to a video of “The Spirit of Radio” and I just know there’s a story behind it.

TD: That’s also kind of funny. Scott and I had come up with so many amazing names for the label when we were trying to name it, and they were all taken. We’d be like “blah blah blah” “Yes! That is the perfect name!” and then we’d go to trademark it and it would be taken. So it was months of just lists and lists of names, and everything was taken! So one day, he and I were on this long road trip, where the only radio station we could find was a classic rock station, and “The Spirit of Radio” came on. We were just brainstorming names, coming up with the most ridiculous names, and I was listening to the song, remembering how much I loved that song as a kid because it’s a song about integrity in music and keeping music pure. Not about making money or selling out, but really just putting your whole heart into a song. And then they said “bright antenna” and I thought, “How about Bright Antenna?” and it was the only name we came up with that wasn’t taken. And it’s so funny because most of the time people don’t put those things together, you know? But yeah, that idea was so important to us when we started the label. That’s what it was all about. We just want to work with bands that we love, that move us, and we just believe that somehow we can make the world better by putting great music into it, you know? It’s kind of silly, but it feels important to people who love music.

RS: It’s really refreshing to hear that in a world where a lot of people start labels as a money making scheme.

TD: And that’s the other funny thing. When we started, it was right on the precipice of people no longer buying music, which we didn’t really see coming. How could anyone have seen that coming? And so, when one of our bands had a hit, early on when we started, it was #3 on the alternative charts, and our partner Braden–who has been in the music business for a lot longer than we have, and managed the Killers for their first album cycle and basically discovered the Killers–said to me, just off the cuff, “You know, if this were 1995, this band would have made $3 million already, and they can barely pay their rent.” That’s when it really hit me that this is more than just something fun we were doing because we loved music. We are fighting for artists to have careers, you know? Because it’s so hard for musicians to sustain themselves by making music these days. And that’s what we lose sleep over. That these people that we care about and work with everyday, some of them have families and they have bills to pay, and nobody’s buying records anymore. What do you do? So it’s a constant struggle trying to figure out income streams for them, not for us, you know?

RS: Yeah definitely. That’s definitely a thought process that seems to be lacking in the music industry today. What is it like actually running the label from day to day?

TD: Well, we’re definitely still learning everyday.

RS: When you started it, other than your partner, did you know anyone that worked in the music industry? I mean I guess your partner had worked in the music business so maybe he had some contacts?

TD: I mean he had engineering contacts and producer contacts, but Scott and I had nothing. We had another partner who was basically an investor, and he was just a businessman. He didn’t know anything about music. So we always say that the first year and a half were basically throw aways because none of us had any idea what we were doing. We didn’t even know what distribution was back then! But we hired our other partner, Braden, about a year and a half in, and he had worked for pretty much every label in existence, and had worked as a manager.

RS: Oh, so he pretty much knew everybody.

TD: Yeah, he knew everybody and just knew how the business worked in a way that we didn’t. So I really credit him for teaching us how to actually run a label. And, you know, radio promo and things like–we didn’t know that you actually had to hire people to take your songs to a radio station in order to get them played–we just thought, if we mail this in an envelope and say, “here’s a really cool song!” it would end up on the radio. That’s how naive we were.

RS: What was the first band that you signed?

TD: Well, the first band that we officially signed was Middle Class Rut, but the first release that we put out was The Wombats’ first EP. But we had just licensed that from their UK label. So Middle Class Rut was the band that had the big single, “New Low”, that was this big huge hit, and they made no money on it. And we were just like, “Wait, what?” Why isn’t this working?” It was a very big learning curve.

RS: I remember when I was in high school, my best friend and I used to always listen to Live 105. We would always listen to Soundcheck with Aaron Axelsen on Sunday nights and we heard Middle Class Rut on the radio. And the next day after school, we spent the entire day on the phone requesting Middle Class Rut.

TD: You did?? Oh my god, awesome! I love hearing that. Aaron is actually a really good friend to Bright Antenna. He supports a lot of our bands on Soundcheck, and he and Braden are really good friends. I still love Soundcheck.

RS: Me too! And now it’s an even longer installment. It’s later at night though.

TD: Yeah it is. I always have to listen to it later online because I can’t stay up that late on a Sunday night. That’s why I’m so tired today because normally, I’m asleep by 10. And last night, it was around 12:30 by the time we were getting to bed. All the bands I work with make fun of me because I’m so lame. I always say before their shows that I’ll go out with them after the show and get drunk, but it never happens. I say, just think of me as your mom. I mean, we work with a couple of artists that I could actually be their mom. That was a sad day when I realized that I was old enough to be someone’s mom.

RS: I got made fun of when I went to Outside Lands because I still have the vertical ID.

TD: I was in a very dark bar recently and I got carded. I was thinking, really dude? And when he finally looked at my license, he asked, “is this fake?” No, that’s my real age, I swear. Did you see Radiohead on Saturday?

RS: Oh my god, yes! They were amazing.

TD: Of course my whole office went, because the Wombats were playing, but I was in Ohio. My dad was getting this big award and I couldn’t miss it. It was this really big deal for my dad, and it was something that was years and years in the making, so when they announced it many months ago, my whole family was saying, “Oh, this is going to be amazing and really moving, and we’re so excited.” And then The Wombats got offered Outside Lands and at the office we were saying, “Wow! Finally! We’ve been wanting a band at Outside Lands for years!” and me, of course, I’m just thinking all access passes to a Radiohead show. That’s the way I was looking at it. I’ll be able to stand on the side of the stage and watch Radiohead. It’s a dream come true! And then I was putting it on the calendar, and I was like… wait. This is the same day. Then I called my dad and told him, “Dad, I know you’re not going to understand this, but I just want you to know what I’m sacrificing for you. And he’s like, ‘What’s a Radiohead?’” So I was really bummed to have missed that.

RS: I was trapped behind possibly the tallest person in all of San Francisco. He was swaying to the music, and every time he would sway, I couldn’t see anything!

TD: Oh no! That’s terrible! But they sounded good?

RS: They were incredible!  

TD: Of course everyone at the office was saying that they were just amazing. Even The Wombats were saying, “One of the best shows ever.” They also said that Air was amazing. I went a couple of years ago and saw Paul McCartney. Were you there that year?

RS: I was!

TD: Oh my god, I don’t know what I was expecting but I was just figuring that, you know, Paul McCartney would just phone it in. He’s Paul McCartney, he doesn’t have to try that hard. And then he just blew me away. Just the level of spirit that he has on stage. Not to mention he sounded so amazing. He was playing all those old Beatles songs and every song, I was like… “He fucking wrote this song.” It’s crazy. I was hearing this song that I’ve been listening to for the past 40 years, and this guy wrote this song. He was just so good.

RS: It was so interesting to look out at everyone around and seeing people of every age.

TD: Yes! And who knew all the words, you know? It was 5 year olds, 80 year olds, and  everyone between. That’s the thing that I love about music so much, you know? That’s what makes music so magical to me is that it can connect people. It connects us to each other, to our humanity, and it just–I feel like I’ve learned so much about life, through all of my favorite artists. And I hope I keep doing that. Did you grow up a really intense music fan? Or did you get into it later?

RS: I think I grew up as a music fan. Well, I played the piano and the violin from 4 years old, so music was definitely in my life from a young age.

TD: I would love to play piano. Piano and violin are actually the instruments I always wanted to play. I keep saying that at some point in my life, I’m going to learn how to play the piano, but I want to learn how to paint first.

RS: It seems like you stay pretty busy traveling, walking your dog, managing the label, and writing, but do you have any hobbies outside of those things?

TD: Besides playing outside, no. I love to play outside. I run a lot, I hike, I ride my bike. Other than that, all those other things take up pretty much all of my time. When I’m not working at Bright Antenna, I’m trying to write a new book, and when I’m not doing that, I’m usually with my dogs. We just moved into a new house that we’ve been building for 3 ½ years, so that’s sort of been getting in the way of all my hobbies because it’s still a complete mess. Everyday we say, “When we get home from work we’re going to unpack three boxes each” and then we actually get home and we’re like “Oh, let’s just watch ‘Stranger Things’ and go to bed.” My dogs are a big part of my life too. I love my dogs so much, it’s kind of ridiculous.

Dipsea DeBartolo-Schumaker

Tiffanie with Dipsea DeBartolo-Schumaker

RS: I feel like having a dog is almost a hobby.

TD: It really is! I mean, especially giant dogs, you know? They require a lot of attention and exercise. We get to bring our dogs to work, so if they don’t go to the dog park or go on a six mile hike in the morning, they’ll drive us crazy! We gotta wear them out before we take them to the office. I’ve been working on a new book for almost two years and I’m barely halfway through it because I really only have one or two days a week to write. At our office we have work from home Fridays, so on Fridays I go to the library and I write all day. But, you know, that’s not quite enough to finish a book in a year.

Have you seen that show Roadies that’s on?

RS: No, what’s it about?

