unfamiliarity.

Getting in was pretty easy.  Getting used to it was a whole different story.

Dromedary was all the way in the basement.  That’s where the computer was, that’s where the stereo was.  That’s where I camped out most of the time.

Sandy spent her free time upstairs, either in the living room or in the room we had turned into a playroom.

This meant that, although we were in the same house, we may as well have been on different planets.  Within just a few weeks we realized the main difference between house living and apartment living – in an apartment, we could be doing two completely different things and yet still be together.  In the house, it was necessary for us to actually plan what we were going to do, so that at least once in a while, we could be in the same room when we weren’t actually hanging out together.

The other thing we learned was that housework was an entirely different animal.

The house was surrounded by shrubs that we thought were lovely when we first looked at the house, but we gradually realized were overgrown.  There were andromeda bushes, junipers, evergreen shrubs, and rosebushes surrounding the house and garage, choking off the views from out the windows on the first floor.  We both decided that we wanted them out, so one Saturday afternoon I went outside with a shovel.

And proceeded to work myself into an exhausted, sweaty mess, just getting one of the andromedas out.

Ever try and take out a juniper with a shovel?

Junipers have roots; they’re massively complex mazes of thick roots that actually have bark on them.  They come up out of the ground and grab your shovel and don’t let go – or, alternately, they move around beneath the surface of the ground and hide from your shovel.  It takes hours to find all the roots and cut the right ones.

Removing the shrubs was a nightmare.  I took out all the ones in the front and back, and cut the ones on the side down to nubs, then Sandy and I went to Home Depot and picked out some tasteful, new, small bushes to take their place.

It seemed every day had a new renovation.  Sandy pulled double-duty by somehow working on the house while taking care of a baby and recuperating from pregnancy.  Triple-duty, I guess.  I went to work at the shitty dayjob, came home and tried to help out as much as I could while still responding to Dromedary emails and mail.

Believe it or not, during this time we actually picked up a few smaller distributors, and also managed to get some ads placed in various music zines.  We were still riding the sales of Flying Suit, and to a lesser extent, Lippy, and I was slowly starting to climb out from under the mess of stress that was crippling me.  I was beginning to think about the future of the label, and what I was going to have to sell in order to get the next project – whatever it was – out.

Sandy was right – we needed to raise some money.  But we also needed to evaluate the whole thing – what we were doing, how we were doing it, what was working and what wasn’t, and how we could improve.

I had, at some point, decided that there were some fundamental things about how our label worked that needed to change.  First, we needed to figure out a way to improve our distribution.  Having 15 companies carry our records wasn’t helping us at all.  I’d pack up a few hundred copies of everything and ship them every which way, only to have them gather dust in a storage room while the distributors spent all their time selling Superchunk and Unrest records.  That wasn’t helping us.

What I needed was somebody who had a vested interest in helping us sell what we had.  Someone who was willing to actually do a little work, rather than list our title in a catalog and then sit back and wait, only to take ten bucks’ profit on the sale when I was making $1.25.

I also needed to change the nature of how my promo copies worked.  While it was great to hear my music on the radio, it didn’t particularly help sales much.  It didn’t help them at all, actually, and I needed to trim down our radio promo list significantly, choosing only stations that A) could reach a decent-sized audience and/or B) would actually play the record.

Press needed some tweaking also, but only in the sense that I needed to do more advertising.  I knew that reviews were not going to help sell copies, but they’d sure help generate awareness, and awareness was what I needed.  The more people who could read about our records, the more people would consider buying.  Or at least they’d be more likely to remember what they read.

The missing link was retail.  I needed to figure out a way to get more exposure right in the store.  For Schoolhouse Pop we were considering a custom carton that would hold 10 or 20 copies of the CD in a self-shipping box that could be turned inside out into a little self-sustaining retail display.  That would be too expensive, and it would be unlikely that any record store would be ordering 10-20 copies of whatever we put out next (much less displaying it at the cash register).

What I did need was a more concerted effort to work with retail stores to promote our records there – posters, special promotional samplers for in-store play, coordination of in-store appearances, stickers, graft, whatever it took.  I needed to circumvent the distribution process as much as possible, and get my marketing closer to the end user.

Then, I needed to take a look at our cost structure in general.  Were there ways I could reduce my manufacturing costs?  Manufacturing was the single most expensive piece of running Dromedary – and what made me crazy was that the major labels were able to buy so much more cheaply than I was.  It probably cost me two times as much – maybe more – to make a CD than it cost Atlantic Records.

Despite that, I worked hard to keep the price down so that I would only sell them wholesale to my distributors for $5.  However, they’d wind up at record stores for $21.99, or $18.99, or not at all.

The thing was clearly broken, and I felt like it needed to be fixed.

Steve Albini had written an amazing article for The Baffler, right when we were first getting started, that described how badly major labels fuck their artist (you can read a reprint of the article here, and I highly suggest that you do, as it’s the most important thing you’ll read in this entire blog).  That article always made me feel like it wasn’t only the indie who got screwed with the system set up the way it was, but the band as well – the only people who made out were the majors, and all the peripheral “bit players” who got paid to do the majors’ dirty work.

We tried to improve upon this by covering our costs with each record, giving each band 10% of what we pressed for free, and splitting profits down the middle.  That’s a pretty sweet deal for the bands, provided that we’re actually selling records – but let’s face it: if you do the math, with things structured the way they were for us, we were making a little more than $2 for each CD we sold, and spending about $2,000 to put one out.  To figure out how many copies we’d have to sell before the band (or the label, for that matter) would make their first dollar, the math is simple.

To me, the system was unfortunately set up so that there were certain things that were inevitable.  I needed to manufacture CDs.  I needed to get them into stores.  I needed to get kids into the stores to buy the CDs.

So, I basically needed to find ways to reduce my costs while getting more records into stores.  And, in order for us to keep going as a label, I needed to figure out how to sell more records.

I had no idea how to do that.

~ by Al on September 18, 2009.

3 Responses to “unfamiliarity.”

  1. I’ve never read the Albini article before, until just now. If I read it back then, in the early 90’s, I might not have believed it all. Now I just feel like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” I also recommend “So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star” by Jake Slichter, the drummer for Semisonic, for an equally open view of life with a major label. It’s very entertaining.

    http://tinyurl.com/nbr59k

    Steve Albini hates your band.

  2. The Albini piece, and others like it, became a real sticking point with me. I started to make a distinction between bands that wanted to make music and bands that wanted to be famous, because it was the only way I could understand why a band would want a record deal. Eventually I became hypercritical of any band that wanted to be “bigger” than they were, because it seemed that so many of them wanted the label to do all the work (no touring, no promotion, etc) but didn’t realize how screwed they were going to be.

    It’s a huge part of the rest of the story.

  3. That’s a good way to think about it. I think I’d have picked the fame back then, if there was a solid choice between them. With the hope that one day the fame would be so huge that you could actually make a profit.

    Slichter has a line in that book about how when they got back from their last tour, and kind of re-entered their normal lives, “we’d made a little less money than our friends who’d gone to work after college in entry level positions, or working as carpenters or electricians, but we also got to live on the road for a few years, playing our music, staying in hotels and eating without having to pay for it.” I guess it’s good to go into it with eyes open.

    I also think I mentioned it before, but Doug and I went to party around this time, at someone’s house in Princeton, and Steve Albini was there, playing with Shellac – right after their first album had come out, and after In Utero was out, too. I expected a dark, somber dude, but he was truly very funny both on stage and wandering around the crowd before. Doug and him made out a little.

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