administravia and shrink-wrap.

Okay.

So eventually we had about 500 CDs assembled, ready to go.  Stupid as we were, though, we still understood that they weren’t going to sell themselves.  At this stage we still thought it reasonable to assume that each band would be interested in selling copies off the stage at their shows, and figured with ten bands selling 50-100 each, we’d have a good start.

We packed up 10 freebies for each band, and then I began shipping sample CDs off to various distributors that I knew, in hopes that they’d place an order for some quantity of records.  I had planned to advertise the CD in various alt-rock publications, and to send out flyers to record stores.  But it was too much of a hassle for me to ask stores to order CDs directly from me – first of all, I wouldn’t be able to keep track of them all.  Second, the stores would prefer to deal with distributors, since they could deal with one company and still order lots of titles from lots of different labels that way.

For someone involved in the record business, this is all basic stuff.  For someone like me in late 1992, this was a daily earth-shattering revelation.  I had no idea how any of this stuff worked.

Albert Garzon and Kris Metzdorf at Atlantic Records gave me lots of advice on how to properly sell the CDs to distributors.  I knew Kris from when I was at WSAM, and she barely remembered me since I’d been gone a year, but she was more than willing to dispense some free advice.  

Rich, eager to redeem himself after the CD booklet printing debacle, volunteered to print up some 11 x 17″ posters.  He had a friend with a two-color press in his garage, and so we designed some “Out Now!” posters and Rich printed them up.  They looked great.  Unfortunately they’re lost to history, and I don’t have one to scan here.  Trust me, though, they looked cool.

After the debacle with the CD assembly, I was not eager to package up all the promotional copies I’d have to send out.  I had made up a large database (in Microsoft Word, which is not exactly a database program) of college radio stations that I had gotten from CMJ.  For months I had been making regular pilgrimages to See Hear, a zine store on St. Mark’s Place in the Village, and picking up copies of Factsheet Five , and had put together what I felt (and still feel) was our best work – a dynamite database of fanzines, journalists and independent press. 

We went to Staples and purchased boxes and boxes of Jiffy mailers, and Steve Bailey helped us acquire a Bulk Mail permit (and explain to us exactly how the mail needed to be sorted, banded together, and bagged for maximum postage discounts).  We used Staples to make copies of our “one sheet” and our press release announcing the record (both also lost to history), and then Sandy and I spent an entire weekend, stuffing envelopes and stapling them shut, manually putting bulk mail stamps on the envelopes, sorting them properly and preparing them for the Bulk Mail Center.

It was absolutely the most tedious thing I’d ever done – even worse than assembling the CDs themselves.  “I’m never doing this again,” I said.  About a hundred times.  Knowing, of course, that I’d have to do it again the next time we put out a record.

My plan was to use my two weeks of 2003 vacation time to “work” the record.  In order to accomplish that, the timing of everything would have to fall into place just right – I’d need to find distribution, I’d need to get the CDs to the distributor at just the right time, and I’d have to drop the bulk mail to the radio stations far enough in advance that I could make phone calls to the radio stations during my vacation.

The first part seemed to happen more easily than I thought it would.  One day when I came home for lunch, the phone rang.  I answered, and the voice on the other end asked for me.

“This is Al,” I said.

“This is Jules, from Twin City Imports,” she said.  Twin City Imports was a retail distributor in Minnesota.  

“Hi Jules!” I said.  I was excited.

“I received your package, and I’d like to place an order,” she said.  I was ecstatic.  I was holding the phone in my hand, literally jumping for joy in my kitchen.  Buca was going bananas because I was jumping around.

“Awesome!” I said.  “I’m so glad you like the record.”  We had distribution!  Our record would be in stores!

“I’ll take ten.”

Ten?  I deflated.  There were umpteen bazillion record stores in the United States.  She wants ten?

“Umm, okay,” I said.  “Any way you could take more?”

“We handle thousands of titles,” she explained.  “The way I like to do things is to take a small quantity on consignment, and then see how good a job the label does promoting it.  If record stores start asking for it, I order more.”

Consignment?  I had kind of expected, you know, to be paid.

“How do payment arrangements work?” I asked.

“Well, you send me an invoice with the records.  After 30 days, if the records don’t sell, I send them back to you.  If they do sell, I pay you for them and order more.  If only some of them sell, I pay you for what sold and send back the rest.”

Jesus.  That put the pressure on.  Thirty days to get ten record stores to buy a copy from Twin City Imports.  “Is there anything I can do to help cut through the clutter of all the other titles you’re selling?” I asked.

“You could take out an ad in our ‘tip book,'” she said. ” The tip book goes out once a month to all the retailers in our database.”

“Done,” I said.  “How much is an ad?”

“Fifty dollars for a full-page.”

Fifty dollars.  Exactly how much money I’d make if I sold all ten records.  Interesting.

I took out the ad anyway.  

Ray had given me the name of a buyer at Dutch East India Trading Company.  Dutch East was a much larger indie distributor that had several in-house labels that were among my favorites, including Homestead Records.  I had sent a package, and made a followup phone call to the contact, who was named Camille.

“Hey!” she said “I got your package, and I think it’s great!”

I was thrilled.  “Are you interested in carrying it, then?”

“You bet,” she said.  “I’ll take whatever you’ve got to send me.  Let’s start with 25 copies, see how it does, and take it from there.”

So I had 35 copies of the CD out there.  Strangely, neither company wanted any cassettes.  Just CDs.  

Dutch East worked on the same 30-day consignment basis as Twin City did, so I wasn’t eager to send them the CDs just yet.  I wanted to get the promotional copies in the mail first.  So one Saturday morning, exactly a week before my two-week vacation started, Sandy and I drove to the Bulk Mail Station in (I think) Kearney, and dropped off bag after bag of pre-sorted, packaged, hand-assembled mail.  We wrote our postage check and watched as our CDs were carted off.

“Here we go,” I said.

“Good luck,” Sandy said.

Each day during the following week, I imagined my CDs arriving at college radio stations all over the country, and I imagined music directors opening up their mail just like I did at WSAM.  I imagined them opening my intriguing little package and putting it at the head of the list of the day’s records to listen to, just like I would have.  I imagined them listening to the opening notes of the Melting Hopefuls’ “Gondola,” and falling in love with it, just like I did.  And I imagined them immediately adding the record into heavy rotation.

The following Monday could not have come soon enough.  I couldn’t wait to start calling college radio stations and basking in the adulation they undoubtedly would show our record.

My first phone call was to an east coast station.  I asked for the Music Director, who wasn’t there.  I left a message for him to call me back.

Second call, same thing.  Third call.  Fourth call.  Nobody home.

After leaving about a dozen messages, I finally got a Music Director on the phone.

“Hi, this is Al, from Dromedary Records.  How ya doing?” I asked.

“Okay,” said the voice on the other end.  Then, silence.

“I’m calling to make sure you received your copy of our compilation, ‘Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth.’  Did you get it?”

“Nope.” Silence.

“Oh.  Umm, are you sure?”

“Yep.”  One-word answers, then silence.

“That’s funny, because I mailed it myself over a week ago.  You should have it by now.”

“Nope.”

“Okay, umm, I’ll call you back in a few days.”

A few more phone messages, and then I got another person on the phone.

“Yep, we got it,” he said.  “I gave it to our Metal music director.”

“Your Metal music director?” I asked.  “Why?”

“Well, it had lots of metal-sounding names on it, so I assumed it was a metal record.”

“No, it’s really more of an indie rock record.  Did you listen to it?”

“No,” he said.  “I just looked at the names.  I’ll try and get it back from him, and I’ll give it a listen when I get a chance.”

Other responses I heard that day:

“Yeah, I got it.  It sucks.”

“I don’t know if I got it or not.  Maybe you should send another one.”

“I’m sure I got it, but if I don’t recognize the name, I don’t listen to it.  We get 40 or 50 new records a day, I don’t have time to listen to every one.”

After an entire day of calling college radio stations, I got precisely one person on the phone who acknowledged receiving the CD, acknowledged having listened to it, acknowledged liking it, and acknowledged adding it to their station’s music rotation: the music director at WSAM, the station where I was Program Director the previous year.

I was not doing particularly well.

