The Suburbs, the Replacements, Soul Asylum--Twin/Tone Records

Minneapolis label's proprietor, Paul Stark, is making a play for the future

As the founder and operator of Twin/Tone records, Paul Stark has been party to most of the vital local music business history, and so it comes as something of a surprise whenever he hears news of his company's demise. "It's not news," he says, sitting at his desk surrounded by computers, laser printers, Web servers, and modem pools. "For more than 18 months, I've been fairly open about the fact that I don't expect to be pressing any records by the end of the year."

On the contrary: To any self-respecting Minneapolis music buff, this sounds like news, indeed. Twin/Tone's story is now the stuff of alt-rock legend, how Stark, Chris Osgood, and Charlie Hallman launched the label 20 years ago, to "give ourselves a job, and support our friends who were musicians." The fact that those friends turned out to be some of the most influential artists in alt-rock is now a point of pride for anyone whose understanding of the genre extends beyond Third Eye Blind or Better than Ezra. So it ought to be a blow to hear that Twin/Tone Records Group will no longer be making records. Until you hear the rest of the story, which isn't long in coming. For Paul Stark has made his reputation by seeing the future of music in the Suicide Commandos, the Replacements, and Soul Asylum, and he's rarely stopped to look back for fear of losing sight of what's next on the horizon.

Minneapolis has long been an important wayside on the music-industry map. While the Twin/Tone nexus--including all those seminal post-punk bands that paved the way for Nirvana--is one of our proudest institutions, a big share of the retail music industry is headquartered here, as well. Together, Best Buy and Musicland represent the largest retailers of pre-recorded music on the planet, and K-Tel has been a serious behind-the-scenes mover for decades; all three companies are headquartered within two miles of each other, in the western suburbs. Oh, and a funny little man with a symbol for a name lives right down the road in Eden Prairie.

But because Twin/Tone stands in the doorway between an active local rock scene and the world of major labels that eventually feed them to the global retailers, its story embodies what's wrong with the music industry today, and what's potentially right about its future. If Paul Stark is reading his tea leaves correctly, no one will be pressing CDs in the not-too-distant future. "My vision of the future is this," he says. "We won't have physical CDs. We'll have pay-for-play."

And that explains why you can't swing a Stratocaster in Paul Stark's office without hitting a Twin/Tone monitor, server, or modem. Actually, make that a www.tt.net monitor, server, or modem.

If there's anything more tired than the conversation about what "alternative" means, it's the conversation about what ails the music industry. Ever since the heady days of Cobain and his apostles, people who make money by playing, recording, distributing, and selling music have been asking themselves where the party went.

From an independent label's point of view, it's a matter of simple math. "The major labels are releasing over 20,000 records a year now," says Stark. "It was only 3,000 just 5 years ago." Not only does that mean the majors are losing money hand over fist in trying to develop the Next Big Thing; they're flooding the indies out of the distribution network. According to Stark, any 7-inch record he printed in the early '80s would easily sell, because "stores were clamoring for the stuff. There wasn't enough product to fill them. Now stores have to reject 80 percent of what they're offered every month."

And most of what they're offered comes from the major labels, along with a nice little perk called "cooperative advertising." In its simplest form, that's when mega-labels like DGC and Virgin give retailers a wad of cash, ostensibly to advertise the titles they'll carry. But the money goes straight into the retailers' pockets with few strings attached. This creates an extremely inequitable system of distribution. "It's like this," says Stark. "The distributor goes to the retailer and says, 'We've got 80 records, we know you're only going to buy 20. And by the way, these 15 major-label titles come with all this advertising money, yours for free. Now, you've got five more records to choose.' Out of 60, what are our chances of getting in there?"

The most insidious aspect of this new music marketplace, as far as Stark can tell, is that this form of payola is exacerbated by a serious absence of "tastemakers"--knowledgeable, passionate, and influential people working in stores and at radio stations for the love of music, in spite of the crass greed that surrounds them. To the mercenary kids who now work this beat, one record is the same as any other, so a solid brand like Twin/Tone has no cachet with them.

"Take Peter Jesperson as an example," says Stark, citing the name of a familiar and celebrated local tastemaker (and Twin/Tone co-conspirator) who, at one point, rose to the dubious position of manager for the 'Mats. "Coming out of high school, I don't think he had any question he was going to do something with music, and he was the manager at Oar Folk by the time he was 20. And he was a DJ at the Longhorn," the now-legendary Minneapolis bar. In other words, he was at ground zero of what turned out to be an exploding scene.

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