Frank Gutch Jr: MB Is For Music Biz

FrankJr2After reading what I consider Cam Carpenter‘s best column ever this past week (if you missed it, read it here), I could not help but look back over my years in the business.  The big difference between Cam and myself is that I spent all of my years on the bottomside, i.e. retail, and started those years looking longingly at the labels, hoping to score that most wonderful and elusive job in A&R (Artists & Repertoire— the people who spend ungodly amounts of time listening to live tapes and demos and sucking in smoke in scuzzy bars looking for that next big thing in music).  Cam did that.

So have many of my friends in the biz.  I never made it.  I was asked to come to L.A. twice to interview for jobs, but neither was in A&R and I certainly couldn’t see myself selling my soul for a job in sales.  To me, that’s what you had to do to get any major label job.  Sell your soul.

Why did I think that?  Ever have a record company rep walk into a store and not want something?  Sometimes, anything?  It never happened.  I take that back.  It seldom happened.  I spent years working the floor in a handful of record stores and went out to the occasional lunch and even record release party knowing in the back of my mind that if something was not expected then, it would be soon.  Salesmen.  Or maybe today it is salespeople.  They were always after something— if not that day, sometime in the near future.

houseofrecordsI was jaded.  My first contact with anyone attached to a label came at The House of Records in Eugene, a store known for selling used and promo LPs (and the biz was ALL LPs in those days— there were no cassettes, 8-tracks were brand new, and the reel-to-reel format was proving a loser).  Record companies hated that.  So one day, the CBS rep came in the door and began stacking up CBS promos until Gary, the dude who owned the place, asked him what he was doing.  Claiming CBS’s product, he said.  See, the promos in those days were marked “not for sale” in one way or another and though the state laws might have backed the suggestion that CBS had loaned those records to the stores for in-store play (one of many arguments laid forth by the legal eagles at the labels), they did not prevent the sale of USED goods.  Evidently, some brainiac at corporate legal decided that it was worth a try to just take the promos back, citing the “not for sale” stamps on the jackets.  Gary, of course, told him to leave, not even asking him to return the records to their proper places in the racks, which he did, but not after stating the corporate mantra (“Our lawyers will be contacting your lawyers”).  After he left, I asked Gary why he hadn’t punched the guy in the face.  Turns out, he knew the guy.  Not only knew him, but LIKED him.  In all my years (which numbered maybe 23 then), I had never heard of anyone liking someone who was trying to end their existence (in the context of the store, anyway).  I had grown up thinking that you liked the ones who were honest, who didn’t lie, who didn’t cheat, who didn’t spout the company line.  Lesson number one learned.  The record biz is full of people paid to play the game, even if it is only to do what they are told.

Two years later, after a stint running projector at a porn theater (man, the things I could tell you), I got the job at Licorice Pizza on Wilshire Blvd. in L.A.  Little did I know, it was just the beginning of my record business education.  Licorice Pizza was a small operation, in terms of the Towers and the Peaches and The Sam The Record Mans and the A&As.  There were maybe 33 stores at the time, all small, covering the L.A. basin.  Ours was #9 (all stores were known by their chronological place in the chain).  Ours was also one of the most visible, being on a major boulevard within a short distance of the major labels’ offices.  The result was that not only did we receive visits from various steve frankencelebrities (among them, Herb Edelman, who had me rolling on the floor with his flow of one-liners; Steve Franken, who replaced Warren Beatty as the “rich kid” on TV’s Dobie Gillis; Sheila James (Keuhl), Dobie’s semi-nemesis on that program, who claimed “propinquity” would have the final say in her quest for Dobie’s love; Cloris Leachman and a host of others who were working their ways through the new media jungle), but many musicians, some just visiting but most looking for a bit of reality in a world of schmooze (and there is no more bitter reality than to find that a record store you have told your friends would have your record simply doesn’t).  If you want my attitude toward the major labels and the record biz, picture Clive Davis walking along a sidewalk at the Hotel del Coronado, a hand on the back of Dwight Twilley, telling Twilley how Arista Records was going to make him a star.  The fact that Davis probably thought they were is an example of how delusional the labels can be.  I learned to hate the majors and the people who worked for them.  But there were exceptions.  For instance…..

billgrahamBill Graham…..  I know what you’re thinking, but no, not THAT Bill Graham, though I do have a lot of respect for what he did.  This Bill Graham worked for RCA in the mid-seventies when I was in L.A. and even stopped by Peaches when I worked there in the eighties.  This Bill Graham gained my utmost respect by doing a very simple thing:  listening.  The thing about that is that while I am sure he listened to his company and contemporaries, he went out of his way to listen to others as well.  People who worked in the various record stores, for instance.

I first met Bill in the mid-seventies.  I was working at Licorice Pizza #9 and attempting to sell albums by two bands who I thought deserved way more than they had received— Pure Prairie League and Cowboy.  I was being smothered by the L.A. sound— music which included that of Crosby Stills & Nash, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne— and needed some kind of outlet.  You cannot believe how hard it was to get away from those artists then— every radio station played them, every record store played them, seemingly every music fan bought them and played them.  So I grabbed onto PPL and Cowboy to counter the balance.  The cool thing was, at that time Licorice Pizza had a policy which allowed for creativity on the store level.  They, in fact, encouraged it, assuming that it did not cost the chain too much money.

pplbustinoutSo we’re playing Bustin’ Out in the store one day and the chain owner, Jim Greenwood, is doing an interview with, I think, a guy from Radio & Records on the couch when Jim stops the interview cold, comes to the counter and asks what the record is.  I tell him, he says make sure I don’t leave the store without the record, and returns to his interview.  Afterward, he checks out (it’s a paperwork thing, sports fans) both PPL albums (the other was the self-titled first LP) and leaves.   A week later, we get a call from Greenwood asking how many we could sell if we got advertising.  I tossed out 100 off the top of my head.  Next thing I know, we’re advertising PPL on the radio.

Couple of weeks later, this guy walks in the store and is leafing though the racks and talking to the floor people, asking questions about Pure Prairie League.  When he got to me, he asked me what I knew about them and I gave him my best spiel, hoping to sell another copy, and when I’m done, he introduces himself as Bill Graham, an RCA henchman.  Know what his first question after that was?  Take a guess.  scorpions-in-tranceAny other bands worth releasing?  Taking into account that he worked for RCA and that Scorpions‘ latest album, In Trance, had just been released in the UK, I said Scorpions.  You have already released the album in Europe, I argued, so what could be the problem?  When he left, I assumed I’d heard the last about it.  But get this.

Number One:  The way the PPL radio advertising supposedly came about was this.  RCA wanted to hold off on advertising the band until the Two Lane Highway album was completed and released.  Seems a re-tooled band had just signed with the label and were scheduled to begin recording within the month.  Greenwood said no.  It was Pure Prairie League and Bustin’ Out or nothing.  He said, give me a number I have to buy to get advertising.  They said 1500 of each title.  Done, said Jim, and the die was cast.  Because RCA was pumping money into what they had thought were dead albums, the mindset changed to use the first two albums and the advertising to lead into the new album.  They decided to release (or maybe it was re-release) Amie as a single.  Radio stations went nuts.  The rest is history.

Number Two:  Graham headed back to RCA ready to push for the release of In Trance in the US market.  Of course, it wasn’t just our store which convinced him.  Graham was smart enough to know that if the album was to be successful, it needed blanket coverage.  He asked other stores and people who worked in stores.  The response, as far as I understand it, was universal.  Release In Trance.  It may not sell a gazillion, but you can’t lose.  This is a guess, but I’m betting that Graham had a whole proposal written out— the numbers of people who backed the album and the stores at which they worked.  Probably had quotes, too.  Bottom line was that the album was released and did quite nicely.

Of course, I’m not saying that’s exactly what happened.  I was pretty much out of the loop regarding the specifics.  What I am saying is that Bill Graham knew his shit and that people like him kept a quickly deteriorating record industry (from the human being side, anyway) from immediate corporate paralysis.  I had the pleasure of meeting Graham one more time, at Peaches in Seattle in the early eighties.  He walked up to me to (once again) gain information and when he recognized me, stuck his hand out for a handshake I will always remember.  I have no idea where he is these days or even if he still is, but I will never forget him.  In a world fast filling with clones and corporate yes men, Bill Graham was (and I hope still is) a true human being.

Bill Follett…..

Bill, worked for Phonogram at the time I met him and I really don’t know where my head was but I busted his chops more than not and to this day don’t know why.  Bill was a good guy and a hell of a salesman and really did not have to deal with us store-level people, but he did.  I feel sorry for the guy, in retrospect, because he took a lot of flak from me, most aimed at the record business and certainly not at him.  Like I said, he was a good guy, but he came along when I least bent with the wind and when I was at my idealistic height.

heartsfieldtroubadourAt that time, all negotiations between Licorice Pizza and the labels took place at the corporate level, but Bill somehow found himself in the store now and again. (Bill is second from the bottom on the left side of the picture)  It might have had to do with my obsession with Heartsfield and Barclay James Harvest, two Phonogram acts the company was desperate to break on the Left Coast, having made inroads on the East.  He somehow found out who I was and came in to the store to meet me and I am sure marked that later as a mistake.  I hammered him.  I badgered him.  I need Heartsfield album jackets for a display.  Why can’t you guys do anything with Barclay James Harvest.  It never stopped, or so it probably seemed to him.

I can’t remember why, but we even had words a couple of times.  I’m sure it was my fault because by then I had learned how the real record business worked, or did not work, to my mind.  I knew that the labels were killing the bands and the music I loved and it began to seem as if it was on purpose.  I stepped over the line in some of my comments, I am sure, and blamed the messenger.

But we worked well together, in spite of that.  I went out of my way to help him with the acts other chains ignored and he appreciated it.  Once in awhile, a package would be passed along to me through Darren, the head buyer at Licorice Pizza’s warehouse— a BJH promo or promo pack, an invitation to see Heartsfield at The Troubadour and to the party before— things like that.  In return— no, not in return, for that would imply that I did what I did FOR the tickets and the promos— I would put up displays and have in-store sales for the albums and bands I loved.  The Randall Bramlett‘s and the BJH‘s and, I think, the Eno‘s because I think Island was distributed by Phonogram at the time (though I could be wrong).  Nothing made me happier than selling one of those albums and in spite of my ankle-biting ways, Follett took care of me.

I ran across Bill when I was working at Peaches in Seattle some years later and he was a big mucky-muck with what then was called Polygram.  He deserved the promotion, but I thought that it was a waste of talent.  He was pushing paper rather than doing what he was best at— selling records.  You would think that record salesman had the easiest job in the world, but you would be wrong.  To do the best job possible, you had to know your store and your buyer at that store and you had to put your best efforts forward with the right people.  He knew when it was best to skirt the manager and take the music to the floor.  Bill, if you’re still out there, I apologize for all of the crap I gave you.  I always thought of you as one of the best record company people out there, whether I said so or not.

Charlie Brown and The Rude Dude

God, but writing things like this down makes me wonder why I wasn’t booted out of the record industry right off the bat.  I won’t say that I was a total asshole, but I think I may have been closer than I thought.

charliebrownI was buying singles (45 RPM records?  The little record with the big hole?  Is this mic on?) when I made acquaintance with Charlie Brown.  He was working for RCA at the time, a sales rep, which meant that he would swing by every week and hand me a list of 45s the label was hyping or at the least pick up a reorder.  I liked Charlie.  He was funny, knew his shit and was willing to put up with my idiosyncrasies, to a point.  That point came early on in our relationship.  Somehow, and I have no idea how or why— it was probably over a Billboard report or a radio report— we were at odds.  In fact, we had serious words.  Serious enough that we didn’t talk for a couple of weeks.  Looking back, I cannot think of a single thing that should have caused the rift.  I do know one thing, though.  Whatever happened was my fault.  I always had this tendency to take my jobs more seriously than they warranted and over the years, Charlie’s were not the only feathers I ruffled.  Sometimes, my actions were warranted.  In this case, not.  Why am I so sure?  Please scroll up to the word asshole.  I had one, true, but worse than that, I could be one.

Charlie would do me many favors over the years, the best one being taking me to lunch at Mike’s Tavern over in Ballard.  Charlie was always bugging me to go out to lunch (this was long after the rift) and I was always telling him that I was not a lunch kind of guy, that he had other people to spend the company’s money on.  One day, he came in with a proposal I could not refuse.  Chili.  I know where you can get the best chili in town, he said, and it doesn’t cost a fortune.  I was in.  He took me to a dive between the Fremont and Ballard sections of Seattle, a nondescript building which had seen better days.  When we entered, the bartender knew him on sight and waved a hello.  Charlie ordered us each a bowl of chili and we waited.  When it came, the bowl was on a saucer and chili had slopped over the edge of the bowl and congealed on the side.  The fork was standing straight up and I looked closely to make sure there weren’t any moving objects before diving in.  The first bite was a revelation.  Without a doubt, it was the greasiest, hamburgiest, spiciest chili I had ever eaten.  I knew I would pay for it the next day, but I also knew it was going to be worth it.  In short order, I was scraping the bowl clean, although clean is probably not the word I should be using.  The bartender came over to ask us if we wanted more (More, I thought?  Seconds in a restaurant?  Okay, tavern, but they served food.).  I was sold.  Every few weeks after that, I would swing by Mike’s for a bowl.  And I would tip a beer to Charlie Brown, the best damn salesman in the Pac Northwest.  Anybody who was willing to share Mike’s chili was A-OK with me.

Charlie ended up his career with what was then BMG (who had bought RCA) as the head of the Seattle branch office, I believe.  I wasn’t there.  I had long since left for Oregon, back to God’s country as I called it, but every time I have a bowl of chili, I think of Charlie and wondered why the hell he hadn’t punched me in the face a few times.  Again, scroll up to the word “asshole”.  I have the best friends in the world, but I sometimes wonder why.

billbrownThe Rude Dude is/was Bill Brown, Charlie’s brother (he is the smiling fellow on the left).  I’m not exactly sure how they both ended up repping labels, but I think it had something to do with knees.  They at one time had laid carpet for a living and their knees were plain giving out and they decided to look for work elsewhere.  The record business at that time was Ellis Island for the young—- “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”  Charlie found his home at RCA while Billy went to WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic).  He gained the name Rude Dude because he got drunk one night and there was this song about a rude dude and he sang it and sang it and after that became The Rude Dude, by default.  Like Charlie, he was cool.  He knew his accounts and knew his people and had the respect of everyone with whom he dealt.

Here is a typical Dude moment.  He walks into the store with an order form in his hand and hands it to me and says, “Before you say anything, please let me say what I have to say so that I can at least go back to the office and tell them I tried.”  He went on to explain that he was under pressure to produce numbers for the Led Zeppelin catalogue.  Now, what you have to understand here is that we were on a budget.  We didn’t have a dollar to spare without hurting our stock situation.  And Billy knew that.  I waited until Billy was done and told him to write the minimum numbers he needed to keep the pressure off and to triple the numbers on Led Zeppelin 4.  He knew.  He was that good.  He knew that the approach was where you clinched a deal with me.  I appreciated the respect.  I returned it as best I could.

I think the last time I saw the Brown brothers was at a three-on-three basketball gathering Bill got the company to throw out at the WEA offices.  I drank beer (one, I think) and played basketball and laughed a lot that day.  The guys cut me slack because I sucked at basketball but they could see how much I loved playing it.  No baskets, maybe three rebounds, while those guys twisted me into pretzel after pretzel, dribbling by me for easy layups.  Good thing I didn’t bet.

The Voices

I have spent almost a lifetime listening to music.  The music I love I love for a reason.  Sometimes it’s the groove and sometimes the hook.  Sometimes it is a mere phrase on a guitar or the sound of the organ.  Only a few times has it been the voice.  It has happened, though.  Here are some videos of artists or bands who have the voices I truly love, at least in the cases of the songs presented.  Recently, a young girl reminded me of something I told her years ago—  that if she thinks enough of a book or a song to mention it, she should know who wrote or sang it.  I was surprised she remembered that, but it has been one of my major tenets of life.

