Artists and retailers are the visible superstars of the recorded-music business. Artists make the music, dress in fancy clothes and demand attention and ego strokes. Retailers create hip atmospheres in which fans can purchase this music. It seems like a pretty simple machine: Artists create; retailers sell. But the unsung hero of rock & roll is the seemingly egoless record distributor. Distributors keep the whole thing moving smoothly, and without them the prima donna rock-star singers would have to get their tender hands dirty handling CDs with sharp edges.
Distributors are on the receiving end of the avalanche of CDs released every year, and it's their duty to collect them all, pile them neatly and offer them to the record stores. They make sense (and money) of the mess and work between the artists/record labels and the stores.
Dan Thompson founded Blue Sky Distribution a year-and-a-half ago after working in the business -- both music and video -- for two decades. "I went to department stores," he says of his job with Pickwick Records, "gas stations, Cousin Fred's, and took eight-tracks and records and put them in. I had a station wagon, and I went all around the Midwest and did that." After a stint as a label rep for MCA, he worked in video distribution. He understands both the music and distribution businesses and coupled these areas of knowledge to create Blue Sky, a St. Louis company that distributes St. Louis music to predominantly St. Louis-based stores.
It's simple: In St. Louis, local artists want to sell their wares in local stores. There are dozens of stores in the area, and keeping tabs on how many of what CD are in each store can be a royal pain for artists more concerned with making music. Loads of paperwork, accounting and delivering would account for time better spent being an "artist" and dressing in silk. Before Blue Sky, artists had no choice, and the results, say both musicians and record stores, were terribly unpleasant.
Explains Thompson: "(Stores) told us, 'We just don't want 200 bands walking in here, calling us every day. We can't get ahold of these people.' It was the old story: 'Bands we can sell, we can't find -- or they drop off 10 and we could have sold 100, but we haven't seen them for two weeks.' It's much easier for them to get our catalog of 200 titles and be able to do one order for all these things."
Says Leon Reed, buyer at Vintage Vinyl: "There's so many parts of the music business that musicians aren't necessarily proficient at -- that's just not their thing. When a band consigns something directly to Vintage Vinyl, the store must deal directly with the artists when a restock is necessary. The band might not be aware of the need for more product, says Reed, "unless they check on it every day -- and if they're checking on it every day, then the record store gets pissed. With Blue Sky, I can call them and tell them what I need. The chances of being out of stock for an extended period are less."
"Before Big Sky," echoes Streetside Records general manager Randy Davis, "it meant dealing with hundreds of bands. It was terribly time-consuming, for no margin whatsoever. As a retailer, it cost me as much to do business with a single individual as it does with Blue Sky. And they add value to the artists, because artists don't have to spend time schlepping it around to individual stores in town."
"Bands need to be bands," says Thompson. "Go play. Write new songs. Focus on being a good band. The more you do that, the more we can put product out and sell it. We are standing next to them in the food chain when they get paid, so we work hard to get you in the right stores and make sure the store keeps the product in. We're working to maximize the potential, and we don't ever know what it is until you come up for air after maybe six months in a year."
Blue Sky's offices are located on Big Bend Boulevard in South County, and four employees there are busy loading boxes, stuffing envelopes and taking orders. The posters and CDs stacked everywhere serve as a snapshot of the current and past state of St. Louis music: piles of Robynn Ragland, Civiltones and Denise Thimes CDs sit beneath an MU330 poster; inside Thompson's office, a Morells CD offers proof that he's been around the scene for a while -- and knows quality.
What's more, Blue Sky serves as a hype filter; because of their business, they can tell you which local artists actually sell and which generate more press than sales. No. 1 these days, he says, among his products, is the fantastic single "Work Som'n" by hip-hop artists Out of Order, released on local hip-hop label P.D. Waxx. "Other than Nelly, which is on Universal (and therefore distributed by that major label), that's easily the bestselling rap single here from anybody. And that's certainly attributable to The Beat (100.3 FM) playing it. And Tiorah, the R&B group, is doing well. Right now in St. Louis, there really is a rap/hip-hop renaissance, and I think that Nelly has made that happen nationally and brought attention, but we've had a lot of good rap and hip-hop artists put out good product in the last three months. I could fill an endcap (a end-of-rack display) of just the new rap artists. There is a lot of good rap out there."
Other than rap, the big sellers these days are Ragland's new Modern American Female Gut. "Mesh is a big regular seller for us," he continues. "We sell a lot of Denise Thimes; she's a woman who has created a strong audience for herself. We sell the St. Louis Chamber Choir well."
Still, Thompson isn't going to get rich selling local CDs to local stores, unless the St. Louis scene overall explodes, but that doesn't faze Thompson, who seems to have motives other than solely financial ones. "One thing I can easily say is that I'm amazed at the quality and the depth of music. We move from classical guitar players to blues to jazz to hip-hop. I'm impressed with the quality, and the number of releases, and how much effort people put into to their product, from graphics and recording. I kept thinking, 'We're going to go a month without getting anything new.' We sometimes go a week without getting something, but we get a constant stream of all kinds of artists with all kinds of music."
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or Radarstation@rftstl.com.