For 20 years, Jim Bland has turned his obsession with music into a booming business. But now he faces a very different industry.
Revolution No. 9
There is positively no cappuccino machine inside Plan 9 Records in Carytown. No biscotti. No art-deco sofas. And not one 'N Sync poster in sight.
The music thumping overhead is rhythmic (Brazilian maybe?), catchy -- not anything you've heard streaming out of your radio lately. But it suddenly seems to match the hunting instinct that takes over as you stroll the aisles of Jazz, Rock, Pop, African, Classical.
And it doesn't matter if you've got peacock-blue hair and a pierced tongue or whether you've got your toddler perched on your shoulders. It's the same ravenous appetite an antiques lover would take into a 90-year-old's attic. The lure of finding a treasure is irresistible.
There's Wanda Jackson, the raunchy 1950s "Queen of Rockabilly," sitting next to Hot Tuna. Classic REM CDs for 7 bucks. Several rows of African artists, and -- ooh -- the Latin sounds of Cuba 1900-1951 -- way before the Buena Vista Social Club made it hip to rumba. Some bluegrass from John McCutcheon for little kids. ABBA next to (good grief) Alabama Thunderpussy. A huge bin of music by local bands you can hear live every weekend in places like Poe's and Ashland Tea & Coffee.
And that's to say nothing of the miscellaneous merchandise. CD holders, sure. But also distinctive Barbie-sized dolls -- one called Trailer Trash, the other, Drag Queen. A handy-dandy Voodoo doll. Oh, and a nun's head on a springing device, perfect for your next Easter basket.
This wild mix of treasure and kitsch is why Richmonders have been coming faithfully to Plan 9 for 20 years -- an anniversary that'll be celebrated the week of July 9. It's being billed as "five days of live local music and mayhem" inside the store and throughout Carytown.
And there's plenty of celebrate. Not only that Plan 9 has lasted two decades and has expanded to five stores in the man-eating arena of big-box music stores. But that Jim Bland, its co-founder and owner, is also the same surprisingly modest guy who has had the chutzpah to launch Planetary Records, an independent record label devoted to Virginia musicians. Then there's Nine Times Magazine, a magazine featuring interviews with surprisingly big acts like Radiohead, Cowboy Junkies, David Byrne, and Emmylou Harris.
And, of course, there are the side ventures that continue to earn him accolades -- like a partnership with Kathryn Harvey on World of Mirth, probably Richmond's funkiest toy store and yet another good reason to find yourself in Carytown.
Bland shows no sign of abandoning his vision to open Virginia's ears wide to music that we would otherwise probably never hear. And he does it not because it's turned out to be good business for him. But because it's good music.
Turns out, this is a story of a nice guy with a lot of passion.
The question is, can passion make him survive another 20 years?
The one thing Jim Bland knew when he was an English major at Emory and Henry College in the early '70s (and later at VCU) was that he didn't want to be a businessman. He really thought he'd write, teach maybe, do social work.
The oldest son of a South Side auto mechanic/musician and a homemaker, Bland had been known to work up to three jobs in high school. But the Summer of Love kid was happiest playing drums for fun, and electrifying his little brothers and sisters (including Style Art Director Jeff Bland) with the Beatles, Elvis Costello and Blondie.
"I had no proclivity for business at all," he explains sitting at the Warehouse, the central shipping center and main offices for Plan 9 Record Stores, as well as the home office of Planetary Records.
Around him in the dark paneled back room are 1940s movie posters, neon bar lights, a poster of a girl in a flip hairdo and cat glasses that says Fear No Man.
"I was very, very much a music nut, though. I'd spend way too much -- well past disposable income -- on music. I'd say, 'I can do without that burger tonight to get that new single.'"
By 1981, Bland had already been a drummer in a band, worked at several independent record shops and had become an avid collector, a guy who defined himself proudly by his LP collection.
Together with Petie Kurzman -- a music and sci-fi nut who'd once been a loyal customer at the Album Den where Bland had worked -- he toyed with the preposterous idea of actually making a living from selling cool music.
The two eventually decided to make a go of it. They picked up space on then-barren Cary Street for $350 a month (no lease), scraped together about $1,000 each and put their private collections up for sale.
Then, borrowing from director Ed Wood, that infamous cross-dressing titan of Z-rate movies, they named their shop Plan 9. Wood's 1958 movie, beloved even today for being the final, dreadful film starring Bela Lugosi and for its flying saucers made out of dinner plates on string.
"Well, it was the idea that something so, so bad could be great," Bland says, laughing. "But in the movie, Plan 9 is about resurrecting the dead. That's what we wanted to do. To give new life to these LPs that were used, dead."