Hem (Sally Ellyson)—  I found Hem through a TV commercial, as did many others.  It was a Liberty Mutual Insurance ad, I believe, and it featured a song from Hem’s Half Acre album.  It so enraptured me that I ran into the computer room and pounded out a search before I could forget.  I was turned on to a voice which has haunted me to this day, that of Sally Ellyson, a voice form-fitted to the songs the band provided.  While I could not find a video which gives a proper representation of the song from the commercial, I did find one which, though not a true video, features one of my favorite songs from the band.  Crap!  The video has been disabled by request.  I get that some musicians and labels don’t want people stealing their music, but damn!  Oh well.  You can watch the video by clicking here.

Greg Laswell

I was completely freaked out by Laswell’s Through Toledo album back in 2006, so much so that I chose it as my pick for best album of that year.  His voice is perfect for striking a textural chord all on its own.  This song is from 2012’s Landline and features an added bonus in the voice of Sara Bareilles.

Dala

Would someone please explain to me why these girls are not as big as ABBA was back in the day?  They have beautiful voices which they use to maximum effect, they write killer songs and are among the best duos in a world of musical twosomes.  Sure, they’re big in Canada, but they should be big everywhere.  Unfortunately, they don’t have a video for my choice of song (Still Life from their latest album, Best Day— it’s a freaking killer), but this should give you an idea of how really good these ladies are.  From 2008, and they’re even better now.

Nick Holmes

I know I have been beating the Nick Holmes drum for awhile now, but Nick has one of the most amazing combinations of voice and songwriting I’ve ever heard.  It’s the soft texture and the tone along with an amazing arrangement which makes this song as great as it is.  Lay back, close your eyes and listen.  You can’t help but hear what I’m saying.

Amelia Jay

When I found these guys, I thought they had a real chance for success.  They should have succeeded on the strength of Jeanette Beswick‘s voice alone, but it didn’t hurt that Mitch Dalton wrote songs which brought out the best in everything Beswick brought to the studio.  This is the only video I have ever seen of Amelia Jay and is more a concert promotion for the band than a real video.  And while I love the song, there are better songs on the album.  Still available from cdBaby, if you’ve a mind to stretch the musical mind.  The album’s a beauty.

Zoe Muth

I’ve seen Zoe & the Lost High Rollers twice now and am in love with her  music and her voice.  There is something in her delivery, a simplicity, which strikes a chord with me.  It’s country, in a way, and in a way it isn’t.  I prefer to think that she transcends genre.  Here is an example.  Recorded live.

Gigi Shibawbaw

For a few years now, I have been delving into the music of Africa and have become enamored with the rock and jazz side of things.  Of late, Tamikrest has been dominating the turntable/CD player, but it all started with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and this lady, who records and plays under the name Gigi.  This ain’t my granddad’s African music, sports fans.  This is rock!

You know what?  I put a lot of effort into these columns.  Every once in awhile, I deserve to post something just because I like it.  Here is a live track from a band which should have been an international smash, Gruppo Sportivo, recorded just last year (or at least, posted then).  These guys remain toward the top of my all-time favorites list.  And I have the albums to prove it!

Music Notes smallNo Notes this week.  You guys are letting me down.  Thanks for the time to nap, though.

Oh, and remember— Lisbee Stainton‘s Word Games album is hitting the streets on Nov. 4th.  Just thought you should know.

=FGJ=

Frank’s column appears every Tuesday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonFrank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.” 

One Response to “Frank Gutch Jr: MB Is For Music Biz”

  1. ernie hintereder Says:

    Frank – enjoy reading your blog. Some of your stories really take me back. Couldn’t help but think of Nathaniel when you told the chili story. Didn’t you guys have chili feeds at his place?
    Those were the days catching Red Dress, The New Age Urban Squirrels and the Fellows at the Rainbow. Always a great time. I like to eat my mouses raw indeed! Thanks for continuing to turn me on to new music even today. Keep up the good fight.

    your old friend- ernie

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