Groovedis, Dirk, van, den, Heuvel, distribution, 12″, dance, vinyl, groovedis.com, dance, music
BY JOHN C. TRIPP
Since founding Groove Dis in 1999 Dirk van den Heuvel has been at the leading edge of dance, electronic and world roots music. Originally from NYC Dirk moved to the Chicago area to go to college at Northwestern. A radio DJ at Northwestern’s WNUR-FM Dirk founded the “CLUB BEAT” program in the late 80s. Every Saturday night he would play the best in industrial dance and new wave along with the hottest new import dance tunes. At the time it was the first (and only) radio show in Chicago to showcase the kinds of dance music being played on the northside of Chicago in clubs like the Smart Bar, Neo, and Medusas. Leaving Northwestern Dirk found a job managing a new (but ultimately unsuccessful) CD store named Van Clybourns which just happened to be only a few blocks from Cargo Records America, a well known and respected indie rock/industrial dance importer. After getting the job running the (one man) dance department at Cargo Records Dirk continued to work there for 9 years rising to be Operations Manager and ultimately General Manager. When Cargo Records America went out of business at the end of 1998 Dirk decided to start his own company and in January of 1999, with some help from his friend Nick Wilson and some money from his father and grandfather Groove Distribution was born. Concentrating “solely on dance music, especially electronica, big beat, trip-hop, and drum & bass” Groove Distribution shipped its first order in March of 1999. Nearly ten years later Groovedis is still surviving in a radically changed music market. With many vinyl record shop closing their doors and other distributors succombing to digital death Groovedis has become America’s premier importer and distributor of downtempo, leftfield, nu jazz, and broken beat records and CD’s. Groovedis carries a large selection of jazzy and deep house, drum & bass, import hip hop, neo-soul, and rare grooves, as well as select DJ gear, magazines, and record bags. Although a wholesale distributor, they also provide a mail order service at retail prices to DJ’s and music fans across the U.S. and around the world.
Mundovibes: You’ve been in the music industry for a long time, right?
Dirk van den Heuvel: I was really heavily involved with music in high school. My turning point was hearing XTC’s ‘Living Through Another Cuba’ on WBAI in New York. And, of course, the DJ didn’t backsell his set, so I didn’t know who it was. I just heard the song and loved it and at that point I didn’t know anything about “new wave” music or anything. So, I called up the radio station and couldn’t get anybody on the phone there. I went around to all the shops, and finally I went to Record Runner on 42nd Street and they looked it up in this big massive book and they found it and they go ‘Yeah, it’s this group XTC from England.’ So, I bought their album and I loved it, and I bought another album. And that was the floodgates: all my money pretty much went to music, from then on. I used to hang out all the time at CBGB’s and the Peppermint Lounge and I was really into new wave and a lot of the club culture music. Back then you had a real melting pot, especially in New York where you had rap, and pre-house house music, and new wave. So, I was really into that.
Mundovibes: It was all so new then and anything seemed possible. When did you get into DJing?
D: I came to Northwestern for school in the theater department and they were having this big freshmen mixer, and the general manager from the radio station was doing the music. She was in one of the production studios in the basement of the school playing the music and they were piping it out to this freshmen mixer for all of the school of speech students. And I was just playing name that tune with my friends, and every single song she played I knew. And so they were like ‘You should go and try and get a show’. So, I went downstairs and I talked to her and I applied for a show and I got one Saturday mornings. Then, for various reasons I left school and went back to New York, came back a couple of years later, started getting involved in the radio station again but times had changed and the rock show at NUR was in this kind of heavily ‘cooler than thou’ phase, where it was all about guitars and Husker Du, and things like that. Which I liked, but not to the exclusion of indie pop from England and stuff. And I also had gotten more interested in industrial dance music like Wax Trax and things like that. And there was no place for that on the radion station there. So, I struggled along for like six months on the rock show until I finally just got so fed up I quit. I didn’t want to do my show one day and I tried to get someone to cover for me and no one would cover. And, so one of the freeform DJs, this guy Chip, was bugging me to play Ted Nugent. You don’t really play Ted Nugent on the rock show on NUR in ‘86–that’s not nearly cool enough. But I was like ‘I don’t care’. I made a deal with him, I said if he could find me Judas Priest ‘You Got Another Thing Coming’, I’d play his Ted Nugent. So, he goes into the studio and he searches and searches and he finds it and brings it back. Long story short, my final rock show was thirty minutes non-stop of heavy metal music, at which point I quit. I wrote at the end of the log ‘I quit’. Which worked out fine because the rock producer was going to fire me as soon as he got back to the office anyway.
Mundovibes: At that time it seems nobody knew what to do with dance music, especially college radio which was so rock-oriented.
D: Exactly, which is why I took over the Saturday night program at NUR for a show called ‘Club Beat’. The idea was to have somewhere on the radio where people could hear ‘white club music’. Because there were plenty of places to hear the club music from the South side, if you went to the Warehouse, if you went to any of those places. But if you went to places like Neo or Smartbar, or Club 950 or any of those clubs on the North side of Chicago, there was no place to hear that music. And that’s what the idea for the show was, so we were playing Front 242 and Ministry and those types of bands. And as music in England, especially, started to change we changed with it. And so, we were the first place in town to play people like S’Express and M.A.R.R.S. and we just kind of folllowed that trend into it.
Mundovibes: How did you go from radio to the distribution business?
D: I became friends with a lot of labels and distributors through the program. So, I became friends with the people at Wax Trax, I became friends with a couple of guys who worked at a distributor, Kaleidoscope, which a lot of ex-NUR people would work at. And some of the key people at Kaleidoscope started a distributor, Cargo records. I tried to get a job at Cargo but I had never actually worked at a record store. I had worked in retail for years, especially in New York, and I knew lots about music but I had never worked at an actual record store. And, for some reason, that was the litmus test to get the job. So, I kind of fell into a job running a record store, which coincidentally ended up being two blocks from Cargo. One of the guys at Cargo went to be label manager at Wax Trax. And he had been doing most of the industrial dance buying at Cargo, so they didn’t have anyone to replace him with. So, I kept going over there, shopping for my store and going ‘you have nothing, you have no records. You should have me do it.’ So, eventually they relented, because now I had record store experience and I started working part time there. I’d work there every morning, while the owner of the record store would run the store. And then he would go to Ditka’s to bartend and I would run the store. I did that for three or four months until Cargo offerered me a fulltime job. So, my job at Cargo at that point was to run the non-existent dance department. So, you’re in this indie rock company, which admittedly carried some industrial dance stuff. But it was really an indie rock company and you had this little enclave at this point of one person, me, doing dance music. So I would buy dance music from all over England or Europe and then I’d call stores in the afternoon around the country and try and sell it to them.
Mundovibes: How did you turn people onto this music, which must have been so strange?
D: The main way you sell most big dance records is to play stuff for people, so nobody had any high tech things then, so you’d just take the phone and put it in front of a speaker. So, all the indie rockers, especially the shipping manager would hate it when I’d play the dance music on the speaker. It was just a very unpleasant experience at the time. But, the department grew and I hired more people and there’s almost like a who’s who of Chicago people who worked in that dance department. Rob, who runs Guidance was my assistant. Josh, who works at Gramaphone. Both the guys who do the buying at Dr. Wax on the South side. Chuck, who now owns Choke distribution and who is like the king of ska. He had actually worked with me at NUR. He was my assistant on Club Beat, and then he took over running the shows when I left. He ran the dance department at Cargo for a while, he worked with me. A lof of people came and it was a good experience for some. Some would have fond memories of it, some maybe not so fond. A lot of people went through there, and it was really a key place in the early days for certain kinds of records. From there I moved up to being the operations manager, and then at some point one of the owners of the company had to leave and I took over as General Manager and ran the company. When I started Cargo was seven people, and in the end when it closed in ‘98, we were up to 35 people. So, it was a pretty big company.
MV: What were the biggest challenges then with music. You were talking about new genres, like industrial music. You were there in the beginning, how did you change and grow?
D: The one thing I noticed was that whatever the trend or hot thing was, one of the things that was consistent with Cargo and with Groove, is we champion records that were cool before they were trendy and before they actually made any money. At the point they actually made money, they kind of moved past us. So, for example, with maybe the one exception being industrial, industrial we got there at the same time and some of it moved past us. When I was working at Cargo in the early days we were selling stuff like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry and Front 242. And then near the end of that whole scene all of those bands were on major labels. They didn’t go through indie distribution anymore, so we didn’t have any piece of that anymore. One of the things we first championed in the dance department at Cargo was American techno records, because back in the mid ‘80s you couldn’t find an American techno record in American stores, you could only find them overseas. The main people who were selling those were people who were exporting them to Germany and England. So, we were one of the first companies to actually take those records out of Detroit and sell them to stores here in America. So, we were doing stuff with Underground Resistance and Plus 8 , and all those guys before anybody really knew about them. And techno became bigger and bigger and bigger and once again, at a certain point it just passed us by. Both musically and in a business sense. The labels were making deals directly, they were getting licensed. Plastikman was on mute rather than on Plus 8, you know? We lost it, and we would constantly have to find the new thing to replace that and so we were the very first people to sell Portishead in America. One of our suppliers was friends with Go Beat in England, and we got white labels of Portishead’s ‘Sour Times’. All it said was P stamped on it. And in the early days it wasn’t an easy thing to sell. We were trying to convince people ‘this is fantastic, you need to get on it’. But it was kind of bluesy and the only kind of reference point was Massive Attack, but it was different. We pushed it and then we got the next single and we helped break Portishead at the early stages to a lot of stores and then it blew up. And, of course, once it blew up it was on London and Polydor and once again we were shut out.
