Saturday, June 03, 2006

Chains: The New Mom and Pops?

One of our newer bands on the label, Grace Gale, has been perpetually touring since the release of their album. Each subsequent tour gets better and better. But to be honest, given the amount of traffic I see to their media pages, and the amount of merchandise they are selling at shows- getting their records into stores is still quite a bitch.

I could take some potshots at our distributor, but I won't. Mainly becuase I think the situation has to do with the subtle shifts in the marketplace over the last few years.

Formerly my bread and butter, it seems that a great deal of "indie" type stores don't pay as much attention to punk, hardcore, or metal anymore. Sure, there's still Vintage Vinyl and Generation Records, but there's also more like Waterloo. The bulk of their customer base has shifted from the "kids" to an older demographic, who prefer Matador over Trustkill.

As an indie label that has a history of punk and hardcore, I've come to the horrible revelation that mall stores like Hot Topic, TWEC, and Best Buy are more important to sales than my beloved indie retailers.

It makes total sense really: punk, like Hip Hop (or hair metal) in the previous decades, is a more commercially viable form of music, and expanded from it's niche. The kids begin to understand the worth of the artists based on their real or artificially created "bigness." Major chains started bringing in the bigger sellers and the trickle-down titles from labels like Epitaph and Victory. Those labels start really supporting the major chains, and the fans started abandoning the underground. Kids who are fans become conditioned that they can get the music at the local mall, so they don't go out of their way to go to the indies. The customers that remain, are part of the High Fidelity set (like me) that have a romantic connection to that way of life.

My idealogical side cringes at this. Punk is not as easy as buying it at a mall, it's something you work for becuase it's your life, and is certainly not something you do to be popular. Moreover, I feel punk is about supporting the DIY community of retail who supported you.

Alas, I'm a realist. Digital distribution is only about 10% of music sales for a label and you can't sustain a business on those kind of numbers. While I'll support the indies till the day I drop, to continue making records for bands like Grace Gale, Blackout! needs to put records where the kids buy their music, not where I wish they would buy their music. This means that to achieve what we need to do, the label needs to overcome another barrier to entry: having the means to pay thousands of dollars in price and positioning programs to just get the records in the door.


(Would love the cats from Suburban Home and any other label folks to chime in on this.)


Anonymous said...

While I enjoy the small record stores personally, I think if you're in the business of selling records, you need to have them in outlets that customers in your demographic shop - and more and more that is in onestop shops like Best Buy / Target / Hot Topic /etc.

I have had pretty good success working with Hot Topic in placing product in their stores, and they seem pretty willing to work with indies that have something unique to offer them. Best Buy has been a different story.

Also, it makes it a lot easier to just have one or two buyers at these chains that I can make my pitch to, and then send people to "chain x near you" instead of the traditional different buyers at each store, with their different times, and then promoting a cd as maybe being available at the record store in your home town.

Virgil Dickerson said...

I agree with pretty much everything you had to say on the topics of chains and indies. It is a tough time; mom and pops are having a really hard time these days. They can't buy major titles at a price that allows them to be competitive so their margins are smaller. Their sales are slower due to competition from digital retailers, p2p, big box retailers, and burning. Lastly, the music industry on a whole is so oversaturated with releases that your indie store buyer can't possibly keep up with all of the titles. That is why a title like Grace Gale or Ghost Buffalo, in my case, slips through the cracks.

As far as chains and one stops go, we are usually able to get a number of chains on board with the exception of Best Buy, Target, Walmart, etc. If we do get best buy on board, it is usually within our home state or region of the artist and to get them to even take copies in, we must commit to buying a ad in the regional weekly which doesn't really make it worth it to bring in the copies in the first place.

I am really perplexed as to how to get record sales these days. We have the latest Drag the River album coming out tomorrow and we have been able to get around 1,200 copies into the marketplace between Navarre, our chain distro, and our own mom and pop distribution. I am really excited about the record and have high hopes, but even though the band tours all year long and brings out really great crowds, that doesn't always translate into record sales in stores.

