Foster Reed of New Albion Records

5. The Decline of the Record Industry

FOSTER REED: There was sort of a period of up to two years ago where you had one logic, or maybe it was three years ago, and then everything stopped. It just hit a brick wall. The music industry hit a brick wall. And we’re still in the period of collapse, where, so, records did well, but that same record maybe hasn’t sold in 3 years. So a record that would sell 500 or 800 copies a year, or a 1000 or 1500 copies a year, or whatever it was, or even 200 copies, just the whole momentum just hit a wall and crashed. And it’s happened to every label in every genre around the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: What do you think might be the cause of that?

FOSTER REED: Well, there are a lot of causes. There was the greed of the record industry, releasing over 30,000 new titles a year in the CD era. Most of those titles being absolute junk, in an industry that sort of didn’t have the infrastructure that could handle more than 10,000 new titles a year, or I don’t know what the exact number is but something like that. In other words, the infrastructure was overwhelmed by new things coming in, and so…

FRANK J. OTERI: And they gave up on back catalog.

FOSTER REED: It obviated back catalog because you always had new stuff coming in. And if you apply that on how the commercial thing is run, the new stuff coming in, little by little by little, becomes something that has to be promoted, endorsed and basically bought by the record industry — the distributor — to get into the stores at all, because there’s so much other new stuff that isn’t being promoted and bought to be put into the new stores. The new stores can’t possibly separate what’s what, so then rather than use the criterion of what’s good music they use the criterion of who’s going to pay more to get the stuff in the store.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

FOSTER REED: That pretty quickly cancels out people who don’t have the bucks.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’d have a release that would be out maybe three months and it was already back catalog. The major labels no longer cared about it, and things didn’t stay in print for very long.

FOSTER REED: I think our record for getting a return from the music industry was 6 weeks. You know, spat out in 6 weeks. But anyway, so there was that going on: the glut. The greed of the industry at large releasing back catalog of bad records, things that were bad to begin with, they were able to repackage as a CD and reissue. And then there a consolidation of the industry itself, where the chain phenomena, for some reason, grew, and as that grew, for example, Blockbuster or something like that, and as that grew, it made the independent store less and less viable, because who could compete with the Blockbuster chain. Although clever independents could compete with the Blockbuster chain because Blockbuster was so bad at what they were doing, they had a harder time competing with Circuit City, that was selling things at wholesale or below wholesale as a loss leader. Anyway, there was this whole context of the corporatization of retail, which put a lot of pressure on chains, and then the next, at that time, at some point, somebody realized, a place, a certain kind of chain, wasn’t working. That they were building these huge, chrome and florescent boxes and stuffing them full of every kind of record you could possibly imagine but nobody was buying them, people weren’t going in there. So they started shutting those boxes down. This was about 3 or 4 years ago. And as they shut those boxes down, the product started going backwards, they went back to the one-stop, back to the distributor and back to the label. And so for the past 3 or 4 years, most labels, and those that say they haven’t had this happen are either lying or they weren’t in the game, have had more records come back to them than they’ve been able to ship to the music industry.

FRANK J. OTERI: To the retail shops.

FOSTER REED: Yeah. In other words, if you sold, if that year you sold 100 records, figuratively speaking, you probably got back 250 records as a return.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. How do you deal with that glut?

FOSTER REED: You get as small as possible, and spend as little money as possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you did something last year that is a radical thing in the record industry, after you released your 100th recording, you stopped.

FOSTER REED: Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said, we’re not going to issue anything for 1 year. And what happened in that year?

FOSTER REED: Well, we stopped that year. We made almost no money. We got better at selling to libraries and individuals and Internet stuff.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you were selling back catalog.

FOSTER REED: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And are all the titles in print since you started?

Marshall -- Evensongs -- CD cover RealPlayer  [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Ingram Marshall: Entrada
(from New Albion CD 092:
Evensongs)

FOSTER REED: Pretty much everything’s in print. We’re facing a number of issues for things that are going out of print and trying to figure out the correct way to deal with them. It became really pointless to put out a great record—I would consider both Ingram Marshall’s Evensongs and Daniel Lentz’s Apologetica to be great records—and have them go absolutely nowhere in the record industry. And so I said, if I can’t put out a great record—I know not every record’s great, but every other record’s at least very good, and occasionally you make a great record—and even though our records that aren’t of the very good variety are at least interesting on a lot of different levels—and I thought to myself, well, if I can’t do this, then I’m not going to do it. What’s the point in putting out a record that can’t circulate to the people who are interested. I’m confident that there is the smallest core audience for a good record in the world is 50 – 100,000 people. But the record industry doesn’t reach those people. It never did very well, there are sort of cult breakthroughs that do, but they don’t carry the rest of it with it, and there are occasional examples of records or groups that are able to go 150 or 200,000. And that’s great. But if I can’t reach the core audience through the record industry, and I tried to work the record industry, and the record industry itself is going through a collapse, then I have to ask myself, well, why am I doing this?

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. But New Albion still continued to exist through all of that.

