And so by 1970 my masochistic tendencies began to come forward in a public way with the creation of Trix Records. What with all the material I had recorded the previous year being good in both performance and recording quality, I had become uncomfortable sitting on the tapes (and not because of the box corners!). I had already put forth a number of album possibilities to “another label”, but their reply was baffling and unsatisfactory. A combination of Eddie Kirkland cuts with some by Tarheel Slim (both solo) had nothing in common save my being at the controls. And so it began – I made the masochistic decision to start a record company myself and put the stuff out in a fashion that I felt made sense. In for a penny, in for a pound… many of them!
First off I quickly had a couple of 45s made up, one by the aforementioned Kirkland and one by Baby Tate. Their critical reception in the few blues journals then extant was encouraging (although sales never were and so, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to LP albums I go. I showed up at the second annual NAIRD conference (1) in Memphis, singles in hand, to learn what had to be done to do it properly. Much of the advice was useful and much was followed… except for “don’t do it, you fool”! In order that the whole thing be taken seriously, I decided to issue four LPs at one time, for there were too many examples of one-album corpses littering the landscape and that seemed the best way of not being tarred with that particular brush. Even though I hadn’t a clue, it was necessary for me to appear as if I did and to indicate in some way that I was in it for the long haul and not going to disappear overnight.
Starting a record company is still very easily done and it was so then: It’s after you have “product” in hand that it becomes difficult! Firstly, you are always operating “on spec” with the distributors, directly or indirectly. The latter is via an industry-wide returns policy of 100% at any time (and I’ve heard of returns being higher than that!). That’s how the soundtrack LP set from the film “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band” shipped triple platinum to the distributors and later returned well over double… it ain’t over ‘til it’s over (and the mass-challenged woman has sung). A sale is not always a sale – I have spoken with folks at labels more recently and have heard stories of them getting returns of albums that had been out-of-catalogue for years! Nothing is certain in the business.
To get paid, one needs a constant supply of new “product” to ship to distributors… that way you may get paid for the previous releases and keep the stream flowing. Even that is often not sufficient – consider the fact that the death knell for an independent label often was (and is) a hit record!!! They could not afford the cash necessary to press up the numbers needed to respond to the demand, for label printers and record pressing plants essentially demand (and get) payment up front. That could lead to an over-extension and subsequent bankruptcy, or a sale or lease arrangement with a bigger label (2). Either way, the original label will have lost money. You don’t believe me? Go look through Bob McGrath’s THE R&B INDIES volumes and see for yourself! For me, getting payment was a laborious and painful process, one I liken to having an appendectomy via the ear canal.
There are other niceties concerning the record business that have an impact on the artists. One of them is called “charge-back”. An artist would (if lucky) get some sort of advance on sales royalties at the time of recording and nothing more after that initial payment. That was because of charge backs, still a common practice. It means that the recording artist will get no further royalty payments until other album expenses incurred by the record company are paid for out of record sales’ profits. That usually includes studio costs, the salaries of engineers and producers, the fees to side men, those for mastering, printing, and pressing, record promotion and publicity… the list goes on and on for a big label involved in the music wars. So those legion stories of the poor Black folks never getting any more money, even though their record was on the radio (charge back) or in the juke boxes (charge back) are true and based on industry practice. The company’s risk is diminished under that system unless they’re absolute idiots and put out a Sgt. Pepper soundtrack in ridiculous quantities. The answer is “charge backs”. When Jay Miller bought a station wagon (estate wagon: UK) for Lightnin’ Slim to get to gigs, the cost of the car was added to the charge backs owed by Slim. Nadine Cohodas’ book on Chess Records(3) spells out further examples of this taking place with Chicago-based artists. It was just good and accepted business practice.
Nobody ever accused me of being a good business-person and so I did away with such things. In truth, I’d never heard of charge backs and so I never factored it into my contracts (yes, folks, I even had contracts!). A Trix contract usually described a certain sum as advance(4) on royalties calculated at $0.25/LP sold up to a total of 2000 “units” sold and then at $0.50/LP sold thereafter. That left promotional copies out of the loop and focused on actual sales figures. I figured if I ever sold 2000 copies, I’d then be in a position to share equally in the profit. Roughly that was US$1.00/LP sold to a distributor and 50:50 seemed to be an honorable way to go. This may sound muddle-headed, but it made sense to me at the time and it certainly flew in the face of standard industry practices, but it just seemed the right thing to do (5).
As I’ve said, I am not now, nor ever have been anything like a business person… it’s an innate genetic lack on my part that is incurable! I began the label to get some extremely good artists heard by the world at large… either rampant hubris or a fool rushing in. I prefer to see myself as the latter! Of course, being master of good timing, I began my foray when the last “blues boom” was on its way out (and sold out before the next one began) and I lost money over that decade that I was active. This includes factoring in the payment from Joe Fields: the only year that Trix made any money was that year that I sold the LP masters to Muse. Spread over a decade, I still lose. At that point, I had lost the oomph to keep on keeping on and other things in life took precedence (like my son, Julian). Never again will I do anything like that – I’ll sell the 70-80 CD albums possible from my unreleased material to someone else and not be a masochist again. I’ve learned my lesson, but I’ll keep my tapes until then.
- (1) see footnote 2 in O&S 18.
- (2) See the book HIT MEN for more on this.
- (3) WEAVING GOLD OUT OF BLUES by Nadine Cohodas.
- (4) The biggest advances were $500.00 paid to Lockwood, Homesick, and Honeyboy, and also Kirkland (for an as-yet unreleased third album, a studio affair).
- (5) I also gave gratis to each artist 10% of any pressings to sell as they saw fit… at gigs if they were performing musicians. For those, often more were given.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM