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The History of What Are Records?  Rob Gordon biography

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 City loft.

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 artistic integrity.

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 new millennium.