MV: So, you don’t get the credit you deserve, then, or is it the money aspect of it that is the issue.
D: It’s a combination. I don’t know who exactly I would complain to but it is frustrating to know that you were supporting these bands in the early days when no one really gave a shit. And then when they come to town and play big venues, there’s no sense of any kind of connection to them, you know?
MV: You’re just there on the sidelines.
D: For most of them, they don’t necessarily know we had anything to do with it. And it wouldn’t be so bad if it only happened once or twice but it happens constantly. We used to be only one of two companies that dealt with Acid Jazz, the label, directly. So, we had a really good relationship with them and we sold tons of their stuff. And I remember the very first Jamiroquoi single, with the digeridoo on it. It was not an easy sell and we would push that, and Jamiroquoi got signed to Sony and sells hundreds of thousands of copies and we don’t get an invite to the show or anything. It’s frustrating in a way that you never can follow these bands all the way and have any kind of relationship with them. The other thing that’s frustrating-in one way it’s frustrating and in another way it’s cool-is that you always have to find something else. Because whatever you have, as soon as it gets popular or big everybody goes after it and usuallly you lose it. The only way you don’t lose it is if it doesn’t get big. If it stays kind of moderate then you’re cool. If it gets so small that you can’t even make any money on it, then you’ve got to drop it. And that happened with us like when we first opened one of the things that we really wanted to champion was overseas hip hop. And, so, if you were looking for hip hop groups from England or Germany or France we had them all, you know? If you were really into that music or knew about it, you would know certain labels and you would have them. But the problem was nobody bought the records. We would push them, but we couldn’t even sell literally 15 or 20 copies of these records.
MV: Because people were suspect to overseas hip hop?
D: Because people weren’t open to it and finally the straw that broke the camel’s back with us, when we first opened at Groove, for a couple of years we didn’t have accounts with some of the biggest hip hop stores. We finally got accounts with all of these stores, and we thought ‘if anybody can sell these hip hop records it’ll be them.’ Not that they’re going to sell tons, but at least there’ll be somewhere, that if somebody reads about these records and they want to get them, here’s a place that will champion them. They couldn’t care less-not one of them pretty much would support it. And, so, as a genre we had to give up and throw up our hands and say ‘we just can’t do it. We can’t just bang our head against the wall and have these records that never sell’. As much as we tell people they’re cool and try and convince them. We still carry a few records but there wasn’t enough and now, honestly, the other thing that’s in danger of going is some of the two-step. Two-step for a while was really good for us, we sold it really well and it got really hot and everybody was like ‘it’s the next big thing.’ But it didn’t really become the next big thing. And had it become the next big thing we probably would have lost it anyway. It probably would have gone to bigger labels and bigger distributors. So, instead, it kind of imploded and a couple bands made it past there but now we’re in the same boat. The stores that were interested in buying two-step a year ago don’t care and we’re close to throwing our hands up with that as well.
MV: In dance music, which tends to be fickle, that’s got to be one of the biggest challenges, not being too stuck on one genre where you can’t move on.
D: That’s especially hard for us, because unlike our competitors, we have a genre kind of misson. There is a certain kind of sound that kind of defines what we do. Something that has either a jazz or soulful base-and it can take different kind of slants. We carry some drum’n’bass but the drum’n’bass we carry is either really jazzy or really atmospheric. We carry some house, but most of the house we carry is really deep or vocally or soulful. So, we can’t just go with whatever trend is there. If gabber techno became the next big thing again, we wouldn’t go there. It doesn’t fit what we do.
MV: It’s a certain quality.
D: And that makes it hard is how close do we stay to that? And admittedly we have certain genres we pick up that don’t really fit that. Like, we do a decent amount of mash-ups, we do a decent amount of electro-clash. I don’t think anybody’s going to say that’s really jazzy and soulful but the other mission we have is to represent genres and labels and artists that are under represented, that fall through the cracks. Which is kind of what the dance department at Cargo did-stuff that doesnt’ fit what everybody else is doing, we were the place you would turn to. If someone does some bizzarro record that somehow would appeal to the dance people, the place to find it was us. And that’s the other thing. So, we gravitate towards the stuff that hasn’t gotten big. Because that’s the hole in the market. And if we do it well enough that nobody else can get in, that’s great. If we don’t then other people come in, and if the niche becomes much bigger then it moves past us.
