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Indie Distribution, Aussie Style
An interview of Peter Lane, Tribal World Music, September 16, 2000
By Eric Daams
"I come home from work, gulp some tea (dinner) down, hit the computer and spend anywhere from half an hour to five or six hours answering emails, sending off emails, following people up, and simply roaming the net, surfing around with search engines and finding places." Those are the words of Peter Lane, founding father of Tribal World Music, which currently distributes recording artists Rivertribe and Tribal Trance, and has recently taken Simon Mullumby (Si) and Sue Phillpot under its wings.
As father of three of the members of Rivertribe and Tribal Trance, he was asked early on whether he would handle the distribution of Tribal Trance (Rivertribe did not yet exist). "They sell a lot of CDs... in the performance markets, but they knew there was a big wide world out there. So Tribal Trance was saying, 'Look, we have to find a way to get distributed on the broader market.' Because I had business knowledge, they asked me to try and find them someone. Frankly, what we found was that everybody we talked to wanted to rip them off and take control of their music and give them next to nothing. So, for about 12 months, they bullied me, saying, 'You do it for us. You do our distribution for us.' I said, 'I know nothing about music distribution and the music business!' Then Rivertribe came into being and it was really just something of a family thing we had to do."
The day after the Olympic opening ceremony in Sydney brought light to Australia's traditional music. Peter took the time out to tell me a little about what he has learned and experience since adopting the role of distributor for Tribal World Music. Meanwhile, Rivertribe was up in Sydney playing gigs as part of the event. "(Rivertribe is) on one of the official Olympic sites as a 'signed' artist, where they actually put someone at the table to sell your CDs for you while you're playing."
Also there was Si, though not as an official artist. "...he's up there, he hasn't got a hawkers license, so he can play as a musician, in Pitt Street for example, but he can't sell anything because he doesn't have the appropriate licenses." To make his playing in Sydney profitable, however, Peter had arranged a deal with Sanity Music, one of Australia's largest music retail chains. "...he's doing most of his public performances in Pitt St. right outside Sanity. Sanity's one of our retail chains... He told me where he's playing. He said, 'It's so frustrating. There's a Sanity store here, but they haven't got our stuff in stock!' ...I talked Sanity, (the) head office, into letting me have a replenishment-consignment thing, so that when Si comes to play, he goes and presents them with forty or fifty CDs. They sell them. If they sell them all, he gives them some more. If it gets to the end of the thing and there's some left over, he takes them back. Then we'll get Stomp Music, who are the wholesale distributor alongside Sanity, to send Sanity an invoice for what they've sold. Now, it was very difficult to get Sanity (to do) something unusual, (because) companies don't like unusual things, but I did manage to talk them into it. So we devised a letter for the store manager and a couple of forms that Sanity liked for logging stock in and logging the stock out. And what that means now is that in the next two weeks Si will be playing outside the Sanity store, on about six different days for a total of about seven or eight hours."
Sadly, Si had got in trouble for playing up there, and the deal didn't work out, but it does serve as a classic illustration of the approach Peter has been using in getting retail organizations to sell the music. "Finding yourself a spot in the rack is the key. I know that if we can actually break through... and get in the racks, each of those stores, they're not gonna sell hundreds of the things, but they will sell the one or two or three a week. Times two or three hundred stores - 'Thank you very much!'"
This, particularly for Tribal World's music, is not easy. "You find their world music section, and you find an amazing amount of stuff from South America, from Central America, you'll find a little Yothi Yindi stuff because it's high profile."(Australians think) world music is something that comes from overseas." Peter found this when he tried to get the National Geographic shops to sell their music. "National Geographic shops are caught up in the 'if it isn't from Brazil it isn't world music' type thing. So we can't get anywhere with them, they've knocked us back."
There were other difficulties as well. Besides National Geographic shops, ABC shops down here are the major retailers of world music. "The ABC shops, and these were one of the first places I went and talked to eighteen months ago, they said, 'Which programs on ABC are playing your music?' I said, 'None yet.' 'Well, we only stock things that are being played on the ABC. When you get ABC airplay, come back and talk to us again.'" Eventually, Peter managed to get a world music show on the ABC's alternative music station, JJJ, to play Rivertribe's music. When he returned, however, the music buyer for the ABC shops had changed. "I had to introduce myself to the new lady, got her to visit the website, so I've sent (music) samples and she's evaluating them for putting into stock."
Peter is confident, however, that once the music gets into stock of these retail outlets, it will sell. "I'll give you a Melbourne example of the way that that will work when we finally get it in those racks. Discurio... Now, Discurio is probably one of the oldest record stores in Australia - very quality image, lots of highbrow music, lots of pop - but they have a quite extensive world music section. They now stock the Tribal World stuff. I drop in every now and then when I'm passing and remind them if they're getting low on stock. They sell probably three a week, across our range, just by them being there. They don't play them (they play mainly classical music in their store). But people walk in and go, 'Ah, Rivertribe, I know them!' or 'There's the new Rivertribe one, I haven't got that yet!' or 'Tribal Trance, they've got three CD's out. We better get one of those.' If you could have that sort of availability, it would be super because of the number of stores, and the sales volumes will go up."
The second major thing Peter's been working at getting is radio play. For doing this, he has adopted a clever, cheap method perfect for any independent artist trying to find airtime. "...One thing I discovered is that you've got to have an enormous amount of money to get airplay the easy way, because you have to send out sample CDs to, say, in America, probably seven and a half thousand radio stations, commercial internet broadcasters, community radio, on the off-chance that they're going to play it. Who can afford that? So, I've taken most of the last year trying to find places where we get real attention and real value for money. I've gone looking for... specialized community radio stations that have a world beat emphasis, which is where our music is, as far as that is concerned. What I do is I find them on websites, I find them on mailing lists, I find them in all sorts of funny places, send them an email and say, 'Hey here's what we got'. Inevitably, they send back the standard reply, 'Send us your samples to the following address.' I email back and say, 'No, can't afford to do that. What I need you to do is to get onto this website, sample the music and tell me whether you're really going to use it. If you're going to use it, that's great, I'll send you the stuff. I can't afford to just send off CDs. We're little.' I make no bones about that to them. Probably twenty percent of them won't bother, because they really didn't have an interest, they just replied (with) their standard email. Another twenty percent get onto the website, sample the music and say, 'Lovely music, but not what we do. Good luck'... So that's another twenty percent. Another, probably forty percent, fiddle around, and I have to follow them up and follow them up and follow them up before they fall into one of the two categories, saying, 'No, we're not interested' or, 'Yes'. At this stage about twenty percent of them say, 'Yes, we would use your music. Get it to us here.' Which I do."
There is a lot of frustration in the business. For example, Rivertribe's two CDs, The Blessing and The Journey, have occupied #1 and #3 on the independent Australian Christian music charts. "You would think that people running a Rhema station (local group of Christian stations) somewhere would look at that and say, 'What's this top selling stuff by Rivertribe? We haven't got that on our playlists.' I've only had two stations that have found out about the music because of the... charts."
Peter is confident in the music, but he still expresses doubts as to whether it will 'make it'. "Who knows? Really, who knows if our little distribution company will ever make any money? If it did, I would then get involved in it full-time, if it could support me. At the moment, I'm very thankful that I've got a day job (chuckles)."