Feeling Lucky, Punk?

You can't run a record label without being a bit of a rock star yourself, and Rich Egan is playing the part. It's 11 a.m. and Egan, whose Vagrant Records could be incubating the next Nirvana, has overslept his NEWSWEEK interview. "Dude, I'm so sorry," his voice mail starts, "my wake-up call didn't come through." That's OK--he had a heck of a night. Dashboard Confessional, his most successful act, won an MTV Music Award, and Egan was out until a respectably punk 2:30 a.m. toasting the band's frontman, Chris Carrabba. "We were never the hip indie label all the fanzines wrote about," says Egan, 33, at a photo shoot for Carrabba later that day. "We were putting out records we love, and the pendulum swung our way."

It didn't swing by itself. Egan has helped it along, applying major-label tactics to a minor-league scene. His bands Saves The Day and The Get Up Kids have each sold upwards of 185,000 copies, and Dashboard has sold more than 300,000. Carrabba's name isn't quite Spears or Timberlake, but that's exactly the point. Vagrant has zeroed in on teens who can't stomach bubblegum pop, and built a hip national brand even though the rest of the music industry is too depressed to get out of bed. "The underground was allowed to happen while the record companies were turning out dreck," says Andy Greenwald, author of an upcoming book about punk, teens and the Net.

As a student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Egan waited tables in Malibu, checked IDs at two clubs and delivered pizzas. He spent his free time worshiping Ian MacKaye, vocalist for staunchly independent Minor Threat and founder of Dischord Records. "I saw 'Another State of Mind'"--a punkumentary made in 1982--"and I was, like, 'I want to put out records from cool bands and have them crash my house'." So Egan became a disciple of MacKaye's do-it-yourself philosophy and, in 1991, launched Vagrant; friend Jon Cohen came aboard later. Dischord bands are hard-core punk acts, but Vagrant groups play emotional--or "emo"--punk, and they tour nonstop, doing all-ages shows. (As Carrab-ba puts it, "You're sitting here with someone who doesn't go home 300 days a year. We've got six guys in one hotel room. It's not always easy.") On last year's Vagrant America Tour, the label's bands hit all the coolest clubs but never charged more than $15. "With ticket prices spiraling up, kids can go without having to do any serious budgeting," says Gary Bongiovanni, of concert-tracking firm Pollstar.

The crowds are hunting for something more authentic than Britney, more sensitive than Korn. "Carrabba's not some macho man," says Andrea Weiss, 17, of Santa Fe, N.M. "I'd prefer having someone like him be my boyfriend than, like, Nelly." Egan's learned that teens know when they're a target audience, and in time they say, "Bye, bye, bye." "Vagrant has such loyalty--you have this piddly label kids dish out tons of money to," says punk journalist Kyle Ryan. "Major labels can't sense what's hip without manufacturing it."

Egan's critics, however, believe he acts too much like a corporate player to be taken seriously as a punk. Vagrant helps pay for plush touring buses--a luxury that true indie folk don't allow themselves--and it sold a noncontrolling equity to Interscope, a major label, to raise money for marketing. "Some people might say Rich is a smart guy," says Darren Walters, co-owner of the label Jade Tree. "But we'd rather grow more organically." Egan makes no apologies: "I want to offer bands the best of what a major label can offer with none of the crap." It just wouldn't be punk rock to put up with it.