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by Joe Allen
We are in the midst of era marked by striking changes in the way music is created, produced, distributed, regulated, and of course consumed. The iPod revolution has made flipping a record over every twenty minutes positively archaic. Ironically, though, the diverse record collections that took years of dedicated digging to accumulate can now be easily and quickly had across a p2p network. Rather than lamenting the death of the record-collecting industry as we knew it, this newfound access has liberated more and more recordings that might have sat idly in the back corners of record collections. Although it may seem like everything is available all the time, it takes the tireless work of labels such the Numero Group to fill in the gaps.
Chris Anderson’s (of Wired magazine) recent book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006) documents the economic changes happening in today’s media marketplaces. The 80/20 economic rule states that 20% of products produce 80% percent of sales and nearly all the profits. Popular culture, both in production and consumption, has long been dominated by hits, or the head of the distribution curve. For Anderson, because the means of production and the methods of distribution have both been democratized, the 80/20 no longer applies and is in the process of being reversed. For instance, the digital jukebox company Ecast sells 98% of at least one track per quarter of their top 10,000 albums, what Ecast CEO Robbie Vann-Adibe calls the 98% rule. Anderson has also studied Rhapsody, the downloading music company. He found, as expected, tracks at the head of the curve were sold in massive amounts, “but the interesting thing was that it [the sales curve] never fell to zero.” The 100,000th most popular track was selling in the 1000s per month; the curve -- “a long-tailed distribution” curve -- kept going well past the 400,000th most popular track. No brick and mortar store would ever carry such diversity of product.
For online retailers such as Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, Rhapsody, and others, the long tail of retail sells to such a degree that all those products in sum offer stiff competition to the remaining hits. When offered the choice, consumers are actively consuming the non-hits, the niche markets, the rarities, the obscurities, and the underground nooks and crannies of popular culture with abandon. Supply and demand connects without a big media conglomerate functioning as the mediator, gatekeeper, or puppeteer; products are not hindered by the tyranny of geography or limited shelf-space. The long tail contains infinite shelf space and can be accessed from anywhere at any time by anyone with a connection to the Internet.
Here’s the rub, though. Even though a 14 year-old can have a music collection of digital files as diverse as one gleaned after 30 years of record hunting, one would be mistaken to think that the long tail is indeed complete or even near exhausted, or that much of the product out there is even worth the virtual space where it resides. The plethora of products is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel” where “for every sensible statement line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles, and incoherences.” Sure, anyone can get a product out on the tail, but who will dig deeper into the history of 20th century music and find what has still been overlooked or forgotten?
Ken Shipley, Tom Lunt, and Rob Sevier, who founded the Numero Group in 2003, draw straightforward lines across the labyrinthian history of 20th century music unlike any other independent label. According to Ken, “It takes somebody to put together a primer on sub-genres.” As Ken tells the story of the label, he makes it clear, not just anybody, though:
In the beginning when we were setting up the label, we believed that everything was part of a larger collection, a kind of ongoing box set -- like a never ending stream of thought. There wasn't one sound or culture we wanted to cover. Whether it was funk or soul or Belizian folk, it could find a home at Numero. And the greater idea was that once you find one thing in a library, it will lead you to other things.
Our collections exist to show the world things that they would not normally have encountered. Maybe it's gospel, maybe it's private folk or some sub-genre or a non-existent genre waiting to be discovered. Furthermore, it's no longer just about record digging, but instead culture preservation. We want the story, the photos, the shit in the bottom of the drawer, and the bodies buried in the backyard.
I'm not as interested in owning records anymore; I am much more interested in master tapes. They're kind of the ultimate collectible. But you can't just go in guns blazing and expect to walk out with some guy's entire tape library. It takes finesse and an honest desire to cultivate a relationship. So we've taken the position with our clients that we're their partners, not just a few opportunistic dudes looking to exploit their history. . . . We work with both the labels and the artists and try find amicable solutions for rights and licensing We view ourselves as long-term asset management. The artists or label owners might sense that there is still value in their recordings but not know how to bring them out again. . . .
Chances are if you're working with us, you've been burned by the record industry, so the likelihood of initial distrust is high. But as we talk with artists and label owners over the course of a project, doors begin to open. Barriers come down. For example, Willie Clarke was really cagey while we worked on the first Deep City project. He told us there were no more master tapes. A year and a half later he "found" 15 master tapes in his ex-wife's closet and entrusted us to sort out the contents. That wouldn't have happened had we stuffed a wad of cash in his hand and never sent him a single statement or royalty check.
After initially contacting Ken, he sent along Numero Group’s most recent release at the time, Catherine Howe’s What A Beautiful Place, and one of their early eccentric soul compilations, The Capsoul Label. The two couldn’t have had less in common. I could place the late sixties soul – the cover, like all their soul compilations, contains a photo of an actual Capsoul 45 “You Can’t Blame Me” by the label’s CSN & Y, Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, complete with a tattered and yellowed 45 sleeve and a green “Special 98 cents” sticker, a price in the neighborhood of what the other photographed Capsoul 45s seemingly fetch. If only. Similar photos appear on each soul compilations. With this strategy, Numero has clearly distanced itself from the decontextualized cover art of many other r&b and soul reissues, especially bootlegs, as Ken details:
We wanted to fully display the archeology. . . . Archeological museums display the actual artifact. They might dust it off a bit, but they just lay it out and show the whole thing. Beat up sleeves are what you find in the field . . . the covers are a snapshot, exhibit A . . . the artifact that led the whole project off.
