serendipity with ron.

Unlike Elizabeth, with the “Allnighter” and busy work seven-inches, I left plenty of time inbetween the day that the records were manufactured and the day we “officially” released them.  In the meantime, I sent out copies to radio and press, to our VIP list, and to the usual collection of retail distributors.

Dutch East and Twin City Imports had taken Elizabeth and “Suck My Heart” without a second thought; I counted on those two companies as my primary distributors and advertised that our records were available through them.  Forefront had taken a few copies, and Re-CORE-Ds took a bunch on barter and distributed them in Germany.  But there were lots of other distributors as well – Cargo, Caroline, Revolver, Southern, RED, and about twenty other companies in the US alone that would take records and try and sell them to retail stores.

It was a shitty business, and I found that mostly, the distributors acted as order-takers with a label like Dromedary.  They didn’t really have much of a vested interest in trying to sell our records, especially when most of them owned their own labels.  The equation was pretty simple: you get “x” amount of time on the phone each week with a record store owner/buyer.  The Melting Hopefuls record cost them $3 to buy from Dromedary Records.  They could sell it to Fred’s Record Store in Pocatello, Idaho, for perhaps $4.  Fred could then put it on the shelf for $5.

In that equation, the record cost me about two dollars to make and promote.  Of the $3 I got paid, I kept $0.50, and the band kept $0.50.  The distributor made a dollar, and so did the store.  I’m using round numbers here, but you get the point.

So basically, it would be silly for the salesperson at the distributor to spend much time talking about the Melting Hopefuls seven-inch, when all they made was a dollar.  Particularly when they owned their own in-house label.  With the in-house label, they made a much higher profit per record sold than they did by selling our own records.

The equation weighed against me.

Really, it was only on the off-chance that somebody walked into Fred’s Record Store and said “I read about this Melting Hopefuls seven-inch in Flipside – I want a copy.  Do you have one?”

Fred would say “No, but I can order it for you.”

Then, at the end of his phone call with the Dutch East sales rep, he’d say “Oh, yeah.  I got a guy who wants a copy of this Melting Hopefuls seven-inch on Dromedary.  Do you carry it?”

The sales rep would say “Hold on, let me see.”  And then he’d page through a huge book of titles that they carried, get to the letter “M,” and find our record.  He’d tell Fred “Yep.  Four bucks.”

Fred would say “Okay, add that to my order.”

Pretty tough to make money at it that way.  You spend a thousand dollars or so, all at once, and then try and make it back three bucks at a time.

My goal was to try and arrange as much distribution as possible, and then try and generate as much radio and press as I could, in hopes that enough people would walk into record stores and ask for our stuff.  I didn’t have all the traditional means of promotion at my disposal – we didn’t have much money for ads (at this point I advertised our records in Option, Flipside, Maximum RockNRoll, Jersey Beat, and Glut, and reached about 6 readers as a result), we didn’t have bands on the road, I wasn’t making posters and sending them out to record stores, and I didn’t have enough money to blanket the universe with promo copies.  I had to be pretty strategic about how we spent the few marketing dollars that we had left.

Remember: 1993.  No internet.  At least none to any great degree – just Usenet, and AOL.  And AOL had not even tied into the outside internet yet.  There was no World Wide Web.  No blogs.  No Digg.  No iTunes.  Just black vinyl and the U.S. Postal Service.

Anyway, I was home at lunch one day, making the phone calls to distributors.  It was, of course, rejection after rejection.  Finally, after half a dozen or so “no” results from the usual suspects, I decided I needed to hear a few friendly voices.  So I called Camille at Dutch East, who immediately placed an order.  And then I called Jules at Twin City Imports.

“Al, I just don’t think it makes any sense for us to carry these,” she said.

I was shocked.  I counted on TCI.  Even if they didn’t sell many of my records, they were a national distributor, and I could point people in their direction.

“Jules, you carried my last two records,” I pleaded.  “These two are so much better.”

“Maybe,” she said.  “But I like to give a new label a shot, see how it will work out.  In this case, it didn’t work out.  Let’s stay in touch; if you get something new out there that people actually know, then maybe I’ll take some.”

If I get something out there that people actually know, I thought, I won’t need your help selling it.

I sat in stunned silence for a while.  The mailman broke my concentration by sliding the mail into the mail slot.

I had to get it quickly; Buca was too big for her cage at this point, and spent most of the day running free in the apartment.  She liked to eat the mail.

There was a letter in the mail from a company called Surefire Distributors, Independent.  It seemed interesting, so I opened it up.  Inside was a letter from a guy named Ron, very politely introducing himself and stating that he was starting a new retail distribution company up in Boston, he had read about our records and would like to hear them.

How fucked up is that?  On the day TCI fires us, I get a letter from a brand-new distributor.

I called the phone number and introduced myself.  “As things would have it,” I said, “Our second-biggest distributor just informed me that they’ll no longer be carrying my records.  So I need someone new.”

“As things would have it,” he said, “We don’t distribute any labels yet, so I can’t rightly turn you down.”

We talked for a while.  Ron had his own seven-inch only label called Ratfish Records.  He and his partner Larry were both in bands, and really seemed to understand how the retail end of the business worked.  We talked about bands we liked – he was way more underground than I was.  He was into a lot of the low-fi indie stuff, like what was coming out on Shrimper.

I told him the problem I had with Dutch East and TCI’s consignment policies – holding my money until I sent an invoice, and then paying the invoice and sending back all the unsold records.  He said “Nah, I won’t do that to you – we’ll hold onto the records as long as you want us to, and we’ll send you a check once in a while when we sell some.”

I put together a package with Elizabeth, “Suck My Heart, “Allnighter,” and busy work, along with some press and a nice letter.  He called me back and place an order for all four titles – just ten of each to start, if I remember, but it didn’t matter.

Ron always told me that Dromedary was the first label that Surefire distributed.  I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but it’s a great story – Surefire went on to do some cool things, and although Ratfish doesn’t exist anymore, Ron’s newer label, Spirit Of Orr, has some great titles.  

What was even better was that I had decided to go full-blown into the mailorder catalog.  Ron was happy to send me a bunch of seven-inches from Ratfish to help round out my catalog.  Suddenly, I had a boatload of records in my mailorder thing.  To round it out a little better, I reached out to a label from Chicago that I knew from college called Pravda.  Pravda had released two covers albums of 1970s K-Tel type hit songs that I really liked, and they had a few other bands that I enjoyed, like Mercy Rule and Javelin Boot.  I also reached out to a Baltimore label called Merkin Records, that had a title from a band I loved called Liquor Bike.  Dave from Liquor Bike actually worked at Merkin, and was happy to send us some records to carry.

So I made up some new mailorder catalogs.

We didn’t want to be lame and call the catalog the “Dromedary Mailorder Catalog,” or anything lame like that.  So we decided to name it after another humped animal called the Zebu.

A zebu looks like this:  


Another animal with a hump.

Another animal with a hump.

We thought we were clever.

~ by Al on March 4, 2009.

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