Touch And Gone: What It Means
Yesterday’s sad news that venerable Chicago indie Touch and Go had shuttered its distribution arm was treated in some circles with a measure of misguided relief, thanks to it being preceded by a rumor that the label would completely shut down. Make no mistake about it; it’s a big deal for the labels that use Touch and Go distribution, all of them fiercely loyal to Corey Rusk and his operation and now in search of distribution. Beyond that, it functions as a hard symbolic reminder of the poor state of the music industry, much less the economy. Idolator went to some of those affected and asked them what they thought about the situation.
Merge Records made the switch from Touch and Go to the Warner-affiliated Alternative Distribution Alliance a couple of years ago, but Mac McCaughan credits Corey Rusk and Co. with giving his own seminal label its humble beginnings:
Touch and Go basically allowed Merge to exist as something other than a singles label…we did our first full-length (the Superchunk Tossing Seeds comp) in 1992 because Corey agreed to take on Merge as a label under the Touch and Go umbrella. we’ve worked with Touch and Go since then — 16 years — and they are the most straight-up and ass-busting-for-music-they-love people we know.
Maggie Vail of Kill Rock Stars expressed similar thoughts on Touch and Go, the label’s Stateside distributor:
[T]he staff of Touch and Go are some of the most talented and competent people that I have worked with in my 15 years at Kill Rock Stars. I am extremely sad about the end of a great partnership.
Brian Causey of WARM Recordings was not only the proprietor of a T&G distributed label, but also a member of Man… Or Astro-Man?, a band that made its home on the Touch and Go label for a number of albums. He noted Rusk’s familial atmosphere was an attraction to bands:
As a band, it was great to be on T&G. They treated you like family. We had a show in Chicago and Corey had offered the T&G HQ/his loft for us to stay. We had driven all night from some other show and arrived way later than we had anticipated. It was like 4AM and Corey was actually waiting for us outside when we drove up. I was always honored to be including on the roster with so many of my favorite (and legendary) bands. Before we were on T&G, we used to tell people that we were from outer space – after we signed up with T&G, those people actually started believing us.
Dean Spunt of Post Perfect Medium showed similar devotion to Rusk:
I will say that it is very sad that Touch and Go is closing its distribution arm. Everything the indies learned we basically learned from Corey rusk and Touch and Go… I am deeply hurt that I won’t be able to work with them anymore and that independent music has changed forever.
But how important was Touch and Go distribution, particularly in the days when digital sales are presumably gaining on physical sales? It’s important to note that, despite its über-indie reputation, Touch and Go did use ADA as its primary distributor. Touch and Go acted as a bridge, in a way, between the major sales outlets that ADA provides and the mom-and-pop indie stores. Chris Scofield of Nail Distribution, a fellow indie distributor, was shocked like the labels and explained what Touch and Go offered:
I was totally caught off guard by the news today. Touch & Go forged the particular model of a P&D* indie label group, spawning other models in its wake, some which are still around (Secretly Canadian Distribution) and some that have gone (Matador and Sub Pop each attempted something similar in the 90’s), so its very sobering to see them shutting that aspect of their business down.
Touch & Go used the Warner-affiliated ADA to handle their upper-level accounts (i.e. chains, one-stops, Amazon etc). But what [T&G distributed labels] are missing now is the particular infrastucture T&G offered with their model, that being manufacturing and in-house distribution to tastemaker indies and boutique indie distributors such as Carrot Top. This was a good model for many of them as it allowed the latitude to have releases manufactured without up-front money, and having the costs recouped against sales. This can keep release schedules very fluid. It’s a good model when monitored correctly.
Not many people are willing to offer P&D deals anymore. It was more prevalent in the ’90s–again spawned by Touch & Go’s success as a label group. But some labels got upside-down and it just wasn’t a feasible model…As a distributor, we offer this service to select labels. It can be a very good service for the liquidity of a label.
James Kenler of Flameshovel said that the convenience of one experienced company handling distribution was invaluable, and that physical product is still very important:
T&G consolidated all our distribution worldwide under one roof, here in Chicago, run by people–it’s fair to sayz–we idolized. Physical distro remains key to this business even as digital distro is rapidly biting at its heels. We were hoping that T&G would be able to offer us a lot of experience in how to navigate such as tumultuous market. Physical product still has an important role in what we do. Even as more and more people choose to consume their music separate from its packaging and art, we remain tied to the tactile aestheticism of music in addition to its sonic qualities.
Touch and Go are our sales department. They handle direct sales and sales to distros, one stops, etc in the US and overseas as well as retail promotion for both our physical and digital product. Physical sales are extremely important to us as they are still the majority of our sales.
[The type of sales] depend entirely on the artist – some of our bands are only 15% digital all the way up to 60%. I think it mostly depends on the demographic that they appeal to, really. The only sales we do directly are through our mail order and those are relatively small in comparison. Sales in the past 10 years have definitely changed for us the same as everyone else. In general the trend being digital is up, CDs are down, vinyl is up.
We’ve had a (P&D) Production & Distribution deal with T&G pretty much since the label’s inception. This means that T&G has advanced us certain manufacturing costs and allowed us to use their channels for manufacturing. Due to the high volume of them working with so many records from so many labels, the were able to have much lower costs in manufacturing which was beneficial to us. In addition, their distribution arm was a great combination of direct relationships with mom&pop/indies stores, direct sales, and the leverage to tap into larger distribution companies such as ADA. However, the greatest advantage of working with T&G was the enormous amount of trust that I had built with them over the last 13 years of working with them. Working with them made the music business a lot more enjoyable.
I just got off the phone with Corey from T&G – and our percentages have been roughly the same as theirs. Two years ago, CD sales were falling but digital sales were rising enough to balance things out. Unfortunately, this past year, CD sales have fallen dramatically and digital sales aren’t growing enough (or any) to compensate for the loss.
Spunt of Post Perfect Medium didn’t see going to ADA as much of a viable option, but remained hopeful about digital distribution:
There is no way I can go to ADA, nor would i want to go to them directly. Touch & Go was distributed by ADA so PPM was able to get those avenues as well. To only have distribution through ADA would actually be very UNbeneficial to a smaller label like mine since I do a lot of vinyl and limited edition runs.
I still sell more physical product than digital, but digital is good since it is just money…no costs, so it is good for the label and the bands.
What do distributors do, ultimately? What is the job of distribution? Gavin Frederick from Stickfigure Distribution stated that “a distributor is ultimately responsible for is making certain that product is where the demand is.” Scofield elaborates:
We are the conduit to stores and outlets to purchase released recordings on LP/CD/DVD by select labels in our network. Outlets typically being indie stores, the chain stores, the one-stops, and online stores. These days it can also mean digital distribution in many instances, but also some more off-the-beaten-path outlets, such as instrument shops, book stores, and other non-traditional avenues – something we have been sourcing more and more with greater success.
Frederick stressed the ADA connection, and noted its potential effects on labels. He also begrudgingly saw an upside:
Best Buy did not order direct from Touch and Go; Best Buy ordered Touch and Go and related titles direct from ADA. The accounts that ordered from Touch and Go were accounts that did not have ADA accounts. Those direct retail accounts will suffer now because they have to pay higher prices from their other distributors until they can get an ADA account.
[Touch and Go distro’s demise] thins the herd. One less distributor on the market, and two fewer big active labels. To be frank, it’s good for Stickfigure because there are A LOT of stores that don’t have ADA accounts that will probably be ordering Touch and Go titles from their other distributors (like Stickfigure) until they can get an ADA account. Sounds horrible but it does mean more potential business for us. Additionally, Touch and Go / Quarterstick not releasing new records means that there are BIG bands looking for a new label and that it’s easier for a smaller label to break through the clutter and make a name for itself.
Mike Turner works at Wuxtry Records and also runs Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, whose wonderful Athens Popfest is sadly taking a year off due to, yep, the economy. He saw the closure as symptomatic of our greater economic largesse:
In general for the store it just means one less distributor to be able to get records from. There will be a short time where some records will be difficult to get until the labels distro’d by T&G get new distribution. Mainly the closing of T&G as a distributor will have more of an impact on the labels they work with. It’s a real bummer to see them go, but in these times, it’s understandable. Choke Distribution also closed recently, and I am sure a few more distros will close this year too. As more and more people download the less they come into stores to buy records; the fewer folks who buy records from mom & pop stores the fewer orders distros get; the fewer orders they get, the more distros will close or take on fewer labels or records. Things are coming around a bit with vinyl sales climbing higher and higher, and even cassettes are making a come back along with zines, but it really might be too late. the amount of stores left out there is really sad…the collapse of T&G as a distro says a lot about the times we are in.
McCaughan was similarly downtrodden:
Corey Rusk is the most meticulous, cautious, thoughtful business person i know which is what makes this whole thing so unbelievable and such a bad portent for the rest of the independent music business — if a company that did everything the right way can’t survive in this environment (and the environment existed before the current worldwide financial disaster — the Bush economic legacy only piled on), then who can?
It’s a sad day for music, independent music and punk rock in particular, and the music business as we know it in the real world.
Disclosures abound: WARM Recordings has released one of my bands’ albums, so Touch and Go distributed it. Stickfigure Distribution distributes my current band’s/label’s albums as well. I have played Athens Popfest.