Going to W.A.R.?

The inside story of the little Boulder label that could.

The building at 2401 Broadway in Boulder doesn't blend into the scenery. Designed by the late architect Charles Haertling, whose "mushroom house" made a guest appearance in Woody Allen's 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper, it's very large, very white and very space-age. Locals say it looks like a rocket--which makes it an appropriate headquarters for What Are Records? (W.A.R.?), a Boulder-based label that seems on the verge of blasting off.

To call W.A.R.? Colorado's most successful imprint is to damn it with faint praise; after all, there's not much competition out there, especially right now. But unlike countless other area music firms that have been launched with great fanfare only to collapse in a mountain of debt and acrimony, W.A.R.? keeps growing. The enterprise is defined by the Samples, the hard-touring cult band that sparked it to life earlier this decade and continues to generate most of its income; Here and Somewhere Else, issued by the group this summer, is currently W.A.R.?'s hottest product. But the W.A.R.?-related catalogue also includes two highly successful CDs tied to the Reggae on the Rocks concert series; recordings by the Ugly Americans (currently signed to Capricorn Records) and the Radiators; Glass Cockpit, a first-rate offering by House of Large Sizes, an underrated alterna-combo from Iowa; and Munly de Dar He, a wonderfully twisted 1997 platter featuring ex-Boulderite Jayson Munly Thompson that was put out by Top Notch, a W.A.R.? subsidiary. Joining the library late last month was Funk Overload, by Maceo Parker, a onetime saxophonist for James Brown who's recently turned into one of the country's most consistent live attractions. And due on September 29 is Everything I Need, by Melissa Ferrick, a singer-songwriter previously with Atlantic Records.

"This is a unique period for us--the busiest period we've ever gone through," says Rob Gordon, president and founder of W.A.R.? "But it's also one of the best."

Gordon is older than his eleven full-time employees at W.A.R.?, but he's hardly ancient: He's in his mid-thirties. As the Samples' Andy Sheldon admits with a laugh, "It's kind of strange working for a company where the boss is two years younger than I am." Indeed, youth predominates at the W.A.R.? launchpad, as does a decidedly Bouldery attitude toward attire: Mat Hall, a publicist who answers to the title Secretary of Propaganda ("in keeping with the W.A.R.? theme"), confesses that he does most of his work in bare feet. But that's not to imply that business at W.A.R.? is conducted in a laissez-faire manner. Gordon watches his coins like a Nineties Jack Benny, and when he's on a roll, he can spew economic jargon with the best of them. "There are two ways to make money," he says. "You either collect more income or you incur less expenses. And we try very hard to do both."

In the beginning, Gordon was more interested in playing music than marketing it; he was once a member of a high-school band that included Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. He later moved behind the scenes, rising to the post of A&R director for EMI by the dawn of the Nineties. But a funny thing happened on the way to corporate greatness: He was fired. He subsequently retreated to his New York City apartment and tried to figure out what he should try next, little knowing that the Samples were doing virtually the same thing.

Emerging from Boulder during the last half of the Eighties, the Samples--originally Sheldon, Sean Kelly, Jeep MacNichol and Al Laughlin--eventually hooked up with Arista Records, which put out a self-titled album by the band in 1990. But it didn't take long for the players to become disillusioned. "Arista's roster at the time was made up of Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston and Alan Jackson--they were their bread and butter--and they didn't know what to do with us," Sheldon says. "We signed with them because they said they were starting an alternative-music department, but unfortunately, that never came to fruition. And they certainly didn't have any other artists in our category. The only one that even came close was Urban Dance Squad--and they did manage to get them a hit that was constantly played on MTV for a month or so ["Deeper Shade of Soul," which reached the Top 40 in 1991]. But I haven't heard of Urban Dance Squad since--and if the same thing would have happened to us, I don't think we'd still be around, either." Just as irksome for Sheldon were the layers of bureaucracy that separated the Samples from Arista chieftain Clive Davis. "As far as I was concerned, that guy was the Wizard of Oz. He was like the guy behind the curtain. I never saw him--not once. The people who were working with us would say, 'Clive said this' or 'Clive said that.' And I'd say, 'Show him to me. I just want to know he's real.'"

These factors, combined with album sales that plateaued around 50,000, convinced the Samples to leave Arista. They were ready to put out an EP, Underwater People, on their own when the quartet's manager at the time, Ted Guggenheim, contacted Gordon with a proposition: Start his own company and make the Samples his first signee. Because of the Samples' sizable following, symbolized by a mailing list with tens of thousands of names on it, Gordon jumped at the opportunity.

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."

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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