Song #50: Penguins Kill Polar Bears – “Geiger”

October 12, 2020
Song #50: Penguins Kill Polar Bears – “Geiger”

Getting a record out in the 1990s was an investment, a combination of sweat equity and actual real, financial stretching. It involved promotion and distribution and in order to call your company a “label” you needed to have both of those things, as well as actual records or CDs to send them. I still remember vividly an early phone call with a cigar-chomping music biz asshole who was managing a band we had briefly considered for our first compilation; at one point I referred to Dromedary as a record label and he interrupted me, saying “Whoa. Dromedary is not a record label, it’s just an idea you have. It’ll be a record label when you have boxes of CDs in your living room.”

As much as the guy was an asshole, having CDs in our living room became our early barometer of whether or not Dromedary was a label. Then, it became whether or not we were getting press, or radio play. Then, it became whether we had distribution; whether a record store could actually find our records and order them. The one thing that all those measuring sticks had in common was a physical thing that had music on it, an artifact you could put on a turntable or CD player.

When we re-launched in 2010, our initial idea was simple: our pal Rich Masio worked for a digital distributor, and offered to give us the ability to get the old music on iTunes and emusic so that people who were reading the stories in this blog would have access to the music about which I was writing. We had some early discussions with friends – and some interactions right here on this blog – about whether or not we’d release new music, and whether we’d do it digital-only, but it always felt like it wasn’t a real release unless there was a record, and unless we were making some effort to get those records into stores and such.

The 2010 compilation Make the Load Lighter was both the first record of “new” music we’d released and our first digital-only project, but at some level it didn’t feel like a “real” release – we were reacting to an emergency, and utilizing technology to sell music quickly so that we could raise money for victims of a natural disaster. It seemed to be the perfect use of the technology – aggregating music that was mostly already available elsewhere, and trading it to people for ten bucks that we’d donate to charity.

Later that year, we released Jihad Me At Hello as a digital-only release, but again, the circumstances were extenuating: it was an EP consisting of previously-released material that we were giving away for free. A free download – again, perfect use of the technology.

In mid 2011, however, the guys in Penguins Kill Polar Bears approached us with the idea of releasing a digital single. Two brand-new songs, to help the band promote a UK tour.

I weighed the idea of releasing a record that wasn’t really a record against doing another project with these guys I really liked, that I hoped would someday come to the US and tour, and decided to go ahead with it.

The band made a video for the “A-side” (what do you call an A-side of a thing that has no sides?) called “Sapling,” which I didn’t understand or love, but got lots of love on YouTube so what do I know?

I get the feeling that Fraser is better at drinking than at taking punches

It was the “B-side,” “Geiger,” that was my favorite. Sort of a slow dirge with programmed rhythms and lots of echoey feedback, it was a departure for the band, though probably not something they’d play live because no drums. Sort of an “end of the night” song.

We put it out there in the world, but nobody really noticed (at least here in the US; in Scotland it got a lot of attention). The band never wound up coming to the US, which was a drag – in 2014 they released a full-length called Building Homes from Broken Bones on their own, and eventually broke up. The band was gone by the time we finally met Fraser in person (the day we met him was December 2, 2018, by the way, thanks Facebook), he had begun playing in a band called Freddie Quell, they’re pretty excellent, check them out.

“Sapling”/”Geiger” is the only digital single that we’ve put out all by itself, for sale. We’ve had other digital-only releases, but they were all singles issued either to promote a forthcoming record, or as some sort of gimmicky free giveaway. I can’t say that I’ll never do it again, but it just feels like in my case, there’s something missing if I’m not actually making a tangible artifact. It doesn’t feel like a record label. CDs in my living room, and whatnot…

The problem with that is, of course, economics. In the 1990s, indie labels that had bands people had heard of or bands that could tour could fairly easily sell one or two thousand copies of a record in a year. Even five hundred was doable – we’d certainly achieved that number with bands that didn’t tour, and we sold several thousand copies of the Mommyheads’ Flying Suit CD in 1994 and 1995.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve had enough disturbing and enlightening conversations about how record sales work these days to understand that, for a label like Dromedary to exist, we just can’t manufacture records (or CDs, or anything else) at the kind of quantities we did in the 1990s, or even in the early 2010s, and we can’t spend the kind of money on promotion we once did. We’ve spoken with labels and fairly well-known artists that are now selling 50 or 75 copies of their albums sometimes, and many small labels are now routinely asking their bands to pay for their own physical pressings because sales are so low. On top of that, it’s extremely difficult to get press coverage without hiring the right PR firm, and the music promotion machine is such that, if you do get the “right” press, that means you get some articles written about your record in the days leading up to its release, and again on the release date itself – but once the record is out, that’s pretty much the end for all but a handful of releases that come out each year.

We’re still not typically asking our bands to pay for their physical pressings (partially helped by the fact that we release a lot fewer titles each year than some labels), but we’ve had to change how we release records. We have begun regularly releasing beautiful lathe-cut records in small quantities, supplementing some of them with CD singles that we send out as promotional-only copies. We handle our own marketing, and have found that most websites and journalists don’t care (or even read our emails), and so we’ve begun sending small numbers of personal, promotional emails out to the people who we know will read them. When we look for a “premiere” of a single, we’re no longer reaching for the biggest website with the widest readership – we’re reaching out for the ones we know appreciate what we do, and who would be interested in our stuff. CDs and cassettes will become things we release again, and we’re looking at ways to do really short runs of vinyl.

The record industry will always change, and the artists and small labels will always be the ones who bear the brunt of the pain that happens when things downsize, or when sales decline. It’s really important that you pay attention, and actually buy music – or one day, nobody will be around to make it anymore.

Here’s the digital single of “Geiger,” by Penguins Kill Polar Bears. Just to give you an idea of how little we’ve come to expect to make money at this, I’m comfortable enough to tell you that we are donating every penny of profit from every download we sell in the entire month of October, and it will not hurt us financially. But it WILL help the candidates in the swing states being supported by Swing Left, so maybe today is a good day for you to buy a record.

~ by Al on October 12, 2020.

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