What Bland and Kurzman (who parted amicably eight years ago) didn't exactly know then was that they had hit a niche that would define Plan 9 for at least two generations of customers. By sheer luck, the customers they started serving would eventually be left out of the current equation for music sales and marketing.
The niche? Interesting people over 12 years of age looking for the unique human touch in music selection.
What's the human touch? It means that Plan 9 stocks not only the big chart music that everybody knows, but also the songs you can hum badly at their counter but can't name, and the music you might not know exists.
"We offer a deeper selection," Bland explains. "I think we delve into the quirky niches. The big stores cater to a mass-market taste, to what's on radio. We offer that, but more."
For Bland, the biggest satisfaction of staying power is seeing the same customers -- and several key employees -- grow up with him. Today, the teen-agers who first flipped through the racks of used LPs are middle-aged men and women whose own teen-agers browse the store for CDs (which, incidentally, weren't even invented when he first opened shop). Long gone are the consignment options, though he'll still buy good used music outright, with a split of about 75 percent new music to 25 percent used in the stores. Even now, though, he can't help but think like a ravenous collector of used material.
"I see some stuff come in and I think, 'Why would anybody want to sell that back?'"
Of course, a lot has changed in Music Land since the "Jimmy and Petie" days. And most of it stinks.
To begin with, little bricks-and-mortar guys like Bland are having their obituaries drafted daily by industry experts. As music gets digital, will we even want to go into a store? Add Napsterites who believe they're Robin Hoods against an evil media empire, and he's staring into a black hole. Even as Plan 9 rolled out its new Web site this spring -- complete with online magazine, links, and buying and selling power -- it was only the first techie move of many that Bland will have to make to saddle the tiger that could end up devouring him.
But the problem is bigger even than losing a cool place to browse for music. It could be that pretty soon you won't even know what to browse for. Because no matter where you turn in the industry right now -- whether it's commercial radio, retail stores or the labels themselves -- what is driving selection is the smell of cold, hard cash -- not artistry, originality or talent.
Just ask Page Wilson, front man for Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon, a local band signed to Planetary Records. He's also a silky-voiced DJ for Out o' the Blue Radio Revue which airs on public radio WCVE Saturday nights. Wilson prides himself on playing an unusual mix of music -- from bluegrass to Irish, Cajun -- everything the world over that "deserves to be heard." For his radio show he works with major labels and with lots of small, independent labels. The current radio climate, says the 25-year music veteran, is tough, and a lot of good radio is falling victim to the squeeze of major media corporations.
"Radio is a ruthless business today," he laments. "In 1995 we were still on commercial radio. It wasn't a matter of audience. You put good music on the air, you'll get demographics that'll make the advertisers drool. But it didn't take me long to realize that talking to the big guys about putting my show on a commercial station was a big waste of time."
It's nothing these days to hear epithets like "bottom feeders," "corporate thugs" and "ruthless bullies" (these are actually among the sweeter descriptions) for the AOL Time Warners and Clear Channels of the world, who are spending millions and exerting massive control over the whole continuum of music.
From outright ownership of companies, like Ticketmaster, to huge influence over concert promoters and radio station formats, it's a scenario that flattens anyone who doesn't fit the mold of the bottom line. And that includes you, by the way. Local taste? What's that? Whether you're in Wichita, Kan., or right here in the Old Dominion, you'll hear the same playlist thanks to large media ownership.
"Basically, we think big is dumb, and that it sterilizes and homogenizes everything," says Don Vancleave, president of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, a Birmingham, Ala.-based group that formed six years ago to, well, save their necks (and maybe music for the rest of us). With 74 store members nationwide, the stores are trying to band together to get some leverage not only to stay in business but to develop musicians as artists instead of as products. Artists, he says, like David Gray, Dido and Radiohead -- all of whom were supported by independent retailers before anyone cared who they were.
"A lot of people wrote us off right away," says Vancleave. "But as this group goes forward, we're finding new ways to level the playing field. We're dealing daily with Napster and the CD burners out there. And then there's the stores that'll sell you a CD for $9.99 so they can turn around and sell you a bottle of soap for five times what it's worth and make their money back."
He jokes that his group probably has "a lot of old hippies," but he points to people like Bland as innovators in small business -- especially since the launching of Planetary Records in 1997 to identify and promote Virginia musicians who were already building a following.
To date, Planetary has signed 20 artists and another 20 have a distribution deal with the label. Among them, the Ululating Mummies, the Burnt Taters, Terry Garland, Li'l Ronnie and the Grand Dukes, and Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon.
"He's on the forefront," Vancleave says of Bland. "The rest of us are learning from him. It's a daunting and costly proposition [to launch an independent label]. A major label spends half a million dollars to get a song on the radio. He's looking at it differently. He's looking at developing art. And he's doing a great job."
