EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: A Close-Up View of The Gambler’s Comeback
Twenty years ago I was the head of sales for an independent record distributor based in Minneapolis that has since faded from existence. When I joined the company, one of our divisions was quite successful in the software industry, providing CD-ROMs to companies such as Circuit City and CompUSA. Another division produced live radio programming that was streamed over the internet, an idea that was either too early, too late, or too bad. It tanked.
Our founder, president, and chairman of the board was a ball of fire whose experience and passion was focused on the music, even though we brought in only about 25 percent of the revenue and hardly any profit to the company’s bottom line. He was quite a character, a larger-than-life figure with big dreams and nerves of steel. A dream chaser and gambler.
In baseball terms, he was great at consistently hitting doubles and triples, with the occasional home run. But he wasn’t satisfied with just being a consummate utility player, he wanted to hit grand slams whenever he got up to the plate. Over the 10 years I worked for him, I was forever being dragged into pitch meetings, which boils down to someone with usually crazy idea flying in and trying to convince us to fund them. It was my least favorite part of the job because the boss seemed to fall in love with every musician or project that would come our way.
While many record labels and distributors were always looking for “the next big thing,” or at least something new and exciting to build on, we seemed to specialize in what I thought of as chasing memories. Which translates into meeting with a never-ending parade of stars with faded glory and fame, smooth as silk executives whose successes were long past, thieves, and con artists. I must admit, it was always highly entertaining, and the expense account dinners were mighty fine. But a year later, when you realized you’d lost a few million dollars with nothing to show for it, well, that part sucked.
At the end of the ’90s, the music industry began a period of consolidation with just five corporations controlling roughly 80% of the business, and in order to maximize profits the artist rosters were cut and older musicians were sent packing. The wider use of the internet, kids playing video games rather than listening to music, and the expansion of cable television all cut into what I called “disposable mind share.” And just to add context, Napster was founded in June of 1999.
That year I recall sitting in a suite at a Las Vegas hotel for several days of pitch meetings at an industry convention. One of the first was with Richie Havens, a great song interpreter who was kind, gentle, interesting, intelligent, and engaging. He just needed a little money for studio time, distribution, and some marketing assistance. And he was followed by Gary Wright — I’m sure y’all remember “Dreamweaver” — who came in with his son on a project they were doing in his home studio. There was a neighbor of Brian Wilson who played us some rough demos and then disappeared shortly thereafter, and a representative of Suge Knight, who was in prison at the time but still running a label on the side. Lots of jobless execs who claimed to be connected to this one and that one, all looking for just a little money to close a deal. It was a gruesome time.
Now, it would be quite wrong of me to leave the impression that we were a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. We had a long list of very profitable relationships, our office halls were lined with dozens of gold and platinum records, and we represented many respected labels. Heck, we even handled No Depression‘s two sampler discs that were sold in the early to mid-2000s through Dualtone Records, still a very successful entity in Nashville.
Kenny Rogers was looking for a way to put lightning in a bottle again when he came calling. He’d been in the spotlight for over 40 years, from his days in the New Christy Minstrels, leading the First Edition, and then a solo career that was red hot through the late ’80s. He’d won countless awards, acted in film and television, was an accomplished photographer, enjoyed restoring old Southern mansions, sold guitar lessons on television, founded a chain of chicken restaurants, and sponsored an auto racing team.
When he made the trip to Minneapolis to pitch us an idea for his comeback, we listened.
His last Grammy award had been in 1988, and he’d since recorded a jazz album, hosted a show called The Real West on cable television, and bought and performed at the Grand Theater in Branson, Missouri. In 1996 he was the first musician to exclusively record and sell an album on the QVC shopping channel and it was a huge success. Although we were in the era of country music’s “hat acts” like Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black, Kenny had something special. With a bunch of new songs and producer, like all successful entrepreneurs all he wanted from us was one thing: money. It was a solid investment.
“The Greatest” became the number one music video on Country Music Television in 1999 and a Top 40 record on country radio. He released the album She Rides Wild Horses in 2000 and it landed in the Top 10 with three hit singles. You might think that at this point in his career he would have tired of putting in the work, but he was a professional. On a cold, snowy day in Detroit we did an early morning in-store appearance at Borders Books and Music that several hundred people came out to, visited the Kmart executives in Troy, stopped at a couple of wholesalers and stores to say howdy, and promoted a Christmas musical he was doing in town for several nights. He later took it to Broadway’s Beacon Theater for a successful two-week run.
Earlier this year, just one week after the COVID-19 pandemic first came to America and the quarantines were being announced, Kenny died from natural causes at his home in Georgia. He was 81 years old. In all honesty, I hesitated about writing this column for a couple of reasons. Kenny’s smooth country-pop isn’t quite the music we often talk about here, and his politics were 180 degrees from my own. But this is a tale of resilience and determination, with perhaps a bit of vanity thrown in. It was a comeback.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed here at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.