Outside Regular Channels
By Andy Langer
OCTOBER 26, 1998: In Music Biz 101, they teach that distribution is almost everything. All the airplay, press, and promotion in the world won't help an act if their album isn't readily available to consumers. Yet, with approximately 30,000 albums hitting the streets every year, shelf space is at a premium; even major labels sometimes find widespread distribution an uphill battle. For most mid-size or small independent labels, getting one or a handful of titles into record stores nationally is the impossible dream -- or rather, the nightmare of stringing together a series of regional distributors with shoddy accounting and middling interest. Perhaps that's why Dave Sanger, owner of Austin's Lazy SOB Records and a partner in a regional mail-order company called Texas Music Round-Up, believes local indies are served well by taking a piece of the distribution puzzle into their own hands -- selling direct to the customer as often as possible.
"Labels have to sell records, by any means necessary," says Sanger. "Distribution is simply getting a record in stores, not necessarily selling them. Oftentimes, distribution means a record sits there in a store and collects dust until they send it back. So distribution and someone's need to buy a record aren't always the same thing."
To that end, Sanger and Matt Eskey, owner of another local indie, Freedom Records, started the Texas Music Round-Up two years ago in an effort to insure their releases weren't getting "lost in the shuffle." The idea is simple: The Round-Up offers independent releases from a dozen local labels, advertises them in national magazines that fit the labels' demographics, as well as in catalogs that are periodically sent to each label's mailing list, and then takes orders by mail and phone.
Better yet, the Round-Up is strictly a local partnership: Eskey does the ads, catalog, and Web site layout, Sanger does the accounting, and Cold Spring Records' Chris Wall and John Riedie handle the shipping. The key, says Eskey, is that as a collective of local and regional indies, the cost of any one label's routine mailing and advertising expenses are defrayed substantially.
"In truth, we're a poor substitution for large-scale distribution, but a good vehicle for selling our own records directly without losing money doing it," says Eskey, who had been losing money on his pre-Round-Up advertising and mail-order ventures. "It's good for the artists and good for the labels, but hardly a cure-all. It's really a selfish venture that couldn't work unless we had our own labels. And yet, it succeeds in covering the bases a lot of small indies and one-record vanity labels need; just making the records available to people who are trying to find it."
The Round-Up works not only because it stocks over 100 different alt.country-leaning titles, but also because of catalog's "Five or more CDs for $10 each" campaign. Almost nobody, including mail-order Web services like CDNow or N2K, offer independent releases so inexpensively. Again, the theory behind the five-for-$50 deal is simple: Hopefully people searching for one hard-to-find indie release will buy four more. This way, small labels like Doolittle, Luck, Vireo, and Bohemia Beat get to offer their titles to every fan of Cold Spring's Reckless Kelly, Freedom's Jon Dee Graham, or Lazy SOB's Ana Egge.
"There are so many people in Texas doing the same thing at the same time, that it makes sense to bring everyone together and do the same thing together," says Sanger. "Right now, everyone can have their own record company, but few can afford to advertise. So when I read that Joe Ely is considering starting his own label, I can't help but think there's some things even Joe Ely can't do. And one of them is to get the word out to a lot of people that buy this kind of music -- Texas music."
The key problem with advertising, says Sanger, is that it's simply too expensive for most indies to tackle alone. In December 1996, when the Round-Up began, Freedom's Eskey was already designing ads and putting together mailouts, trying to convince Sanger to do the same thing. Considering that selling one title through an ad meant selling 300 albums to pay for advertising, Sanger thought Eskey was crazy.
Nevertheless, Sanger agreed to capitalize on the holiday season by going in with Eskey on a catalog that solicited their two labels' stock as well as an advertising co-op fee from Mary Cutrufello, Chris Wall, and Stockade Records, all of whom were included in the catalog. They then mailed the catalog to all the names on Freedom and Lazy SOB's mailing lists, plus a list of Asleep at the Wheel's fan club members they bought from Ray Benson.
"That first flyer had only 15 records for sale on it," recalls Eskey, "but it was the first time I didn't lose money doing my mailer."
"The light went off," Sanger says. "I thought, 'If we're not losing money doing this, let's get more records and more labels and start doing print ads.'"
Since then, the Round-Up has stopped charging a co-op fee to its participants and has now begun advertising in No Depression, Blue Suede News, Country Standard Time, Music City Texas, Cornfed, and until it closed recently, Option. The print ads, explains Sanger, target specific markets, usually those receptive to country singer-songwriter types.
"If you're in New Hampshire and into honky-tonk music and have read something or heard something on community radio from Cornell Hurd, the truth is there's no way to find obscure honky-tonk records in New Hampshire record stores," says Sanger. "But if you pick up Country Standard Time or No Depression and see our ad, you'll call for a catalog, order Cornell and perhaps four others. People appreciate the chance to find these records in one place."
Not only do people in New Hampshire now have a chance to buy albums from Hurd, Bruce Robison, or Superego, but so does an international market; nearly 20% of the Round-Up's orders come from Europe and beyond. Better yet, the Round-Up also allows domestic and international writers and deejays to purchase records at a reduced price, which in turn offers more reviews and radio play that mention the Round-Up's address and telephone number. Everyone that calls for a specific album gets added to the Round-Up mailing list, increasing the reach of every other label in the Round-Up.
"The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about my Wandering Eyes compilation and included the Round-Up's number," cites Sanger as an example. "When they called, they got the record and the catalog. Country music buyers are going to come back and order stuff they like or may have heard, because we already know they're not afraid to buy obscure country music."
The Round-Up also has several other built-in advantages for the labels involved. First, buyers can use credit cards, something most indies can't afford because single album sales rarely justify the set-up expenses and charges credit card companies demand. Selling direct, it turns out, also gets labels their money faster. The best benefit of all, says Eskey, is that because local labels are working together instead of against each other, over 100 Texas albums are now available outside the traditional music industry's distribution systems.
"Right now, little labels have to work together and every advantage we can take together helps," says Eskey. "We can't point across town and say, 'Don't sign with them, they suck.' This is just a great way for indies to show they have records. Sure, we're not in a position to promote records like a large distributor might, but a lot of these records aren't heavily promoted and don't need large distribution. They're just labels and artists that need to have their records available. And that's exactly what the Round-Up's best at."
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