Updated: Oct 5, 2019
The infamous distributor. Perhaps nothing the average music fan has to ever worry about, but to those in the business of running a record label, it is a person whom you both need and in some ways fear at the same time. Especially when first starting out, securing the best and most established distributor is the absolute key to ensuring the success of the label, but it is a feat that is often humiliating and downright frustrating. Even once secured, that doesn't mean it's all easy peasy down the river from there, no sir, you still have to deal with chasing these guys down to try and get paid, and that in itself is usually quite a bit more irritating than it should have to be, and could, in one fell swoop, completely destroy your chances of getting your indie record label off the ground.
You see, in my years of running the record label Fundamental Bass Intelligence, a label that grew to quite a bit of artistic success in the mid 2000's, and not just because of the fans of the music who supported it which of course were key, but also because some hard to come by relationships were forged with the right people and the right companies to ensure our records made it to every store across the planet back in then. Without them, like I mentioned, this doesn't happen. On your own, to try and distribute your own records would be a logistical and administrative nightmare that at least for me, I'd rather let someone else deal with, and so you are back with a distributor as the most important person on your life.
But here is the kicker, and it's where these situations tend to run sour and rather quickly: you are not the most important person in their life! Distributors deal with so many labels, artists, other distributors, stores, pressing plants, etc, not mention all while dealing in many different genres, that you couldn't possibly mean that much to them; not unless you meant the promise of selling thousands or perhaps even millions of records. Most of us however, sell enough to break even and move on to the next title, and those little guys get pushed around quite a bit let me tell you, often times forced to close due to complete ignorance and negligence on behalf of so many distributors that are merely pushing records around and more often than not screwing over small labels on a day to day basis.
Here is where my story with Phil Hertz begins, because with him everything was quite the opposite, and it showed me that so much more was possible if we were merely humble enough to see the big picture, and the role we played in it. I think somehow Phil always had this keen sense of that bigger picture, and it's perhaps why over the years he became a great source of guidance in me keeping FBI going through so many twists and turns, given not just the total takeover of digital music in the late 2000's, but the economic collapse of '08 that was felt for years to come as so many struggled to rebuild and keep going.
During that time, every major distributor like Syntax and Watts closed down, many labels fell with them as their catalog stockpiles and money disappeared in the dust of it all. For FBI, our brand new release by Dark Vektor, the classic "Inteligencia Colectiva" in both heavyweight vinyl as well as a clear disc version; which we poured our absolute heart and soul into, not to mention our entire life savings, also disappeared seemingly in that dust.
Thankfully, a worker at our previous distributor's warehouse (Syntax), whom we had forged a good friendship with over the years, was able to get back to the warehouse after it closed, and somehow managed to still use the company's UPS account to have every single one of our records shipped back to our house in Virginia. This was not everyone's luck unfortunately, but for us, it would lead to forging yet another relationship, and one that would last for years to come, and would grow into one of those that almost seemed to live in the ether somehow. Both people never meet in person, but in all their phone and email conversations, seem to hit it off in such a way that there is a lot of meaning in that friendship. This was also the second chapter for FBI, which had found new life thanks to Phil Hertz and his crew at Crosstalk International.
Phil Hertz, not just for me but for many, held a kind of hope that we could do this once again if we merely tried hard enough, and did things right. With the take over of digital downloadable music, the lack of analog gear available at the time, people's sudden and complete lack of interest in vinyl, and just an all around broken economy had as you can imagine, taken the inspiration out of most of us to keep going. Amateur digital enthusiasts could all of the sudden pay for distribution of digital music to certain platforms such as iTunes or Beatport, and in one day, essentially produce the tune that their new label could sell to many more people that you ever could with vinyl. Artwork was usually done in-house by the label owner themselves (who weren't always the best at it), and in those early days amounted to not much more than a meme image as the cover. Mastering also often lacked, and was also done in-house if done at all, and basically the entire process of running a label, not just artistically, but administratively and professionally, suddenly went out the window in this new so called "Digital Revolution". But many of us weren't fooled, and so we knew we had to be different, try a different way; perhaps simply the old way!
Phil Hertz and his team at Crosstalk International somehow managed to survive something that seemed impossible to overcome for the majority of people in this business. Honestly, I still do not know how he did it, other than perhaps the simple fact that he was just an incredibly honest, down to earth individual that understood on the most fundamental level, what his role was in helping to nurture a healthy music scene; both locally in his hometown of Chicago, and abroad. Phil never scuffed at anyone for not being a "big artist" or someone just getting going. If you had talent, and you weren't an asshole (most important), Phil would be your best asset and your most loyal ally as you went forward with your projects.
What always truly amazed me was that with Phil and his team, you never had to chase them down to try and get paid or even get your sales reports. The check was always in the mail, no funny numbers, and reports always came as they were supposed. With digital sales, Crosstalk offered a very generous percentage of royalties to the labels and artists, even with a system that is highly complex, and for whatever reason pays artists a fraction of a penny for each individual stream hit, and is just truly from what it at least appeared, an administrative nightmare.
But while it is true that finding Hertz and the rest of the Crosstalk team felt like a huge accomplishment, especially in light of previously having lost everything we knew as a label, the road ahead while somewhat stable, still proved to be fairly challenging for most labels, artists and even distributors, as the digital market changed from download sales to streaming, and eventually it seemed to even become too challenging for Phil himself who eventually had to in some ways, face the same fate of many before him and would wind up closing doors on the Crosstalk warehouse in Chicago.
I remember Phil writing and telling me of what was happening, and that it in the end it would be ok, because in the face of all this, and in pure Hertz fashion, he wasn't backing down, and he was definitely not gonna fade away somehow. After the closure of Crosstalk, I guess Hertz had decided he had had enough of Chicago, and had decided to move to Chiapas in Mexico, a small town where once a year he would travel to and write me from, sharing pictures of different things he'd get into. From here, Hertz claimed, they were gonna go at it alone, and from the way he explained it, from a more "mobile" perspective. With his right hand man Phil Pantone still by his side - though also still in the states - he would continue distribution for a select few labels that had stuck with them through it all, and would re-establish their company in due time.
Unfortunately however, not long after moving to Mexico, Hertz developed a brain tumor which came as a real shock to everyone who knew him. I remember not hearing from him for a little bit, and getting really worried something was wrong with him. I emailed him, and the response I eventually got back was rather bizarre, and not comforting at all. For a man who I knew to be quite the bright mind, getting an email response that amounted to little more that incoherent gibberish was a tell tale sign that something was really wrong. I remember that moment still like it was yesterday, like something, someone, that had been in some ways a bit of a rock to me, was suddenly slipping away. I could barely make out in his response that something was going on with a brain tumor, and that basically he couldn't speak, but was using an application that allowed him to communicate as best as he could.
Not much more than a month went by, and then I heard the news that Phil Hertz had passed away. What a huge loss! Yet another beautiful soul in the electronic music scene who left us way too soon. But also, what a source of inspiration! The things we learned from them, and the testament that was their work throughout their lives. I guess in the end that's what matters, and how I choose to remember one of the true titans of the electronic music scene, Phil Hertz.
May you rest in peace brother! Thank you for all you did for me and my artists. I learned a lot from you, especially what not to be and how to carry myself in this often confusing, and downright cut throat business.
Listen below to some of Hertz' works under his "Peabody and Sherman" moniker alongside Curtis Ruptash: