History of What Are Records? Rob
From the time he was an intern in the A&R department at Manhattan
Blue Note Records, Rob Gordon knew that he would someday start his own
record company. What he didn't know was how quickly the opportunity would
present itself. By 1991, only five years after his entrance into the business,
Gordon founded his label, W.A.R.? - What Are Records?, in his New York
Gordon had several missions: to sign few acts and devote the company's
resources to them, to be truly independent, and to be aligned with his
artists in every aspect of career development. With that vision, Gordon
made What Are Records? a success right from the start, achieving profitability
in a matter of months and attracting a core group of acts with loyal fans.
What Are Records? catalog boasts albums by funk saxophone legend Maceo
Parker; the clever and controversial songwriter comedian Stephen Lynch;
former Squeeze frontman Glenn Tilbrook; Grammy/Tony nominated composer
and piano man David Yazbek; inspirational singer/songwriter David Wilcox;
ethereal band the innocence mission; former Crowded House/Split Enz founder
Tim Finn; singer/songwriter Melissa Ferrick; much of the ultra hip March
Records catalog; and all of the original Samples releases from 1990 to
2000 (excluding “Outpost” released on MCA), among its nearly
100 releases to date.
In the five years before he started What Are Records?, Gordon was gaining
valuable experience that would help him in his future endeavors. As director
of A&R at EMI, he was instrumental in both the musical and marketing
success of several major records, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers'
“Mother's Milk” and Queensryche's “Operation: Mindcrime”
and the multi platinum “Empire”. Gordon was involved in everything
from marketing to budgeting to mixing, editing, and mastering records.
"Early on I decided that I would learn everything I had access to,
because I knew someday I was going to start my own label,” Gordon
recalls. In 1991 that day came, when Gordon was approached by his friend
Ted Guggenheim, then manager of The Samples, about starting the label
they had discussed on numerous occasions. The Samples had certain qualities
that made them particularly attractive to Gordon, namely that they toured
a lot, had a large fan base, and had a deleted CD from Arista which was
still in demand.
The Samples had something else to offer that helped Gordon forge a direct
relationship with retailers, minimizing the need for a distributor at
the time. "The Samples had a record that fans wanted very badly,"
Gordon explains. "So when we called up record stores and said, 'Have
you heard of The Samples?', retailers said, "Yeah, can you get us
their first record?" At the time, Gordon actually had a new Samples
record to offer and it was eagerly accepted. In the first two months over
20,000 copies were sold. In 1993 Gordon bought the 1st Samples CD from
Arista and re-issued it.
That was the beginning of What Are Records’? success with the distribution
of music. "We distributed our records directly to over half of America,"
Gordon says. "Right from the beginning I felt it was important to
deal directly with the stores". "I knew that by creating the
demand, the supply would take care of itself," Gordon says. And it
did. The result is that What Are Records? achieved a 3 percent CD return
rate, while most labels average 20 percent or more in returns, on sales
of nearly 1,000,000 Samples albums alone.
What Are Records? was also successful in marketing directly to retailers
and consumers - in fact, so successful that over the years it has been
hired by major labels to do retail marketing. Clients include Capitol,
RCA, EMI, Arista and A&M. "Major labels have a lot of money and
very little time," Gordon says. "At that point, we had very
little money, but lots of time, so we made time our asset.”
Gordon had other innovative marketing approaches up his sleeve. What Are
Records? was the first label in the business to have top spines (and color
ones to Boot). W.A.R.? implemented fan-base development and field-staff
recruitment right off the bat. "When I started the company, I made
part of The Samples' CD paper packaging a postcard that fans could tear
off and send back to join the fan club or order merchandise," Gordon
says. The nearly 50,000 fans who responded could learn how to get special
releases or, even more exciting for a hard-core fan, get to work promoting
the band in their town. "The strong network of fans has been a marketing
and sales engine unto itself," Gordon explains. "It effectively
turned our company of few into an network of thousands."
And now with the drastic changes occurring at retail and the internet,
What Are Records? has been able to create an increased demand for online
sales by offering limited or rare releases available only through What
Are Records’? online store. These releases, which contain different
music and/or packaging than standard releases, become highly sought-after
collector's items and keep fans loyal to the What are records website,
which also puts more money in the artist’s pocket. Direct to consumer
sales has always been a contributing factor behind W.A.R.?’s success,
and will continue to be a key ingredient as What Are Records? offer customers
viable downloading options that enhance artist exposure, without sacrificing
Advance tour marketing was another piece of the What Are Records? strategy
that helped put the company on the map as a marketing entity. W.A.R.?
sent staff members to tour stops ahead of its artists to work with promoters,
retailers, and radio stations to create awareness and anticipation for
upcoming shows. "Unlike most independent labels, we have done almost
everything ourselves, out of this one building," Gordon says, referring
to the eyeball shaped structure in Boulder, Colorado (designed by Charles
Haertling, whose nearby mushroom-shaped building appeared in Woody Allen's
Sleeper) where the company has been based since What Are Records? relocated
from New York City in 1994.
That's when W.A.R.? hit its stride. The Samples' “Autopilot”
reached number one on the Billboard Heat Seekers Chart, the company was
overseeing the marketing of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, and Gordon was managing
Lisa Loeb, who had the number one hit single, "Stay (I Missed You)"
from the Reality Bites soundtrack.
While so many labels have had short-lived existences, each year What Are
Records keeps going, with popular artists who keep making new and exciting
music. With an eye toward the future, What Are Records? continues to develop
new approaches to working with artists that will enable both label and
artist to develop a sustainable future together. After all these years,
working in so many different facets of the music business, Gordon is busy
planning how What Are Records? will continue its success throughout the