Hi AJ and thanks for talking with us today. So you have a great perspective on an aspect of the music business that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about anymore — record stores. And more specifically, how a music lover finds new music. How’d you start?
I worked with / ran a company called Flea Marketing for 8 years. We worked with about 300 independent record stores in the US and helped facilitate promotions with them for a handful of releases of all shapes and sizes for a variety of labels. We worked with larger bands on labels like Nada Surf, Death Cab For Cutie, and The Dead Weather — not-so-large bands who self-released records like Steel Train, Jukebox The Ghost, and Nightmare Of You — and bands that had no one had ever heard of when we got started with them like Silversun Pickups, Band Of Skulls, and Ra Ra Riot. We would work with each individual store to help make each record a priority that sold well so that both the store and the artist benefited mutually. We made sure that the stores had copies to play for customers in the store, copies to go in the listening stations, posters to hang up, tickets to give away, contests to run on their social media, banner ads for their website, videos to post, and we’d book in-store performances and invite stores out to the shows…and just about anything else you could think of helps a record have a large presence at a store.
Got it. So you were the guy that turned record store owners and employees onto new music?
At times, we could definitely take credit for introducing a store to a band for the first time. I remember sending out the first Silversun Pickups EP before anyone had ever heard that name before and getting an incredibly positive reaction from our stores. We had stores that were selling 50 copies a week, because they were forcing every customer who came in to buy it — promising them that they would quickly become their new favorite band. It was really fun and exciting to watch it grow on our level at such a fast rate. It wasn’t until the full-length came out a few months later that the band started to gain some real notoriety, so we got to enjoy the credit for turning people on to them first. Heck, I still talk about taking credit for it — 8 years later! We were lucky to work with Dangerbird Records from the beginning.
Let’s follow that thread for a second. See, you can be a band with phenomenal music but if no one hears it, what’s the point. Music has to be promoted one way or another. So let’s step back a few levels. How do fans find new music?
Fans find new music an unlimited number of ways. With radio being less of an influence on people’s music listening, and the Internet being what it is, there are literally unlimited ways to discover music, and less of a focus on a few larger individual outlets. That’s what makes working with new bands so much fun and frustrating at the same time. You can have a song that gets featured on an app that you’ve never even heard of only to realize that the app has thousands of users who are all very active in other online communities and it can lead to a song being spread to thousands of people in a matter of hours. Of course, a positive review on Pitchfork or a feature on Stereogum can also blow up a band in a matter of hours as well. Then again, nothing gets the word out about a song quite like a video on YouTube that’s gone viral. And that’s just scratching the surface.
So short of landing on the radio, how important was in-store placement? I remember that to me, the record store was king. I’d always go and find new music from browsing and asking questions. But were those things I found when I was a kid organic? Did I really find them or was I guided to them in a clever marketing plan?
I think it’s pretty safe to say that no self-respecting record store owner / employee (which I think would be 100% of them) would ever promote a record that they didn’t think was good. No matter who was telling them to promote it or how much money was spent on advertising. At the end of the day, the guy behind the counter at the record store isn’t going to put his own reputation on the line by telling you to buy a record that they don’t think is any good. We always had to be very careful about the records that we worked on. We were considered a taste-maker for the stores, who are taste-makers for their communities. If we started sending them garbage records, they’d stop paying attention to our mailings. A lot of the in-store marketing that we’d plug our records into were actually discretionary rather than paid for. We convinced the stores to give valuable positioning to our records because our records were better.
Is there any financial upside for the stores to sell the new placements?
There’s a financial upside for stores to sell new records in general. People will already be wandering in for the new Flaming Lips record but if they leave with that and 2 other records that they didn’t know about before they got there then everyone wins — the store, the artists, and the customer.
So what did a typical campaign look like? Who hired you? Was it the label? The management?
Most of the time we were hired by the label to work on a record since they control the marketing budgets for releases. If a record was self-released, then we’d be brought on by management or the band themselves.
And how long did a campaign last for?
It lasted for the life of the record. As long as there was work to be done on a record, we were on it. If the band went back out on tour in support of a record a year after it came out, we’d be there setting up ticket giveaways and booking in-store performances along the route, while trying to get store employees to go out to the shows. If the record gets a really great writeup in a large publication 6 months after it comes out, we’d send out an email blast to everyone letting them know about it.
And how long did you do this for? Why did you stop?
I did this for 8 years. Unfortunately, as profit margins have shrunk for labels, so have marketing budgets and record store promotion was one of the first things to get cut in many cases. Focus and dollars have shifted to other aspects of a campaign that have a more immediate return on investment, like PR. Labels need to be careful not to spend more on marketing on something than they are making back in profit. Back when they were selling thousands and thousands of records at record stores they could justify spending thousands on co-op programs, advertising, and bringing me on to help. Nowadays, if they pick and choose a few programs to run in certain markets, their hope is still just to break even on the sale of physical units at retail.
Got it. So let’s talk about the future of the record store from your perspective. I still love to go to a record store but I have to work hard to find one. Are other people still making the effort to go?
There are still many stores out there that are thriving and are a large part of their local arts community. I think that it varies from community to community on how successful these stores are, but there are still plenty of stores out there that are continuing to grow and show no signs of letting up.
Really? Because look, as much as I love the record store, I get almost 99% of my stuff online. Actually, I stream 98% of everything that I listen to and maybe buy about 1%. And I’m the guy who used to spend a lot of money on CD’s. I think I have CD player in my car still….I’m pretty sure that one still works….
I hear you. The level of access that streaming services give the music listener are unmatched, and many listeners are content to only listen to music within those parameters. But that’s not everyone. There are still people out there who prefer to own there music and to have physical copies surrounding them. Even if the CD is only used to upload the music to a computer / devices and then goes on a shelf there are still people who feel comfort in having a physical copy on hand as a backup, and something to reference. Also, let’s not forget about the renewed interested in vinyl albums. Vinyl has taken on a life of its own as a collectors item as well as a medium for music. Many stores are now selling 50% of music on vinyl – so there is a lot of focus on vinyl from labels and stores.
So do labels still care about physical distribution?
Labels do still care about physical distro as long as it doesn’t become a money suck for them. As long as they are still breaking even on physical product at retail, it is still a part of the puzzle when trying to infiltrate a market with your releases. Record stores are generally tied to the local radio station, venue, entertainment weekly publication, and any other entity that’s part of the local arts community. If labels are working with all of them simultaneously, there can be enough synergy to make a record’s presence in a community undeniable. Get the right people talking and everyone else will follow in suit and give it a listen for themselves.
Artists who are not working with labels seem to care less about physical distribution. In many cases, if a band is on a label they love being on the shelf on the record store. If they are paying their own bills, they love making their music available online for practically nothing and enjoying all of the profits from sales even if in the end it means less overall sales.
What do you think this part of the industry will look like in 5 years?
I think that the good stores will continue to work with the good labels to bring new music to communities for 5 more years and beyond.
Got it. So what do you think happened? I mean, what ‘s your personal take on it all? Like, what went wrong? Me, sure, I have access to millions of songs through my phone. And it’s great. But nothing beats the fun that I used to have going down to Tower and getting that new CD. Now, I get all the music in the world but I’m missing out on something bigger — like anticipation and specialness. I have it all but in a way, I have nothing.
I could not agree more. The internet has been a wonderful, fascinating and horrifying adjustment to the way that people live their lives. Everything has changed. Those who have learned how to adapt and embrace this new culture have enjoyed many new successes. Those who are stuck in their old ways are being punished for it every day. All I can say is that I hope that people have found new ways to be a part of a music community physically. I hope more people are starting bands or going to shows or finding ways to meet like-minded people and spend time with them. This new world we live in has opened a lot of new doors and created a lot of opportunities for people, but its also made it really easy to sit in your room every night and not meet new people in real life. Matthew Caws from Nada Surf said something many years ago that has resonated with me to this day, I’ll try to do that conversation justice by paraphrasing what he was saying:
“We’re all guilty of buying music on iTunes and enjoying the convenience that it provides, but no one will ever write a book or make a movie about shopping for music online, and you’ll never know what it feels like to get a crush on the girl browsing the bins next to you if you are only shopping on your computer.”
And with that, thank you AJ for sharing your expertise.
AJ Tobey worked with indie retail marketing company Flea Marketing and managed bands in NH from 2003-2011, running the Flea Marketing for the last 6 years of its existence. In late 2011 he moved Flea to New York City, but ended up winding down operations over the course of the following 6 months. During those 6 months, he began working with as label manager at Brooklyn based label Ooh La La Records, helping sign bands and prepare the label for its first two full length releases in 2013. In April of 2012, he also joined the team at Bank Robber Music, working with only the best independent labels and artists, helping them license music into film, television and advertising. He is also a part of of the team at BRM’s music publishing company House Of Hassle, who publishes artists such as Grizzly Bear, Sharon Van Etten and Paul Banks of Interpol. AJ currently manages two bands, Los Angeles’ Soft Swells and St. Louis based So Many Dynamos.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears