July 6, 2006
story and photos by BOB DORAN
IT WAS A QUIET SPRING AFTERNOON AT THE Works, one of three independent record stores in Arcata. Bandon Montague Taylor was multi-tasking: working the counter, reviewing orders, looking things up on the computer. With a lean and hungry look, black-dyed hair matching his all-black attire, rings on his fingers and in his ears, he looks like the rock 'n' roller he is. Come evening time he might be pounding on his drums at a local night club, or maybe watching his wife, Aimee, do the same, since both of them are in rock bands, but it's daytime and like most rock 'n' rollers he's paying the bills working his day job.
There's a copy of a new 10-inch vinyl release with a track by Aimee's band, The Monster Women, in a display box on the counter, an old school sort of thing with cuts by several different bands. Somehow it gets us talking about record deals and record distribution, topics Bandon knows at least a little bit about since he's a second-generation Works employee — his dad worked the counter selling records before him. Bandon's been at The Works for 10 years.
On the wall opposite the counter, a special set of shelves holds the "local artists" section, demarked by a hand-painted sign, with row after row of CDs from bands and solo musicians based in Humboldt County. Part of Bandon's job is to deal with the musicians who sell them at the store on consignment. He's good at it, perhaps because he can relate. There's a Monster Women CD on the shelf. The band he's with now, The Ravens, does not have anything on the shelf currently. The garage rockers made a record before Bandon replaced a departing drummer, but it's sold out. He says they're thinking about making another, "once we get enough songs together."
The row after row of plastic discs on the wall are a reflection of the hopes and dreams of stardom for some; for others a record is just a record, a snapshot capturing a moment in their musical lives. The more pragmatic realize that their little collection of songs will not necessarily provide a ticket fame and fortune, or even an escape from the proverbial day job.
Almost all of the CDs are DIY (do-it-yourself) affairs, self-produced in lots of 500, 1,000 or for a big run, 2,000. The Works sells a steady stream, but these are discs more typically offered at a merchandise table in coffeehouses and bars after a band's set, or sold directly from the stage.
In the store's hip hop section, a whole row is devoted to releases from Female Fun Records, a label run by Peter "Thanksgiving Brown" Agoston. He started his company when he was attending Humboldt State working on his journalism degree and living about a block up the street from The Works upstairs in the Pythian Castle, former Arcata headquarters of the long defunct Knights of Pythias, and later the former world headquarters of Peter's label.
I got to know Peter before he graduated from HSU and left town to pursue his hip hop dream closer to the source, in Brooklyn. While he was here he promoted a number of shows, including some with underground hip hop artists he would eventually make records with. (In the interest of full disclosure I should note that Peter also became friends with my son, Spencer and helped him with his fledgling music career, using his contacts to land him a deal with a Japanese label that so far has resulted in one album for Spencer's solo project, Cloaks.)
Bandon is another who always offered encouragement for Spencer's musical aspirations, and that afternoon we'd gone from talking about how my boy is "big in Japan" to discussion of how Female Fun became enmeshed in the grinding gears of big business due to a twice removed relationship with the mammoth Musicland Holding Corp. The giant company that once owned hundreds of Sam Goody and Suncoast stores, including one of each at the Bayshore Mall, went bankrupt in January. It's not something you'd think would have any impact on anyone in Humboldt aside from the stores' employees — but it did. We were discussing how Musicland's failure touched Female Fun when Sari Baker came in the store.
Sari is someone I've known since she was in junior high in McKinleyville. I became aware of her singing talent at a Clam Beach weenie roast a few years back. A mutual friend insisted she sing us a song, and she did, a beautiful a cappella ballad that sounded like some old Celtic classic, which turned out to be something Sari had written herself. She has recorded three self-produced CDs, and had come to The Works from her day job making jewelry at Holly Yashi to check on sales.
Bandon pulled a collection of envelopes from somewhere beneath the counter, found one with Sari's name on it, and as they settled her account, our conversation continued. Sari's interest was piqued at the mention of Musicland — it seemed that she had recently received legal papers from the company regarding a few CDs she'd left with the Sam Goody store at the Bayshore Mall.
"The papers they sent me are a claim form," she explained. "I had 10 CDs in the local store so I guess I was listed as a Musicland creditor."
Right: Bandon Montague Taylor and Sari Baker at the Works.
Under an arrangement she made with the manager of the local store, she would leave a batch of CDs at the store. "They'd send me a check when they'd sold them, and they sold a few."
The papers were a bit of a mystery, since she had assumed her deal with the local manager was something done under the table. "I remember at one point I came in to see how the CDs were doing," she recalled, wondering if they needed more. I couldn't find them anywhere [in the store]. I asked him about it and he said, 'Well, the district manager is coming in this week and we're not really supposed to have any local music, so I've taken it all down until he leaves.' Obviously what he was doing with the local musicians was not completely aboveboard and kosher. It makes me wonder how I was listed in the books. It surprised me that they were even aware of me as a creditor."
The amount she's owed, around $100, is relatively insignificant and, she figures, not really worth a lot of effort on her part. "The way I look at it, theoretically I'm out $25. That's what 10 CDs cost me. I've already made back my money on that CD so I'm not too worried about it. It could be a mixed blessing: Who knows what 99 cent cut-out bin my CD might end up in and who might hear it."
Peter Agoston of Female Fun fame did not fare as well from the fall of Musicland. Of course he had more to lose. Speaking by phone from the back porch of his Brooklyn apartment, he related the story of his underground hip hop label. "I started on a really small scale," he began. "It was basically just me working out of my bedroom."
In the beginning his distribution was like Sari's, as Peter put it, "door to door or hand to hand," selling directly to stores or to individuals. "And in a place like Arcata there are only so many stores to chose from, so in order to ensure distribution on a wider scale I made my first distro deal with Six Months Distribution. They were manufacturing the records for me and they distributed them as well. They took a profit share, some of the revenues."
It didn't last. "They went under a long time ago like many independent hip hop distributors do."
Peter went through "five or so" other distributors before striking a deal with Studio Distribution in 2003. "They were pretty big," said Peter. "They were started by !K7, a German label that came over here."
Techno label !K7 formed Studio almost 10 years ago to gain a distribution foothold in the U.S., then expanded adding dozens of small indie labels specializing in electronica, reggae, world music and hip hop recordings, both CDs and vinyl.
"My deal was what's called P&D — pressing and distribution," said Peter. "It's now considered somewhat archaic because it set it up so that the label would finance everything."
It wasn't an easy contract to land. Peter had to come up with artists who were relatively big fish in the hip hop world. His first disc with Studio was an album called Itstrumental by Prince Paul from Handsome Boy Modeling School. He served as executive producer on two more albums with Studio, most recently, Experience & Education by Sadat X, released late last year. Then quite suddenly, early this year, the company closed its doors.
"I think one of the reasons they folded was all the P&D deals, primarily with the hip hop stuff. That's a desired deal for hip hop labels. They financed all of the manufacturing as well as distribution and even give us a cash advance when you turned in a master. They were housing 40 or 50 labels there and some that they'd invested a lot of money into had projects that didn't sell at all, which left them in the red."
Most of that money was owed to Navarre Corporation, a much larger multimedia publishing and distribution company serving, according to their corporate website, "a wide spectrum of national and regional retailers [with a] customer base that includes mass merchants, specialty stores, wholesales, e-tailers, national and regional one-stops."
Among those national retailers was the above mentioned Musicland. When Musicland filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 in January, they wrote off $12.7 million in debt to Navarre. That was when Navarre brought Studio's operation to a dead stop. In March Musicland completed a deal with Trans World Entertainment — the second-largest record distributor in the world, in terms of outlets, surpassed only by Wal-Mart — selling its assets for upwards of $120 million. Studio, on the other hand, simply disappeared — ceased business, its employees dismissed without notice. Female Fun and the dozens of others indie labels they had deals with were left out in the cold.
"I'm still in litigation — I'm trying to get hundreds of CD and records back from Navarre and I won't get them back because of the fact that Studio owed them a million plus," said Peter. "[Navarre] liquidated my product that was at Studio's Minneapolis warehouse."
Because his P&D deal made Studio part owner of the recordings, it's unlikely that Peter will ever see them again. Like Sari's 10 CDs, his may show up in some cutout bin. Navarre's response to his legal queries was to ask him to sign a deal with them.
"I didn't want to do that," said Peter. "I felt that that would ensure that whatever future releases I had on Female Fun would just go toward filling this black hole of debt that Studio had accumulated."
The Female Fun label may or may not survive the debacle. "It's possible to come back," said Peter, "but I've pulled the plug on a lot of projects I was planning for this year. I may do one record, but mostly I'm focusing on other things, including lining up distribution through another company, Koch. I'm being encouraged not to use Female Fun as the label [name] when I release the next record."
Admitting that he does not totally understand the legal problems that could arise from continuing to operate under the label name he spent years creating and branding, Peter is unsure what he'll do next. He figures at least he learned a valuable lesson.
"It's not the first time I've seen this happen — distros have gone under before — I've learned that nothing is forever in the record industry. Knowing your contracts inside and out is crucial, especially if it's a multi-corporate deal with numerous companies that own a piece of each other. I guess I was a bit naïve going into the deal with Studio. Next time I'll be much more careful."
Bandon was not familiar with the Musicland/Studio story, but it did not surprise him in the least. "That's always been the way this business works," he said. "Distribution companies have come and gone one after another for as long as I can remember. It's a cutthroat business all around."
Not long after my talk with Bandon and Sari, and with Peter's story fresh in my mind, I received an announcement from Terrence McNally, writer and advertising manager for the Arcata Eye (and a part-time rocker) regarding a new local label.
"South Spit Records is the foggy-brainchild of Roshawn Beere, Steve Bohner and Terrence McNally," it began, "conceived as a vehicle to promote and distribute the Arcata/Eureka area's thriving rock scene — as well as branch out through the Northwest region."
I arranged to meet with Terrence and Steve at the South Spit Records office upstairs from a hydroponics store in Arcata's industrial zone. Steve, who sports a longer beard than anyone else I know, showed up in work clothes, carpenter's pants and a T-shirt, having just finished his day's labor with his business, Alchemy Construction; Terrence arrived looking the casual yet businesslike ad salesman he is, a far cry from the rocker lurking within. On certain nights Terrence handles lead vocals in the semi-tongue-in-cheek Judas Priest cover band Sad Wings of Destiny. Steve is the SWoD drummer.
The South Spit "office" turned out to be more a storeroom, a windowless, oversized closet space off a complex of equally windowless practice rooms inhabited by several local bands. The room adjacent to the office holds gear for Dragged By Horses, one of several heavy rock bands signed to South Spit. Another is rented by The Ravens, the bluesy garage rock band in which Bandon plays drums. The primary renter is The Hitch, a stoner rock band that includes Steve on drums and Roshawn on bass, although the band has not been playing much of late since guitarists Jeff Langdon and Greg McKnight are new dads, one with twins. While there are a couple of desks in the office, both were completely covered with boxes of CDs and T-shirts. We decide to talk outside.
Right: Steve Bohner ad Terrence McNally of South Spit Records.
Steve began by explaining that the label actually got its start a few years ago when The Hitch released its first eponymous CD. The expansion has been recent, adding a premier release by their neighbors Dragged By Horses, a CD by Lopez, a five-piece punk band from Portland, Ore. and a one-off by Washington-based trio Mos Generator.
"We know a lot of bands here; we actually practice next to 'em," he continued. "And being on the road we met bands all the time who were kind of in the same predicament we were. The guys from this band Honky say we're 'seasonal regionals.' We'd travel as far north as Seattle and down to L.A. but nowhere off the West Coast. We played with all sorts of bands and we'd think, 'These guys rock!' But they didn't have labels."
The non-Hitch aspect of South Spit was inspired, at least in part by The Hitch's baby-induced slow down. "Roshawn and I talked about it. It's kind of hard to get that music out of your blood. You want to do something with it. If you're not playing music why not put records out."
The three musicians formed a partnership and approached their friends Dragged by Horses, knowing from first-hand experience that, as Steve puts it in the most basic terms, "They rock."
The band had put together an album, paid for studio time and put together a high quality, ready for CD master. "But they had no label," said Steve. "They could have made their own label or tried to shop it. We said we'll pay for the pressing, the artwork and packaging, just give us the master. Then we worked out a way to split the profit. We're not to the point where we can pay for the [music] production itself."
Mos Generator's South Spit release has a slightly different story. Steve got to know them through touring — specifically, a West Coast tour The Hitch did with Hell's Belles, an all-woman AC/DC cover band. Tony Reed, Mos' vocalist/keyboard player and studio wizard is married to one of the Belles. "We did 15 shows with Mos and Hell's Belles and we loved hearing them night after night. We stayed in contact with Tony and he sent us a burn of their new album, The Late Great Planet Earth. They were signed by Small Stone in Detroit, a good label in our world," Steve explained, "but they wouldn't pick up the record — they said it was too experimental. We loved it. The three of us sat and talked and said, 'If they let us, let's put that thing out, put it out on South Spit."
They arranged for manufacturing of 500 copies of both the Dragged by Horses and Mos Generator albums, investing from $1,200-$1,500 in each batch. Boxes full of CDs came in. Now what?
"That's the question," said Terrence, who has been studying up on the fine points of distribution. In our e-mail exchanges I'd told him Peter's Studio tale. He wrote back saying, "I'm reading a fairly decent 'indie label startup' book. It's basically a series of similar horror stories."
So far they have done some small-scale advertising of merch in the Eye, where they undoubtedly get a good rate. And they've established the requisite website, www.southspitrecords.com, where one can purchase CDs and T-shirts. Terrence arranged for sales through one of Arcata's other independent record stores, The Metro.
"Dragged by Horses puts theirs out there on their own," Steve noted. "They've been working it: They have them at People's [Records] and The Works."
"And they're totally undercutting us," Terrence interjected with a laugh. "We don't have Mos in People's?" Steve asked Terrence. "We should get that going."
They have been looking into distro options for beyond Arcata. "Right now our main outside distribution is through Stoner Rock," Terrence noted.
"Stonerrock.com distributes The Hitch and Mos so far," said Steve, describing the Idaho-based company as a "fairly large online heavy rock, stoner rock portal. It's basically a couple of guys that run it. They say we'll give you a listen and decide if we want to sell what you've got."
Stonerrock.com's website includes a retail outlet (All That's Heavy Store) and wholesale distribution (All That's Heavy Direct). The site also includes a streaming radio station (K666), an MP3 jukebox with on-demand samples from submitted albums, a user-generated concert photo gallery and an online magazine.
"It's an online resource that a lot of people gravitate to," said Terrence. "If you get the thumbs up from them, you're in."
While it's a step forward, the site serves only a specific niche market. The South Spit crew wants more.
"We want distro," said Steve. "We would love to see a Dragged by Horses 'Made in Humboldt' CD in New Orleans and New York City. That's the challenge: to export Humboldt County musically."
What will it take? "Time, money and good bands. The hard part is getting established. I think we're learning how to run a record company, but we have a way to go."
"You know, we all have day jobs," added Terrence. "It's more of a hobby for us now. We have to find time to massage contacts and we're short on time."
And as they are well aware, caution is required when it comes to dealing with the bigger players in the game, as evidenced by the Female Fun story.
In part because he's the kind of guy with a down-to-earth goals, Steve does not seem to fear similar problems. "Personally, I don't care about having my music in malls or that kind of thing. I'd rather hear from some kid in Yugoslavia saying. 'I found your shit online and this fuckin' rocks,' than to have 3 million sold at Sam Goody or Target. I don't want to be the Budweiser of rock."
"We'd rather be the hand-crafted local brew," Terrence concluded.
As the music business continues to evolve in the digital era, there should be more room for small labels like South Spit, Female Fun and dozens of others active in the Humboldt arena — too many to name.
Others in the local scene are pursuing parallel routes. Pete Ciotti and his bandmates in Nucleus have a longstanding relationship with Leeway's Home Grown Music Network, an online music retailer along the lines of Stonerrock.com but aimed at the jamband scene.
Bandon pointed out that the local Celtic band Good Company sells its latest record through the online store CD Baby, who in turn have a deal with one of the major one-stop suppliers in the country, Super Discount CDs. "That gets them in stores everywhere," said Bandon, "at least it can."
Local hip hop artists Potluck, Garth Vader and Elision are also associated with CD Baby, as is Dragged by Horses, which may mean that Steve's dream of that record being in big city stores may just be a matter of convincing people to order it.
There are a number of local artists who have gone on to national fame and fortune: The boys of Mr. Bungle are an obvious example. Producer Tom Rothrock made multi-platinum records for Beck and The Foo Fighters, among others. Chanteuse Brisa Roche, known locally as Valentine, recently landed a major label deal in Europe, and her CD, The Chase, will be released in the U.S. on EMI come August. But all of them had to leave Humboldt to make their way.
Is it possible to make it big or at least big enough, without leaving home? That remains to be seen. At this point the old adage, don't quit your day job, still seems to apply.
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