TD: It’s a new show that’s about this band on tour and it’s basically about the crew and their relationship. But it’s written and directed by Cameron Crowe who did “Almost Famous” and he’s so sentimental about music that even though it’s kind of a dumb show, I love it so much because he’s writing through this lens of somebody who loves music like I do, you know? It just feels like he wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for music. And so, I just love it even though it’s not that great of a show. I feel like, for me, there are so many songs that I can point to in my life that were pivotal moments of change because of a song, you know? I can think of two moments in my life where my destiny was literally changed forever by hearing one song. And it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it because it’s so powerful to me.

How do you feel about U2?

RS: I think they’re really really awesome! I remember very distinctly in 5th grade, when everyone was starting to form obsessions over one band. My one friend was like, Green Day was her band, and my other friend, her band was U2 and she was obsessed. And then “Vertigo” came out and then we all became obsessed with U2.

TD: That’s great, I love hearing that. U2 has been my favorite band since I was 11.

RS: So they were your 5th grade obsession too.

TD: They were my 5th grade obsession. That’s when I discovered them, in 5th grade, and they’ve been my favorite band since then. I’m going to be 46 this year.

RS: Wow, you’re a loyal fan.

TD: I’m a really loyal fan. Last year on their tour, I saw them 11 times. So I’m serious. It’s because the first time I ever saw them, I was in the 8th grade and I had 4th row seats and Bono came out on stage and sang this song about a friend of his that died of a heroin overdose and he was crying as he was singing the song and telling the story. I was maybe 13 at the time and I remember literally being changed by this. I had seen concerts before, but they were usually things my parents took me to and I loved it, but it was just entertainment, you know? I remember watching this show thinking entertainment is never gonna be enough for me anymore. I want to feel like this, I want to feel what he’s making me feel every time I listen to music and I want to live like that. I want everything to make me feel that way. So that was a moment in my life where I just remember thinking, I’m not the same person leaving this arena tonight, as I was when I walked in. And that, to me, is the power of music. I could go on and on about this. I mean, that song, it would be that or this Jeff Buckley song that I heard on a plane once that literally changed my destiny in so many ways that I would definitely have to write down because nobody would even believe it. It’s such a crazy story. Listening to this song and then all the things that happened to me because of that song. Crazy. Yeah, like I said, don’t get me started because I will go on and on.

RS: I know a lot of people in the music industry have mixed feelings about streaming, but as a label exec, how do you feel about it?

TD: Discovering new music is such a great thing. I mean that, to me, is what’s so great about streaming. I know, because I’m a label and I’m supposed to want to sell records that I’m not supposed to love streaming, but it’s such a great tool to discover new music. And also to listen to so much old music. For instance, if you want to hear a Doobie Brothers’ album, you’ll find it on Spotify. You won’t find Def Leppard unfortunately, because I was looking for them the other day and I was thinking “Why the fuck aren’t they on Spotify?” They refuse to put their songs on there. It’s so stupid.

RS: That’s like Radiohead at one point. And Taylor Swift now. Well, she’s on Apple Music so she doesn’t really count.

TD: I guess, but that’s all about money and not any sort of stance because they probably paid her a gazillion dollars to do it.

RS: But I also think streaming is awesome. Some of my friends from college got a ton of plays after Spotify put one of their songs on their “Fresh Picks” playlist.

TD: I mean that’s the kind of stuff that really does help. If you have a band that not much is happening for, and then somebody puts one of their songs on a playlist, they could have 3 million streams in a couple of months and then all of a sudden, radio stations are saying, “We want to play this song.”

RS: And now Spotify has all those curated playlists. Like the Decades playlists that I love so much.

TD: I know! They’re so fun! At Bright Antenna every Thursday morning, we have a Bright Antenna yoga class, and so this yoga teacher comes and everyone does yoga together and it’s really fun. But, we always listen to random playlists during yoga class, and sometimes it’s 80’s, sometimes it’s the Fleetwood Mac channel, you know. Have you listened to much Fleetwood Mac?

RS: I’ve listened to Rumors, but I keep meaning to listen to them more.

TD: They have so many good records. That’s a band I would say, if somebody doesn’t like Fleetwood Mac, then they’re dead inside. I say that about U2 too. The only people I know who aren’t moved by U2’s music are either British people–because they’ve got nationalistic jealousy of the Irish. Or [they are just] emotionally dead inside. How can you not feel like you can fly when you listen to U2? Like I said, don’t get me going on this. We’ll be here for hours.

RS: It’s true. I remember I went to SXSW my freshman year of college, and I saw Stevie Nicks give a lecture.

TD: Was it so cool? I would have loved to have seen that. I love Stevie Nicks so much. She’s my hair icon.

RS: Everything about the way that she carries herself and the way that she talks about things, it was just incredible to be in the same room as her.

TD: Yeah, it’s so inspiring because those are the kinds of people that actually mean what they say, and to me, that’s what I want to emulate. I want to surround myself with people like that. Those are the people that are really doing work that is meaningful to me, you know?

RS: My friends and I talk about this all the time, how in our age group at least, there’s a serious lack of authenticity. Even in everyday interactions.

TD: I know! I notice that so much. And I feel that in so many aspects, especially all different kinds of art. Even movies today, I feel so hard pressed today to find a popular movie that is about something that is meaningful, you know? And most of the songs on the radio, I feel like the really popular ones are… I don’t know, they just don’t make me feel anything. When that’s what I want out of art. I want you to make me feel something. I want to learn something about myself.

RS: The only song I can think of that recently made me feel something was actually Justin Timberlake’s new song. Well, it’s really cheesy, but it’s still a cute, feel-good song. I put it on every morning to get ready to. It’s my pump up song.

TD: Aw, he’s super talented and that’s legit. I’ll have to listen to it tomorrow morning on my run. Is it doing well? I don’t know much about the pop charts unless my nephews are teaching me about it. I have a 7 year old nephew that loves every pop song. It’s frightening actually. He loves Taylor Swift.

RS: I actually loved 1989.

TD: To be honest, I never listened to it. One of my coworkers told me, “Just listen to Ryan Adams’ version, and then you’ll love it because it will sound like it has integrity and then you can listen to Taylor’s and you’ll get it.” Have you listened to Ryan’s version of it? Is it good?

RS: Oh, dozens of times. It’s good! But I did the opposite, I started with Taylor and fell in love with that one, so Ryan’s just couldn’t measure up. Taylor’s is Taylor’s. I mean, it’s not an album that you sit down to listen to very seriously. It’s a karaoke album. You learn all the words and then you sing along with your friends.

TD: I was in a cab recently and there was this song on the radio. And it had this hilarious line in it. And I was visiting my family, so when I got out of the car and I was telling my nephews about this song, I was quoting the line, and they’re like “That’s a Justin Bieber song! It’s really popular.” I was thinking, oh, it was good! It was some sort of line about…“My mom didn’t like you and she likes everybody” or something like that. It was such a great song! I was thinking, I get why this is popular!

RS: That one was co-written by Ed Sheeran, I think. Actually, people have said, Justin’s new album was only good because it was produced by Skrillex. Well, not the whole album, but the most popular ones. And it’s interesting because the beats aren’t Skrillex beats at all.

TD: He’s branching out! I saw him at Outside Lands quite a few years ago. One of our bands shared a manager with Skrillex and he said we have to stay for the show, and I thought I was going to hate it, but about 60 seconds into the set I was going “Woo!” It was just so fun!

RS: That’s how I felt watching Major Lazer at Outside Lands this year. I didn’t think I was going to like them, but the moment they went on, it was the most fun I had in my entire life.

TD: How do you feel about The National?

RS: The National is another band that I’ve never actually listened to.

TD: Their last two albums are life changing. I would put them at the top of your list. Go home tonight and listen to “High Violet” and if you are not moved by it, check your pulse. You might have to listen to it a few times before it hits you, because they’re that kind of band where it has to sink in. You know those kinds of albums that you didn’t like the first time you heard them, but all of a sudden, you realize, “This is the most brilliant album I’ve ever heard.”? They’re kind of like that, where it takes a while to understand the mood, or something. But once you do, it’s just inside of you forever. Their last album, which was called “Trouble Will Find Me”, when I first heard it, this whole story came into my head and that’s when I started writing my newest novel. It’s completely based on listening to that album and conjuring up this story. It’s awesome and they are just so so good. I just saw them at The Greek a week and a half ago. I was in tears. Plus the singer is really cute.

Tiffanie DeBartolo is the Chief Executive Super Goddess at Bright Antenna Records. Her novels God Shaped Hole and How to Kill A Rockstar are available for purchase here. She lives in Mill Valley with her husband and dog. She is currently working on a third novel.

August 29, 2016

About Author

Reina Shinohara Reina is a person who just found out she's from the snobbiest city in California. You can find her at a cafe sipping unreasonably priced artisan coffee writing a condescending tweet that will probably stay in her unpublished drafts.


ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Fate, Dogs and U2: A Conversation with Tiffanie DeBartolo”

  1. Marie Economus says:

    I have known Tiff for almost her whole life. She never fails to amaze me. She grew up with my daughters and always had a big influence on them. Her sister Lisa and my girls would go to concerts together and always watch what as new on MTV!! Tiff always had a style of her own and followed her dreams. I am so greatful that because of their friendship they all are wonderful woman today.

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