MV: What are your general feelings about the state of the music business?
D: (laughter). I think there’s a lot of people that might slam the music business musically. Like ‘well, the reason people are stealing music or that stores are closing is because there are no good records.’ I don’t believe that for a heartbeat, I think there is lots of good music. I think the problem with the music business, to a certain extent, is access to it. When I was growing up there were radio stations, there were clubs, there were ways for you to be exposed to music and there were also ways that you could get music cheaply. All of my money in high school went to music but that was a time when you could buy an album at Tower for six bucks. I could go, and for $5.99 I could buy the new Talking Heads cassette. And if you really liked a band you could collect their entire discography for less than $50. Those days are over and beyond that because radio was much more album oriented than singles oriented, when you decided to buy a record you might have already heard three or four tracks off of the album. So, you knew that there was enough stuff on there that you liked, and even if there wasn’t, it wasn’t a great financial risk. And I think that makes such a huge impact now in terms of music. I think that music has gotten really expensive, there isn’t a lot of critical information as to whether it is good or not. And you don’t have a lot of opportunities to hear it. If you get to hear it, you get to hear one single and you hear it over and over again. Which would be great if all you wanted to do is buy the single but if all that’s available is the album-and they do this bait and switch all of the time. They’ll play the single to death, but the single is not commercially available, so if you really want that single you’ve got to go and buy the album. But you don’t know if the other songs are any good. The only people that seem to get past that are the mega-stars, where they pull so many singles off the album that by the time you get around the buying it you’ve heard four of five singles. I remember that with one of the Janet Jackson records I bought. By the time I finally bought it I’d heard half the record because everything had been pulled as a single. But for most people, you hear one song and you really like it and you’re like ‘well, is the rest of the album going to be any good?’.
MV: You end up paying fifteen bucks for one song.
D: Right, and that has a huge impact on people downloading music and copying discs for their friends. But I think there’s a hunger from people to hear music that they connect with and go buy it. On the business side, besides the pricing of records and not being able to hear it, is you have a real problem. I think a lot of indie stores should take a clue. Our whole plan is we take the stuff that people are not doing well and we try and do it well. We don’t try and reinvent the wheel, we don’t try and sell the stuff that other people are selling really well. I think indie stores should take a clue from that as well, and not necessarily try and go head to head with the Towers and HMVs of the world, but to provide them with the stuff they can’t get there. I think that’s one of the saving graces for a lot of DJ stores here in America is because they’re doing vinyl, and alot of them do imports. And those are two things that most of the big chain stores have absolutely no desire to do. But doing those things doesn’t mean you can’t look at what the bigger stores do well. And I think sometimes the indies stores don’t necessarily steal ideas from the bigger chains as effectively as they should. In terms of having listening posts, doing end-capping, having promotions, having a physical space that’s well laid out and condusive to browsing, having parking. The list goes on and on, or having competitive pricing. So, given that I think the state of the music business is in bad shape. I’ve got a lot of stores that buy from us that are on hard times, that don’t have a lot of money. And a lot of that is trickle down from the economy being in bad shape anyway. But I do think it hurts even more beyond the economy when you have something that is so easily traded and stolen as music.
MV: On any level there’s definitely that impact.
D: Here’s a concrete example of what I was talking about. If you have an underground record like the stuff that we sell, if you were to send that to the big chain stores it would just sit in the bin, and maybe one out of a hundred people would actually know who it is. They wouldn’t be able to hear it, there wouldn’t be anybody on the floor to tell them what it sounds like, but maybe one out of a hundred would say ‘you know what, I’ll take a chance and I’ll buy it. I read about this in some magazine.’ Now, if an indie store just does the same thing-just takes that record and sticks it in a bin and their staff doesn’t know it, and there’s no place to listen to it and they don’t play it on the stereo-then the only thing you’ve changed is instead of it being maybe one in a hundred people know who it is, maybe it’s one in ten. But, what if, just for arguments sake, the store actually had ways for you to be able to listen to that record, or played it in the store, or the people on the floor actually knew the product and their customers well enough to match them together. Now, there are stores like that, but unfortunately there’s not nearly enough. And so you’re faced with these products who’s only chance is at an indie store, and if they indie store would embrace that and run with that it would give them something effective to compete with the other stores. Because people want this music, they just don’t know that they want it.
MV: They need to be educated, and as you said radio has failed the listener. It doesn’t do what is was originally doing, which leaves us with the internet.