FOSTER REED: Yeah, we did. We just got as small as possible, spent as little money as possible, learned how, worked on individual sales as opposed to the chain of label, distributor, retail, and hoped and waited for the record industry to recover.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you say individual sales, people buying directly from you?

FOSTER REED: Yep.

Lentz -- Apologetica -- CD cover RealPlayer  [91 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Daniel Lentz: In Chains
(from New Albion CD 097:
Apologetica)

FRANK J. OTERI: How does that work? How do you get the word out?

FOSTER REED: We send our print catalog to somebody who requests it, or at this point we have about, I don’t know, 12 or 1500 people who visit our website every day. There’s probably between 5 and 20 orders a week that come out of that. It’s like a store.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. I want to talk about the Web a bit, because of all of the labels that are out there, New Albion is one of the most Web-savvy labels I’ve seen. You have a very well-done Web site, with lots of links, lots of really intelligent use of what the Web can be, bios of artists with catalogs, photos, and the site is very easy to navigate. When did you first decide that New Albion needed to be on the Web?

FOSTER REED: Four years ago, I think, we put up that site. And basically, we haven’t changed it in four years. In other words, the sort of thinking that went into it is four years old. And it’s a tribute to the people who worked on it the most, which were Eric Theise and Tom Welsh that we were able to put up something that didn’t need to be drastically revamped and it lasted for 4 whole years. That was sort of our big question. In this period of time, everything we do becomes immediately obsolete, so how do you step into this electronic realm, knowing that you’re going to be obsolete right away. And so, we figured out we wanted to be as simple and straightforward and inclusive as possible.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you clearly thought that the Web was the way to reach this 10,000 to 50,000 community of…

FOSTER REED: Well, the thing is, there is no way to reach them. It used to be that you could count on the New York Times to cover interesting things. And then the New York Times went through a kind of confidence problem and stopped carrying a lot of arts pagination. And now recently the New York Times is starting to realize that they maybe have a better circulation if they do a better job covering interesting things, and that’s good. But there was a long stretch there where there was nothing happening. And, so then you have magazines like Option and Wired. But there’s no way to find people. Radio is dead. Stores are rapidly dying… I have to backtrack and say one more thing. It used to be, for retail, if you had an interesting record, and you knew the person who worked in the store who was interested in this kind of music, whatever it was, and you gave them that interesting record, and he really liked it, you automatically were going to get sales of 10, 25, 50 copies out of that one store only.

FRANK J. OTERI: From in-store airplay?

FOSTER REED: You go into the store and you say, “Hi, Joe. Have you heard anything, you know, have you heard anything that’s very, sort of, long, slow and harmonic but not that kind of English, static stuff?” And then Joe’s like, “Here’s this Deep Listening record.” And all of a sudden people who didn’t know the Deep Listening thing would have bought it and played it in their homes, and it would build that way.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now why doesn’t that work anymore?

FOSTER REED: Because those people are no longer in the stores. ‘Cause the stores are run, they’re bought, the chain stores are bought by an individual buyer, whose job it is to deliver a quarterly bottom line, and they don’t know how to associate a quarterly bottom line to music that’s basically not commercial.

FRANK J. OTERI: So basically, the record fanatics who used to work at these stores are gone.

FOSTER REED: They never lasted very long in the corporate world. HMV was famous here for losing good record people. And the independent stores were basically being put out of business around the country. And so they lost this incredible resource of people who were committed to music and loved music and worked low-paying retail partly out of love. And so that individual’s vanished from the planet.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, do you think that pricing has anything to do with…

FOSTER REED: I think it does in the context of students. I think students relate to something that’s under $15. I think the tweed, pipe-smoking, classical professional relates to things that are over $15. So, you know, you’re sort of asking where your market is. When our price was over $15 we lost the students. And so, when our price was under $15, our student thing was larger.

FRANK J. OTERI: Did you lose the people who want the more expensive thing?

FOSTER REED: I never found those people. That was a big mistake I had. I always thought New Albion would relate to the classical music buyer, and I now think we have nothing to do with the classical music buyer. The tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking guy just wants to hear Pachelbel’s Canon. He might get up to Mahler, but he’s not really interested in things that are different. That type of person wants to be continually affirmed by having multiple copies of the same thing…

FRANK J. OTERI: Are people really buying multiple copies of the same thing?

FOSTER REED: They were. They were because of the format that the CD made. And then they stopped. So the CD allowed for the adult to refigure and replace his vinyl collection.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

FOSTER REED: And then to continue on with that at some point.

FRANK J. OTERI: To buy the same piece over and over again?

FOSTER REED: Well, there was some of that, I think. Because the record industry was busy cleaning out their back catalog.

FRANK J. OTERI: And telling you, oh, you have to have all these different interpretations of this piece.

FOSTER REED: And they were paying for the advertising in the magazines that were writing about it, you know. I also think that the CD was the first digital product you could have in your home, part of a “Brave New World” of technology. Now it’s just one of many and there are fewer people who listen to CDs as a musical event than there are people who plug CDs in to interact with their computer screens.