[JPL] Roots music companies muscled out of shelf space

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Mon Jul 31 08:51:11 EDT 2006


 Article Last Updated: 7/30/2006 05:29 AM
Roots music companies muscled out of shelf space
 By Tim Simmers I Business Writer
Inside Bay Area
IF LARRY SLOVEN were a songwriter, he might scribble down the line, "Mama,
don't let your babies grow up to be record company executives."

 A downturn in CD sales industrywide and the shrinking availability of shelf
space in retail stores is crimping sales for Sloven's American roots music
label HighTone Records in Oakland.

 He's not the only one. A number of roots- and blues-oriented independent
record labels around the Bay Area, including pioneering Arhoolie Records and
Blind Pig Records, are also struggling for sales. Retail sales of CDs have
shifted to mass merchandisers such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Borders, which
are more interested in hit-driven music. That shift has squeezed out many
smaller, neighborhood record stores, once a fertile market for small record
labels featuring roots music. The labels are experiencing some growing sales
from downloading on the Internet, but it's not yet approaching what they've

 "There used to be good small record stores in every major town in the
country," said Sloven, a burly man who talks in a slow, deep voice that
might befit an old-school country-western singer. "Now some cities don't
have one."

 Sloven's current stable of artists includes local bluegrass singer Laurie
Lewis and cowboy/country singer Tom Russell, as well as back catalog music
of rockabilly star Joe Ely and rootsy singer-songwriter Dave Alvin.

 It's a good lineup. But getting into retail record store bins is much
harder than it was five or 10 years ago, when there were more local record
stores, Sloven and others say.

 While there's a vibrant rap and hip-hop scene in the Bay Area, including
smaller record labels that make strong sales and can get shelf space in mass
merchandising stores, American roots labels find themselves traveling down a
tougher road. They're not attracting the youth market, and older fans tend
to buy fewer CDs.

 Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records and the record store Down
Home Music in El Cerrito, has pioneered recording authentic blues, Cajun and
other ethnic roots music, but he also says it's getting more difficult to
get his records into stores.

 "The business is in the hands of monstrous corporations," said Strachwitz,
a tall, straight-shooting German immigrant who first recorded the tough,
emotional blues music of sharecroppers and field workers in Texas and
Louisiana in the 1960s and '70s. "Most stores won't touch it unless it's a
name they can sell."

 HighTone's best-selling artist is the laid back and gritty Tom Russell, who
sold 20,000 to 30,000 CDs annually in record stores nine or 10 years ago.
Now he sells 7,000 to 8,000 a year in stores and makes the bulk of his sales
(as many as 15,000 a year) at his shows. Many artists are selling more and
more of their CDs at shows these days.

 Sloven once discouraged sales at shows. He preferred the exposure of CDs in
record stores. But now he encourages show sales, since much of the in-store
exposure has dried up.

 "The major record distributors have major chains locked up," said Lee
Hildebrand, a Bay Area music historian. That means the mainstream records
that sell well get the bulk of the shelf space, and the slower selling
material that may be quite good is out of luck.

 Tower Records is no longer the power it once was, when it was a full
catalog store and tried to carry one of everything, Hildebrand said. It ran
into financial trouble and doesn't always offer the shelf-space option it
once could for local independents selling roots music.

 Mass retailers such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart and others started selling
records some years ago. That helped fuel the demise of smaller record
stores. But soon the mass retailers began cutting back as CD sales slipped
industrywide. Now they've become more careful about keeping stock that sells

 To be sure, there are some local independent record stores that give
exposure to less mainstream music. Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music are among
the strongholds in the Bay Area. But even they don't allow long shelf space
for music that doesn't sell at a fairly robust clip.

 "We're one of the few stores that even takes consignment anymore," said
Saeed Crumpler, soul and rap music buyer at Berkeley-based Rasputin Music.
Rasputin takes one CD for each of its seven Bay Area stores if the buyer
likes the music and feels it will sell. But at the end of 30 days, whatever
sales were made are paid off and the rest of the stock is returned, Crumpler

 Small record labels now have to spend more money on publicity, advertising
and marketing. That's not easy, since they're known for having small

 "It's true Best Buy is pulling back a little on CD sales," said Andy
Hargreaves, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities in Portland, Ore. He
added that CD sales industrywide are off 8 percent, and Best Buy has cut its
shelf space to match that downturn. Best Buy expects CDs to be a shrinking
portion of its sales, he said.

 "They focus on the mass market and put on the shelves what they think can
sell to their customers, which is usually pop and collections," Hargreaves
said. "They're not interested in music sales for the arts."

 Sure, roots record sales are often available online on Amazon.com. But
Amazon doesn't have the atmosphere of an old independent record store, where
the clerk often knew the customer's tastes and could persuade him to take a
chance on something rootsy.

 Thirty years ago, it seemed to be more about the music, Sloven said.

 Now, it's the iPod generation. Millions of consumers are downloading music
off the Internet to play on sleek iPods from Cupertino's Apple Computer or
on other snazzy digital musical players.

 "Today people are more excited about the gadget they get the music on,"
Sloven said.

 Sloven is fighting back by making a creative push. On Sept. 12, he's
releasing a four-CD box set called "American Music: The HighTone Records
Story," which includes a DVD and 124-page book. With a list price of $59.98,
it's expected to be a big hit with the label's fans.

 Sloven is also about to release a new CD, "Sailover" by songwriter P.F.
Sloan, the writer of the songs "Secret Agent Man" and "Eve of Destruction."
Sloven is extremely excited about the CD, calling it one of his best
projects. It's receiving good reviews with the music press and could
generate retail shelf space and sales on the label's Web site at

 It's sure to get in the bins at Berkeley-based Amoeba Music, another local
independent record store that tries to carry a diverse selection of music.
Amoeba has been a friend to local labels.

 "We'll give most anything to chance," said Joe Goldmark, partner at Amoeba,
which has stores in Berkeley, San Francisco and Hollywood. But Goldmark
stresses that CD sales are off, and many people are downloading their music
off the Internet.

 Arhoolie's Strachwitz complains that even friendly stores take only one
copy of a new CD, and if it doesn't sell in three or four weeks, they send
it back.

 Strachwitz has a place to sell his recordings, at his Down Home Music
record store. But he wants more outlets.

 He's seeing a "good bit of revenue" from downloads these days, but he still
had to prune back his staff in half to three because of slower sales.

 Strachwitz was an early pioneer in recording American roots music. He made
some of the early recordings of blues greats like Mance Lipscomb,
Mississippi Fred McDowell and Lightnin' Hopkins. His catalog also offers
other home-grown traditional music such as zydeco music king Clifton Chenier
and blues singer Big Mama Thornton, as well as Tejano and Mexican folk

 "We're sort of surviving, but we're trying to watch our pennies," said
Strachwitz, whose CDs can also be purchased on his Web site at Arhoolie.com.

 No doubt, the proliferation of grassroots CDs made by bands and small
labels on home recording equipment is a factor in the mix. Some bands start
their own labels and sell their own songs on the Internet, boosting the
level of competition.

 Even independent labels have paired up. Berkeley's Fantasy, a record label
home to jazz music, soul music and Creedence Clearwater Revival, was sold in
2004 to Concord Records, a jazz record label based in Beverly Hills now
known as Concord Music Group.

 "The problem is there's so much product out there that most stores can't
afford to be full-catalog stores," said Jeff Richardson, sales rep for City
Hall Records, an independent record distributor in San Rafael. "They have to
be selective and bring in stuff that sells because there's limited space."

 Richardson stressed that many artists just don't sell well. (Nine out of 10
sell fewer than 1,000 CDs, City Hall officials say.) He added that the
stores are faced with stiff competition from downloading on the Internet.

 He also explained that older people aren't buying music much anymore, and
youngsters are not that interested in blues and roots music. It doesn't get
much play on the radio, either, he added.

 Edward Chmelewski, president of Blind Pig Records in San Francisco, said
part of the problem is that music has "become devalued in our society, and
that's driving a decrease in CD sales."

 "The chains are not run by music people, but by bean counters," said
Chmelewski, whose enterprise is one of the leading independent blues and
roots music labels with artists like blues legend Elvin Bishop and Tommy
Castro, as well as classic blues artists such as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and
James Cotton.

 Chmelewski said Internet sales of the label's songs are growing. And he's
optimistic that could improve future sales. But they only represent a small
percentage of the business so far, he said. Blind Pig's Web site is

 He too laments the "short window of opportunity" he gets in record stores.
"They just empty out the bins and ship it back (if it doesn't sell
quickly)," he said.

 In the old days, record stores would carry Blind Pig's CDs in their bins
for a year or more, Chmelewski said.

 "Best Buy and Borders are becoming an increasingly hostile environment," he
said. "They want music sold by the palletload, and call other stuff
non-essential product."

 Chmelewski is used to a long, uphill struggle. He started the label nearly
30 years ago in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was then known as the Blind Pig Cafe;
and it started by recording acts that played in the club.

 He moved the label to California, where it blossomed; but now it faces
another hard road. The same one other American roots music pioneers in the
Bay Area face. They still depend on sales in brick-and-mortar stores, and on
artists' shows. They're open to more online sales, but the blues and roots
music lovers are generally not a big part of the digital downloading

 So these small label pioneers are standing at the crossroads. They're
hoping their back catalogs and newer material can experience stronger sales
through music downloads and their Web sites. Whether the technology can
deliver enough newfound sales, and get the word out about the music of their
artists, is something the future will tell.

 Business Writer Tim Simmers can be reached at (650) 348-4361 or
tsimmers at sanmateocountytimes.com.

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