For record companies, the business of selling music used to be pretty straightforward. You put songs on pieces of plastic (or tape), which you shipped to record stores and tried to cajole listeners into buying. There are slivers of that world left, but most of it no longer exists. Just ask Glenn Dicker, co-owner of Yep Roc Records, about how the business has changed over the labels 15-year lifespan.
“Back in 2000, something like the Tift Merritt record we just put out would have us focused on chain stores for CD sales through traditional publicity and radio,” he says. “We still do that. But now there’s also satellite radio, Pandora, digital downloads for single songs, album downloads, streaming, artist-direct sales at venues, artist-direct sales from their website, label-direct sales from our website, vinyl. There’s more to keep track of. But it all adds up to a healthy music business where we hope to give consumers the choices they want. That’s the goal.”
Yep Roc is marking its 15th anniversary in style this week with shows featuring prominent acts from its roster. The aforementioned Merritt will play Cat’s Cradle Saturday night, singing with John Howie (her duet partner on Yep Roc’s 1999 release “Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt”).
Also playing are Fountains of Wayne, the new York power-pop band that gave Yep Roc its best chart showing, No. 37 on the Billboard 200 album chart last year; huge-in-Norway bluegrass band Chatham County Line; and iconic X frontman John Doe. Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock, Los Straitjackets and Dave Alvin are among the other Yep Roc acts that have already played this week.
With a decade and a half in the books, it’s a time to reflect on achievements (like the Grammy Award Jim Lauderdale won for his 2007 Yep Roc release, “The Bluegrass Diaries”) as well as what has and has not changed about the business.
Yep Roc commenced operations in 1997 as an offshoot of Redeye, the distribution company Dicker started with partner Tor Hansen. At that time, brick-and-mortar retail was king and the World Wide Web was still in its embryonic stages. But whether selling discs or downloads, the label’s core mission remains basically the same.
“As many changes as have happened, there’s still the same basic principle,” Dicker says. “You find out what artists need to have done, and that’s how you define yourself as a label. We used to rely a lot on traditional promotion and publicity through record stores as trusted information sources to spread the word. Where we are now, we still need those trusted sources. There are just a lot more of them out there.”
That “trusted source” role can work in terms of artist relations, too. After a decade of recording for major labels, Merritt came to Yep Roc for “Traveling Alone,” which the label released this month. She says it was the product of a year’s worth of conversations with Dicker.
“They were so supportive of my vision,” Merritt says. “Most of the time when you talk to someone about that, they’re supportive up until the moment they add, ‘But ...’ He never did. I told him I needed to go through this on my own and he let me, then he liked what came out of it. That meant a lot to me. It also felt like I couldn’t give this record to someone outside of North Carolina, which is my musical and geographic home. Having it on a North Carolina label was a nice thing.”
Over the past decade, Yep Roc’s roster has been dominated by veteran acts including Lowe, Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock and Chris Stamey. And the label has had to adapt to changing methods of consumption, trying to figure out proportions one release at a time.
“It’s different for every release, and younger acts skew a lot higher toward digital,” Dicker says. “But overall, it’s about a 50-50 split between digital and physical now. Of the half that’s physical, it’s about 15 to 20 percent vinyl and 30 to 35 percent CD. The vinyl part of it is great. For the hardcore fans interested in differentiating themselves from other fans, usually they want a physical thing. Especially vinyl.
“On the retail front, it’s gotten more complicated there, too,” Dicker continues. “Used to be you’d call one person at Borders and that covered 400 stores. Now you have to go to small stores individually. But the good thing is there’s been a resurgence of the old-school indie record store – a lot of vinyl-only, curated specialized stores where the owners are really passionate and the customers are loyal. Those are people we want to super-serve.”
That sensibility of Yep Roc playing a similar curatorial, gatekeeping role was appealing to another Triangle act that joined the label’s roster this year, The Old Ceremony.
“At this point, it seems like a record label’s most important roles are publicity and curation,” says Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins. “We’re all like children who have been set free in the candy store. What we need are boundaries to make sense of the world, which is what parents are supposed to do. It’s also something Yep Roc has done really well.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat