perfect pop – more press.

Perfect pop, indeed.  Alternative Press, one of the big glossy music rags, reviewed Flying Suit this way:

Perfect pop is evasive yet infectious, seemingly innocuous, yet gripping – like an embarrassingly seductive TV show you can’t stop watching.  Flying Suit is a perfect pop album because, for one, its eight tracks leave you wanting more, and second, if it’s really perfect pop, it, like TV, abets escapism, the essence of any favorite drug.  Within mere seconds, the sweetness of the Mommyheads, their disjointed Skylarking-era XTC jangle and hook, set in and gel, and damn if pressing that repeat button ain’t as easy as leaving the television on.

Once past the exterior, this show has a subtext.  The view from this pop vantage isn’t stickily lovesick, cute and crushing, but instead a bridge for the gap between cynical truth and childlike fantasy, fashioned from a sad conviction.  “Spiders” is a playful analogy for vulnerability, while the absurdist rhapsody “Henry Miller is Dead” combines perfectly the songwriting mixie and lyrical wit that testify to the Mommyheads’ auteurism.  The jagged rhythms of a song like “Worm” bring to mind Railroad Jerk – a backwards upbeat riff turns itself inward and spits itself out for a killer kick-in chorus.  The full-on vocals of guitarist Adam Cohen stretch for and reach, with the rest of the band’s help, many a melodic epiphany.

All eight songs on Flying Suit are finely tuned, ringing out in ripples to infinity.  While not abrasive, they are probably too interesting and smart to make commercial radio.  I last heard the Mommyheads three years ago, but this seems to be their most accomplished record. 

Pop Culture Press used the term, too:

More perfect popcraft from the Mommyheads, who last checked in with the crafty, and overlooked, Coming Into Beauty album on Simple Machines.  This album offers eight more songs (this is not a long-winded group, for sure, but not a moment is wasted).  The indie band pop song is a wondrously strong thing that always seems to go back to originators like Chilton and, later, Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter.  While bands like the Mommyheads owe to the collective debts on these saints, I’m also drawn to ponder if the Raspberries might be in there if they hadn’t been pushed into being some desperate hit machine by their major label.  If they’d been free to create, instead of pressured into vacuity, they might’ve created some of the low-key masterpieces like the Mommyheads, and Eric Carmen might’ve done a string of comeback gigs with members of the Posies instead of being known as the “All By Myself” guy.  So, eight Mommyheads tunes, all filled with witty and tasty bits, tart as a raspberry filled dounut.

Perfect pop, just like a donut.  No XTC reference, though.

And then there was our friend John Livingstone, of Insight.

Look no more for the untouchable pop indie band, the first time appeal to your senses that reflects regal integrity and even some melancholy beauty.  This is a record for every dork who has ever been in love and loved a song that they knew was not cool, mean, hip, foreboding or like anything else since Black Sabbath, a song that would speak volumes and would get them beat up by their friends.  The Mommyheads are concerned with the melodious confectionary, hummable fun about broken hearts and lost homework, or some such.  “Annabelle Ann” is the kind of tune whose pedal steel guitars could really mean something to a guy, and your parents would find acceptably conformist and inoffensive.  Clean guitar, basic drums, and nicely competent bass and guitars provide a pastel curtain behind which perfect songs are sung.  And these are that: songs for singing, primarily.  It’s catchier than cholera and about thirty-two times as much fun.  The highlight of the record, and maybe pop music of the year is the opening track, “Sandman.”  Is the moon really made of cheese?  Did s/he really dump me?  The song conquers these and other bees in your bonnet, and decides that the singer is not afraid because he is awake now.  Maybe all of those kindhearted dorks like you and me in our loneliest incarnations will wake up and buy this after breakfast.

It got to the point where there was really no way for us to reconcile the amount of press that we were getting with the amount of records we were selling.  For every review we received, we received a letter from somebody somewhere, asking how they could buy a copy because they’d heard it on the radio, seen the band live, read about it, or whatever.  But they couldn’t find it in their local record store.  Our distributors were selling out of what they ordered, but they were ordering only 30-50 at a time.  

As badly as I wished there was, there was simply no way for an indie label to sell a decent number of records without distributors and retailers.  And unless those two entities were on your side, working for you, it just didn’t matter what sort of exposure you were getting elsewhere.

All I could do was beef up our advertising – which I did, virtually tripling the budget by taking almost all the profits from the first pressing and spending it on ads – and talk to our distributors.  Relentlessly.  Buy more copies.  Buy more copies.  It became my mantra.

Simultaneously, I had begun looking in earnest for a distributor who would distribute our records exclusively.  And pay for their manufacture.  I had looked peripherally for a P&D deal before, but with Flying Suit such a success, I was beginning to worry about whether I was going to be prepared for the followups.  Each one had some meaningful selling points behind it.  The Footstone CD was – if the band ever finished it  – going to be an important sort of coming out for the band.  Gapeseed was talking about recording their 7″ with Bob Weston – Weston played in the Volcano Suns and Shellac, had produced a bunch of great bands like Sebadoh and Polvo, and helped Steve Albini record Nirvana’s In Utero.  Dots Will Echo were a fairly well-known band that had sold 10,000 copies of their debut CD.  And the Schoolhouse Pop record was going to be simply massive, by our standards.

We were unprepared for all this – not because we couldn’t handle what we were doing, but because we couldn’t afford it and because, despite all the interest and promise, we did not have enough leverage to get our music in stores.

Don’t get me wrong – I was happy with the job our distributors were doing with Flying Suit – but they were still placing their orders in increments of 30 or 50 CDs, and taking a few weeks to sell through what they ordered.  Into our second pressing, I was looking for someone who could sell hundreds – even thousands – at a time.  But nobody had a vested interest in that.

I needed someone with a vested interest.

The only distributors that I spoke with regularly, in a friendly way, were Surefire and Dutch East.  Ron from Surefire was a friend; he had a soft spot for us because we were his first label, but the reality was that he couldn’t sell that many of our records.  He was a startup, too, and needed to spend his efforts where he could realize the best return.  Camille at Dutch East was friendly, but that was her job, and the salespeople at the distributor were more or less indifferent toward us.  There was, frankly, nobody on the selling end of the equation who was on our side.

It was during this time that Julian, the singer from Chocolate USA, a band I absolutely loved, that recorded for Bar/None, reached out to me.

I reached out to him, actually.  I don’t know how I got his phone number, but I did, and I called him.  And he knew us.

We talked extensively about his plan to record an entire album that was a cover of Music For Airports, and we talked about the Schoolhouse Pop compilation, which he agreed to be a part of.  I sent him copies of our music and a press kit – and he asked if we would do a seven-inch.

When I asked him why he would want to do a seven-inch on Dromedary when he was signed to Bar/None, a label that was significantly larger than we, with built-in distribution, and his answer was simple:

“You guys get great press.”

But I couldn’t get my records into stores.  Dromedary Records was not a promo company, it was a record label.  Our goal wasn’t to get press, it was to sell records.  And I wanted to sell more.

It was also frustrating for cuppa joe and Footstone, I’m sure.  They would read all these reviews of their records, and wonder why they couldn’t find their CD in their own local record stores.  Neither band ever really asked me about it – in cuppa joe’s case I don’t think they cared, and in Footstone’s case I don’t think they wanted to be insulting.  But the fact of the matter was that it had to sting a bit.  On one hand, we were getting to be more of a big boy indie, with national press and hip friends, and on the other hand we were still a tiny micro-indie, with no fans.

To me, it was the cost of the distribution process that pissed me off the most.  The distributors, who mostly didn’t spend any time working on selling our records, made a few dollars just for being there.  I’d give them my CDs and they’d owe me $5 for whatever they sold.  But then I’d have to do the work to get people to want to buy it, and most of the time, they couldn’t find it in stores anyway.  It made me wonder how many people went to the store to buy our records because they’d read about them somewhere, and simply gave up when they couldn’t find it.

What pissed me off more was the day I got a call from doug.

“I was at Princeton Record Exchange today,” he said.

“Get anything good?”

“Lots of stuff.  They had our CD there.”

“Really?!  That’s awesome!”  The CD had just come out, and it was already in the store.  

“I bought it,” he said.

“You bought it?  Don’t you have enough?”

“Yeah,” he told me, “but I figured if I bought it, maybe they’d order another one.  Maybe two.”  

He was trying to help me sell records.  That was cool, and I told him so.  Then I told him I’d pay him back for the record, and asked him how much I owed him.

“That’s the thing,” he said.  “Do you think you could ask them to lower the price a little?  It was $21.99.”

“TWENTY-ONE NINETY-NINE?!”

That made me crazy.  My wholesale price for CDs was five dollars.  That meant that, between the distributor and the store, they were taking seventeen dollars’ profit.  I was making about three, which I split in half with the band.  And the indie kids who wanted to buy my records were getting absolutely raped.

Of course, none of my distributors would own up to it.  They all said they sold my CDs to the stores for $7, or $9, or whatever.  They blamed the stores, saying they were taking too much profit.  

Dischord Records would write “Don’t pay more than $10 for this record” on the back of their CDs.  I didn’t have the clout of Dischord Records.  Ian MacKaye could say “don’t pay more than $10 for my records.”  Al Dromedary was lucky if his record even got to the store.

I was beginning to come to a realization: 

There was music.

There were consumers.

Consumers, if they hear about a piece of music, want to hear it.  They’re even willing to buy it.  That’s where the problems began.

There were record companies.  Record companies liked to dupe musicians into thinking that there was no other way for them to put their music into the hands of consumers.  They convinced the musicians to give them a piece of the pie, in exchange for finding consumers to buy the music.

There were delivery mechanisms.  CDs, records, tapes.  Those were the only ways to get the music into the hands of consumers.  Manufacturing them cost money.

There were distributors.  Distributors were the only entities capable of getting the delivery mechanisms into the retail stores, which were the only places that consumers could go if they wanted to find music to buy.

And then there were the retail stores.

At every point in the process, there was profit-taking.  So much so, that the band that created the art in the first place got the least amount of profit, and the consumer purchasing the music paid the most amount of money, and all the leeches inbetween were just that – leeches – sucking money out of the equation in exchange for doing virtually nothing.

In the end, the only necessary parts of the equation were the artist and the consumer.  All the other pieces were just baggage.

And it really pissed me off.

~ by Al on June 18, 2009.

One Response to “perfect pop – more press.”

  1. […] Chocolate USA released a second album on Bar/None and then disbanded.  We never wound up re-gaining contact with their singer, Julian, after he “disappeared” in the early ’90s (after we talked about releasing a 7″).  Evidently we weren’t looking very hard, as Julian was Julian Koster, a member of the famous Elephant 6 Collective.  Julian is also a member of Neutral Milk Hotel.  I’d say he’s done very well.  I’m happy for him.  I’m sure he has no recollection of us. […]

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