lots of networking.

Heading into 1996, I decided to make a point of doing more networking.

Somebody in my shitty dayjob life convinced me that networking was important.  He was just a guy who worked for a company that made leather cellphone cases.  He spent his entire workday glued to a headset, talking on the phone from the moment the company opened til the moment it closed.  He knew everybody, and took great pride in putting people together for deals.

He hooked me up with a guy in Israel who took a lot of my obsolete inventory off my hands.  He paid something like fifty cents on the dollar, but considering that the inventory was clogging up my warehouse and killing my “open to buy” dollars, I had to get rid of it somehow.  When I had four million dollars’ worth of excess inventory, it was time to act, and my colleague at the case company very quickly had a solution for me.

He had notes at his fingertips that included everything he needed to know about everyone he spoke to.  Their kids’ names.  Their wives’ names.  Their birthdays.  Where they went to college.  What kinds of food they liked.  Any sort of information that he picked up in a phone conversation, he’d jot down on his notes.  Then, when he talked to you, if an opportunity arose for him to mention your wife’s name, what kind of car you drove, or your favorite band, he’d drop it in the discussion.  Made you feel like he really knew you.  It was endearing.

I wanted to have that level of organization when it came to Dromedary.  Mind you, I didn’t give a shit whether I had that level of organization in my dayjob, just my label.  I wanted total recall of every conversation.  If someone mentioned to me in January that they were looking for a certain record, and I came across it in June, I wanted to remember who wanted it, so that I could send it to them.

I never, ever got to that level of organization.  But it was a nice goal.

Rich achieved his objective.  He became a graphic designer, working for a small ad agency in New York.  It blew my mind.

Rich was an incredible talent.  He never went to college, but he learned more than anyone I knew.  He worked for a printer as a computer operator, outputting films and operating the scanner.  He decided that wasn’t enough for him, and that he wanted to become a graphic designer.  He decided he wanted free records, so he started a zine.  He developed his graphic design skills while making the zine, and got free records in the process.

To build his portfolio, he did some work for Dromdary and picked up some corporate identity work on a freelance basis.  To round out the portfolio, he invented phony products with goofy names, and designed their packaging.

He used that portfolio, and a resume that Sandy helped him write, to get a job as a real graphic designer with a real ad agency.  It wasn’t a huge job, but it still paid better than what he’d been getting paid at his printer job.

Musically, Rich had given up on the idea of being in a band, but not on the idea of being a musician.  He’d acquired a few computer recording programs, and started working with samples and electronic music.  He’d record his bass playing, immersed in effects, sample the recording, reverse it, pull it apart.  He began to really immerse himself in sound.

At that time, I had begun playing piano a lot more often.  Since we’d moved into the house and retrieved my childhood piano from my mother, I actually had an instrument to play (I owned a few vintage synths at the time, but nothing with 88 wooden, weighted keys that made a piano sound when you depressed them).  I’d sit down and pluck away for an hour or so, always getting up depressed in the knowledge that I play like Tori Amos, only not nearly as well.

Gradually, though, I began working out chord progressions and melodies that I thought would make nice-sounding pop songs, in a Ben Folds or Suddenly, Tammy! sort of way.

When I mentioned it to Rich, he simply looked at me and said “I think you should tear the top off the piano and learn how to play it by plucking the strings.  You’ll never really know how to play a piano until you can play it from the inside.”

But back to the networking thing.

I made a list of the people who provided services to Dromedary.  Distributors and manufacturers and printers.  Accountant and lawyer.  Friends and advisors.  One by one, I went through the list and evaluated whether they actually provided us with value, or simply charged us money for what they did.

I made the decision that if the street wasn’t two-way, I was going to replace the person with someone who would be more helpful to us.

Example: our lawyer wasn’t particularly helpful to us.  Sure, he was nice, and he answered all the questions I had.  But he didn’t really work for us.  As far as I could tell he wasn’t particularly visible in indie rock, and he certainly didn’t spend much time talking up his clients.  I wanted a lawyer that people knew; someone who recognized that every time he put me in touch with a band or distributor, there was a potential contract for him to handle.  I wanted a lawyer that understood the value in helping us grow.

Example: Dutch East wasn’t particularly helpful to us.  Sure, they were nice, and they stocked all the records in our catalog.  But they didn’t really work for us.  As far as I could tell they just took orders whenever someone happened to ask for one of our titles; they kept it in stock until I sent them an invoice, and then they sent all the unsold copies back to us.  I wanted a distributor that acted more like a partner, that was receptive to learning more about the bands and the label, and that was willing to put some effort into selling our titles.

I made a decision that we were going to cut Dutch East, as well as a few other distributors.  If I had to, I’d deal direct.  I’d call every fucking record store in the country.  But I was tired of letting my records gather dust in the warehouses of these places while I killed myself to promote them to radio and press.

One by one, I went through each person on the list of service providers, deciding to swap out the ones that weren’t adding value.

I decided that Terri was no longer going to be an “intern” for us.  She was nice.  We loved her.  She was funny, and enjoyed our bands.  But she also flaked out and disappeared for weeks at a time, and was incredibly unreliable.  I needed someone who could pick up the phone and call radio stations.

I decided that for our next record, which was looking like it was probably either going to be Schmeckle City Rubdown or a full-length CD from Blenderette, I was going to hire a radio promotion company.  It was going to cost me a few thousand dollars that I didn’t have, but I needed to take the risk.  I needed someone to help elevate Dromedary’s profile a bit more, because I wasn’t having the kind of luck I wanted.  So I started contacting radio promotion companies, learning a bit about how they worked, learning how they charged, and learning what their policies were towards promoting records.  I wanted a firm with integrity, one that wouldn’t harass or strong-arm radio stations, but one that would work hard for me.

After a week or two of intense investigation into every corner of the company, I felt like I had emerged with a more clear picture of what I wanted to be, and how I was going to get there.  It was refreshing.  And it was time to start working on the label again.

~ by Al on October 8, 2009.

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