Producing a recording session… mixing and mastering the tapes… getting lacquers cut, then metal “mothers” and stampers made… having actual records manufactured… that was the easy part, as I was soon to learn with Trix. The hard part was the end of that particular food chain, to whit, getting paid. I suppose that it all smacked of catch-22-ism. You put out the albums and into the hands of distributors. They, in turn and in theory, spread them around to retailers (if they’re good at what they do), collect money from the stores, and pay said manufacturer (the record label) from that. Each step along the way then made about US$1.00/sale… manufacturer, distributor, retailer. But getting paid – aye, there’s the rub!
If a distributor is a good one and knows “their” area retailers, they get records into appropriate stores, place promotional copies with them for in-store play, often a great form of inexpensive advertising (O&S 39). If they are not good (for you), they scatter the albums out into their marketplace indiscriminately: they end up returning most of their ordered stock which went everywhere/nowhere re: retailers, and dump their promos with their church bazaar (taking a hefty tax write-off in the bargain). The abilities of any distributor are quite variable, from the “gotta haves” through to the “gotta get rid ofs”. A small label such as Trix placed with an independent distributor was just one amongst many jostling for position in the bins, and later for payment. While stuff is shipped to a distributor in response to their order with payment supposedly within 30/60/90 days, the realities of it all are quite different… and depressing.
Independent distributors were (and probably still are) an equally motley lot in comparison to the independent record labels. They run the gamut from folks who really like the music that they sell and work hard to spread the word to those who are solely there to sell something… it could be anything, they just happened to stumble on records as a commodity to sell and make money. The latter could care less about the music. Distributors also operated on a thin fiscal margin, so they tended to pay their labels with “hot” product first, leaving the likes of Trix to ride for many a month. Once I got really stuck into the business, six months was considered fast payment! One could hold back future issues in an attempt to force some payment, but that never had much of an impact as a strategy for us littlies at all.
At one point, Trix Records, Inc. had something like fifteen distributors world-wide, including Australia. (I never got into Japan, which might have been a successful market for the material.) Most of them were slow to pay, although Europeans were better than the Americans, with some even paying up front! Each distributor tended to “work” one region of the US, or, in Europe, one country. It would be (at best) a territory that they knew and understood well if they were any good at what they were doing. When a distributor knows their retail outlets on a personal basis, they can place albums where they are most likely to be sold. It’s a slow learning curve for them, but it pays dividends to them (and by extension to the labels) in the long term as retailers begin to trust their judgment. As history has shown us, that approach is not considered adequate and expansion of territory often results, usually with disastrous results; expansion is attempted in order to take over another’s territory – not good policy.
The problem lies with the examples set by the major record companies with their widespread in-house distribution networks, something possible only with their massive financial resources. Their catalogues are large, with lots of quick turn-over product (not the stuff indies are generally made of). They were (and still are) the first to be paid by a retailer, since they provide the big hits. Being big looked enticing, but an independent distributor with national or world-wide aspirations faced the same difficulties that a small- or medium-sized record label did when they had a hit… insufficient cash-flow. They inevitably became over-extended and went belly-up (the most recent example at the time of this writing that I am aware of is Distribution North America (DNA) [ca. 2000] as their bubble burst into serious bankruptcy.
When an independent distributor goes out-of-business, the labels are left unpaid and with unsold and unreturned stock in limbo, at best. Sometimes the records would “come home”, but that was not the usual case, and payment never took place after the filing, in my personal experience. The un-returned albums often vanished, to turn up in unexpected places (and not just church fetes). I have spoken to other labels over the years that have gotten “returns” from distributors of albums that have been out-of-catalogue for years, or albums that that particular distributor never ordered. Curiouser and curiouser!
Returns, a sensitive issue. In the old days of the 78 (and breakage), a distributor could return unsold stock for credit up to, say, 90% of the number of records shipped to them. Once vinyl came into prominence, the usual return policy moved up to 100%, as the product was supposedly unbreakable and could theoretically be re-sold by the label. It turned the whole process into sending records out to distributors on “spec” or approval, rather than as a straight business transaction. That meant that a distributor could return all of the records that they had ordered at any point in time for full credit! In the example cited in the previous paragraph, the label also received returns of more than 100% from the same distributor, as that distributor had picked up the unsold/unpaid for stock that had gone to another, defunct distributor. It is and was a very imperfect system open to abuse but it was the only game in town, as they say, at that point in time. DIY and the ‘net were not even in obvious R&D in those days… there were just no alternatives for getting a record out to its public. It’s no better now from what I hear, and it’s surely worse for a small, independent record label. Sure, one could sell personally to retailers out of the trunk (boot: UK) of one’s car, like J.M. Fulbright, or Bruce Iglauer at the birthing of Alligator, but that takes chutzpah and salesmanship, two of the many personal attributes I lacked then, and now. I never had “Sales manager” or “Advertising Director” on my business cards! With good reason – it would have been a lie.
Trix Records rose mildly during the mid-seventies, peaked(?) gently, and fell off equally as mildly over about a decade or so. By that time I was at The University of Pennsylvania at folklore school and the “operation” had slowed down to run on available catalogue items in my basement. My own financial situation was such that I could not afford to release new albums or even press up more copies of the old ones. I tried to the best of my (limited) abilities, but was the wrong person at the wrong time with the wrong “product” to sell. There was (and still is) nothing wrong with the quality of the records… I still stand by those seventeen albums. They were good blues records, well produced, with good sound and adequate packaging, etc. I’m just not a sales person … it ain’t in me. It all ended, essentially, with an audible whimper as it all slowly ground to a halt in the mid-eighties… entropy or inertia, I don’t care to know which at this point in time.
There was no serious market for the artists or their material by that point in time – not that there ever was that much of a one. The fact that there’s enough “top shelf” recording for another forty to fifty albums is nice, but I’ve learned my lesson. Never again… that’s for someone else to do (who will pay me to put things together for them)… just not for me to get on that horse one more time. I take “Mr. Down Child”’s warning seriously! One time, only!
Peter B. Lowry
Published in edited form: BLUES & RHYTHM 257; Mar 2011 – p. 13