radio.

College radio was good to the Mommyheads, and to cuppa joe.  Not great, just good.

I attribute the increased success to Flying Suit, and to Adam’s diligence in doing promotion as the band was touring.  Once a week or so, I’d get a package in the mail from Adam where he’d send me clippings from local arts weeklies, radio playlists, anything that mentioned the Mommyheads that he encountered along the tour.  He made it a point of calling or dropping in on the local college stations as they traveled across the country, and the band was rewarded for it with airplay.

Meanwhile, I made sure to live up to my promise of filling Adam’s requests for extra promos to be sent to various people along the tour.  He’d call whenever he could, usually late at night.  I had taken to turning the ringer off on the Dromedary phone before I went to bed, and I would occasionally wake up in the morning to find my answering machine blinking, alerting me to a message from Adam, left at some ungodly hour when Sandy and I were fast asleep.  Occasionally he would sing his messages (I still recall one voice mail where he sang “I know it’s late, I know it’s late, but I’m calling anyway, but I’m calling anyway…”).

After the band left a city, I’d continue the promotion with college radio by making followup calls to the station for a couple of weeks, trying to capitalize on the afterglow of such a great live band visiting their town, playing a show, and generating local press.  

The formula worked fairly well, but not well enough for us to crack the CMJ charts.

It was the most frustrating fucking thing in the world.  As a college intern with Turn of the Century Records, I did radio promo for two bands – a jangle-pop band called the Black-Eyed Susans, and a quirky pop band called Those Melvins (not The Melvins; Those Melvins).  The first week I made radio calls, both records made the charts.  I went through each radio station’s CMJ playlist and counted the number of stations that charted the records, and discovered that it had only taken 19 stations reporting Black-Eyed Susans to crack into CMJ‘s Top 100.  Going 2-for-2 my first try like that, I figured it was easy.  But I was never able to do it again.

I couldn’t even get The Mommyheads – a band that was infinitely better and more popular than either of those TOTC bands, and a band who was in the midst of a US tour with two immensely popular alt-rock bands in Lisa Loeb and The Posies – to get 19 stations to report them at a time.

I finally decided that what I was doing was definitely not working.  I didn’t have the indie cred of a Teenbeat or Merge Records, where I could just put out a record and have it get airplay just by virtue of the fact that it was on my label.  I also didn’t have enough indie cred where I could leave a message for a college radio Music Director and actually get a return call (you’d be amazed – or maybe not – at how few Music Directors will give you the courtesy of a return call, but who are happy to take your free record when you mail it).  I wouldn’t ask Yoda to call radio stations because he just didn’t have an understanding of how things worked, and our other intern, Terri, wasn’t particularly reliable at this point.

At the same time, we were getting results at some stations that had never given us the time of day.  WFMU, one of the most respected college stations in the country, played Flying Suit extensively.  KTRU, the station at Rice University, actually had the record in its top 10.  Other stations that we had never even considered would play our records were suddenly playing The Mommyheads.

And the record was selling.

I didn’t think I’d have a better chance to increase the profile of the label, and with Footstone’s Lippy apparently on terminal delay, it seemed possible that we’d have to ride the momentum of Flying Suit right through the New Year to our release of the Schoolhouse Pop compilation.  I definitely wanted more exposure for the label, and for the Mommyheads as well.  

I wanted everything to go perfectly with Flying Suit.  I loved the band so much, and loved the guys, that I wanted desperately to put out their next record as well.

I decided it was time to get someone else involved in the promotion of the record.

I contacted my layer first.  My lawyer was a guy named Ed – he had been referred to me by Ron at Surefire.  He was based in Massachussets, knew indie rock pretty well, and seemed to have genuine concern about what was going on at Dromedary.  He told me he thought we were on the cusp of doing something special, and asked me to send him a bunch of press kits and sampler tapes so that he could personally shop us to distributors in hopes of helping us land that elusive P&D deal.

