Yep Roc Records has come a long way over the last decade and a half, clearing hurdles like the Billboard charts and the Grammy Award winners circle. And this week, the label is marking its 15-year anniversary. There's a story about it in the paper here; and just for contrast, below is a turn-of-the-century feature Yep Roc and its parent company Redeye Distribution. Pretty amazing how much the business has changed since then...
The Redeye Express: Bands that are going places often get there via a distributor in Graham
By David Menconi, News & Observer
March 12, 2000
Graham -- They say the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. That applies to the music industry, too, because you want to get your music into the places where it's most likely to sell. And that takes distribution, distribution, distribution.
Which might make Graham, population 12,000, an unlikely choice for building an expressway to the nation's record stores. The only geographic plus of this town near Burlington is its proximity to Interstates 40 and 85 (and it's not much closer to the superhighway than Chapel Hill or Durham). But Graham is where you'll find Redeye Distribution, a business whose aim is taking the music of bands no one has ever heard of and putting it within reach of adventurous listeners everywhere.
Hundreds of area bands have found their way to Redeye, and those that come in person probably feel right at home. The company's offices have the feel of campaign headquarters for an insurgent political campaign. The furniture is mismatched, and employee attire is even more casual than the furnishings. Tor Hansen, Redeye's sales director, and head buyer Glenn Dicker recently assembled a conference room whose focal point is a map of the United States tacked to a pegboard wall.
The map is divided into regions, and colored thumbtacks track the places where the distributor has built a presence through personal contacts. Town by town, store by store and clerk by clerk, Redeye's reach is broadening.
"Our Napoleon conquest, " Hansen jokingly calls it, nodding toward the map.
As an independent distributor, Redeye is in essence a middle man between bands and retailers. Compact discs don't just magically appear in record stores; somebody has to ship them, preferably after figuring out in which stores a given artist's CDs belong. That's essentially what Redeye does for bands that put out their own CDs as they build a following. Then, when the time is right, big record labels step in, sign the band and mop up the gravy.
"You know, it's a reality check, " Hansen says. "You might drive around freeways in big cities, see all the people, hear things on the radio and think, 'It must be easy to make billions in the record business.' Well, the reality is that most people in that big city have never heard of you or your band, nor do they care to. Most people who know about CDs at all know about the Backstreet Boys or Madonna. Everything else is just way under the radar."
Redeye has yet to handle any Madonnas. But it does have success stories, such as Chapel Hill's Hobex, Virginia's Pat McGee Band and Atlanta singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, acts that graduated from the underground ranks to major labels. Some Redeye-distributed releases have sold upward of 10,000 copies - a long way from a platinum million-seller, but a handsome figure for an independent distributor. And Redeye's bread and butter is even further down the food chain, bands whose self-released CDs might sell a few hundred copies.
"If you look at our top-30 sellers, the No. 1 title will sell about 3,000 in a month, " Dicker says. "We do take in some stuff that might sell 30 units, but most will sell at least 100. That's still not a lot, but it can be meaningful."
"Besides, " Hansen adds, "how are you gonna find the ones that can sell 1,000 if you don't take them on when they're selling 100?"
Everybody has to start somewhere, and working with an independent distributor like Redeye isn't glamorous. But if you're looking for glamour, you've come to the wrong business.
"Since I'm the buyer, I get tubs of CDs coming in and a lot of them are pretty bad, " Dicker says. "Bad enough that I'll call people into my office to hear."
"But then most of the time, " Hansen says, "we end up distributing it anyway."
The road to Redeye:
Visit Redeye and you'll have a hard time ignoring its rhythms. A number of Redeye employees play in bands, including Blue Green Gods, Agent Ink and Grasshopper Highway. So the office chitchat is all music, all the time.
Hansen says Redeye strives to be an artist-friendly company because "we've done this ourselves, and we know how hard it can be."
Redeye's origins go back to Doylestown, Penn., where Dicker and Hansen grew up. Childhood friends, they played in bands together all through school. Eventually, they wound up in Boston with day jobs at Rounder Records, the roots/folk label that is home to Alison Krauss. Nights, they played guitar in a garage band called the Vouts.
When it came time for the Vouts to record, they formed their own label, Upstart Records. The aptly named Upstart soon became much more than a vanity imprint, evolving into a real record company that would outlast the Vouts (who disbanded in 1994).
Dicker ran Upstart with two other Rounder employees, Jake Guralnick (son of Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick) and Chris Coty. They secured distribution from Rounder and set about signing a wildly eclectic group of artists. Along with Nick Lowe and rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson, Upstart's roster included Finnish surf band Laika and the Cosmonauts; Los Straitjackets, a Nashville-based surf band that performed in wrestling masks; and Boston's Upper Crust, who played AC/DC-style hard rock while dressed in Elizabethan-era costumes and wigs.
"The whole attitude was great, " says Guralnick, now a New York-based artist manager whose clients include Lowe and Los Straitjackets. "We tried to present everything in as over-the-top a manner as possible - 'Hey, this is the most exciting and ridiculous thing of all time!' - and most of that came from Glenn. Looking back, I'm kind of amazed at what we got away with. Like pursuing Nick Lowe when we'd never sold more than 2,000 copies of anything. But somehow, we pulled that off with a lot of attitude."
But that attitude didn't translate into enough sales for Upstart to survive. The label put out plenty of fine records during its four-year run, yet never found a commercial niche to sustain it. Dicker and company finally admitted defeat and closed in 1998.
Hansen, meanwhile, had left Rounder to go to work for the music division of the Borders bookstore chain, which transferred him to the Triangle in 1995. That was fine by him. Chapel Hill had been on his mind since the Vouts played the Cat's Cradle in the early '90s. Kim Hansen, Tor Hansen's wife and Redeye's accounting director, says her husband and Dicker used to daydream out loud about moving their families to Chapel Hill someday to start their own business.
When Borders tried to transfer Hansen out of the Triangle in 1996, he quit. He and Kim started Redeye Distribution in June of that year, operating out of their 1,000-square-foot house in Carrboro. After Upstart folded, Dicker moved his family down from Boston and signed on.
Their venture was well-timed. Mood Food, Deep South, Plastique and other upstart local bands were coming on line, along with a generation of regional independent bands on the verge of moving up to the majors - Athenaeum, Far Too Jones, Jimmy's Chicken Shack, Hobex, Whiskeytown. Redeye found its niche by starting small and working from the ground up.
"Redeye is more willing to take a chance on a band that's just coming out and doesn't yet have a huge following, " says Kelly Rollinson, who manages the purchasing department for the Record Exchange chain. "Most distributors aren't willing to carry a record unless they know they'll make a lot of money. But Redeye will get involved at the level of sending five copies to a store. And if we sell those five, they'll get us five more."
Redeye charges a percentage of retail price for its services, which Dicker says usually comes to $2 to $3 a CD. In return, bands get to offload one of the most time-consuming chores in the business.
"If we weren't with Redeye, I'd be driving over to Charlotte all the time, " says Stephen Levitin, drummer and manager for Chapel Hill hip-hop band Sankofa. "When we tried to distribute our first record ourselves, I had to run around to every store and try to figure out how many CDs were left, how much we were owed. It was a nightmare. It took a huge burden off us when they took over."
To date, Redeye's biggest mainstream success is Shawn Mullins, the Atlanta singer-songwriter. Hansen and Dicker began working with Mullins after getting his phone number off a poster in Atlanta and distributed 1998's "Soul's Core" - the album with the song "Lullaby." After "Lullaby" turned into a regional radio hit, Columbia Records signed Mullins and reissued his album, which turned into a massive hit.
A gold record plaque for "Soul's Core" hangs just inside the front door of Redeye's Graham office. While Redeye no longer carries that album, the distributor still handles the rest of Mullins' back catalog.
