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Red Pill hopes to cure some music blues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2010 - St. Louis has produced a steady stream of world-class musical artists over the past century. Consider the following names: Scott Joplin, Josephine Baker, Lonnie Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw, Henry Townsend, Clark Terry, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, Fontella Bass, Albert King, John Hartford, Oliver Lake, David Sanborn, Hamiet Bluiett, Michael McDonald and Nelly.

These and a host of other St. Louis area musicians have been major influences in every musical style from ragtime and blues to R&B, rock and hip-hop over a time period extending back to the late 19th century.

But unlike nearby cities such as Chicago and Memphis, St. Louis has never gained a reputation as a center for music. So what do Chicago and Memphis have that St. Louis doesn't to gain that reputation as dynamic musical centers?

Certainly there are many factors, but perhaps the primary one is that both cities were home to record labels such as Chess and Delmark Records in Chicago, and Sun, Stax and Hi Records in Memphis.

The locally based Bobbin label first recorded area musicians Albert King, Fontella Bass and Little Milton in the late 1950s and early '60s. But the small, independent label had no real distribution. And Bass, King and Little Milton all had to go to other labels in Chicago and Memphis to get their music into the national spotlight.

The record business has gone through immense changes over the past couple of decades -- changes that have turned the music industry upside down. And those changes may open the door for a St. Louis-based label: Red Pill Entertainment.

Internet downloading of music -- legal and illegal -- has had a huge impact on the music business. Many record labels have either gone under or been assimilated into mega musical corporations such as Universal Music Group and Sony. In addition, distribution channels for music have changed focus from music chains such as Peaches and Tower Music to other retailers. Some of these new retail outlets have a wider focus such as Wal-Mart and Target. Others, like specialty retailers Starbucks and Borders, have had varying success selling music.

As the market for music has changed, fewer releases achieve sales of more than a million units – down from 35 in 2006 to 12 in 2009. (What were at the top in 2009?) Even more telling, of the more than 100,000 CDs released in 2009 in the United States, only about 2 percent - or about 2,000 total -- achieved sales of more than 5,000 units.

Take a Pill

Despite those odds, small, independent labels have sprung up around the country, attempting to a DIY (do it yourself) approach to getting the music of the artists they sign out to consumers.

Those labels include Red Pill Entertainment, founded by Jacob Detering and Lauren Markow in 2006. With a studio in south St. Louis and a list of St. Louis area artists such as Javier Mendoza, Kevin Bilchik, R. Scott Bryan and Caleb Travers, the label has spread its geographic reach to work with Sarah Pray in Minneapolis, John McVey in Colorado, New York City area bands Jessie Murphy in the Woods and Ten feet deep, and New England-based musicians like Amy Petty, Taylor Mespie and Shane Butler.

During a recent meeting, Detering discussed how Red Pill started, its evolving strategy of dealing with the chaotic state of today's music business, and how the label is trying to create a new paradigm of collaboration with artists on the label.

"Lauren and I first met after a failed studio startup she was involved in," explains Detering. "Chris Hughes, who did recording engineering for Johnnie Johnson, introduced us. Both Lauren and I felt there was a huge need, especially given the climate of the market in the industry, to find quality music that really needed an audience, so we decided to start a label."

Detering was coming from a background as both a musician and a sound engineer, and was opening his own recording studio in St. Louis. But like Markow, he wanted to do more than record talented musicians – he wanted to get their music out to be heard and purchased by music fans. The question was how to make a small, independent label based in St. Louis viable and competitive in the marketplace.

"We both felt we had come to grips with the ability to select talented artists," says Detering. "But the whole challenge was to try and figure out how to deal with a business that had become very disjointed in terms of marketing and distribution planning. The big labels were obviously having issues figuring out the changes in the market. So we decided to go in a different direction. We decided that instead of a traditional label, we would call ourselves an artist facilitation firm."

Red Pill took its first steps locally, producing and releasing singer/songwriter Kevin Bilchik's EP recording, "Paper Money." Another talented musician, R. Scott Bryan, a Webster Groves native who spent five years on the West Coast touring and recording with Sheryl Crow (and who also played on Bilchik's Red Pill release), released the next CD on the label, "It's Your Life."

That was followed by Javier Mendoza's recording, "You," which was also released as "Tu" -- featuring Mendoza singing the lyrics to his songs in Spanish.

Beyond the Lou

Red Pill then made its first artist connection outside the St. Louis area when Markow happened upon the My Space page of New Hampshire singer/songwriter Amy Petty.

"Evidently, it was totally random that Lauren found Amy on MySpace, and then built a connection with her," recalls Detering. "The next thing I knew, Lauren told me she wanted to bring Amy to St. Louis to work on recordings with me to see what happens. The result was Amy's debut CD, 'Mystery Keeps You'."

Petty just released her second CD on Red Pill, "House of Doors." I caught up with her recently to talk about how her relationship with Red Pill has grown since that initial contact with Markow on Facebook, and Petty was eager to share the positive vibes she felt with Red Pill from the beginning.

"I just can't imagine working with anyone that could possibly be more compatible with than Red Pill," says Petty. "They have been incredibly supportive in terms of both artistic collaboration -- and in terms of gaining more awareness for my music. I know this has been a partnership, and it's one that's built on trust and mutual support and respect."

For Red Pill, working with Petty opened the doors to connecting with other artists outside of St. Louis. But taking the step from being a local label to a regional and national company was a difficult effort - one that involved more than a few false starts along the way.

"We figured out that we had all these tools, but we really didn't have much traction," recalls Detering. "We had been hiring people to do press for our releases, but given the state of the record business, it seemed like the effect of that PR was totally something that we couldn't measure. That was frustrating."

From there, Detering and Markow decided to seek some expert help.

"We eventually figured out we needed someone in the industry who could really help us push the music," Deterring explains. "We needed someone who could help us get to a tipping point in terms of gaining a critical mass in terms of potential fans and awareness for the artists and the label."

That person turned out to be George Howard. With a background that included working as the manager for Carly Simon, a tenure as the president of the Rykodisc label and his current teaching position at Loyola University in New Orleans, Howard helped Detering and Markow focus the Red Pill strategy.

"We worked with George intensely for about a year," recalls Detering. "It really helped us refine and fine tune what we were trying to do in terms of social media and building a community for Red Pill artists and the music. We decided we needed to move in a direction designed to build catalog and careers long term. We wanted to build partnerships with artists -- and especially those who were committed to doing all the little steps ... steps that they needed to do to build on what we were doing as a label to build a constituency for them and a community through the label."

Add a Cuppa

Two recent examples of how Red Pill is effectively marketing the music of it's artists are the soundtrack to the documentary film, "Ride The Divide," and a partnership in the St. Louis area with Kaldi's Coffee locations.

"In terms of the movie, which follows a long-distance bicycle race from Mexico along the Great Divide, one of Amy's songs was selected for the soundtrack," Detering explains. "When we met the producers, we really found that they were kindred spirits. They built the film with city-by-city screenings and a day-long You Tube availability. We do the same thing with our artists. It's not a direct flight path. It takes persistence."

Red Pill's promotion with Kaldi's involves distributing free download cards at Kaldi's locations for selected songs by Red Pill artists. When consumers go to the Red Pill website to download the song (the first one is from Petty's new CD), they can also print out a coupon good for a discount at Kaldi's.

"We think Red Pill and Kaldi's have a synergy in terms of being independent companies and in terms of the community of consumers who enjoy both Kaldi's and music," explains Detering. "And this is a way to be on the leading edge of reaching fans who are looking for good music."

For Red Pill, it all comes down to having the flexibility to try new things to build awareness for its artists. But as deterring emphasizes, no one really knows all the answers in terms of using social media successfully.

"One thing that's essential to the model is flexibility," he concludes. "You need to be able to change directions quickly. A mantra we've had is to always be on the front edge. You don't want to follow -- especially in this climate. By design, a band can increase its awareness significantly be being part of a large community of artists to build the market for all. And that's what Red Pill is trying to do. Build a successful musical community for our artists -- and providing great music for fans."

More Information

Check out www.redpillonline.com to find out more about the label's artists as well as the Kaldi's promotion.
You can also visit Amy Petty's website, www.amypetty.com , to find out more about her music (and her appearance at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 2).
Terry Perkins regularly writes about music. 

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.