An Interview with Dan Phillips of the Independent Label Collective

by | May 5, 2010 | POLITICS

A considerable degree of attention has been paid to the decline, and some would say impending death, of the music industry in recent years. There are a variety of factors: the unwillingness to realistically deal with the ease with which the public can acquire music for free online, the glut of less-than-memorable music being released, and the generally greedy and corrupt practices of larger record labels all helped push the mainstream music industry towards its current state of stagnation and irrelevance. Many of these major labels possessed business ties to larger independent labels and distributors as well, so the rapid decline of the larger corporations set off a shockwave throughout the industry as a whole which has sent sales spiraling downwards and has forced many companies out of business.

A considerable degree of attention has been paid to the decline, and some would say impending death, of the music industry in recent years. There are a variety of factors: the unwillingness to realistically deal with the ease with which the public can acquire music for free online, the glut of less-than-memorable music being released, and the generally greedy and corrupt practices of larger record labels all helped push the mainstream music industry towards its current state of stagnation and irrelevance. Many of these major labels possessed business ties to larger independent labels and distributors as well, so the rapid decline of the larger corporations set off a shockwave throughout the industry as a whole which has sent sales spiraling downwards and has forced many companies out of business.

One of the largest independent distributors in the country was Lumberjack/Mordam – a merger between one of the largest companies to come out of the 90s indie-emo world and one of the largest to come from the 80s Bay Area punk scene. Through a combination of declining sales and upper-level mismanagement Lumberjack/Mordam went the way of so many other poorly-run businesses which lack adaptability. In the wake of its demise, several employees developed a new plan: to take record distribution back to the its DIY roots and to get music made by the right people into the right hands without the sketchy business practices. Relocating to Richmond, they set up shop in late 2009. Calling themselves the Independent Label Collective, the group now helps to distribute releases from labels like Robotic Empire, Magic Bullet, Sympathy For The Record Industry, and several dozen others. I sat down to talk with Dan Phillips, operations manager for ILC to discuss the group’s history and mission.

RVA: For those readers out there unfamiliar with the process of getting an album into consumers’ hands, can you explain the role of the distributor?

Dan: Basically what a distributor does is work with a group of record labels in various ways to help their product reach the end consumer. We sell all their releases to stores, on-line retailers, one-stops, digital aggregators and other distributors. We also help to plan, market and sell any new releases from bands/artists they may be working on.

RVA: Can you detail the origins of ILC?

Dan: The ILC was an idea that started around February of 2009. A few of us were working at another now-defunct distributor in Toledo, Ohio called The Lumberjack-Mordam Music Group (LMMG). LMMG was a sinking ship, the owner didn’t care about the company anymore, those of us who were left had no leadership, no direction and the company was in a massive amounts of debt that seemed completely unrealistic to ever overcome. We were overworked, spread thin, and all fed up. We loved our job, but hated the circumstances we had to work with. Jason White (general manager of ILC) had an idea to start a new distributor, get away from the owner of LMMG and basically just start fresh. At first the idea was almost a joke and didn’t seem like something we would ever pull off. We started throwing the idea around to some of the LMMG labels and they gave us nothing but support and enthusiasm, so for a few months we took baby steps, talked to lawyers, researched how we would go about this until things started taking shape. Next thing you know we had over twenty labels who were on board and very excited. We had a name, ideas and plans, all we needed was a new home. When we first started we were still operating out of the LMMG warehouse, but we had to get out of there quick. We knew the bank was going to foreclose on the building at any time, and we wanted to get as far away from being associated with LMMG as possible. Richmond was always the first choice for where we wanted to go. We had friends there, we knew there was a much better music scene, it was more centrally located for where our labels were, and Tracy Wilson, our new head of sales, lived there. It seemed like a perfect fit. We found a new warehouse/office space and started to work on the move. After what was probably the craziest and most stressful move ever, we got settled in and the rest is history.

RVA: Where do you feel that so much of the music industry went wrong?

Dan
: Personally think it has so much to do with people just not adapting to the times. You can still go into a record store and see a CD that is priced at $15.98 or $16.98. I don’t know about you, but I would never pay that much money for a CD. In my opinion, labels and stores alike would be better off pricing albums lower to compete with iTunes and the like. There’s also the convenience factor. If you can sit at your computer and download a new album from you favorite artist and have it immediately, it’s easier for most people to do so, even moreso when you can get it for FREE. I will say that I think there are a lot of people out there that will be bummed in ten years when they realize they just have a closet full of t-shirts and a full hard drive. All of the staff here at ILC enjoy having a music collection, and luckily there are still other people out there that prefer to own the physical format instead of having 8 million songs on their iTunes.

RVA: Did you see an element of independent labels and distributors mimicking majors?

Dan: Yeah there are some out there that are trying to compete on a larger scale like the majors, but from my experience with the labels we work with I’ve noticed most of them are doing just fine operating on a lower scale and staying true to the D.I.Y. persona, keeping their costs down and being able to continue to operate on their own terms.

RVA: Do you feel there’s a sort of mission or mandate to improve on the practices of your predecessors?

Dan: Definitely. One of the reasons we started ILC is because we knew we could do a better job helping these labels out then what LMMG was doing. So many labels were screwed out of hard earned money from that place, so we want to help them get back on their feet and show them that we can not only stay afloat but thrive in this tough business.

RVA: What makes ILC a collective?

Dan: From the beginning we wanted to have our labels be involved as possible, most distributors just do business how they want and don’t care much for any ideas the labels they work with have. We thrive on participation from our labels, we consider this company to be almost like a family. Anytime anyone has an idea it’s always welcome and discussed. Labels give us advice and we give them advice, we even encourage our labels to participate in voting on what new label will possibly join the collective.

RVA
: Is there any specific criteria for adding labels to the collective? I noticed on the application form for prospective labels you mention seeking quality of releases over quantity, to what extent do your personal tastes come into play when selecting labels to work with?

Dan: We basically are looking for labels that are willing to work as hard as we are to promote their releases. A few things we look for are how often they are releasing records, how strong their back catalog is, and if they seem like people we will enjoy working with. Personal taste does matter somewhat, but we all have fairly different tastes here. A prospective label may not be putting out records that one or more of us personally like, but we all realize what will fit well within our group of labels and what won’t.

RVA: In an age when the majority of music is consumed through the internet, do you feel like selling tangible musical products is an uphill battle?

Dan: Definitely. It’s very, very humbling to just look at sales numbers for how will tangible music did 7-8 years ago compared to today. It’s astounding even. Back then a small independent label could release a record and sell 1-2 thousand copies of something on CD format no problem. Nowadays that same record will maybe do 200-300 copies in sales. You have to be willing to adapt to the times and find new ways to promote records and get people interested in them.

RVA: Do you have any goals for your work with ILC?

Dan
: We just want to continue to provide great services to our labels and great records to stores. As long as we can do that and continue to thrive, we will all be happy.

www.ilcdistro.com

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




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