"All I knew was, I had to find my shit," says a musician regarding his decision to sneak into the abandoned Ballistic Communications business a few weeks back. "But secondly, being surprised by the chaos in there -- not being able to walk without crushing somebody's CD on the floor. It was like an elephant had run through the place." A recent visit to Ballistic confirmed the chaos; a few bands were still practicing there, and the hallways connecting the practice spaces, storage rooms and offices were littered with CD cases, CDs and booklets. Doors to storage rooms had been kicked in, and furniture from the upstairs Ballistic offices was piled in various rooms. In a corner of one office, boxes full of bands' master recordings were sitting out; in another room, paper shreddings were strewn on the floor. "I'm mad as a motherfucker," continues the musician, who had his CD pressed through Ballistic and had been storing $4,000 worth of printed CD booklets with the company. After repeated unreturned phone calls to Ballistic owner Jeff Chance, the musician -- like many others, apparently -- secured the key code to the door and entered the storage room to retrieve what was owed him. He found his artwork and in the process discovered a mess -- a perfect reflection, it seems, of the confusion and fear that spread through the company in recent months.
Depending on whom you ask, the recent closing of Ballistic Communications was either a ho-hum business decision or a colossal ball-of-flames catastrophe, with the countless break-ins, assaults and alarm calls the result of living "in an urban area" or of blatant mismanagement. Either way, Ballistic, a company specializing in CD duplication, booklet and poster printing, and rehearsal-space rental, has shut its doors at 1600 Kingshighway, leaving behind a line of creditors, musicians and former employees banging on locked doors or, apparently more often, entering in the night to secure what belongs to them.
Were this confusion and chaos simply the product of a music company's turning sour, Ballistic's closing would just be one case among many. Aging musicians often turn to the business side of music, only to realize that playing a bass and running a business are two different things. This is what Jeff Chance did after a stint with a band called Dogs of War. When the group failed to succeed, he started Ballistic as a cassette-duplication company in the mid-'90s, then branched into CDs and, observing a lack of decent practice spaces in the city for local bands, sectioned off the basement of the Kingshighway building to fill the need. He leased another part of the space to a recording studio, and soon enough, Ballistic was a sort of half-assed little empire. It ended up as a kind of one-stop where bands could practice, lug their equipment upstairs into a recording studio and then travel down the hall to order CDs and get booklets printed. Ballistic also dealt heavily with the rap community. The venture was unique in the city.
But, according to both Chance and several former employees, Ballistic had become a dangerous place to do business. In the past two months, says Chance, "Jeremiah, one of the engineers, got shot. And then they came in the next week and there was a break-in, and $20,000 worth of equipment was stolen. And then suddenly half my staff goes, "Listen, it's not safe to be here,' and left. And when they left, I sat down with my accountant and my lawyer and said, "Listen, half my staff just walked out, saying they don't feel safe to be in the building because we constantly have the police coming in.'" The murdered producer, Jeremiah Eldridge, the president of rap label Showmo Records, was shot outside his Berkeley home on Sept. 30. Although there is no suggestion of a connection between the murder and Ballistic, the fear among the employees was real: Police reports list countless calls to the Ballistic address in the past month, including at least two burglaries, two disturbances, a larceny and an auto theft. So at the end of his lease, Chance shut down at the end of October, saying he would reopen in the county. But when he shut down, he didn't move out the way most businesses move out, by packing and loading up gear. He seems to have simply walked out.
According to former employees, this isn't surprising. Ballistic was generally a chaotic place. Employees say Chance seldom filled out the necessary paperwork and discouraged them from filing proper tax returns. Says one, "He kept saying he was going to get everything legal, pay taxes and get health benefits, and he just kept promising it and never delivering it. And he kept promising clients stuff that he knew they weren't going get on time." Adds another, "It was even more elaborate than that, because a lot of them wanted to apply for loans, for credit and things like that, and Jeff told them specifically, "No, I'm not going to give you a 1099. No, you can't report the income.' It fucked up a lot of people, so people who wanted to do things legitimately couldn't, because they couldn't on paper do it." Says one, "I saw the writing on the wall. I knew that Ballistic was the Titanic, and I knew that the iceberg that was just going to rip a hole in the hull was inevitably getting closer and closer. I'm a smart guy, and I was, like, "Geez, I've got to jump off this boat before it goes down.'
Jeff Chance denies these allegations. He says first that the spate of recent burglaries are thought to have been inside jobs, then says the problem is Ballistic's location: "It's a shame that you can't make ends meet in an urban area. It's embarrassing to say that you have to give up -- we didn't install any security cameras; we just thought if we did good business and gave people the best product we could.... We've had seven theft reports this year, and so we don't have insurance anymore."
Chance says Ballistic is relocating to South County and that the company will reopen for business in a few weeks. But as of last Thursday, calls to Ballistic were going unreturned, and musicians with outstanding orders are starting to get frustrated. "I'm finding out more every day," says Dan Thompson of Blue Sky Distribution. Thompson says he has spoken with several groups awaiting their product who are unable to get in touch with Ballistic: ""What happened? My project's down there.' I got a call from a guy in Kansas City about a church group. There's a bunch of rappers. I have this band that makes Brazilian music, and they've got a CD-release party next week, and he's going, "I'm calling down to Jeff's, and there's no one down there.'"
"It's hard enough for musicians to climb up and get out into the world and get their CDs and albums out there and market themselves," says one former Ballistic employee. "It's hard enough, and they don't really need the kind of headache and aggravation that they would always get. Everybody had a bad Ballistic story, and he'd rip people off, give people poor-quality product. And it really put a bitter taste in a lot of people's mouths. So I'm really glad that whole era is all behind us now. Hopefully some legitimate business will fill the void, do business properly."
From a musician/businessperson's point of view, that a company as shady as Ballistic was able to survive for so long is telling: In a city sorely lacking a musician's infrastructure, Chance was smart enough to see a need and then fill it. "I go up to Minneapolis on occasion," says Blue Sky's Thompson, "and I remember one time I was looking in the Yellow Pages, and I found "rehearsal halls,' and I found a whole bunch of them. And I thought, "Gee, you know, I don't think there are any in St. Louis.' So things like that, and a place to go get replication -- I think in that sense, because we've never had that much, he could have filled an important role and was starting to."
There are a few rehearsal spaces in St. Louis; there are a few businesses specializing in CD replication and mastering; there are printers who specialize in CD booklets; there are loads of studios. But Ballistic, despite its obvious shady shortcomings, successfully merged -- at least for a time -- all of these services under one roof. That someone who refused to deal properly with the business end of a small business did this suggests that there's a need. Who's going to fill it?