D: The internet is hard to because it’s so fragmented. I think the other problem with some of these things is there’s just not a real big tie-in between presenting you the music and you actually being able to purchase the music. There’s a split between people who hear the music but can’t find the music that they hear to go buy. And so they turn to things like Napster or whatever file-sharing thing or they turn to their friends that have it. And if the people who actually were turning them onto the music also said ‘and here it is, right here for you to buy’, I think they’d be much more likely to pick it up but there’s not a lot of people that are taking up that challenge. The way I always thought of selling records in the indie world, whether it be at a distributor or record store, is kind of like hooking up your friends. If you found some really cool records and some friends of yours came in from out of town and came by your house, you’d be like ‘dude, listen to this. Check this record out.’ All your doing is just taking the next step, and when they go ‘wow, that’s really cool, I want to get it, you go OK, here it is buy it.’ That’s the kind of relationship I think indie stores should have with their customers, and that’s the kind of relationship we try to have with our customers. That’s what we’re all about, we’re about saying ‘hey, we think this band is really cool, check them out. And here we’ll sell it to you.’ And the idea is hopefully they will turn around and do the same to their customers and go ‘hey, this band is really hot. Like, have you heard of Bent, this is the cool shit, you need to buy it. And we’re going to play it for you, we’re going to show you the reviews. And once we convince you it’s the cool shit, we’re going to sell it to you.’ And everybody’s happy. And that’s what I see as the way forward but unfortunately there’s not a lot of people that seem interested in doing that
MV: Are there shops that you work with that are doing that?
D: Oh, yeah, there are a few but there’s not nearly as many as I’d like. Which is the main reason we have mail order. If I relied on all the shops I deal with for people to be able to find this music, there’d be a whole helluva lot of people in America who’d just be out of luck. There’s whole states that we don’t have any wholesale customers in. And even if I have a wholesale customer, whether or not they decide to pick this record or that record is completely up to them. And there’s a lot of stuff we carry that some of our stores don’t pick up. And it just seems a terrible waste to have to say to everybody ‘yeah, I’ve got the records right here. I wish they were at your house, but because none of the stores in your town wanted to deal with us and carry these records, you’re just out of luck. So, that’s why we have a mail order business. We try to do it in a way so that we don’t compete with our stores. That’s why we don’t advertise it, that’s why we don’t have super low prices, that’s why everything ships late in the week rather than the beginning. The whole thing for our mail order business is not so that there’s an advantage to buy from us. The way I tell it to some of the staff is we are the store of last resort. We don’t want to take the business away from our existing accounts, but if the choice is you don’t get the record, or you buy it from us? We want you at least to be able to buy it from us. And that’s why we have these wack open-to-the-public hours. I mean, we’re open a whopping six hours a week at very inconvenient times, we don’t make any exceptions. And we do that, so if somebody really wants the record they can get it, you know? It’s not going to be super-easy and we don’t get tons of business that way, but that’s not the point. The point is, if somebody really wants that Buscemi CD, and nobody in Chicago wants to stock it, and guess what? I don’t think they do stock it. They don’t have to be ‘shoot, I’m out of luck’, they can come down and get it or they can order it and get it mailed to them.
MV: That’s a fair balance.
D: We try and walk that line all the time and it’s very, very hard. And every once in a while we get some static from some of the stores, but we have an obligation at a certain level to the music. There are labels and artists that trust us to try and get the records out to people. And we, in turn, trust our stores to do that and unfortunately we don’t have enough stores that are doing that for us in a lot of cases.
MV: Where would you say the interest in what you distribute is concentrated, on the two coasts?
D: It’s predominately the two coasts. Everybody thinks, because we’re based in Chicago that we’re selling all of these records in Chicago and the midwest but because we have such a strong focus musically, it really is just wherever people care about this music and unfortunately more people care about this music on the coasts and in certain big cities than in the midwest. So, I have as many store accounts in San Francisco or New York, than I do in Chicago. Because there’s just more stores and more people interested in the kind of music we do. If we did different kinds of music, either music that appealed to everyone, or music that appealed more towards mid-westerners or something than maybe we would have more stores but we don’t. And I think that’s actually kind of a testament to what we do and how we do it is that we’re able to keep those stores on the coast because we have a lot of competition from distributors that are right there. And, we lose some business to them, but we do a pretty good job selling to people in our competitor’s backyards. And that’s just because we have a real focus. People tend to think of us more as a regional distributor if they don’t really know what we do. But we’re more like a specialty distributor. For example, Ernie B’s is the premiere reggae distributor in America-nobody cares where Ernie B’s is. In fact, I don’t even know where Ernie B’s is, you know. It’s just, if you want reggae and you’re really serious about reggae, you need to buy from Ernie B’s. And it doesn’t really matter where you are or where Ernie B’s is. And, so we feel the same way-if you’re really serious about downtempo, or you’re really serious about broken beat, if you’re really serious about jazzy drum’n’bass or leftfield dance music, then you need to buy from Groove. And it doesn’t matter that we’re in Chicago and it doesn’t really matter where you are.