Great, but not perfect.
The good news is that Planetary does give talented local acts an added push after they've recorded. Bands -- usually made up of people working full-time jobs outside of music just to survive -- often don't have the time, money, or expertise to sell themselves well.
"We do a lot of Internet research," says Steve Douglas, who has been Planetary Records' manager for three years. He says that -- Napster aside -- the Net can definitely level the field for an indie label like Planetary. Most recently, for example, the label is discovering the aching need Europeans have for American music in what he calls "any way, shape, or form."
"Li'l Ronnie [singer Keith Owens] is a great example. He was No. 6 on the charts in Greece this year. He came in on Epikinonia - an FM station in Athens, Greece something like a Q-94 -- and he came in right behind Steppenwolf."
Sure, it's unpronounceable. But, hey, it's a market. And for working artists it means an audience and money to make more music. (As of this writing, Li'l Ronnie also hit No. 1 in Australia and has now been listed in the Top 25 of playlists at 30 or 40 stations across the country who play blues.)
Still, there is some grumbling -- though, admittedly it is very, very quiet grumbling. Criticizing Jim Bland for, say, growing Plan 9 into "just another chain" or making some other misstep in music takes on the same quality as complaining that Mother Theresa was a little snippy. Whether among his employees -- some of whom have been with him for 18 years - or the many music lovers who know him casually or as bosom friend, he's universally regarded as a Great Guy.
The delicate rub, though, comes in figuring out what is expected of a label. That's particularly true now that it's relatively cheap to cut a CD, and when lots of musicians -- especially younger ones who seem to be born with good computer skills -- already know how to access the Internet and cull promotion information.
Douglas is quick to admit that Planetary artists are expected to work hard on their own -- both before being signed and afterward.
"We're dependent on how hard they work," Douglas says. "The more a band plays in different new areas for new audiences, the more we're going to sell. Some bands never get out of Richmond, and that's all right. But others are really road warriors. And they do really well."
Craig Evans of the Burnt Taters is glad he doesn't have to sell any of the band's three CDs out of the trunk of his car anymore. Right now, he says, the Burnt Taters can be found not only in Plan 9's racks but also at Tower Records, at Borders -- everyplace. That, he says, is thanks to Jim Bland and Planetary.
But it's true, Evans adds, that a major responsibility stays with the act: "This is our career. We might have had the idea that we'd sign and somebody would do all the promo work, but we learned the necessity of doing the work ourselves."
He says that for the limited manpower (two people work at the label, assisted by two interns) Planetary is doing a great job. "But as new bands sign on, you know, it gets spread a little thin," he continues. "Any band on there is going to have to do a lot of their own work as well."
Page Wilson says bands need to be realistic about what a small label can do. As far as he's concerned, Planetary is at least doing a better job than he'd ever have the time to do himself.
"A small label can give you but so much," Wilson says. "There's no big bag of money hanging over Jim's head that will let him lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on an artist. He promotes the way he knows how to promote -- on the indie side. You will get a customized promotion within the genre of the music you play. They do follow you, they get information on whether you're getting airplay. What you do with that information is up to you If you want a manager, get a manager. If you want a booking agent, get that. Record labels make records."
Bland and Steve Douglas agree that the label has been a steep learning curve. Still, they both say that each new release is better than the last, and the real work to this point has been building basic systems, developing relationships and creating respect for Planetary artists in the industry.
"Right now, we need to continue to grow and learn," explains Douglas. "It's still all new to us. We need to keep our minds open to new ways to get our music out there."
Back at the Warehouse, Bland is sitting under some new lighting fixtures (kitchen drainpipes attached to funky fluorescent bulbs) that might just go into his remodeled Plan 9 in Charlottesville. On the table is a teeny plywood model of the shop, complete with doll-sized music bins and a new stage for local acts. As usual, his day is a mix of concrete details like these and keeping his eye on a bigger picture, one that he has no choice but to draw himself. He'll muse on it all every day before going home to his wife, Sue, and their two kids, Claire, 8, and Chet, 4 -- the greatest source of his entertainment these days, he says. He seems as amazed (and maybe a little alarmed) as anyone that he now cheers for a soccer goal or coaxes a kid to eat his macaroni and cheese.
But, professionally, Bland knows he needs to stay an edgy survivor. He needs to find the new formula for music -- some incredible concoction of music, tech, and bricks and mortar that'll be relevant and accessible to yet another generation of people looking to him to help keep music alive and vibrant in Richmond.
"There's just a huge unknown right now," he says calmly about finding the magic trick. "Music is not like shoes that you use up and then buy a new pair. We want to be part of the technological change and be a participant, and make it work for everybody."
"The possibilities to me," he says smiling a little shyly "are endless."
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