Frank Gutch Jr: Bullseye Canada— Let the Salvage Operations Begin: Conversations with Jaimie Vernon… Plus Notes (and One Really Cool Picture of Bow Thayer Guesting With No Small Children)
That would be Bullseye Records, Canada for those unaware, a label pieced together by DBAWIS‘s own Jaimie Vernon and friends— a record company caught in the digital tsunami which wiped out more than one music concern. In fact, if you define being wiped out as being wiped out, you could probably number them in triple digits, many being “absorbed” by major labels if they could find anything worth adding to their already bloated catalogues. I will tell you upfront that it is a tale of both success and crushing defeat, of both business and personal failure— not that it could have been avoided. When the music business started crumbling, it took with it most everything in its path. If you subscribe to the business as it was. If your yardstick was measured by the same standards the major labels had set up and followed for decades. Jaimie and his company took a beating, no doubt, but he is not down and out by a long shot. He has just, shall we say, been regrouping.
Before we get into that, though, let me plug one of my favorite bands, No Small Children, and their brand new album, Hold Tight, I’m Flying. This will be short and simple. It rocks, and you can quote me (just spell the name right, will you?). NSC just finished playing the Tweed River Festival, a summer fest they and artists like Bow Thayer and The Curtis Mayflower have made an annual stop. It is evidently a party and one I would like to experience but it’s a long walk East for a poor boy in Oregon, so….. Cool thing is, I make friends who attend the Tweedfest every year and this year, Nancy Dayian posted another laugher of a pic of Thayer sharing the stage with NSC. This is a remarkable shot in that not only is Bow donning his yearly gown, but all musicians are in the shot without one microphone obscuring a face. Not one! Great shot, Ms. Dayian, and many thanks for its use! Oh, and if you want to hear the new album, it is streaming here.
To the point. I always wanted to own a record label. Actually, I always wanted to work in A&R (Artist and Repertoire) which was as high as I thought I could aim. It is a dream job— searching for artists worth signing, working with them on recording, liaising with the sales and promotion departments on the artists releases. I mean, surely you have come across musicians brimming with talent deserving of a chance to be recorded and, given the fantasy of the moment, you would have signed to a label given the chance. My life has been packed with those moments and I fought for certain bands when afforded the opportunity. To me, those were highlights of a long and not-so-illustrious career in music and I would not trade them for anything. I can’t explain why other than to say that the music and some of the people involved were the saving grace of a business I thought less than idealistic and, in fact, at times a cauldron of pure evil.
Jaimie didn’t start out to be a record magnate. Like many of us, he just wanted to play music. He worked his way through a number of bands, some somewhat successful and others not, until the creation of Moving Targetz. At that point, Bullseye became more than a dream and, finally, a reality. It grew from a small indie label to a solid medium-sized one and for a short time even had major distribution. When the crunch hit, everything exploded. (The logo to the right, by the way, appeared on only one Bullseye release)
The story is simple, yet complicated. Every story I have been privy to regarding the music biz has been somewhat the same. You don’t toss a product on the shelves and wait for it to sell. There are games you must play and rules, sometimes vague, that you must follow. Or so I thought. When I approached Jaimie with questions, every answer begged more questions, so I let him talk. This is not only a story of a label but a story of a personal struggle to survive by doing the right things. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy in this day and age.
As you read this, please be aware that Jaimie is right now attempting to gain funds to reactivate the label as a real label. Among the notes will be comments about what happened, about the things he learned, about the ethics of the business– his ethics— about a whole string of things. The core of it all is that he knew how to do it then and knows how to do it now and wants a second chance. This is for me a chance to see a grassroots effort to help the Phoenix rise from the ashes. I heartily suggest that you share this column and any other pieces you find relating to this effort. The crowdfunding page has a whole string of rewards for helping including the hilarious “Not Suing Our Customers Since 1985” T-shirts. You can access the page by clicking here.
Bullseye Records— Some Notes by Jaimie Vernon…..
An aside: What follows are answers given during erratic questions and answers over a period of time. Jaimie is writing the complete story of Bullseye Records, to be titled Bullsography, which will coincide with this 30th Anniversary of the Label and contain much more detail.