"Everybody thought Shawn Mullins was an overnight sensation, but he'd done six records before ['Soul's Core'], " Dicker says. "He toured, had a fan base already established. You know, a lot of bands luck into a hit without development. But that's a bad thing because you can't skip development. Without it, you won't last unless you're really, really lucky."
Gains - and losses:
When Redeye started in 1996, it carried 300 titles on 100 labels - figures that have grown to 4,000 titles on 1,000 labels. Kim Hansen says Redeye's sales volume tripled from 1998 to 1999, then tripled again last year.
It didn't take long for the company to outgrow the Hansens' house, and its first office in Chapel Hill. Getting enough space in Chapel Hill wasn't feasible because of the high rents, so Redeye moved farther west to a 14,000-square-foot warehouse complex in Graham. When they moved in February 1999, Redeye employed eight people. Now the company has 27 employees, including seven field sales representatives stationed from New England to California.
The company's expansion has not been entirely without cost. One homey Redeye custom that recently fell by the wayside was "Beer O'Clock" - in which employees would mark the end of the working week by cracking open a cold one at the stroke of 5 p.m. every Friday.
"We had to stop doing it, " Kim Hansen sighs. "We have so many employees now that I've been putting together an employee handbook and speaking with lawyers. They were all just horrified by Beer O'Clock: 'You could get sued if somebody has an accident.' It's not like we were bringing in kegs, most people just had one beer. But we can't do that anymore.
"So now, we have 'Biscuit O'Clock' every Friday morning instead. Which is nice, but not the same. I'm really sad we had to let that go. It was one of our trademarks."
Redeye's expansion also includes its own record label imprint, Yep Roc Records - named after the Slim Gailord song "Yip Rock Heresy, " and a stout variety of Norwegian stew (in deference to the Hansen family's Nordic roots). Yep Roc is a direct descendant of Upstart in many ways, with a roots-intensive roster including Two Dollar Pistols, Countdown Quartet, Jennyanykind and Mayflies USA. Upstart alumni Ronnie Dawson and Los Straitjackets also record for Yep Roc now; the latter's "The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets" is the label's top seller at 12,000 copies.
Yep Roc was a natural outgrowth of Redeye because the distributor does a lot of the things that record labels do - including publicity on some titles. For example, Redeye is handling promotion of former 6 String Drag leader Kenny Roby's new solo album "Mercury's Blues" (the first release on the new Raleigh-based label Ricebox Records).
"We call what we do 'developmental distributing, ' " Dicker says. "We try to grow along with artists as they develop, which is a challenge. We do the types of things major labels do, but for indie labels and artists: We can arrange pressing, distribution, publicity. Now, we don't do publicity for every single record that Redeye carries, which wouldn't make sense. But we do handle manufacturing for people, and we take the time with bands and labels to figure out what they should spend their money on."
While Redeye has launched a number of acts to major labels, the distributor is also becoming a destination for disenchanted major-label acts such as ex-Squirrel Nut Zipper/Mammoth Records veteran Tom Maxwell and former Elektra act Jennyanykind. Unless you're selling hundreds of thousands of units, there aren't any financial advantages to being on a major label. You can sell fewer records on your own and actually make more money. And considering the growing instability of corporate-owned labels, being one's own boss again can be an attractive option.
For example, North Carolina pop-rock band Jolene used to record for Warner-owned Sire, which released 1998's "In The Gloaming." The 8,000 copies that "In The Gloaming" sold didn't satisfy Sire and left Jolene frustrated because the band didn't feel the label gave the album enough time. So Jolene negotiated its release from Sire and started up its own imprint, Isadora's Scarf Recording Group. Redeye will distribute Jolene's upcoming album, "Antic Ocean, " due out March 21.
"The good words from Jennyanykind swayed our opinion that this was a good thing to do, " says Jolene guitarist Dave Burris. "They went through a similar thing with Elektra, and seemed very happy with the situation at Redeye. It's a relief to be dealing out of our own backyard again. I'm sure we'll get the itch again at some point. But right now, we just couldn't care less about dealing with a major label."