an afternoon in hoboken.

I was still sending out resumes, sometimes even to record labels.

I figured at this point I had a little more visibility in the record business, seeing as I was putting out records and trying to keep myself on the radar screen through the “Dialogue” section of CMJ (a little bit like a moderated message board where each subscriber could write 250 words that the magazine would publish every other week; most people used it to hype their records), through small print ads in various publications, and through being on the phone constantly.

With two records out, I was also looking to improve my distribution.  As far as I could tell, Dutch East and Twin City Imports weren’t doing a whole lot to try and get our records into stores, and Re-CORE-Ds was not much more than a German hardcore mailorder label.  Meanwhile, when I walked into Pier Platters, the hip Hoboken record store, I couldn’t find my own records.

One day, Tom Prendergast called me.  Tom Prendergast was the founder of both Pier Platters and Bar/None records.  Bar/None got successful by being the label to launch They Might Be Giants, and had really built a great catalog of songwriter-oriented music.  I knew their radio promo person, Jill Richmond, from when I worked at WSAM and Jill worked with another label (can’t remember which – sorry).  Jill also played in a NYC indie band called the Aquanettas that I liked.

Tom told me on the phone that he had received my resume, and wanted to get together.  I was thrilled.  We set a date, and I almost immediately called Jill to ask her for advice.

What was odd was that Jill was Bar/None’s radio promo person.  She was unaware of any job opportunities in the label’s radio “department” (I suspect that Jill was the radio department), and she was unaware of any job opportunities at the company in general.

But still, Tom wanted to meet.

I took a day off work and drove into Hoboken, parking the car and walking to the Bar/None offices.  It was a beautiful, sunny day.  I had brought with me a copy of Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth as well as a copy of “Suck My Heart,” and some of the press we had received at that point.  I figured I’d have a compelling story about how I started a record label in the middle of a recession, obtained national distribution, got some decent press and radio play my first time out.

I also imagined that there was a possibility that Tom wanted to discuss a distribution arrangement.  Bar/None was a local label and a very successful one, and they did have a lot of friends in the Hoboken music community.  I thought there was a chance that they had heard about us and perhaps wanted to talk about entering a business relationship of some sort.  That would have been fantastic with me – Bar/None seemed to have great retail distribution, and if there was any way they could help me with that, I’d be thrilled.

I met Tom in the lobby of the Bar/None offices, and he suggested that we sit outside in the park nearby their building.  That sounded like a great idea.

“So tell me about Dromedary,” Tom asked when we found a place in the park to sit down.

I explained how and why we started the label, making it clear that it was initially done as a way to gain experience while I was looking for an industry job.  I explained that I intended to grow the company into something bigger and more meaningful.  I tried to strike a balance between wanting a job and wanting distribution, and actually thought I did a pretty good job.

He asked a lot of questions, including questions about what Dromedary’s future plans were.  I told him about the Godspeed 7″ that had fallen through, and also told him about some of the bands we’d recently discovered.  

He then asked me if I had any questions for him.

“I feel like I’m really strong when it comes to finding new bands,” I said, “and I understand how the radio promo thing works.  But I’m at a loss when it comes to retail.  How do you get your records in stores?”

“Aren’t your records in stores?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “We distribute through Dutch East and TCI for retail, but I’m just not confident that they’re doing much for us.  They distribute a million titles, and they’re not going to spend too much time trying to sell mine when they have Sebadoh and Dino Jr. and Superchunk records that they can sell.”

“I’d recommend that you do what my partner and I did,” he said.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Bring your CD and 7″ to some record stores nearby you.  Sell them to the stores on consignment.  They pay you if they sell them.  This way, your music is in the local stores.”

Fuck that.  I wasn’t about to do distribution to retail on my own.  I didn’t have the wherewithal to run around from store to store, begging them to take my records, making little consignment invoices for one and two copies of each record, running back to each store every time I had a new release.  I had to do that a few times for Turn of the Century when I was interning with them in college, and it was miserable.

Plus, I felt it was cutting off my nose to spite my face.  My distributors had their best shot at selling our records locally, since that’s where the bands were from.  If the stores in Hoboken and Manhattan already had copies of our records because they bought them direct, then my distributors would have to work even harder to sell them.  Where would they sell them to?  Why would they work hard at selling my CD to some store in Kansas when I wasn’t even making them easy to sell CDs in our own backyard?

At this point, the singer Freedy Johnston came walking across the park and started talking to Tom.  Tom introduced us, and I was pretty impressed.  I liked his music, and thought it was pretty cool to see him there like that.

After he left, Tom said “Freedy just signed with Elektra.  That’s how we stay in business, really – we work really hard on releasing great songs, and once in a while we get lucky with a band like They Might Be Giants or Freedy Johnston, and that success helps fund us.  But it all goes back to releasing great songs.

I thought about the label’s catalog up to that point, and I had to agree with him.  It wasn’t a singer/songwriter label per se, but everything on the label had a certain quality to it that just made it an enjoyable listen.

It had been nearly an hour, and I still couldn’t figure out why I was there.  So I flat out asked him if he had any openings at the label, or if he was interested in a distribution arrangement, or what.  I don’t remember precisely how I asked him, only that it was awkward and uncomfortable for me to ask.

“Oh, no,” he said.  “We’re not hiring anybody or anything like that.  I just thought it would be nice to meet you.  I like to know all the local music companies.”

We then walked back into Bar/None’s offices, and Tom excused himself for a minute.  He came back with a handful of cassettes and CDs – Shrimp Boat, Chocolate USA, Kate Jacobs, Epic Soundtracks and a few others.  He thanked me for coming, and showed me the door.

At first, when I got back to my car, I was pissed.  I took a day off work, got (semi) dressed up, and went to what I thought was either an interview or a business meeting.  Instead, it turned out to be a meet and greet where I got some advice I didn’t want to hear.  It was absolutely not advantageous to me or Dromedary in any way.

By the time I got home, though, I felt differently.  Here was the founder and president of one of the state’s coolest indies and record stores, a guy who was connected to just about everyone in the local indie scene, and he was kind enough to take an hour out of his day just to meet me and find out what I was all about.  I was nobody.  I ran a tiny little micro-indie that had, essentially, one and a half releases to its credit.

If there was anybody dedicated to building a local scene, it was Tom Prendergast.  I had just witnessed it.

That weekend Sandy and I drove around to record stores in northern New Jersey – as far west as Hackettstown (the further west in New Jersey I’d ever been) – and made consignment deals for Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth and “Suck My Heart.”

~ by Al on February 2, 2009.

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