It was the e-mail that every record label dreads. At the beginning of July, Toledo-based distributor Lumberjack Mordam Music Group informed its clientele that it was no longer in the music distribution business. It was the latest chapter in the saga of a struggling music industry that includes February's announcement that Touch & Go would lay off employees and that at least 20 distributed labels would go wanting, leaving a gnawing sense of disappointment in its well-publicized wake.
Pinnacle Distribution died last December, entering "administration," Britain's vaguely pleasant code word for "bankruptcy." And last June, a trifecta of ejecta: longtime German avant merchants Artware folded after the death of founder Donna Klemm; Belgian indie stalwarts Lowlands Distribution imploded; and Starbucks' cost-cutting decision to quit distributing music through its coffeehouses fell with a decaffeinated thud. Even smallish Woodland Hills-based Miles of Music shuttered in October, leaving labels unpaid and message-boards brimming with harsh invective.
News of Lumberjack Mordam's closing came unexpectedly to the casual consumer - not so much to the labels involved. When Lumberjack announced its tepidly-anticipated merger with venerable San Francisco distro Mordam in March 2005, they absorbed an enviable roster of rock, metal and punk labels that included Southern California locals Sympathy for the Record Industry, the late Greg Shaw's Alive/Bomp!/Voxx axis of labels, Anton Newcombe's Committee To Keep Music Evil, Frontier, Dionysus/Bacchus, and Gold Standard Laboratories. Four years later, Lumberjack boss Dirk Hemsath announced the closure via email, citing as reasons "...the triple hits of an expensive merger, a dying business and a bad economy have made (operations) impossible....If you have not yet moved your distribution to another company, please make arrangements to do so as soon as possible."
Mordam's first album was We Care A Lot, by Faith No More
How are the L.A. labels involved in the mess faring in the aftermath? Alive/Bomp/Voxx Records left Lumberjack in early 2008 for greener pastures at Redeye Distribution in North Carolina, says the label's Patrick Boissel, so the collapse didn't affect him -- though he knows other labels who aren't going to fare as well. "It's getting harder and harder to get distribution," he says, adding that brick-and-mortar retail sales remain key to label profitability. "Physical distribution will always be needed at one level or another. [W]hat seems to be disappearing is the corporate model of chain distribution. Digital sales have stalled due to file-sharing, and mail-order only reaches a limited audience." That means that the label reaches customers the old fashioned way: through indie stores -- "and you can only do it right with a good distributor."
Sonny Kay of Gold Standard Laboratories, which shuttered in 2007, says that a lot of people had been anticipating Lumberjack's closure. Even before it merged with Mordam, he says, some labels were wary. "Lots of us had prior experience with Lumberjack in one form or another, and didn't have all that much faith in their ability to live up to Mordam's standards. Our sales dropped drastically, almost instantly. Mordam was a really tight ship and it was prestigious to be distributed by them -- it was kind of a model for the whole industry. Lumberjack never had that sort of work ethic in the first place." Kay blames mismanagement, "and biting off way, way more than they could chew." Like Alive, he moved GSL's distribution to Redeye. He had little choice: "Eight or ten years ago there were a lot of competitors in this realm and a lot of different options. The pool diminished the last few years."
Under-rated Frontier Records band Thin White Rope
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Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records, whose catalog roster includes classic L.A. titles by the Adolescents, Redd Kross, Suicidal Tendencies, Christian Death, and Thin White Rope, sighs as she relives another distributor bankruptcy: "I've been through this so many times in my life that it's sort of old hat -- and I've been burned so much worse back in the day." The day that Lumberjack went down, Fancher
started joined up with Independent Label Collective, a new distributor that will stock some of Lumberjack's biggest musical concerns. Fancher says the company will distribute "the top eight or ten labels that were with Lumberjack. The (labels) that were left were really loyal to Dirk - which I hope we are rewarded for if he ever does have any money!" Among those signing on are Asian Man, Sympathy for the Record Industry, New Red Archives, Beer City, Dr. Strange and Frontier.
Whether physical sales will ever recover enough to support a new distributor is the big question.
-- David Cotner
Correction: The original version of this post contained an editing mistake; Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records joined on with the Independent Label Collective, she did not start it. We apologize for the error.