Monday, June 1, 2009

Time To Fight (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, June 1 - This originally posted on, 1/14/02.


Last year's bad numbers are starting to trickle in for the music industry, and for all of us sluggards and ineptoids and fiscally unqualifieds in the extreme shallow end of this profession, a ray of vindication shines forth. It's not our fault! Or at least not directly. The reports are still confusing. Many levels of badness had already accrued long before September. Four major independent distributors went belly up in 2001. Many labels - including the occasionally prestigious Man's Ruin and Grand Royale - went out of business. A disturbing 83.2% spike in the sales of New Age albums is, as of this writing, unaccounted for. And the top 3 songs of 2001, according to radio airplay monitor Broadcast Data Systems, were by Staind, Train and Lifehouse.... three obviously fictitious band names. Who is behind this??

Last May, Billboard ran some sobering figures pulled from the previous year's SoundScan data. In 2000, 71.1% of all albums were on independent labels, over 200,000 titles. Even with the smallest of pressings (1,000 per), this means the birth of over two hundred million new objects in just that one year and for just that one category. But only 16.6% of the cash from album sales actually went back to these independent labels. And the average sale for indie labels was only 635 units per title.

There was a time when I would have put that word - unit - in quotation marks, signifying a certain level of ironic detachment, a knowing wink to the reader. But I now understand that this attitude may be part of the problem. There are thousands of identical American independent label owners suffering an identical level of mushy pride in their own product. It's an infectious presumption, and one that gets passed up the food chain. Says Chris Morris, author of the May 12 Billboard article; I'm sure distributors would like to believe that they are in the sales business, but, if truth be told, they are in the shipping and receiving business, and the essence of their game is sending large numbers of unwanted CDs back and forth from one shipping dock to another. Last October, a Fed Ex truck delivered several thousands pounds of deleted titles to my garage, where they now age in darkness. The exactly 666 copies of VMFM 30 that looked so charming on my distributor statements year after year have now become the physical embodiment of 666 actual records. Small cartoon stars shoot from my lumbar spine just thinking about it. Unlike drycleaners, gas stations, supermarkets or banks, independent record labels are governed largely by emotion - love of their own product. And, unlike most other businesses, the costs of production have dropped exponentially in the last decade. But all other economic rules still apply. The results of this experiment in unchecked manufacturing have been comically disastrous. But the conclusion is grim. Many of us will have to go out of business so that others of us may continue to exist.

Me, personally? I just feel wronged. And the next time I find a Rah Bras CD in the "Clearance" bin at the Virgin Megastore in Ontario Mills Mega mall? With one of those "All Sales Final" stickers? Richard Branson better steer his next balloon trip clear of this hemisphere.