Jerry Rubino was a DJand program director  at WFDU, the radio station at Fairleigh Dickinson University.  From the time I was in high school, I would glue myself to WFDU on Sunday evenings, first listening to the metal show from Alex Dukler (sp), then listening to Jerry’s show.  I would listen to WFDU’s concert calendar and hear names like Husker Du, X, the Del Fuegos, and the other “college rock” bands of the day, and get a kick out of the way Jerry pronounced the word “MAX-well’s!” when reading off Maxwells’ band lineup for that week.  He was my favorite DJ.  When I was in college, I met him through a mutual acquaintance at a Too Much Joy show during a CMJ convention – we sat at a table together with a few other people, had a few drinks, and it was one of those times when you just knew he had forgotten your name by the time he woke up the next morning, but that would be etched in your mind forever.  Now I was hanging out at MAX-well’s every week, listening to Jerry again on the same station I had as a kid.

I called Jerry at WFDU to ask if he’d received the CD.  Surely he’d give it some attention; a lot of these bands played Maxwells’ on a regular basis, they were all New Jersey bands, perhaps he even knew some of them personally.

“It’s not a bad record,” he explained, “it’s just that there’s a lot of metal on it.  Hopefully it’s not your last record.  I’ll put it in the library and maybe someone will play it.”

All the stations across the country I had respected so much when I was in college radio either ignored my calls or told me the record wasn’t right for their station.  By Thursday I had worked my way through the entire radio list, including making second phone calls to everyone I left a message for.  I had another week of vacation to kill, and I had gotten absolutely nowhere.

The following week’s copy of CMJ came out, and I went through each radio station’s playlist, looking for Elizabeth.  I distinctly recall that six stations reported the album in their charts, out of the hundreds of stations that reported their charts to CMJ.  I had spent hundreds of dollars mailing the CDs, not to mention the thousands it cost to make the CDs.

At the beginning of the next week, the phone rang, and it was Camille at Dutch East.

“Hi Al, it’s Camille,” she said.

“Hi there – what’s up?”

“I got your package and opened it up, and unfortunately we can’t sell these CDs,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked, incredulous.

“They’re not shrink-wrapped,” she said.  “Record stores won’t take CDs that aren’t shrink-wrapped.  It’s too easy for people to steal the CDs out of the jewel boxes.”

I had, of course, run ads in a bunch of music magazines, stating that the record was available through Dutch East and TCI.  And now Dutch East was telling me they couldn’t sell the CDs.

I called Rich.  

“I saw this shrink-wrap stuff at the store,” he said.  “You put it on with a hair dryer.  I’ll pick some up after work and bring it over.”

That night he showed up with a package of plastic sheeting.  You cut the sheeting down to the right size, wrapped it around what you wanted to shrink wrap, and then used your hair dryer to heat the plastic so that it would shrink and adhere to the object.  We tried it on three or four CDs, and it was nearly impossible to use.  We finally figured out how to get it right, but it took at least five minutes to properly shrink the plastic over the jewel case.  There was no way that was a viable alternative.  If I had to do it this way, I’d still be shrink-wrapping them now.

The next day I got on the phone, calling every name in the yellow pages that looked like it might be able to help me.  Finally, I got a company on the phone who said they could do it.

“I can do it, but it’s not going to be pretty,” the guy said.  I didn’t care about pretty.  I just needed it to be done.  “It’s not going to be cheap, either.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Ninety cents apiece.”

Ninety cents.  Essentially, an extra dollar to have the CDs shrink-wrapped.  The guy was holding me hostage.  I had to pay nearly a dollar – well more than what the import duties would have been if I had just had them assembled and shrinkwrapped at Targray – if I wanted to be able to sell them.

I paid the man his money, and brought him the remaining CDs.  He shrink-wrapped them for me in a day or so, and I picked them up on my last day of vacation.  The following day I shipped 25 to Camille at Dutch East.

I had taken two weeks off work, charted my record at six stations out of several hundred, wasted hundreds of dollars on shrink-wrapping, and gotten absolutely nowhere.  I had contacted each band to see if they’d want more copies to sell off the stage, and not one was interested.

I was completely, completely clueless.

~ by Al on January 23, 2009.

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