Small record labels hit perfect pitch

TIME was when just about the only promotions in record shops were in the mainstream pop sections. Records that had already sold in vast quantities a while back and those that had promised so much but had failed to sell at all were offered at small discounts in annual jamborees at the large retailers.

Lately, though, an increasing sophistication has crept in, and it has spread to other parts of the larger stores. For instance, PolyGram, the international entertainment company that owns a fistful of rock labels, has started using the marketing techniques commonplace in pop music to promote artists on its jazz and classical labels.

In common with counterparts at companies such as EMI, it links up with retailers such as Tower, HMV (owned by EMI) and Virgin Megastores (separate from the Virgin record label, which is part of EMI) that have large specialist sections for "label-of-the-month" campaigns and other promotions.

Wulf Muller, head of jazz marketing at PolyGram, explains that the idea is to create an image for its highly regarded Verve back catalogue, by getting significant amounts of it into the store. Having targeted the jazz buffs, it can try to broaden the appeal to non-enthusiasts by drawing attention to the links with in-vogue dance music and other genres.

This sounds beneficial to the independently minded consumer. But it is not all good news. The small record companies, many of which claim to have been offering alternative music to the public long before the majors discovered the strength of their back catalogues, frequently find themselves unable to compete with such marketing muscle for the attention of retail buyers. While jazz, blues and even classical are enjoying a boom, the output of the independents often falls between categories, and retailers who cannot easily pigeon-hole it often decide against stocking it.

It is no accident that mail order and other forms of selling away from the high street are on the increase in this area. Harry Friedman II, who runs the Texas-based Antone's group of labels with founder Clifford Antone, is so disillusioned with the way his records are sold in stores that he is looking at "alternative ways of selling records". The Internet and TV sales are among his options. "Very few people in the stores know the product. The business is changing. It's becoming a software business," he says, in what sounds like a veiled reference to the recent moves of electronics companies into the record industry.

Antone's is the very opposite of this approach. Born out of the blues club of the same name that Mr Antone founded in the Texas capital of Austin 20 years ago, it is largely a personal passion. A self-confessed "blues nut" who professes himself less interested in making money than in making records that will last, Mr Antone has hooked up with Mr Friedman, an experienced producer, to record artists that did not quite fit his definition of blues as practised by Muddy Waters and Sunnyland Slim.

The result is the launch two years ago of Dos, for "roots-based" material, and the more recently established DMZ, offering "alternative" rock for younger listeners. While Mr Antone concentrates on releases by the likes of Snooky Pryor, Jimmy Rogers and younger pretenders, such as Fabulous Thun- derbirds frontman Kim Wilson, his partner aims to appeal to the market that buys records by artists such as Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder with releases by such performers as Stephen Bruton and Doyle Bramhall.

But having worked for another Texas-based independent that failed, Mr Friedman knows that it is not enough to rely on your belief that your records are different or of value to succeed in what is an increasingly competitive market.

While admitting that the economics for an operation like his are different from those of the big guns, he is not unaware of the role of marketing. However, it is one thing to realise this and another to put it into practice. "Until you get a 100 or more in the catalogue, it is very difficult to market records," he says.

Another problem is distribution. Where the majors can call on international sales operations, the independents generally rely on independent distributors - often with indifferent results because they cannot counter the clout of the bigger players in the battle for limited shelf space. Antone's has recently signed up with Pinnacle, probably the best-known independent distributor, and is encouraged by early results.

What a company like Antone's gets, says Pinnacle's David Pegg, is "the best of both worlds". It has penetrated the large retailers while having the credibility to deal with the independents. By working closely with the label itself and the promotion company, it typically advises on the release schedule and other matters. "We're able to effectively work as the UK office for overseas labels," adds Mr Pegg.

He is confident that by not diluting the market for the sort of blues and country-based material that Antone's has on offer he can achieve significant sales for the likes of Stephen Bruton, Kim Wilson and Steve James. But here, of course, he demonstrates another difference from the majors. By significant, he means upwards of 10,000 records - a figure that would be of little interest to the PolyGrams of this world.