Numero only releases licensed tracks, and they strive to find everyone that they release because they believe they can’t fully research a record until they find the person who recorded it. Then, and only then, can they tell the story of the music. It is not always easy asking people to dig into the recesses of their memory, into stories that might not have seemed important at the time. With each passing year, certain pockets of music gets further buried by time and history. For Numero, researching the records and finding the key participants takes most of their time. Ken has a never-ending list of names to find, and the list just gets longer, “It’s a long detective process of sourcing a person or a record. The process never ends. Like Willie Clarke, there is usually more buried deeper.” There is no shortage of music out there, but there is a dearth of music presented in its cultural context.
We're looking for a more discerning listener who knows that a record isn't just another record, but instead part of something much bigger. . . . Why not actually discover something about the music or the artist? Discovering a record is discovering a person. . . . All this info is buried. We hope we are telling the story behind the secret life of soul music. Black American music experience is not being documented, and we’re running out of real estate.
In between repeated listenings to Capsoul, I kept returning to Catherine Howe, wondering why in the world of ethereal recordings did they decide to reissue What a Beautiful Place? Ken later explained that they used to listen to Howe’s album in a typical day’s rotation in the office, and it would creep up and take them by surprise. Once the distinct notes in track one’s “Prologue” would sound, everyone would stop for a moment.
As Numero releases go, the Catherine Howe project took one-fifth of the time that the Twinight compilation consumed. After learning of a connection to Phil Gillin, one of the original producers of What A Beautiful Place, the possibility of reissuing formalized into a plan. Ken tells the following story:
Keith Darcy had been negotiating to do the record on RPM/RevOla but could never get the trigger pulled. He had helped us out with Ladies From The Canyon and shared the [Howe] record with us as an after thought. It stayed lodged in our office CD player for six months before we finally decided to do something with it. Great records get stuck sometimes. It was such a cool record, not quite folk, not quite pop, and it has elements of jazz. The whole production was of a time.
Ken instinctively knew that no one would be expecting Numero to release this record. They have succeeded in cultivating an audience for their reissues, an audience that freely wonders, “What’s next?” and is genuinely open to Numero’s answer. Such creative thinking has allowed Numero to diversify their holdings and stay one step ahead of the death of recording industry and a few steps up the long tail distribution curve.
After repeated listenings, Catherine Howe began to work her magic on me and Numero’s raison d’etre became transparent. For the Numero Group: “There is no ‘Numero’ sound; instead, Numero offers an aesthetic. A shelf of Numero discs feels less like a ‘record collection’ and more like a library.” The soul compilations form the reference area: Capsoul, Bandit, Deep City, Big Mack, Twinight, Prix, and a mix from Phoenix, Arizona. In the rare book room, the Ladies of the Canyon inspired by the folk of Joni Mitchell sits next to Belizeans and Boil Up, their savory mix of musical styles while Fern Jones and her gospel rockabilly shares space with the obscurities assiduously collected on A Gospel Funk Hymnal. The logic of Borges and his library conclude: “The Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret” -- useless no more, though, when recontextualized by the master librarians at Numero:
We’ll be a private Smithsonian of sorts. We’re doing a service here, providing a base of research and knowledge. The real long tail means to find everything. To search everything out.Right now the digital dig is retooling. It will be more user friendly and will contain more of the content we are not reissuing. It is like the extra scenes on DVDs, the long tail theory. The tracks in the digital dig are presented in a curatorial way with stories. When you visit our site, we hope you are coming here to have an experience not just to download songs without context.
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What led you to offer the digital dig [where unreleased tracks are a dollar a download]? Do you foresee more available for download online?
We’ve been selling 100s of subscriptions to our label to people who have no idea what we are going to do. They trust us to produce a certain level of quality, so we're constantly trying to up the ante. We don’t think "how do we limit this?" or “Can we make this cheaper?", we ask ourselves "How do we include this?" or "Why can't we include a guitar pick and a full set of strings?" Ultimately we want our audience to be wondering, “What's next?”
• Every attempt should be made to contact the owner of a given work.
• If this attempt fails and the release proceeds anyway, a clear statement of the situation and contact information should be included with the release, and royalties should be held for the artist. I believe this was the case with The Wild Places' 2001 reissue of Linda Perhacs' Paralellograms, which resulted with Ms. Perhacs emerging from obscurity, and to a second release with superior sound and bonus tracks from her original master tapes. Honesty is indeed the best policy, and can be very profitable.
• If an artist is found and doesn't want there to be a reissue for whatever reason, then the label needs to move on and find something else to do. No one has the moral right to reissue a work just because they find it awesome, historically significant, too good to be left out of print, or what have you.
I think some reissue labels confuse their own desire for cash or glory with the more altruistic aims of preservation and popularization of good music. This may be what has happened with James Plummer and his Radioactive Records company.
Enter the Numero Group. Founded by Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, and Ken Shipley in 2003, the three self‑proclaimed "record obsessives" decided to approach the record business backwards. No corporate hierarchy; no company stationary. Just a big pile of music that no one had ever heard of.
The mission was simple: to dig deep into the recesses of our record collections with the goal of finding the dustiest gems begging to be released from their exile on geek street. No longer would $500 singles sit in a temperature‑controlled room dying for a chance to be played. No more would the artists, writers, and entrepreneurs who made these records happen go unknown and unappreciated.
Numero releases are sound with substance, living at the nexus of song and story. Scrupulously researched, painstakingly re‑mastered, and with an attention to detail that is unmatched in the reissue field, the end result is a top‑of‑the‑line compact disc.
There is no "Numero" sound; instead, Numero offers an aesthetic. A shelf of Numero discs feels less like a "record collection" and more like a library. The library to date is a mix of thrift shop soul, skinny tie pop, Belizean funk, and hillbilly gospel. Numero makes records for people who may have everything from indigenous Central American drumming to Canadian chanteuses stacked next to their CD players.