A Letter to James Talley
EDITOR’S NOTE: James Talley’s essay last issue, on the state of the music industry, was written from the perspective of a longtime independent artist.
What appeared in ND #50 was a much-condensed version of a longer piece Talley had written and circulated via e-mail to a circle of friends in the industry for their comment and reflection.
One of the more cogent responses came from Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin. We asked Irwin to revise and expand his remarks and, in keeping with Talley’s original impulse, he chose to do so in an epistolary form.
It seems likely we will return to this theme in subsequent issues.
You cover so many things which I’ve thought about over the past few years, but which I never would have organized or articulated so well. The socio-political view of the music business is not one you read about very often, but is one which we, as children of the ’60s, grew up with.
We started Rounder as an anti-profit, living-working collective, but of course things changed over the years. At least we still are in a position where we own our own company and don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves. Still, there certainly are things here which are different than they were in our first decade.
When we started Rounder, none of we Rounder founders had any family responsibilities; we now have all been married and two of us have children. We no longer live in the no bedroom, three alcove apartment we all shared in our early years, nor do we live in the first building we purchased, a three-story house where we lived on the top floor, stored our record collection in the listening room on the second, took turns cooking communal meals downstairs, and worked in the basement.
While we are now more successful than in the early days, and are able to do much more for the artists we are dealing with, there are times that I miss the freedom we had to release almost anything we wanted and know we could at least break even. Of course at the time, we had virtually no overhead and it was easy to keep costs down.
Many things have changed over the years at Rounder, in distribution and at retail. In the past few years, I would guess that we’ve turned down a couple of dozen artists who we would have signed even five years ago. While our overhead has increased during this time period, the principal reason for not taking on these projects has been the changing atmosphere in the retail climate and the demands and pressures those changes have created for us.
Many of the important retailers we used to be able to count on to take in at least one of almost any release no longer do so. A large number of the accounts which were most supportive of Rounder and the other independents are no longer in business. Most chains have closed their less-productive locations and cut back the number of titles they carry in the stores which remain open. The number of independent retailers continues to shrink, and the indies were frequently the most supportive accounts for music which was new or not mainstream. Many of the indies which have survived have cut back on the number of music titles they carry and are using the freed space to sell DVDs or even clothing in order to stay profitable.
While we find this frustrating, we realize that they need to do what will keep them profitable and in business. When the accounts cut back, however, the first titles to go are ones considered to be peripheral to the store’s profit base, and that often hurts us and the other independents. On many titles, even when the artist has become better known and is making better recordings than in the past, we are finding that we can’t ship as many of a new release as we did five years ago.
We continue to release recordings from the Alan Lomax Archives as well as newly recorded traditional and roots based albums, but I don’t know how long we’ll be able to continue doing this through normal retail channels. As we love this music and feel it is important to preserve, we are looking at ways to reach the music-buying public in ways which can supplement what we are selling at retail.
We have also begun to make limited-edition pressings which we will primarily sell over the internet and through mail-order and only ship to specialty retailers for whom the releases would be appropriate.
The past two years have been very successful for us overall, and if everything we have scheduled comes out this year, 2004 should be our best year ever. That said, it does appear that we are selling more of the better selling titles and fewer of the slower sellers, a trend we have been noticing for a few years. We are convinced that there are people out there who want to hear and buy the more roots-based music that we have been releasing over the past 33 years. We just need to continue working with those who share our passion as well as finding new partners to bring the music to the music consumers.
Thanks for your efforts to help educate the public. Hopefully we’ll all grow and become better at what we do through the challenges facing the industry at this time.
Best for now,