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Gimme Swelter

They made a record and it went in the chart
The sky was the limit
Their A&R man said, "I don't hear a single"
The future was wide open
--Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne

People who know me, or claim to, people in the "biz," often hit me with an offhand comment such as "of course, you think every local rock band should be signed to a major label." Just call me Joe Cheerleader.

Except for two things. First, some local rock bands suck. They deserve nothing more than music lessons. And second, a major-label deal can be both a figment and a bane. I wouldn't necessarily wish it on my favorite band. Anyone who thinks a big contract is an end-all should ask Nuclear Valdez or Young Turk.

They, and plenty of others, went through battles with the corporations, but then again, they all had the opportunity to reach the level where lawyers have to get involved. A new promotion and marketing company called Swelter Records hopes to give area bands that same sort of chance, although, they hope, without the sometimes unfortunate ramifications.

Nonetheless, the real world offers this simple rule: Artists make music with the goal of having as many people as possible hear it. Musicians want to share their visions. They want to make money, or at least not lose money. And the real world demands they work within the logistics of, well, reality. If that wonderful CD isn't in record stores, consumers aren't going to buy it. They can't. Swelter wants to make sure they can.

The industry that gets CDs into stores -- that gets CDs recorded and manufactured and played on radio and advertised and reviewed in the press -- can't easily be bucked. Maybe circumvented in some way, but never disregarded altogether.

Miami's rock scene has tried many times to create a stronger presence in the world (meaning mostly the North American) musical economy. The latest such effort might be the most significant -- Swelter's independent network.

Swelter is not a label -- the CD they've released is strictly a promotional tool. Formed over the past several months in Broward County, Swelter hopes to provide the next logical step in an evolution that has seen South Florida grow to include perhaps 200 active rock bands, several adept managers, a slew of masterful CDs, a score of live venues. Not to cheerlead, but there's no denying -- from the streets of South Beach to the boardrooms of New York and L.A. -- that Florida has stepped up. And now this.

"This will serve as a platform for these bands to jump to the next level," says Swelter co-founder Michael Eiseman, referring to six bands already signed to the company. "The [major] labels don't come to you, and if they do, it's always with an asshole attitude."

Eiseman, who manages Rooster Head and I Don't Know, put Swelter together with partners Helaine Blum (manager of Black Janet) and Greg Sammons, guitarist for the now-defunct Plastic Nude Martini and a computer whiz.

They selected six bands -- three from Tampa and three from South Florida -- they felt needed, and deserved, a push toward national stardom. All the bands -- Clang, Edison Shine (formerly Catherine Wheel), Grassy Knoll Gunmen, Black Janet, the Goods, and Rooster Head -- are highly regarded, with extensive live-performance backgrounds and independent record releases. Most have already negotiated, unsuccessfully, with major labels. "We chose bands with CDs out," Blum explains, "because that would enable us to do a compilation CD, which is a great promotional tool to get the music of these bands out."

She refers to the Swelter triumvirate's first project: compiling two songs from each of the half-dozen bands' existing recordings on a CD called 48:06, which will be released tonight (Wednesday) at Stephen Talkhouse, where all six bands will perform live.

That's the easy part, or at least the easiest part. "If some of the bands around here were selling 15,000 copies of their releases and pulling in 300 people at live shows on a regular basis," Eiseman says, "well, you can write your own contract if you're doing those things." Maybe. The idiosyncrasies of A&R execs could fill a Psych 101 text, and you just never know. So few bands of the so many that try are ever called and chosen.

The Swelter team can sympathize with the suits at major labels. Let's say you're an A&R dog at Sony or Warner Bros. Rooster Head's manager calls you up and says, "Hey, got this great band here, they've already sold 1000 copies of their new CD." You would not be impressed because you'd know that bands in other cities were selling four to five times as many copies of their independent releases. "I'm not cutting down our market," Eiseman says, "but face it, with the Latin population and other factors, we top off at lower numbers. If Rooster Head were, say, an Atlanta band, they'd be selling 4000 or 5000."

 

One of the goals of Swelter is to help bands reach those markets by pushing to get their music distributed throughout the state, and the region. That's not always easy. For one thing, if an independent artist or distributor wants to put his "product" in a chain store in his own neighborhood, the paperwork would still have to go through the outlet's national headquarters, which might be in Dallas or Manhattan. "And how can a distributor do justice," Eiseman asks, "if he's pushing 400 different labels?"

The distributor's job is to warehouse and then deliver, usually by truck, boxes full of new releases to retail stores. If the music doesn't sell, the retailers return the leftovers, causing the distributors to lose money, or at least lose an opportunity to make mo' money. If an artist has a solid track record, that risk is much lower. As Eiseman notes, "Let's say Clang takes off. They're selling records from the Carolinas down to here. Then the distributors will put their record in the Northwest or the West Coast."

To further increase the chances of that happening, a band's efforts must be promoted and marketed. Radio airplay sells records, so someone needs to send copies of a new release to every station whose format might allow airplay. And then someone should follow up by encouraging A in any way possible A the program and music directors to give the release a chance. And then someone needs to track which stations are playing the record. With the help of Sammons's alternative marketing ideas (such as computer bulletin boards) and several interns, Swelter sets out to do all of that, not just with radio, but with press, live venues, all the links in the music-biz chain. For instance, they might not have a fleet of trucks of their own, but they aim to influence what the distributors fill their trucks with.

"It's a lot of work," notes Helaine Blum. "It's frustrating to try to branch out statewide and regionally. We're already connecting Miami and Tampa, and Swelter gives us some credibility as an entity, a united force that's setting up networks, tracking radio, venues, that kind of thing. A network makes it easier for all of us."

Touring sells records, too, and the united force of Swelter could facilitate that for the six bands. Some local unsigned acts, such as Forget the Name and Mary Karlzen, Eiseman notes, tour on their own. "That's what a band needs to do," Eiseman says. "So if the Goods want to go out and play the entire Southeast, we'll make that happen."

Then it's up to the bands to take advantage of the opportunities Swelter can offer. "They create their destinies," says Eiseman. "Their own actions will show us who's going to the next level. Everyone involved has hit some concrete walls. The way the industry cares, it's based on 'product' and what distributors want to know is if you're pushing 'product'. Of course, I don't consider the music product, I consider it art."

"We all have our areas of expertise," Blum adds, "so we put our heads together." Along with the idea of promoting and marketing, the firm's unique coalition is what sets Swelter apart from operations such as Rich Ulloa's Y&T label, which launched the Mavericks's major-label career and is now handling Mary Karlzen, or John Tovar and Frank Callari's TCA Management, which now reps the Mavs and handles the Goods, among others. Swelter is a diverse team of groups and entrepreneurs taking a broad approach, not one guy looking out for his clients' career advancement. The proof: Tovar manages the Goods, yet they're also one of the Swelter groups.

Eiseman A who has been a regional advertising rep at Jam magazine for two years, previously operated his own accounting business, and has worked with several bands A will specialize in networking, while Blum will concentrate on publicity, and Sammons will handle marketing. Blum took a master's degree in counseling -- "I use that all the time in the music business," she quips -- and was a teacher before devoting herself to South Florida's scene. "It's corny, I know, but the music business is my calling."

For his part, Sammons says he doesn't presume to know anything about the business, but in fact he knows plenty, learned firsthand as the guitarist -- and a songwriter and graphic artist and booking agent -- for his former band, Plastic Nude Martini. Currently the co-owner of a MacIntosh mail-order company, he thinks too much good music from Florida is overlooked. His computer acumen is one way Sammons intends to change that.

 

And so, of course, the three little pigs will create some huge distri-promo conglom, make millions of dollars, and screw every single band that's ever breathed air in Florida. Because that's what the music business is about, that's the bottom-line motivation. Right? "Could you give me the definition of that word 'money'," Blum says with a chuckle, noting that she's not riding in any limos and that she never got involved in the industry with that in mind. She was drawn by a purer motive, a richer philosophy. "This is what I always wanted to do with my life. I'm kind of living that out, that dream."

Sammons admits he'd love to make his living in the music business, but that's not what drives his participation in Swelter. "I thought it would be kind of a good idea to help some of these bands," he says. "I'm into it for the sake of the music."

Music and dreams -- not money. That's what I call bucking the industry. And maybe it'll work. Maybe the whole damn world will hear some of the wonderful rock and roll emerging from the Sunshine State. I hope so. I can't wait to tell you I told you so.

The Swelter Records release party takes place at 10:00 tonight (Wednesday) at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $5.


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