We always set out to be a legit label right from the beginning. The kind of music my band wanted to make, and ex-Moving Targetz partner Simon Bedford-James‘ Swedish Fish was making was not major label fodder. We wanted control of it all without having to compromise on songwriting or image. Labels like Stiff and 4AD out of the UK and Nettwerk and MoDaMu out of Vancouver were excelling at DIY and we romanticized about doing the same. We had put out a Moving Targetz 12″ EP, The Wonderful World Of…, in early 1985 and Swedish Fish‘s 7″ of She’d Rather Die in the Fall of that year. The goal was to get beyond the two founding acts which was tough because we were still pounding on doors to get our stuff into retail one brick-and-mortar store at a time. We finally had a break-through with the second Swedish Fish 7″ called How Can You Sleep At Night? when the band started getting airplay on CFNY-FM and College Radio in the summer of 1986. Simon was then able to attract some friends in a band called Daughaus and we soon released their debut lo-fi album Something I Stepped In in the Fall of 1986. At that point Moving Targetz, Swedish Fish and Daughaus were bundled as a triple bill for live shows (and occasionally a fourth opening act called Overweight Elvis) and our merch table began to resemble a proper label discography. The media was very co-operative and with some street cred behind us, retailers were soon welcoming each release as they came out. This pre-dated The Barenaked Ladies changing the retail landscape for independent artists by five years. We were already cracking the impenetrable invisible door at music retail that I was told we’d never get through. It was a sign that we’d arrived.
Arrived they had, but on a somewhat limited basis. According to their discography, the label released eighteen records, all but five Eps and singles, from 1985 to 1996. But the next year, things changed,
The auspicious re-launch of Bullseye Phase II (I ran the label part-time from 1985 to 1996) started in 1997 when I signed Terry Draper of Klaatu to a solo deal. From there we immediately attracted the fanbase to what I planned as a phased Klaatu revival by launching a Klaatu tribute CD which sold really well and allowed me to then sign Dee Long of Klaatu as a solo artist.
But then my old Toronto music pal Gary Pig Gold said I should look at a Bay City Roller tribute album – and considering that my wife was heavily involved in the ongoing internet fanbase of that band which was well connected to the original members – it seemed like another sure hit. Which Men In Plaid was.
With Gary’s prodding I got heavily involved in the US-based underground power pop movement – musicians who eat the four B’s for breakfast: The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Badfinger and The Beatles
Our next project was a tribute to The Sweet called Are You Ready, Steve?. Another instant hit. We were on a roll. .
By this point I had a financial backer and by 2001/2002 I was licensing and signing quite a few acts to build the Bullseye catalogue (including the ACTUAL Klaatu studio albums).
Several of the artists bowed at the house of the Fab Four – the Klaatu boys, Segarini and Greg Godovitz of Goddo/The Carpet Frogs/Anger Brothers among them. I asked each of them if they’d like to be part of a Beatles tribute project that Gary and I were considering as our next venture. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
However…the ORIGINAL plan was to collect enough cover tunes to create an entire 13 album recreation of all the Beatle studio albums and we’d release two a year over the next 5-6 years. My business partner was dead set against committing to that as we had no proof anyone would buy a single disc going into the project. He felt the Beatles has tapped out a generation with the ‘Anthology’ series and that the market had been burned out.
He suggested, cautiously, a ‘sampler’ of artists instead. Alas, when Gary and I put out the global call we received over 200 submissions – 80% of which was pretty amazing especially considering that this was PRE-Social Media. So the sampler became a double disc set.
We called the set It Was 40 Years Ago Today using the Beatles invasion of America in 1964 as the point of lift-off. It was catchy and it tied into the “20 years ago today” line from Sgt. Pepper.
An old business associate of mine, Frank Levin, who played keyboards in and wrote the massive Eight Seconds hit Kiss You When It’s Dangerous in Canada promised to reunite the band and give us a track if he could do the artwork design. I agreed. Initially, he gave me a Meet the Beatles motif with the Fab’s guitars replacing their faces. It was iconic but seemed cliche and obvious. He came back with a spin on The White Album. That’s what I went with.
The liner notes came from a guy in the UK who had written a book of anecdotal stories in the Beatles’ own words related to every song they’d ever recorded. He allowed us to crib those notes to flesh out the massive booklet.
My business partner was getting nervous. It took a year for me, him, Gary Pig, Terry Draper and Greg Godovitz to wade through all the tracks and pick the 52 tunes for the double disc. The cost of the mechanical royalties alone to SONY/ATV publishing was going to put the cost of the project into double digits. He wanted some guarantee that we’d be able to recoup.
I suggested we pre-sell it on our website and take pre-orders from our Canadian and US distributors. For the online fans we offered a THIRD disc, free, featuring tunes that were worthy of the package but would keep our costs low because it didn’t require a box set format in manufacturing.
We sold nearly 400 at $30 each online and the distributors tapped us for 1000 units before we even went to press. The package was released in August 2004 with an all-star live show at the Hard Rock Cafe in Toronto featuring Alison Solo, Jeff Jones (Red Rider, Ocean), Greg Godovitz & Bob Segarini as The Anger Brothers, Jef Leeson, Maureen Leeson, The First Time, The Kings, and backing band The Michael White Band accompanying the solo acts. There’s a video of this performance – but, alas – the sound man fucked up the audio and it has never been released.
By 2005 we’d sold 3000 units, but the ongoing cost to manufacture provided diminishing returns so we deleted it in early 2006.
What the Hell Happened?
As much as Jaimie has told me over the few years I have known him (and it hasn’t been enough), I had questions, and I fully intended to turn them into some chronological view of Bullseye Records‘ existence, but his answers to my questions were so detailed and spot on that I decided instead to finish this column with a short interview. This will give you an idea of who Jaimie Vernon really is and what he gained and lost through the experience of owning the label. Don’t be afraid to read between the lines. These questions were personal. And in no particular chronological order.
Q: How hard was it to balance the music and the business sides of Bullseye.
Jaimie: My forte is selling IDEAS but I hate being a salesman. I was very good at selling *me* and by extension the label. I ended up with the licensing deals I did because we paid out the highest royalty by any label in the world – we split sales 50-50. It was unheard of. It still is. McCartney and Madonna don’t even get those numbers. I think at the end of the day it was the right thing to do. It’s why all these years later artists still rave about the label. I was literally signing a deal every two to three months to get another act with back catalog. It’s how we grew so fast and got as many name brands as we did. The original artists that we were bank rolling studio production for, however, was a whole other formula – it was 65-35 in OUR favour and only after substantial recoup of our costs.
We were more than fair with all the acts (though there are two who continue to dispute that to this day) but it began taking longer to recoup on each release the bigger the budgets became. By 2008 everything was running unrecouped and my business partner wasn’t willing to bankroll that debt indefinitely. I couldn’t blame him. Many titles fell out of print because it was clear the audience wasn’t quite big enough for certain titles to push sales into the black. Our biggest sellers like the various artists compilation It Was 40 Years Ago Today: A Tribute To The Beatles was turfed after 2,000 copies. We tried to negotiate a lower songwriting mechanical royalty with SONY/ATV (who owned the Beatles publishing) but they don’t give quantity discounts. With 76 songs in the package we were already $5.00 in the hole on every disc we sold. And when retailers aren’t willing to pay you more than $16 on a multi-disc set it became untenable.
Worse still is that I was lousy with accounting.
I failed Grade 11 math….TWICE. We went through four accountants because the music business is unique. It isn’t as simple as profit and loss columns – there’s this third column where the voodoo smoke ‘n’ mirrors royalty formulas go – and it was completely at my discretion whether the act was to get paid during or after money was being recouped. That usually dependent on which artist was crying that they couldn’t buy food that week.
Not a single accountant could get it right. I ended up hiring my sister-in-law, Maureen Leeson, to do the book keeping and it fell on me to calculate those royalty statements every month. As the burn out set in I got farther and farther behind in issuing statements and meeting month ends. I was starting to resent running a label.
My advice to any label or musician is to get a music industry accountant – someone that understands licensing, ephemeral assets and royalty based manufacturing and distribution.
Q: At what point did the label peak?
Jaimie: Without a doubt it was the period just immediately before and immediately after I was able to quit my full-time job – from early 2000 through 2003. All the pieces of the puzzle had come together. I had been working for music retail giant Sam the Record Man in their head office writing content for their ill-fated online store and was working dozens of network contacts in the business. Lou Bova, a transplanted New Yorker who had been in legendary cult act The Fast, introduced me to one of Canada’s top distributors. I had a business partner with capital money in place named Jim Hoeck and we had about 20 titles out on CD at this point – both Terry Draper and Dee Long from Klaatu, Goddo, Figures at Dawn, Brutus, The Fast, Florida Razors, The Shakers, Dave Rave, Silverlode and several others. And even though Sam’s was allowing me to sell through them (which in any other industry would have been a major conflict of interest), I was looking for proper national distribution. This new distributor, KOCH, loved that we were re-issuing Canadian classic rock and pop – which would greatly help their salesmen at the top retail accounts. CanCon (an act which demanded media play a percentage of Canadian-related music) was always a major selling point – especially for anyone looking to get grant money from the federal government. The deal took less than 6 weeks to put into effect. We had our titles in stores before the Fall of 2000.
By April 2001 sales had exploded and it was becoming clear that I couldn’t run the label and work at Sam’s simultaneously. As it turns out, a kidney stone made my decision for me. I had to take time off and during my convalescence, I realized that the label needed full-time attention. There were more licensing deals to secure – Randy Bachman, Killer Dwarfs, Moxy, Mainline, and my white whale: Klaatu. I quit Sam’s and immediately went full time with Bullseye. I rented an office in Toronto on Avenue Road with the girlfriend of Greg Godovitz (Goddo, Fludd) named Stella Abesdris who ran a merchandizing company. It was a great synergy relationship because she created swag for our touring acts and we were able to carry her other merchandise at live shows. Soon it became too big for even me and I hired my first full-time employee – Lisa Millar – to handle phones and correspondence. Lisa had worked for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for many years and I wanted her experience dealing with media. By early 2002 we were getting press all over Canada and in pockets around the globe. It allowed us to expand into the US thanks to an old industry friend, Ralph Alfonso, who ran his own label, Bongo Beat Music, and had done graphic design work on a dozen of our releases. Ralph was embedded with Burnside Distribution out of Portland, Oregon designing their monthly release catalogs and he sold Burnside on the idea of distributing Bullseye stateside. In 2003 we were in place at retail through North America (Mexico notwithstanding).
Q: At what point did you realize it was all over?
I was burnt out by 2005. We were juggling a hundred projects. I was doing almost all the artwork on each release to save costs, the accounting (which was falling way behind and became an ongoing contentious issue with my business partner…and rightly so), the manufacturing drop offs and pick-ups, babysitting the egos of rudderless rock stars, and raising a family. I had hired Soap Opera/First Time drummer Stacey Washington as a shipper receiver and we were overwhelmed. Not enough money to hire a fourth staff member – though we were able to get a rotation of interns including James Whitton (late guitarist for The First Time) and Matt Weeks to ease some of the daily crap. My wife, Sharon Vernon, even chipped in helping us assemble CDs from scratch because it was nominally cheaper to have the elements delivered separately and thrown together by hand. My father had built us a shrinkwrap machine from scratch. It was efficient and very cost effective. We were shipping nearly 300 CDs a week through mail order plus the crate loads of distributor requests out of a house that my staff now lived in. Their rent was subsidized by the label.
I had always lived by the Business 101 premise that a lot of inventory would keep the money flowing – putting all your eggs in one act was a crap shoot and usually one where the house always lost. So having 70 titles in the catalog kept the cash flowing. But the overhead was eating the profits. We dialed back the new licensing deals and focused on getting bigger international names and signing new, raw talent under a sub-label called Frontline. It would prove to be our undoing. While landing Leo Sayer and Jethro Tull‘s Ian Anderson and his live orchestral CD/DVD was a coup (even some major label guys phoned up to congratulate us), we were hemorrhaging money developing acts like The First Time. And the other artists were becoming disgruntled. The entire operation was being spread too thin and I was losing control of the vision and the ability to manage it. My father had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in early 2007 and I was effectively absent from the Bullseye offices the entire year. After his passing in August that year I had a personal meltdown and developed pneumonia that left me in bed until March 2008. Lisa and Stacey were left running the show – directionless and cashless.
My business partner and I spent the middle of 2008 trying to figure out how to turn the boat around but retail was crashing and burning. We were seeing heavy returns because giants like Sams and Tower stateside were in financial trouble. We had to let the staff go and close down the office permanently. I moved all the inventory and my office into my house. No one saw it coming, but the economic collapse took everything down with it in the Fall. My business partner was out and I was left with massive debt and inventory with no home.
My rent started falling behind. I made calls to some clearing centres and guys that liquidated inventories. It gave us a bit of a respite. My wife had to return to work to keep us afloat. I was able to eke out enough revenue from online sales through our website and Ebay to survive through 2009 – until Bullseye’s second Canadian distributor, Fusion III, filed for bankruptcy. With $20 in my pocket and a tank of gas in my van, I drove 8 hours to Montreal in the rain and demanded my product back. I proved to the Trustee in Bankruptcy that the inventory had never been purchased by Fusion III and that the inventory was still owned by us. They reluctantly loaded the 4000 CDs and DVDs into my van and I headed home. The $20 ran out when I filled the van with gas for the return trip home. Halfway home I was trolling through Kingston, Ontario looking for used CD stores to sell what I had in the back of my van. I managed to get $60 out of a pawn shop.
Bullseye was officially killed that day. All that was left was to bury the body. I waited until October 2010 – when Klaatu was the last act to be let go. I wanted to make sure we released their long-awaited live reunion album, Solology, and completed its promo run. I also wanted to symbolically finish our 25th year in business. In November we were evicted from our home but managed to stay the execution until February 2011. Both our vehicles were repossessed and the Bullseye archive was left in our former home – kept as collateral against our back rent. Which is where it has been ever since. And now…it’s time to get it back.
Q: What bugged you the most? Obviously you took it personally. What would you have liked to have happened that didn’t, besides the overall success you wanted?
Jaimie: I wanted to carry on. I had the inventory to do it, but I had spent all my monthly pay on keeping the company afloat and let my personal situation crash and burn. Had I just paid my bills on time and cut back on helping all the other people involved, we would have survived the industry meltdown and not been evicted from our home and lost our credit. But I was in the middle of a shit-storm. The pressure from everyone was unbelievable – not the least of which was being accountable to my business partner who deserved answers and a return on his investment. I handled it poorly. It’s taken me the last 5 years to assess priorities, to look at the industry realistically – and not in the altruistic “We’re going to conquer the world no matter what!” kind of way. The principles and hard work put into building the company the first time still apply. The product is different but the situation is still the same. We made Bullseye a short-term success outside the confines of the major label system. We did need their help and we weren’t in competition with them. We offered a substantially different product to music listeners. And that niche still exists. That’s why I think Bullseye could ride again. I ran the company for 15 out of 25 years with no capital. It can be done again.
Q: What part did Sharon play in the company, especially as it was tumbling down?
Jaimie: Sharon was part of the team in the early days – 1997 through 2003. Once she returned to work, she helped with organizing CD release parties, charity events…and she ran the entire Klaatu Kon convention in 2005. When the company was spiraling she was helpless because the problems were mostly financial. She was bringing in revenue where she could and was very supportive emotionally. Can’t deny it, though. It nearly ended our marriage. I can’t imagine anyone else having stuck around while the walls fell down. She was a trooper. And I think we came out the other side stronger.
Q: Who went above and beyond trying to help you pull through?
Jaimie: The evacuation of the sinking ship was swift. It was every man for his- or herself. Lisa Millar, who I had promoted to Vice President at this point, gave me 110% always, but she was saddled with a personal crisis when I couldn’t make payroll anymore. Same with Stacey Washington. They were out of the picture by 2010. My sister-in-law Maureen Leeson, Mr. Zero from The Kings, and Bob Segarini were the only people left standing who didn’t have their hands out looking for cash. I still had a lot of emotional support from people, but Moe, Zero and Bob tried their best to find a way to help us out. Some angels came to our aid with a bit of cash to give us a Christmas in 2010, but once we’d lost our house in February 2011, we were adrift. I was now unemployed for the first time in 28 years and scared shitless.
