winding down.

“Are you still in business?”

It was our accountant Mark, reviewing our 1996 finances with us, trying to understand what was going on with Dromedary Records.

“No,” I explained.

“So we can dissolve the company and write off the inventory, then?”

“Well, no.”

“Why not?  I don’t understand.  Are you in business, or not?”

“We’re not,” I said.  “But we might be again someday.”

He shook his head.  “You realize that it costs money to keep a business open?  You’re a corporation – there are fees you have to pay every year.  For what?  Because you don’t want to shut it down?”

“What happens if we write off that inventory?” I asked.  “Can we sell it again?”

“You can’t sell it anyway,” he pleaded.  “You’re not in business anymore.”

I was being wishy-washy, I understood.  I had decided that I’d had enough, that it was no longer fun, that it was hurting my health and definitely my sanity.

But I did not discount the possibility that perhaps someday I’d want to try again.  And I didn’t want to admit that I was no longer cool and indie and part of the scene.  Officially closing up the business – legally dissolving the company, writing off the inventory, closing up the bank account and PO Box – that was official official.  If I did all those things, and then decided I wanted to start it again, then I’d have to do everything all over again – trademark search, re-incorporate, set up the bank account and PO Box.

It made no sense to do.  If I wanted to re-start someday, it would be worth it for me to have the same PO Box that I originally had, so that the mail would keep coming, and anyone who knew us then would still know how to get in touch with us.  And why close a bank account that I would only have to open someday?  Why write off inventory I might want to sell?

But if we kept the business open, we’d have to pay the annual fees associated with owning a corporation.  And there would be a monthly fee for our checking account that had no money in it.  And a fee for keeping a PO Box open for a company that didn’t exist.  We were going to spend about a thousand dollars a year in fees to keep a company alive that wasn’t doing business.

“Look,” Mark explained.  “If you want to start up Dromedary Records (he pronounced it ‘Drama-deary’) again someday, you can do that.  You can reopen your company.  You can set up a bank account, get a PO Box.  It’s really not that hard to do.  But if you keep it open, we’re going to have to keep filing reports.  You’re going to have to pay me to do that.  You’re going to have to pay the fees.  Why pay all these fees for a business that’s not even in operation?  Just so you can feel like you’re still cool?  You want to be cool?  Go to a club.”

Sandy was looking at me with these wide, imploring, puppy dog eyes and of course I knew he was absolutely right.  Winding down Dromedary was something that had to be done, and the only reason I was hesitant was because it seemed like some sort of ritualistic, final nail in the coffin of my youth, some sort of admission of failure.

That night I actually sat in my basement, looking around me while everyone else was upstairs sleeping.

It’s not a failure, I thought. You wanted to start a record label so you could get experience.  You wanted to give it a try, see if you could put out some records, sign some good bands.  You did that.

At the same time, I knew that there was, eventually, more to it than that.  I wanted to put out a lot of records.  Great ones.  I wanted to find a Slanted and Enchanted, or a Today’s Active Lifestyles, and get it out there for everyone to hear.

In a past entry I referred to John Cook’s excellent book Our Noise: The History of Merge Records. Merge just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and over the years has released clunkers that sold in the hundreds, but also has released monstrous indie masterpieces that have sold in the six figures.  But in 1996, none of that had happened quite yet.  In 1996, they were just a few years older than we were; the first Superchunk record came out while I was at WSAM.  I spun some of Merge’s first releases on my radio show in college.

Cook describes many of Merge’s early days, and they don’t, to me, seem any different than Dromedary’s early days.  Merge started off more punk than we did, with Superchunk, but despite being one of my absolute favorite bands, Superchunk was really no better than Footstone.  Butterglory was a great band that didn’t tour much, but Matt Suggs really wasn’t any better a songwriter than Doug Larkin.

Polvo was a fantastic band, but no better than Gapeseed.  Rocket From The Crypt, while much heavier, was not a better band than Jenifer Convertible.  Lambchop were interesting and beautiful, but so were Dots Will Echo.

And the Magnetic Fields were magnificent, but so were The Mommyheads.

Merge had more bands than we did, which was certainly a difference.  And they had more bands that would tour (we had precisely one, although Gapeseed would have toured if we had managed to get a record out from them).

Obviously I was not analyzing Merge Records in 1996.  In 1996, Merge was, in my mind, a very cool indie that had one of my very favorite bands in Superchunk, along with a bunch of other really good bands.  But putting my 1996 hat on in 2009, and trying to analyze what I would have thought was the main difference between the two labels, the answer is easy.

Distribution.

Merge had a distribution relationship with Touch and Go, who were perhaps the coolest and fairest and best-run of all the indies out there.  Touch and Go was the company paying for the records to be manufactured, and Touch and Go was the company with a vested interest in selling copies.  They worked with Merge to keep costs down, they provided Merge with the kind of guidance that small indies needed.  They were like big brothers, keeping an eye out for Merge, nurturing them and helping them get stuff out there.

And they were handling the distribution.

We had no such entity helping us.  We were hunting and pecking with each release, with no guidance.  We spent more than ten thousand dollars on our first record, a compilation of no-name bands that had no chance of going anywhere and that was fairly awful.  It took us two or three releases just to learn how to properly manage our costs, and even then, we had no distributor who was working on our behalf.  We had folks like Ron and Larry at Surefire who were helpful when we asked advice, and who were awesome about pointing bands in our direction (if it wasn’t for Ron and Larry, we never would have met the Mommyheads or Toast, and I’m forever thankful to both of them for that) – but Surefire needed to look out for Surefire – not Dromedary.

At the end of the day, then and now, I faulted the distribution.  Our bands were as good as a lot of other well-known indie bands (and in some cases, they were the same bands).  For a label our size, the press we got was outstanding.  We had been fortunate enough to have met some great people in indie rock, and we were based right near New York City, where we had access to the best clubs, which we were able to fill with people who wanted to see our bands.

But we couldn’t get our records into stores, so none of that mattered.  We were paying ungodly amounts of our own money to press records in hopes that a distributor would order 20 or 30 copies at a time, and let them sit in their warehouse in hopes that some record store buyer somewhere would ask for it.

And against that backdrop, at the end of 1996 we wound up Dromedary Records, officially closing the company, writing off the value of our inventory, closing our bank account and PO Box, and discarding hundreds of copies of Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth.

I couldn’t bear to throw away the rest of our records, though.  I packed them up in cardboard boxes, taped them together, and stacked them underneath my basement stairs.

As the year drew to a close, we got some more checks.  Checks from distributors, checks for mailorder purchases.  There was no Dromedary Records anymore, so those checks couldn’t be cashed.  I held them, thinking they would be good memories.  I filed them away.

I wonder if Get Hip still has that money in their account, or if Simple Machines couldn’t get their checkbooks balanced because of me.  If so, sorry.

~ by Al on November 27, 2009.

One Response to “winding down.”

  1. It’s the obligation of lawyers and accountants to mispronounce your company’s name. I think they do it to help make themselves seem that much more like the professionals they ware.

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