So I called him to ask him if he knew of any radio promo companies that he could recommend.  I knew a bunch, but was looking for one that worked with indie rock labels and didn’t whore themselves out to anyone with a wad of cash.  I wanted someone who was more selective, who had more credibility in indie rock circles.  I felt that Dromedary was beginning to develop a brand, and I wanted to make sure I associated the brand with the right other brands.

My first phone call was to a company called Autotonic.  They were a promotions and marketing company that was associated with a bunch of indie labels that I respected – Teenbeat, K, and (if I remember correctly) Simple Machines.  I had heard their owner speak on a panel at the CMJ convention the prior year, and was impressed.  

I called and spoke with someone there, and quickly realized that as much as I wanted to associate my brand with the right other brands, Autotonic obviously wanted to do the same thing – and the Dromedary brand was not at their level.  Not even close.  The person I spoke with seemed completely unimpressed by me, my label, or my bands, and despite telling me that the owner would give me a call back, I knew before I even hung up the phone, that was not a return phone call I was ever going to get.

So I called the next company on the list – a company that will remain nameless, but that had done some radio promotion with a few other indie projects that I liked.  When I called them, they were very interested, and their owner immediately got on the phone.

“Al!” he said.  “How’s everything?”  I used to get promotion phone calls from this company when I was at WSAM, and we occasionally traveled in the same circles, so we were familiar with one another.

“Great,” I said, “except I can’t generate enough publicity for my records on my own.”

“Well, that’s what we’re here for,” he said, cheerfully.

We chatted for an hour or so, about the label, about what my goals were for growth, and about what releases we had planned.  He knew a lot of the bands that we had planned to work with, and he was very enthusiastic.  I was ready to go.  And then I asked the question: “So, umm, what does this stuff cost?”

“Well, we have a minimum six-week engagement on a project,” he said.  “We can’t do it justice unless we can work it for six weeks.  It takes two weeks just to set the record up, get it out to all the stations, and let them know what’s coming.  Then you’ve got four weeks to actually promote it while it’s hot.  From there, we see what happens.  If the record is still generating interest after six weeks, then we talk about working on it longer.  If not, then we’re done.”

“And?” I asked.

“Well, it’s $400 a week if we’re working on one title.  If you have two titles that we’re working at the same time, then we give you a discount on the second title.  You have two records out right now, we could work them both for $600 a week.”

“That’s $3,600,” I said.

“Right.  Or $2,400 if you just wanted to do the Mommyheads.”

My costs were looking like this:

Second pressing: $900

Mailing promo copies: $500

Radio promo company: $2400

Total: $3,800

After sending out 400 promo copies, and 100 freebies to the band, that left me with 500 copies from the second pressing that I could sell.  My wholesale price was $5 per record.  

So I’d be spending $3,800 so I could sell $2,500 worth of CDs.  And that didn’t count the money I’d already spent on advertising and promotion.

Clearly, you don’t hire a radio promo company if you’re looking to sell through a second pressing of 1,000 copies.  You either hire one because you’re looking to sell four or five thousand records at a minimum, or you engage one for all your releases, and you amortize the cost out over an entire year.

I was in a position to do neither.  At that point, I had already gone through enough of the second pressing that I would have had to do a third pressing just to have enough CDs to give to the promotion company.  I would have had to sell nearly 4,000 copies of the CD just to have it be financially worthwhile, and the agreement I had with the band allowed me to press 3,000 – then we had to renegotiate.

There was simply no way to make it work, financially.  I didn’t have the time to properly promote the record to radio, and I didn’t have the money to pay someone else to do it.  I was completely hamstrung.

So even though Flying Suit and, to a lesser extent, nurture, did very well at radio by the low standards we had at that point, I was disappointed nonetheless, because I wasn’t able to push it further.

WIthout the ability to get help with promotion and distribution, I was realizing, we were stuck.

~ by Al on June 25, 2009.

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