Enter Pete Otis, Jack Tasse, James Ratch, Gary 17 and the staff at Long & McQuade. These guys had a monthly showcase that featured musicians down on their luck. A roast, if you will, which was a fundraiser. Gary 17 ran a weekly entertainment magazine and had been helping Bullseye since 1999. I also knew James Ratch because he worked for an agent that booked Moving Targetz back in the early 1990s. He went beyond the call of duty and called in favours all over the city to make my showcase night a success. And my friends came back to help. I reunited two of my old bands that night – Spare Parts (with Maureen) and my first ever band Swindled. In fact, the Swindled reunion went so well we were able to release a last CD on Bullseye called It’s Only Peace That You Want, It’s Only War That You Get and toured the summer of 2011. It was a boost for the ego. And I have Otis, Tasse, Gary 17 and Ratch to thank. They gave me hope that it wasn’t quit over. I just needed to formulate a new plan. One that would take until this year to hatch.
Q: Don’t you have a problem balancing your distaste for what is happening on the business side and wanting to go back into that business? Won’t there be a problem separating the ideals from the business? Again?
Jaimie: I’ve always had the disdain. What I’ve learned is that the music industry operates outside of reality. It doesn’t reflect anything in the way of real music, real artistry and where the real revenue stream is. I don’t need them for my company to be successful. I didn’t then, I don’t now. At our peak we were direct marketing to music FANS. The music industry indirectly markets to consumers – through all these wack-a-mole portal walls and mazes. There’s a huge disconnect.
We gave the fans of our artists what they wanted – access to the musicians and new product ON DEMAND. In fact, in some cases the fans determined what came next. I’m going back to that model. Interaction between us, the artist and the fans is key. And we did ALL of this before social media. I think it could be bigger than before. The new version of CDBaby perhaps…or a better variation on that.
Perhaps now you have an inkling of why I would love to see the label revive. The framework is there. The music is there. The attitude is there. All Jaimie needs is a hand-up and he is handing you not only an opportunity but a piece of history. I have my eyes, like I mentioned, on one of them fine T-shirts. Again, here is the link to the crowdfunding page. Check it out even if you don’t have anything to give. You might learn something and God knows that isn’t happening all that often these days.
Notes….. Jon Gomm keeps having to postpone his tour of the US, but I can forgive him as long as he keeps putting out videos like this.
Aussies Kate & Ruth have revived my thirst for traditional folk songs and I can thank Ruth for passing along this video by Scotland’s Fiona Hunter. I feel like it’s the mid-seventies all over again.
The Professor, Brady Earnhart, has Huck’s number. Huck Finn, that is. The man not only knows his literature, he sees behind the characters. He’s one of the Charlottesvillains I am so proud to have adopted as my own.
I wish down under’s Anna Cordell had a video of Michael to share, but it must be too soon. Ruth Hazleton just this morning posted a link to Anna’s EP via Soundcloud and Michael hit the spot like you can’t believe, it being a beautiful folk/folk-psyche thing of real consequence in a world which sometimes seems inconsequential. (You can hear it, and in fact the entire EP, by following this link) It isn’t the only song worth hearing from her. Here are two videos I did find.
I mentioned Summer Children, a pop offering from Adam Marsland‘s rejuvenated (?) Karma Frog label a couple of weeks ago. Nice Hollywood pop, I do believe. Here is the entire Karma Frog catalogue as of this week, including a whole string of Marsland releases well worth checking out, and one disc I had not noticed before— Evie Sands, Alan Boyd, & Adam Marsland’s Chaos Band/Long Promised Road on which they play the songs of Dennis & Carl Wilson. Interesting stuff. Follow the link by clicking here. Right now, though, let’s hear some Pacific Soul Ltd.
This video speaks for itself in its content and presentation. Uncovered by Ruth Hazleton of Kate & Ruth and passed along to friends through social media.
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank 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.”