I just think that with a 13.98 list price, your purchase is over $15 for an album with tax and who wants to pay that much for an album. You can usually pick up the same album on Itunes for $9.99 plus tax or through Emusic for around $3. Plus with the all you can eat subscription services like Rhapsody and Napster, you usually have access to those songs and don't feel the necessity to purchase the hard copy version.

It seems that it takes so much more in marketing money to capture a fraction of the sales. If I did half the things I do now for our releases back in 1996, we would have sold 10,000 copies, not 1 or 2,000 copies.

I don't have the answers, but will keep chugging along hoping for the best.

jordan pastepunk said...

I'll take the consumer side of this discussion. Just because something CAN be found in a mall store/chain store, does not necessarily mean most people KNOW it is actually there or what the hell it sounds like. That's why there's like 100 full page ads in every issue of Alt. Press... chain distro or not, the message still needs to get out.

The indie retail landscape would be much more romantic if these kinds of stores were readily accessible, but hell, I live just outside of DC, in a region with over 6 million people, and the amount of GOOD indie music stores stocking punk and hardcore records is barely traceable (and SMASH in DC does not count - paying Georgetown DC prices for music is just not worth the visit). It's sad when the only place to find less common punk and hardcore releases here are Hot Topics and Towers (though I'm def. a fan of the latter for their sheer selection size and generally strong catalog, and sales) and used CD stores, and I happen to be one of those people that try to avoid buying used indie CDs b/c it doesn't support the label behind the release. With the chains, at least they're mostly easy to get to, a factor that must be considered in super-congested areas, and there's a decent shot they'll be carrying the release you're looking for if it's new and near a release date (forget catalog though!).

Finally... the Hi-Fidelity model of music shopping is also a casualty of people having busier lives than ever before, and that goes plenty of teens too. Of course I'd love to spend an hour or two pouring over music in a massive music store, but let's face it, for anyone who is working long hours, dealing w/ commutes, and in general, other life issues, sometimes all we have time for is a brief shopping trip where we quickly get the CD we're interested in... provided we're impatient enough to not order it online.

I don't think punk and hardcore is any less authentic in having the music made available in the big chains; not when supposedly "concerned" punks still smoke cigarettes made by Phillip-Morris, devour McDonalds after shows, and talk about their latest pairs of Nike whatevers...

Anonymous said...

you don't fault your distro, but they are part of the problem. they are using those same practices you are critical of. they should be informing you and helping you move forward and compete, instead they sell their larger titles, and throw the rest of you away. good luck dude.

zenofeller said...

why not just forget about the deprecated technology and move indie music wholesale to the internet ?

on the plus, that IS a place where your demographic shops. and lives. and it IS a place nobody can keep you out of. and you need to pay nothing at all.

on the minus, yea, i know. good old days. vinyl was a new thing at some point. would you say people who were early lovers of vinyl were structurally different than you, today ?

move on to the next level, and be one of the guys kids of 2060 will speak in hush tones about.

BW said...

Digital sales only account for about 10% of label revenues. This is why indies cannot totally abandon the old model. There are still lots of people who buy CD's. Also, Digital formats are still treated as a second-tier format even by customers. Selling CD's via the internet still requires shipping and fulfillment, and we're already all over the place as far as Amazon and the niche stores we need to be.

Squashed said...

CD is dead in non metropolitan area. (unless you are in walmart/Best Buy category)

Indie/Punk act? I don't think stuffing stores with CD is going to sell CD. This is how I observe myself buying CD these days.

- I don't plan to stand around indie store flipping through random CD and plunk down $9-13 bucks just to find out if I like the CD or not. It's sample download, blog report, digital (iTune/emusic), live show, buy album directly from artist page, then maybe.. order CD from online store.

- if it is not on the web, chances are I will never find out about a band anymore. (all local indie stores has closed down)

- as I move more and more to digital. I simply has no patient getting a CD just to find out half of the songs in it are really not my liking. (no, I don't plan to train my ear to like an album. I move on to next file)

- What used to be "record label" brand or indie records stores are now "music blogs". Highschool-college students are all on the net and use DAP. CD is over. move on.

I think bottom line. It gets back to basic again. Just like before CD/labels become incredibally profitable selling CDs.

It's back to mix tape, zines, word of mouth, strong live performance... but online.