MV: Backing up a little, how did Cargo close and how did Groovedis come about?
D: In ‘98 the main owner of Cargo decided that the company was losing too much money, and he was going to close it down and there were a few attempts to save the company but in the end it just was unsavable. So, in the end of ‘98 it closed down and I was faced with no job and questionable prospects as to what to do with my life. I had spent the last ten years of my life working at Cargo. The only thing I really knew how to do was work at a record distributor and unfortunately there weren’t a lot of record distributors in Chicago, especially dance distributors, for me to go apply. So, I could get out of the business all together, which I definitely thought about, or I could try and take the part of Cargo which I really liked, the dance department and try and spin that off to a new company. So, I waited a couple of months to see if any of the other dance distributors would kind of pick up that niche that Cargo’s dance department had, which was the leftfield offbeat dance music that would cross over to indie rock stores. You know, dance music that non-dance people would buy. And nobody did, nobody picked up that slack-the records just weren’t getting there. So, I decided if I was ever going to do it, it had to be then. I knew the people, I had the contacts with the suppliers, I knew the stores. I could get out of the business anytime, but if I was going to stay in the business I had to do it then. Just coincidentally my father had come into some money and he lent me some money and I bought a bunch of the remaining stock from Cargo-things like computers and all the old dance stock. And there were enough suppliers in England and in Europe that were willing to take a chance with me, despite how much money they lost at Cargo, that we were able to open. So, in ‘99 we opened. The company, on paper, started in late January. We shipped our very first record the middle of March. We started out way too big, we had way too many employees. We had six employees when we started, and we couldn’t make payroll. We had sold a decent amount of records, but the money hadn’t come back and we just didn’t have the cash. And I didn’t know how I was going to fix it or what I was going to do. So, two-thirds of the staff ended up leaving, though thankfully on good terms, and for the next year or so it was me, Nate, and our shipping manager Jake. And it was the three of us for the rest of 1999. We ended up getting a couple of more people after that and now we’re up to ten people.
MV: And that’s where you want to stay.
D: Yeah, I’m pretty happy with ten. Who the ten may be may change but I think this is about where we need to be. I often wish we could do it with less than ten and I look down the list and go ‘how could we juggle jobs around or what could we do’. But, unfortunately, as a distributor you get to a point where you are stuck-you can’t do it with less people and be able to sell what you need to sell. So, it’s easy to add people, it’s very seductive. You have to keep it as tight as you can, but at another level, especially with the kind of stuff we do, it’s hard to cut it down too much.
MV: As an independent business, what is your primary challenge?
D: I think our biggest challenge right now is not so much in having a spot for us now, it’s having a spot for us a year from now or five years from now. It’s like ‘how do we make sure that we’re not obsolete.’ Because the music business is definitely going through some shakeups and I don’t want to be a casualty. I don’t want to have to find another job now. I like what I do, I like where I work and I’d like to make that viable for the future. And I don’t know if doing what we do right now is going to be viable in two or five years. So, the idea has always been from day-the main key thing that Groove is about is finding cool music and bringing it to people. The venue at which we do that right now is by distributing records to stores and doing mail order. But it doesn’t have to be. Groove can just as easily be helping people pick music for advertising. It can be involved in label and tour promotion. And those are things that ultimately we might really want to get involved in, it just depends on finding the right people. But the one thing that we firmly believe is that if you don’t have some records that you control, you’re going to get shut out. There has to be some records that, at least in the short term, can’t go past you. That people have to go to you for those records. So, the idea is how do you get those records? Well, you have to do a good enough job for them that people give you those records. You have to be able to promote them at some minimal level, you have to get the records out to the right stores in reasonable quantities. And that’s what we’re trying to do. In the long term it’s like ‘how do we as a company stay viable for whatever the music business becomes. What if CDs aren’t the way people buy music in five years? I don’t want to be tied to getting CDs from Europe and sending them to other people, because if CDs are no longer part of that chain we’re irrelevant. But if it is how do you find cool music that other people haven’t gotten and get it to people who want it, we could definitely be involved in that. Whether it’s digital downloads or subscriptions, there’s definitely room for us as a company to be involved in that. I’ve heard some people talk about how all music should be free and musicians should make all of their money from tour promotion. Well, then let us be in the tour promotion business, that’s where we want to be.
MV: Can you describe some of the genres that you specialize in, like what is broken beat?
D: Broken beat, when it first started, was kind of house music that didn’t quite have a house beat. It was dubbed in the early days, ‘house not house’. And it was a record that had house production, it had the same kind of keys and orchestration that you would expect in a house record. But the beats weren’t the normal four-on-the-floor, 120 beat house beats. They were just off and so after ‘house not house’, a lot of these people came out of the West London scene, so it became West London music. But then lots of people began making the music, in Germany and other countries, so they dubbed it ‘broken beat’ as in the beat was broken-it wasn’t a straight normal rhythm, it was a broken track. There’s a distribution company in England, Goya, who does a lot of the labels. So, you’ve got people like IG Culture and Domu-a lot of people who came out of the drum’n’bass world and some people who came out of the reggae world doing this music. And I think almost everybody would agree, we are probably the premiere place to find that kind of music. Our real core has always been and probably be for a long time, down tempo music, as represented by people like Portishead and Massive Attack, even though we don’t sell their records anymore, but people like that. We do a lot of jazzy and atmospheric drum’n’bass that years ago when we first opened most of the people buying drum’n’bass were buying the harder stuff. The stuff that was more jazzy, more soulful, really didn’t get as much attention. And that was the stuff we felt fit the best with us and because there was this hole in the market we did it. Now jazzy drum’n’bass is a little bit more trendy, everybody else does it. We try and do it better than other people. We’ve also moved heavily into Brazilian drum’n’bass, which is this new subgenre and we do a couple labels like that. We push them really hard. For a while we were the kings of two-step. We do a decent amount of two-step now but the demand for it has definitely died substantially. We do a lot of deep house; week to week we probably have as much deep house records as anything else. Even when I describe it I still think of us as primarily a downtempo distributor and a lot of people think of us that way, but we do an awful lot of house music. But we tend to do the more deep and soulful stuff, not the real banging stuff.
MV: It’s a more spiritual vibe.
D: Exactly. One of the labels we do is Deep Play from Sweden and their slogan is ‘Deep soulful house music’. And that’s what we do with house. And if it tends to be jazzy, so much the better but the one thing that’s consistent is it’s deep and soulful.
MV: Did you work with Naked before?
D: No, but Naked is the perfect kind of label. Naked is a label that musically would fit exactly what we do but for business reasons we don’t. They’re distributed exclusively through Caroline. And that’s the thing-a lot people who don’t really know all the intricacies of the business look at our rosters of records and labels and go ‘how come you don’t have this?’ And musically they’re right, but they forget that we’re not a store. We can’t just carry everything we want to carry musically. We’re a distributor, so we have to pick things that number one we’re able to distribute. So, certain things like Ninja Tune CDs-they’re distributed exclusively through Caroline so we don’t do them. Certain things go exclusively through K7. There’s records that musically we would like and we sponsor, but we can’t actually sell them because noone would buy them from us at a wholesale level. And ultimately we’re a wholesaler that sells some stuff to the public, not a store that also does wholesale. And that’s a big difference.
MV: What would you say to an upstart label? Don’t even try it?
D: There’s two answers to that: one, if you’re a person thinking about starting a label and you’re asking should I start a label, my advice is always no. Running a label is the quickest way to lose money. So, if you’re doing it because you have to, you have no choice-you have to get this music out. Then fine, go ahead and do it, no one’s going to stop you. But just don’t think you’re going to make any money on it. If you’re starting a label as a way to make money then I think anybody who doesn’t tell you not to do it shouldn’t really be considered your friend. Running a label is, in most cases, an easy way to lose money. It’s just a question of whether or not you can afford to lose what your going to lose, or whether or not you don’t have a choice. Now the question is, if you’ve already got a label, should you even approach us-yes you definitely should. Our determining factor is ‘does it fit what we do musically, and does it fit what we do business wise.’ So, musically that’s pretty straight forward. If you do the kind of music we do: if it’s down tempo, if it’s jazzy, if it’s broken beat, then you’ve got that first hurdle. Then the second hurdle is business: we have to be able to sell it in a way that we can make money. We don’t want to compete with everybody else for it. So, for alot of the music we carry on import-either we’re the only people with it or there’s only two or three other people in the country who sell it. So, it may not be exclusive but it’s awful close to being a very small set of people we have to compete with. For domestic labels, often times a domestic label will open up and try to sell to every possible person. I don’t want to sell a record that five other people are selling-there’s not enough value in it. Especially when you’re selling stuff that’s underground and unknown from an upstart label where I have to do a lot of upfront work to educate people to this music. And everybody’s going to have it for the same price. And what happens is most people buy it from whoever’s closest and fastest. So, if you’ve got distribution on each coast and I pick up your record and we’re all selling it at the same time at the same price, why are people going to buy it from me? So, in that case we say ‘you know what, musically we like your stuff but if you have more than one or two other distributors we’re just not interested-there’s not enough business. But, let’s say you’re an upstart label and you really like what we do and you’re like ‘I’m gonna sell to a couple of stores I know locally on my own but the rest of the country you can have’ then, if we like your music, we’ll pick you up in a heartbeat. You have to be realistic as to what that means. Just because we carry your record and we tell everybody it’s great and we put up sound samples doesn’t mean that every store in America is going to jump up and down and buy it. Which goes back to my first problem is that you have a lot of stores that really don’t push these records. So, you get some stores that carry it and push it and then you’ve got a whole bunch of other stores that couldn’t care less. And then you’ve got a smaller set of stores that care but just aren’t going to invest a lot of time and energy to push record. So, as long as you’re realistic as to what we can actually do for you, it’s great. The thing is people seem to forget, there aren’t that many really good stores in America. On the underground dance side, there just aren’t that many-you’re talking about maybe 25 or 30 stores. And the stores that can actually sell big quantities, you’re down to a handful. Maybe 10, and if those 10 for whatever reason don’t pick up your record or don’t like your record, your screwed. You’ve got a bunch of people buying ones and twos and that whole bunch is only maybe 60 stores and they’re not all going to buy it. Not every store is going to say, ‘yeah I’ll take a copy’.
MV: So, in terms of units what is a big seller.
D: For us, on a domestic record, if we’re only seling it in the states with no export business, we’ll sell on the low end if a bunch of people have it, or it’s not super hot, as low as 50 copies. On the high end, if it’s got a little bit of legs, maybe a couple hundred. There’s certain records we’ve had exclusively that have had really good legs. There was a drum’n’bass mix that this guy did in the midwest of a Method Man, Redman record that he did on his own as a white label. We probably sold 700 copies of that but those are the exceptions. On import, there’s certain records we sell a few hundred, there’s some records that are really, really obscure or really offbeat and we’re lucky if we can sell 15 copies, you know? You’ve got 15 copies of the record, you’ve got the entire states to sell it and sometimes that’s a struggle. Sometimes that’s a really demoralizing thing, which is another reason why we felt compelled that we have to have some kind of mail order business. On CDs there’s a huge range-there’s CDs we’ve sold a couple thousand and there’s CDs where, once again, it’s an uphill struggle to sell 20 copies. There just aren’t that many stores, and the stores you have-you have the CD and it’s got really cool music but most of the CDs we sell aren’t cheap, they’re all imports and it’s like how many people are really going to buy it. First of all, one of the problems with CDs is a lot of dance stores don’t even carry CDs-all they care about is vinyl. So, that’s an uphill battle. And then for those that do carry CDs, a lot of times they’re just looking for the ones that are going to sell themselves. They don’t want to have to work to sell it. But that’s not what most of the records we get are-they don’t sell themselves, at least not in the early days. Like, we carried the Zero 7 CD when it first came out in England, before all the hype hit. That record didn’t sell itself, you had to tell people, ‘this is the next big thing, you need to get on it’. Now, six months later, when it came out on Palm Pictures and Palm could put the sticker with all the great reviews it got worldwide, well, yeah, then it sells itself. But then it’s in every store in America. That’s the tradeoff these indie stores have to realize, they have a little window just like us where they’re the only people with it. But they have to take advantage of that, they have to push those records. Because if they wait until everybody knows about it-well guess what, then it’s on sale at Best Buy for $11.99.
MV: So, who’s the artist you feel now is the next Zero 7?
D: We’ve been pushing the Bent CD really hard. The Samba Loca CD, the Brazilian drum’n’bass classics. We feel that’s really strong. I don’t know how long this Brazillian drum’n’bass thing is going to go but at least for now it’s a pretty cool subgenre. Shaun Escoffery, who’s a British soul singer, I think his stuff is really good. We’ve got both his regular record, which is very much in the electroniic neo-soul vein, and there’s also a remix CD of his, with remixes by Koop and Jazzanova and Four Hero. And that’s really strong. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets picked up a year from now and somebody throws a bunch of money to promote him and market him and he’s in the Best Buys and Towers of America. But right now he’s not, he’s bubbling on the underground. On a more mainstream R&B side, because we do a lot of neo-soul, there’s the singer Terry Walker who’s signed to DefSoul UK, that we’re pushing and think is really nice. Once again, nobody really has it; it’s on DefSoul UK, most of the stores here in America don’t have it. It fits perfectly in with Floetry and Angie Stone and that kind of music. It’s interesting, we’ve now built up a neo-soul group of stores, like a contingent of stores that are really into it. A whole bunch of stores in Atlanta, which is hands-down the neo-soul capital. So, there are certain records like Shawn Escoffery and Teri Walker and this group the Rurals, which are really a house group but they’re really deep. So, we do really well with those.
Interview conducted by John C. Tripp, late spring 2003