size doesn’t matter.

Been a while since I’ve made a post here – sorry.  We’ve been busy as hell with Dromedary (just poke around the website and Facebook page to see HOW busy).  Trying to find a balance between telling you what we’re doing and actually doing stuff has not been easy.  With so many ways to communicate with you – Facebook, our website, this blog, the Camelfest blog – it’s been tough not to neglect some of them.

A variety of recent events, though, have gotten me contemplating the concept of size, particularly as it relates to indie rock.

Years ago, even the smallest labels judged their “success” based upon the number of records they’d sold.  Pressing fewer than 1,000 records, or producing fewer than 1,000 CDs was economically unfeasible; it was only through some weird stroke of bad/good luck that forced me to find a new CD plant back in 1994 that I was able to find a plant that would do 500.  Even in the early 1990s, when no less an authority than Steve Albini suggested that selling just 100 records, done on my own terms with complete artistic integrity, was a “success.”

Even today, it’s been difficult to think that way.  And the bands are just as guilty – one of the first thing that each band we’ve worked with since we re-launched has been “How many copies are you going to press?” (bands seem to use the antiquated word “press” the same way I use the word “record;” two vinyl-oriented terms still being used to describe a CD manufacturing process that includes neither “pressing” nor “records”).  Any answer fewer than one thousand seems to be met with disappointment; the idea that somehow CDs can’t be re-pressed if they sell well seems to be an almost foreign concept.

In the interest of cash flow (and space), I would rather not manufacture too many.  Manufacturing too many is a problem that is not easily rectified; you can’t sell more than you can sell, and when they’re sitting in your basement in the boxes they were in when you received them, there’s nothing you can do about the money you spent on them. Conversely, manufacturing too few is a problem easily rectified – you simply make more.  Perhaps it costs a bit more per “unit” to do it that way, but when you’re doing it on the level that we are, forecasting is not quite the mission-critical business function that it is for, say, Sub Pop.  I have hundreds of copies of Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth (our first compilation album from 1992) that would serve as proof that ordering too many records is a mistake that can’t ever be corrected.

Anyhow, bands seem to want to make a lot of records.

When we made The Mommyheads’ Finest Specimens record, we made 1,000 copies.  We hired the best PR firm that we could to help us market the record to press, and we sent out something like 300 copies to various journalists, blogs, websites, radio stations, magazines, and other bands.  We hired a small company to do a little radio promotion, we bought banner ads online and a couple of print ads (though admittedly, my approach to print advertising in indie rock is simply to run an ad in the publications that I want to support because I like them, namely Dagger and The Big Takeover).  We shipped 500 copies to our retail distributor, let everyone we knew that the record was coming out, and then waited for the thunderous applause.

At the same time, we benchmarked another band (which I will not name) with a similar pedigree to the Mommyheads – well-established members with a long history in indie rock.  This band has a decent fan base (though nothing like what the Mommyheads once had), a few members with tons of friends in indie rock and, unlike the Mommyheads, they hadn’t taken a 10-year break inbetween albums.  Their record came out a bit before Finest Specimens and it had decent success in the way of press coverage, including some of the most popular mainstream “alt-rock” websites.

So I became curious after a few months, and I called a contact of mine on the phone and asked him if he’d be so kind as to tell me the SoundScan sales figures on that record.  And he did.

“Ninety,” he said.

“Ninety?” I was incredulous.

“Welcome to 2010.”

I was incredulous, until I started digging deeper into what’s going on with record sales these days.  Some interesting stats that were passed around last summer by Digital Music News:

• In 2009, there were 98,000 albums that sold at least one copy.

• 81,000 of them sold fewer than 100 copies.

Essentially, 80% of records each year sell less than 100 copies.  Granted, a good portion of these are shit records, self-released by really bad bands.  I understand that.  But a portion of them are great records, too, released by awesome indie bands that work their asses off to write fantastic music, kill themselves to deliver amazing live performances, and actually have a strong reputation – sort of like the band I describe above.

What’s happening?

Well, as I can see it, there are a number of things.  It’s not just pirated copies being downloaded illegally – although that’s a big factor.  It’s also not just promo copies that are being re-sold by record reviewers as soon as they receive them in the mail – although that’s a factor as well.

But subscription services like Rdio and Spotify enable you to access vast libraries of music for just ten dollars a month, and listen to them on your home PC or your mobile device.  Last night, I listened to the new record by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks over Spotify, on my iPhone, which is connected to my home stereo via a docking station.  The artist made pennies.

You can listen to full album streams on band and label websites, and you can get free and legal downloads all over the internet.  People upload music to YouTube, and software exists that lets you convert YouTube audio into an MP3.  Pandora lets you set up umpteen million custom radio stations – for free.  If you want to hear a song – any song – simply Google the song title and within seconds you’ll be presented with a way to hear it, usually free.

Fact is that unless you’re married to the idea of actually owning the songs you want to hear, in such a way that enables you to listen to them across multiple devices and in multiple applications, there is really no reason to buy music anymore.

And that doesn’t even begin to consider what happens when music actually gets released.

There are thousands and thousands of websites and blogs out there, all devoted to music.  Back in the 90s I’d send out a few hundred promotional copies of our records and hit virtually every radio station, fanzine and magazine that made sense for us.  Today it’s totally different – I have a mailing list of 1500 blogs and radio stations alone, plus another hundred or so publications that get physical copies.  You plan out your promotional strategy, send out your promos, and work your ass off to expose your music to as many of these publications as possible.

In the lead-up to the record, press starts to trickle in – a few websites will post a free download of your single, maybe some video, perhaps a few words about the artist.  If you’re lucky you’ll get some reviews and maybe an interview or two.  And on the street date, your title shows up on a bunch of lists, a few websites will give away a copy of your single, and some reviews will show up.

And then it’s gone.  Once the record is out, they’re all on to something new.  Like I said, nearly 100,000 records came out last year, and they’re all trying to get exposure.

It’s pretty daunting, the idea of having this new model, where the playing field is supposedly level, and yet the mad rush of music being rolled out every week is impossible to keep on top of.  It’s wonderful and frustrating at the same time.  In the 90s, when every band had a 7″, we referred to the massive amount of 7″s being released as a “glut.”  I don’t know what to call this – calling it a “glut” would be akin to saying the Atlantic Ocean had a pinch of salt in it.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about Steve Albini’s comments, way back when.  About the artistic achievement of just getting a great record out there, much less selling some.  About how a hundred copies sold, in the big picture, is a victory.

Next year, I’m leaning towards making some vinyl records.  Doing something artistic, and doing it in small quantities.  You’ll be able to download stuff on iTunes or Amazon, or from our website, sure.  But I’m talking about super limited quantities, and once they’re sold, they’re sold.  Truly doing it out of inspiration.

My inspiration for this came from Michael Holt of The Mommyheads.  In addition to being in The Mommyheads, Michael is a successful solo artist.  Historically, Michael has followed the same sort of formula The Mommyheads did in the ’90s – release a record and tour to support it, sell as much as possible off the stage, come home, regroup, and do it again.  But Michael has done it on a larger scale – rather than the 30 or 60-day US tours the Mommyheads used to do, Michael tours the world.

Michael has done the touring indie rock guy thing for 20 years, and he does it well.  But, as he said to me at Camelfest, he was looking for something different, something more intimate, where he could connect with people on a deeper level, and something that had a better chance of changing people’s lives with his music.  So he created the “Make Your Own Culture” tour.

“Make Your Own Culture” starts with an idea that’s different from your typical indie rock tour.  Instead of going bananas, trying to find a club that’s got a date open, trying to figure out the best way to fill a room, he’s playing house concerts.

House concerts.

He’ll come to your house.

Why is this brilliant?  Well, first of all, artistically, he creates the most intimate possible environment in which to deliver his craft.  Second, and much more practically speaking, he’s no longer dealing with a show promoter that’s only concerned with how many drinks he sells or how many heads fill the room on a given night. Now he’s dealing with someone who is filling the room as full as they’d like, with the people they want there.  It’s already a friendly space when Michael walks in.  And lastly, and equally practically, I would imagine that Michael has a place to stay at each stop on the tour.

And here’s what’s even better: Michael has a whole bunch of different things he can do at your house.  You can book him to come play songs by Michael Holt, indie rock guy.  You can book him to come play classical piano.  He’ll conduct a cooking class.  Give him some extra musicians and he’ll play chamber music.  You can make music with Michael.  He will basically come to your house and do whatever you want.  It’s an absolutely intimate, creative, warm and amazing way to tour.

And it totally doesn’t matter if his shows don’t get written up in Brooklyn Vegan or if he can’t fill Bowery Ballroom.

You can read Michael’s tour blog – which is fascinating in and of itself – here:

He’s in Europe now.  He’s already been through the United States and Canada, and won’t be back here til early December, when he comes back and spends a few more weeks in the Northeast before taking a break – four solid months of sharing his art, writing about his experiences and – yes, I’ll say it – changing people’s lives.  He is absolutely right – he has got a much better chance of changing people’s lives by performing his art in an intimate environment, where he can connect with each person in the room, and where he can remove the pressures that numbers consistently place on musicians.

By the way, it looks like Michael has some open dates when he gets back.

So that’s what I’m thinking.  Size doesn’t matter.  It’s the connection that you make with the people you reach.  It took me 18 years to figure that out, despite the fact that Steve Albini told me this very same thing so long ago, a piece of unsolicited advice that he sloughed off on a guy he didn’t even know. One of those pearls of wisdom that comes up in casual conversation where the guy who belches it out forgets what he said ten minutes later, but the sponge that soaks it up carries it with him for two decades before it finally rings the bell.

So…anybody wanna buy a beautiful piece of speckled, colored vinyl in a letterpress, gatefold jacket?

~ by Al on November 16, 2011.

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