Have you heard about Hallmark's new line of greeting cards? It's called Journeys, and there are 176 different designs in the collection, each with a unique, unorthodox message intended to address a range of difficult-to-broach subjects, from reaching out to someone dealing with cancer to offering words of encouragement to a friend in difficult "times when we just don't know what to say."
I'd love to send one of those cards to Suburban Home Records founder Virgil Dickerson, one that would read: "I'm sorry your business has been pushed to the brink of virtual insolvency by filthy, thieving bastards who steal your music without losing a wink of sleep. May those jerks burn in hell or at least get a flat tire on the way to work or something."
Because of declining sales, Dickerson has had to drastically scale back operations, including laying off his entire staff; reading last rites for his online CD distro, Dead Format; and moving Suburban Home out of its current warehouse space and into his, uh, suburban home. "It's tough," he reports. "We're trying to sell something that people actively get for free, something that a whole generation of music fans don't even associate with having a cost. As a result, we have to make changes in order to keep it alive."
Suburban Home Records
For those not paying attention (and if recent sales figures are any indication, that would cover just about all of us), the recording industry continues to circle the drain as CD sales plummet in what's become a perpetual downward spiral. The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group that represents all of the major labels, contends that it's all because of piracy.
Normally, this is the point where I'd rage against the RIAA, an alarmist organization whose heavy-handed, often misdirected, adversarial tactics have accomplished nothing more than completely alienating the industry's core constituency. But as much as it pains me to admit it, this time Chicken Little's sentiment is spot-on -- particularly in the case of a micro-indie like Suburban Home.
"I went and saw Tim Barry play the other night," Dickerson explains, "and I looked around, and almost every member of the audience was singing along with every single word of every song that Tim played. As a label, that's a great feeling. But then I thought about it, and I was like, wait a minute -- I've seen the numbers for how many copies Tim has sold in Denver, and only a fraction of these people actually paid for the CD."
Dickerson says he witnessed the same phenomenon with Drag the River, which supported Lucero on a number of dates last year and is now preparing to join Rocky Votolato on the road.
"They probably played over 150 shows last year," Dickerson offers, "and I'm struggling to sell 2,000 copies of their album, It's Crazy, which is a kick-ass album. Everyone at their shows is singing along to every song, but only a fraction are actually buying the CDs. People are buying online -- and our digital revenue has definitely become a really consistent part of our business -- but the increase in digital sales hasn't made up for the decrease in physical sales. So it's one of those things where it's a mixed blessing. I'm stoked that people are excited about my bands, but then again, at this pace, I can't keep putting out music like this, because nobody's paying for it."
While I'm not one to get all sanctimonious when it comes to file-sharing -- God knows I was a confirmed Napster junkie back in the day -- I do think it's important for those whose hands are still in the till to realize that, first of all, stealing music is so, like, 1999. Beyond that, their actions have a direct and tangible impact on the little guys -- good folks like Dickerson, who has tirelessly provided us with outstanding music for well over a decade.
"I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the best businessman," says Dickerson with a chuckle. "I got a molecular biology degree in college, not a business degree. I probably should've gone back and taken some more business classes. But I've definitely learned a lot through the years, and I feel like I've got a good grasp of how this business works and how to run my business. That's why I decided I had to make some changes."
Regardless of how Dickerson views his business acumen, he's demonstrated a notable ability to adapt and overcome. Just three years ago, his label was facing an insurmountable debt that seemed to spell certain doom for Suburban Home. But rather than wave the white flag, Dickerson raised the funds to keep going by selling items from his personal collection on eBay, appealing to fans and friends to make purchases from his site, and hosting a benefit show.
That same tenacious spirit is the catalyst behind the current changes he's opted to make, which go well beyond just shuttering the warehouse on Colfax. Beginning with Love Me Destroyer's newest effort, The Things Around Us Burn, Dickerson is trying a different approach with Suburban Home's releases. While the imprint's discs typically retail for $13.98, Burn will be available for either $9.98 or $10.98. "It's a bit of a difference," he allows. "Not a super-huge difference, but it makes it a little more competitive with iTunes, which is always $9.99. I feel like that's step one in many steps to try and remedy some of the problems with CD sales, if they are ever going to be in our future."
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The second step involves taking a more grassroots, viral approach to new releases. Rather than hiring publicists and college-radio promoters as it has in the past, the label will take whatever marketing money has been earmarked to bring the music directly to the fans. To that end, Dickerson has started pressing CD samplers in-house with songs from various Suburban Home acts, which are then distributed to anyone interested in helping spread the word. Interpunk.com has also consented to put the samplers in with its mail orders. If this tactic is successful, Dickerson will expand the program. Because like it or not, digital music is here to stay.
"There's gotta be some serious changes to the business plan, or everything's going to fizzle out," he concludes. A book he's just finished reading, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, may have a viable solution. "Music becomes like a utility, like water or gas, where everyone has unlimited access to it, but you only pay a small amount per month," Dickerson says. "And that small amount, coupled with the number of people who pay for it, will support the entire industry."
Sounds like Rhapsody to these ears.