Shout! Factory mines the pop culture archives

LOS ANGELES — Richard Foos never set out to become the arbiter of retro pop culture. He just wanted to see those classic James Brown records back in people's hands.

As chief executive officer of the Shout! Factory, Foos runs an emporium whose credo might be: Don't bother with historical tomes or archaeological digs. If you really want to understand the human race, figure out what it was watching on TV or playing on its iPod last year — or 40 years ago. (OK, if you're going back that far, substitute eight-track tape deck for iPod).

Shout! Factory finds and revives moments of pop culture nostalgia that people grew up on.

Dying to see that collection of Johnny Cash Christmas specials from the late 1970s one more time? Shout! Factory has it.

Or maybe you've read all Hunter Thompson's books and seen this year's Johnny Depp documentary on him. Now you can actually listen to recordings of Thompson as he describes his lunatic adventures in real time before writing them into his books. They're available on the CD collection "The Gonzo Tapes."

But to get a real bookend look at the evolution of television, you might want to catch the first season of that gentle, squeaky-clean 1950s classic "Father Knows Best," followed by a viewing of the raunchy Howard Stern-produced "Baywatch" spoof, "Son of the Beach," from 2000-2002.

"In a weird way, these guys are the ones who are preserving cultural history," says Paul Feig, the actor-director-writer who created the TV show "Freaks and Geeks."

"What's more important than that?" asks Feig. "To piece together the real structure of a society and of a time and of a people and of a place."

And it all traces back, Foos says, to his being a frustrated R&B fanatic who by the 1980s couldn't find songs like "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" in stores anymore.

Although he'd grown up in Beverly Hills, the son of a department store executive, he had become obsessed with rhythm and blues as a child and, as a young man, had played bass in an inner-city R&B band for $5 a night.

"Which was more than I was getting paid, after taxes, working at my dad's stores," he recalls with a laugh.

Not so funny, though, was his discovery that by the early 1980s all of Brown's classic '60s recordings were out of print on their original labels.

"I couldn't believe that they didn't even think James Brown was worthwhile!" he says, still clearly annoyed by the memory as he sits in his modest office at the back of a string of low-profile, two-story industrial buildings tucked into a corner of an otherwise residential West Los Angeles neighborhood.

Dressed in black, and with a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard to match, Foos, 59, looks as though he could still be playing the godfather of soul's songs at night after work.

In any case, he thought Brown was so important that a fledgling company he had co-founded, Rhino Records, tracked down the publishing rights to those songs and issued "James Brown's Greatest Hits." It was a critically acclaimed album that would sell more than 200,000 copies and transform both Rhino and the music business.

The company had been founded in the mid-1970s, getting its start when Foos began buying and selling old records out of the trunk of his car. By the early 1980s it had grown to include a small record store and then a small record label that specialized in, for lack of better words, weird stuff.

Among its stable of artists was a Los Angeles street denizen named Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, who sang to passers-by whether they wanted to hear him or not, and a music ensemble called the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra.

But after the Brown breakthrough, the company became known as the music industry's reissue label, the outfit that would meticulously track down the best old R&B, pop and rock and bring it around again.

In 1998, Foos and co-founder Harold Bronson sold Rhino to the Warner Music Group, but Foos soon found that collecting stuff that had been either kitschy or cool was still in his blood. Five years later, he and younger brother Garson Foos and their former Rhino cohort Bob Emmer founded Shout! Factory.

Retirement, he says, wasn't an option for a guy who works in a building papered with such posters as that of Barbara Feldon in her "Get Smart" role and with a coin-operated kiddie car ride.

"It's like telling Spielberg to retire," the soft-spoken, normally shy Foos begins, then catches himself and apologizes for comparing himself to the Oscar-winning director.

"But what I'm saying is ..."

"What he's saying is: What else would we have done?" interrupts Emmer, the company's chief operating officer. "Sat at home and watched TV and not seen the shows we would have wanted to see?"

So what they did was form Shout! Factory and put out "Freaks and Geeks," a TV show that almost nobody watched during its one season in 1999. But after it launched the careers of people like writer-director Judd Apatow and actor Seth Rogan, a lot of people, especially college kids, got interested. Emmer and the Foos brothers noticed it had message boards all over the Internet.

Their company was so small at the time, however, that to pay for the rights to the scores of songs the show featured, Shout! initially had to distribute the reissue only over the Internet so it could collect the money upfront.

"It sold out in six or seven months," recalls the company's president, Garson Foos.

Things grew quickly from there, with Shout! now employing some 70 people.

And while its founders fall solidly into the baby-boomer demographic, all seem to have a knack for tapping into what younger audiences want to see and hear.

They attribute their success in part to hiring people as obsessed with pop culture as they are, to constantly cruising the Internet in search of what seems to be coming back into style and to the belief that whatever you liked as a kid will always have appeal.

"And then there's that fortune teller that we have down on Hollywood Boulevard," Emmer jokes.

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