Confessions of a Rack Jobber

Rambling Reflections on one of many long-gone music industry jobs

I recently attended the Folk Music Ontario Conference in Ottawa where I got to see lots of old friends and make some new ones. I have a love-hate relationship with these Music Conferences. Sometimes they are like family reunions and other times they reek of desperation and despair that remain embedded within the DNA of the modern music industry. So many people want to be part of it, as performers or otherwise, and there just doesn’t seem to be enough jobs to go around to include every one.

Young people are encouraged to engage in all this stuff immediately, rather than being given time to turn into artists. They can’t play the streets without a license and there are no gigs for them to cut their teeth on. So they get pushed straight into the industry which kind of sucks for everyone.

I never would have dreamed in my early days of being a music addict that as I grew older things would get to the point where you can easily attend 2 or more music conferences a month if you so wish. There seems to be more opportunity to sell what you do, or learn about how to sell what you do while all the while there are actually less opportunities to make some decent money doing it!

That being said, there are still a lot of great people involved but there are the reptiles as well. It’s not all bad but it sure is more complicated than it used to be. The kick used to be to simply play music with a bunch of buddies, or to listen to it. It was all about the Groove. That’s all that mattered. Now, that seems to be secondary to other agendas and it certainly sends a different message to young people who want to get involved in the entire game. It has become so serious, to the detriment of ¬†chasing Mother Muse.

But that’s another BLOG!

Today I simply wanted to tell you about a job I used to have in Winnipeg working for a Rack Jobber called MCTR Distributors. I realized during a dinner at the above mentioned Conference, that there was only one other person sitting around the table who even knew what a Rack Jobber was. That’s how much things have changed!

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A Rack Jobber was a warehouse that received records and cassette tapes from all the labels (at that time there were quite a few) and then, sent them out to Gas Stations, Department Stores, Book Stores, Gift Shops and anywhere else (aside from the major Record Store Chains) that sold music.

We would often ship hundreds of one title to stores and after counting literally hundreds of them, would have a few of the covers permanently burned into our brains. You would ship so many of them, you would even have their catalogue numbers memorized after awhile. And the thickness of certain covers. And sometimes, you would ship so many, they would be declared as massive hits until the returns started coming in. This was how a label would sometimes create a hit record, by simply shipping so many of them that a false buzz was created around the album. That was a big part of the game.

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I recently had a friend who was in the management game back then tell me he once did the forensic bookwork on an album and discovered that a label declared more copies returned than they ever claimed to have shipped. This way, they could charge the returns back against artist royalties and usually, didn’t worry about anyone checking their bookkeeping because it usually didn’t happen. If they didn’t have books on what they actually shipped, they didn’t have to pay the artists for them!

There was so much false economy created that way; so much illusion of success; which apparently, sometimes begat actual success! The labels would subsidize agents, managers, artists, publicists, live music venues, etc. all so they could make an artist look successful. Sounds like the recent bullshit real estate industry, no? But that’s another BLOG subject.

One theory I read recently in Ben Sidran’s excellent autobiography is that it was when the record labels stopped funding everything that the illusion of a healthy music industry began to come crashing down.

 

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Get Ben Sidran’s book if you are interested in the music biz history¬†

It’s full of great tidbits on his history as a sideguy and producer!

 

As a Rack Jobber or someone who worked in Record Store retail ordering and returns (another job I did when I was younger) we saw a bit of that game going on. It never made sense why things were done that way or how they managed to get paid for. I guess the few real success stories financed all that other stuff and it was worth the risk for a time.

Everyone who worked in these warehouses would have their own ‘hold bin’ where they would place whatever albums they wanted and when pay day rolled around, you would get paid half in records and half in cash. Sometimes even more in records if you could afford it! ¬†(most of us still lived in our parents houses and at the time) I ended up with around 3000 albums in my collection. I was hooked!

We would also get tickets to concerts or free albums (called play copies) of touring artists who were coming through – it was all part of greasing the gigantic wheel that made up the industry , even at our small table.

This all just got me to thinking about how many of these jobs don’t exist anymore from the printers, to the truck drivers who would deliver for us, to the accountants, to the warehouse guys and on and on. It really was an industry. Now it pretends to be an industry but with fewer jobs involving less people on the ground in regards to supporting the creation and distribution of music. It used to be huge. Not so much anymore.

I can’t wait to see where it all ends up over the next few years.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep picking and promoting, with or without the money we used to believe would follow it.

The music is honestly worth it. We all need to remember that and teach our children that. The industry does not feed the music. It’s the other way around and only one can live without the other.

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