Going to W.A.R.?

The inside story of the little Boulder label that could.

W.A.R.? came to life in 1991 and existed for months as the most modest of endeavors. "It was all basically run out of Rob's apartment," Sheldon says. "It was just his bed and piles of boxes, and all the people who worked for him would come over and work right there." But the situation improved rapidly. No Room, a Samples studio album that came out the following year, moved more than 65,000 copies, and 1993's The Last Drag topped the 85,000-unit mark. W.A.R.?'s two-year stint handling the marketing for the fledgling H.O.R.D.E. tour brought with it an increase in prestige and profitability. Shortly after W.A.R.? relocated to Boulder in May 1994, it solidified its status as an up-and-comer when Autopilot, a new Samples long-player, entered the Billboard Heatseekers chart at No. 1--virtually unparalleled for an obscure indie label.

The imprint seemed to be on the verge of bigger things, but it was not to be--not then, anyhow. Autopilot outdid The Last Drag saleswise, but it didn't become the sort of across-the-board smash that might have remade the company overnight. In addition, Gordon's business relationship with another of his clients, singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb, went south at the most inopportune time. According to a lawsuit Gordon filed against Loeb in February 1996, he signed her to a management contract with W.A.R.? in March 1994, a few months before "Stay (I Missed You)," from the soundtrack to the Winona Ryder movie Reality Bites, topped the Billboard singles charts. But rather than reward Gordon for his efforts, the lawsuit claimed, Loeb fired W.A.R.? that September, around the same time she signed a long-term deal with the David Geffen Company. (The suit was withdrawn in November 1996, with both parties agreeing not to comment about the matter.)

Even more painful for W.A.R.? was the decision by the Samples to team up with another major, MCA, in 1996. But as it turned out, the band's MCA tenure was just as dispiriting as its experiences with Arista had been. "Right after we signed with them, MCA was sold to Seagram's," Sheldon says, "and all these people we'd spent so long getting to know and getting comfortable with were gone, right down to the company's president." Given such turmoil, the Samples' MCA debut, Outpost, didn't stand a chance. The CD sank like a stone amid personnel conflicts that split the band in two; Laughlin, haunted by a drug problem and an arrest in Boulder for burglarizing an apartment, soon departed, as did MacNichol.

With only Kelly and Sheldon remaining, the Samples seemed doomed--until W.A.R.? came to the rescue. Gordon immediately re-signed the group and provided key support while Sheldon and Kelly were adding new members: keyboardist Alex Matson, guitarist Rob Somers and drummer Kenny James. (James, who has played with more Denver-Boulder bands than any other human, left the Samples last month in order to concentrate on other projects, including his band the Witching Hour; he's been replaced by ex-Winebottles percussionist Sam Young.) Transmissions From the Sea of Tranquility, a mostly live double CD, christened the new lineup's return to W.A.R.? in late 1997, with Here and Somewhere Else following less than a year later. "It was our first studio album with the new rhythm section, and it was really great," Sheldon says about Here. "Some really creative things came out of it." And this month W.A.R.? is putting out The Tan Mule, a batch of new Samples tunes supplemented by archival material, packaged in a custom CD case embroidered with the group's logo. Gordon envisions Mule as an instant collector's item--it's being marketed exclusively over the Internet at www.war.com. "Back in the days of the Beatles, bands put out two records a year, but the industry can't handle that much product now," Gordon notes. "Still, real fans are interested in hearing new songs from a band they love more often than every two to four years. So we think the band's core audience is going to love the whole idea behind The Tan Mule."

Concepts like this are part of W.A.R.?'s strategy, but Gordon insists that old-fashioned selling, not newfangled gimmicks, forms the backbone of his operation. W.A.R.? has developed its own distribution wing, and Sheldon feels it's more efficient than its counterparts at either Arista or MCA. The crew of retail marketers at W.A.R.? is so well-respected that the company has been hired by several major labels, including Capitol, RCA, EMI, A&M, Giant and Capricorn, to hype specific artists. W.A.R.? also has an in-house radio-promo staff charged with getting airplay for the imprint's bands. "It's not easy," Gordon concedes. "Radio stations get a lot of submissions on their desks, and it's a very high-pressure system. So what we do is provide stations with as much supporting ammunition about the external success of a band as we can, so that they have a lot of solid reasons to play something. Whether it's a sold-out concert performance or great reviews or fantastic Soundscan numbers, we show them why a band deserves to be played. And then we offer them an opportunity to be involved with something that can be much bigger with their support."

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