Going to W.A.R.?

The inside story of the little Boulder label that could.

As these comments make clear, Gordon wants to work with talented artists, but he knows that great music alone isn't enough to guarantee that they won't be spending their free time manning the fryers at Burger King. As a result, he looks for acts like the Samples--performers who are committed to touring and touring and touring some more in order to build up a fan base large enough to get the attention of radio programmers and the like. Saxophonist Parker fit Gordon's model perfectly. "Maceo's tour numbers are fabulous," he says. "They're on par with, or in some cases better than, the ones the Samples are bringing in right now, and his record sales are better than most people realize. He used to be on Verve and RCA-Novus, and he hasn't put out a record in five years, but because of his major gains in touring, his record sales are increasing every year. One of them, Planet Groove, has sold 80,000 units, and half of those sales have come in the last two and a half years--and since it's six years old, that means that no label's been working it for ages. So we thought, imagine how much better he could do if someone was actually out there trying."

Ferrick is a bigger challenge for W.A.R.? Although her music has the potential of hitting the spot with the Lilith Fair crowd, she was dropped by Atlantic before she received much national exposure. But Gordon is certain that she has the qualities that W.A.R.? is looking for. "Melissa has an excellent live show and a really enthusiastic following," he says. "It's a smaller following than the one the Samples have, but they're enthusiastic, and they talk to each other a lot. So it'll be a patience game with her. We've got to spend time--six months to a year--developing every other area outside of radio and focus only in a limited way on the markets where she's already known. Then we'll come back with a national push on a single--and I think we'll do well, because she's just made her best album to date. It turned out great even though she had to do it with more limited resources than she's used to."

He's not exaggerating: Whereas developing bands on big-league labels typically spend between $150,000 and $300,000 making a recording, no W.A.R.? act has ever expended more than $50,000 on a single disc--"and our albums sound just as good, if not better, than theirs do," Gordon says. "It's not about how good the equipment is, but how passionate the music is." He adds, "The primary reason why a group will make more money working for us than they will for a major is that we just spend less. Everything a major does tends to be done on a rush basis; it's all overnighted or messengered--and by thinking ahead, we don't have to do that. And I pay less for CDs than majors do, too. Majors all own their own CD plants, but I can shop around and get better prices. You add things like that together, and it makes for a much more lean and swift machine that's spending its money in a much more controlled way."

Sheldon sees the wisdom in this approach. With the Samples having recently returned from a tour in which 95 percent of the available tickets were sold, he's not ready to promise that he and his mates will never go down the major-label road again: "Three's the charm," he jokes. But even though the band recently inked a pact with high-powered manager Kim Turner, whose only other client is Sting, Sheldon says the players are satisfied with W.A.R.?. "We definitely have a good deal now," he says. "We'll have to see what happens after the next couple albums, but I think that as long as we see things on a forward progression and moving uphill, then we should stick with it."

That should cheer Gordon, who's done everything he can to make the Samples feel like part of the W.A.R.? family, from inviting them to barbecues at his house to allowing them to rehearse in the cavernous basement of the W.A.R.? rocket. ("There used to be some medical place down there, and they left behind a lot of bizarre stuff," Sheldon reveals. "Nitrous tanks, jars with weird things in them...") But Gordon knows that simply being a nice guy isn't going to prevent W.A.R.? from losing the battle. He's got to offer a winning formula.

"It's all about hard work, good ideas, a good team, and a little bit of chemistry and magic with the audience," he says. "It's not brain surgery.

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