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Paul Finnishing School: The Odessa Records Owner Speaks By Iman Lababedi

Kelly and Paul Finn have been married less than two years and Kelly eyes him with a mix of affection and exasperation as she explains what it takes to love a record label owner, Paul owns Chapel Hill’s Odessa records, home to Kingsbury Manx and Americans In France among many others. “We have a small apartment,” she explains, a small smile on her face “and it is filled with CDs, tee-shirts, posters.” We wonder where they will put the baby if and when…

Yes, the other side of the record mogul. The side that has Finn have Wesley Wolfe pick me up at the Days Inn because Paul is on the phone arm twisting record stores to stock his artists in their limited space. Finn decided to form Odessa records with none of the romantic weight you or I might bring to the endeavor and might be sunk by. “Behind any successful musical act there are many people performing many duties and working very hard.’

So how did he get here?

“I’m fron New Jersey orgiginally. Lived there till 1997. In 1997 moved to Chicago. Chicago is where I got into the music industry. Interned at Touch And Go.” Touch And Go Records brought the world the Jesus Lizards, Naked Raygun, and, ahem, the Butthole Surfers. “Touch And Go was agreat experience and then I got a job at Drag City.”

Drag City, part owned by Royal Trux, have relseased music by Pavement, SIlver Jews, the Red Krayola and Will Oldham (just to mention those I know. “That’s where I cut my teeth on record label stuff.

“And then moved back to New Jersey briefly and eventually in 2002 moved to Chapel Hill.” and have been here ever since.

“I’ve been on both sides, in bands and on the business end, throughout my career. I started out in bands in High School. SOme of the guys I played with then are on my label now. In Chicago I was mostly working at labels not playing so much. Chicago was pretty hot at the same, a lot of bands coming out.of the city at the time -bands like Tortoise were doing really well. So you couldn’t just walk up to somebody and ask if you could play with them.”

At this point I realize I am not getting the story I want. To use (another) strange metaphor. Understanding the inner workings of an indie label is like living with a woman for the first time: all those mysterious things become revealed. I wanna understand what it takes to run a label. So I ask Paul to explain what he did for Touch And Go.

“I was out of college at the time, moved to Chicago and dedcided I wanted to work in the record industry. On the drive to Chicago I said to myself ‘what i really want to do is work at Drag City.’ That’s why I wanted to move there and it worked.

“I had to pay my dues, spending 3 or 4 months interning. I worked really hard trying to show I could do a good job.So when Drag Cit were hiring they called around and the inern pool and found some good people because Touch And Go and Drag City were working together.I got the recommendation so I got the job.

What were you doing at Touch And Go?

“I was a press intern. I was doing a lot of mailings and stuff. Put together 300 piece mailings to writers, journalists, and radio stations. Stuffing envelopes basically. I did pretty good at that so they’d give me more resposibility. I would paste up the press kits and stuff. Still cut and pasting.”

Paul lights a cigarette. “I haven’t bought a pack in two years but at evens like this” We are at the Odessa one year anniversary party, “I let myself go.. But if I have three or four smokes I’ll feel it the next day… I’ll smell it on my clothes.

“”So any way, I worked my way up Touch and Go and it was a powerfouse indie label back then and they did things the right way with a lot of integrity. So to be able to soak all of that in was like wow, this is a process. this is how it works. And you hear people talk on the phone, I was working in the press office and I could overhear them talking. And it was real, it wasn’t bullshitty what you would imagine. How those people at Touch And Go they were good people and they treated us with respect.

“Touch and Go were a beacon of integrity and even though it is downsized right now it still is. So that was a pretty awesome place to start out, you know.”

What did you do at Drag City?
“I was hired as a mail order person I got promoted to the shipping and receiving manager. I started by doing the mail order. Orders would come into the website daily and I would fullfil the orders and ship em out. This was checks and cash come in mostly. Orders would come from magazine advertising to P.O. Boxes, I would pick up the mail every day. They’d be anywhere from 5 to 30 orders, in envelopes, Tocontrast, when I worked in Chapel Hill I woprked at Merge records for a couple of years, doing the same thing, mail order and shipping, and there it was different because all of a sudden in that one year gap since I’d worked at the label, it was all credit card processing which was very interesting. because while mail order was thrity orders a day, credit card was 100 orders a day.”

That makes sense, to order something by mail order takes a lot more efoort than giving somebody your credit card number.

“Then I mdid shipping and receiving at the warehouse. AT that point Drag City was almost ten years old and there was a massive warehouse of product. I think they were at the 150s or 200s of releases at that point. 200 records times x amount… There were probably as many as 10,000 records in the warehouse. So you’ve got to keep track of that, you’ve got to organize that..”

So nuts and bolts, not the sexy stuff.

“Not the sexy stuff but the things is at Drag City if you worked there you worked there so you could be given any task, it doesn’t matter. It might be just driving around someone in a band in town for a week rehearsing,. Driving them around, taking them where they need to go. It might be going to pick up tapes. Going to help somebody set up their gear somewhere.

“It could be anything, any day it could be a new task.There are not enough people working there and there’s a lot of work to do.”

“I would call stores to see if they were carrying new Drag City releases and if so if they were selling OK and that sort of thing. Nationwide indie stores and a lot of chain stores too at that point. Tower was a big deal and there was a lotta indie records at Tower records. There were thousands of them. You could spend all day just calling Tower records. Do you have it, do you want it, are you returning it,
that sorta stuff. That’s a skill I use to this day. If I didn’t learn that back then, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now because when you called me today I was on the phone all day with stores for Wes’s record.

“I call the stores, I say ‘Did you get the record? Yes or no. No, I have to figure out why they didn’t get it. Yes the next question is ‘Did you listen to it?’ And maybe so. If it’s yes the next question is ‘Did you like it?’ And if it’s yes ‘Would you like to order it?’

Finn has sent out many copies of Wesley’s Storage album. Blogs, Magnet, Popmatters are all writing about it and he hopes to get radio play. “When I release a record I send out anywhere up to 500 copies. Press, radio, retail stores, distributors, clubs, whatever. It’s a lot of records when you figure I only press a thousand.

“But it is a building ground. You’re building careers, you’re building long term artists.I try to tell some people around me in this business of record labels, you can’t be so much concerned with the dollars. You should be conservative with what you spend but you can’t… for instance, to send out 500 copies of a record when you are only gonna print a thousand is crazy butthe way I see it is we’re building something longterm.

“So maybe the first record is a loss, maybe the second is a loss, but maybe the third record won’t be a loss.That’s the kinda stuff we’re talking about, kinda nickles and dimes.I’m not spending thousands of dollars advertising or crazy stuff. So you to spend but you need to smart spend because people have to know it exists

Finn says he seesMP3s as almost a promotional device. “It’s weird. because you’d think it would be the easiest thing to sell, it’s so instant, there it is, on the internet but imagine the clutter of a record store where there’s 10,000 record, now the cluuter of a million mp3s. It’s even harder to get your voice heard.

“My theory about music right now is that digital files should just be free. Andif you want a CD or an LP or a Tee-shirt or a cassette -that costs money.

“the days of owning music are coming to an end. It is all going to be libraries”.

Let’s stop there.

I hope Paul Finn has offered you as much of an insight into what it takes to run a record label as he has provided me and I for one will always support and believe there will always be room for a record company with the business acumen and, more important, the roster of artists, Odessa Records offer.

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