An Interview With Jeff Rougvie of Salem And Rykodisc
“Enthusiasm and forward thinking” sold Bowie on Rykodisc
By Jeff Rougvie & William Legault
SD: How did you get into the music business?
JR: The old-fashioned way! Growing up on the South Shore, I was really into music. But I was 12 – I had no money and plenty of time, so I hung out in record stores, looking at everything, not buying anything. Eventually they either run you out or you get to know the staff. They’d get me to stock shelves or go on a coffee run. I’d get a free single or, if I was lucky, an album, in return. We moved to Hartford when I was 15, and by pure fate, within a month an amazing record store opened in our building. They hired me for real, with paychecks and everything! I’ve been in it ever since.
SD: It’s a long journey from record store clerk to a record label, how did you make the transition?
JR: The Hartford store, Capitol Record Shop, was a great place. It was a center of that local culture, with really knowledgeable owners, who taught me a lot. I owe them big-time. In the very early 80’s, it was the first store in the U.S. to aggressively stock compact discs and the biggest customer of a tiny CD distributor in Minneapolis.
Rob Simonds, who owned that distribution company, was one of the partners in Rykodisc. But Ryko hadn’t released anything yet, and the distribution company was his main thing. Rob wanted to open CD-only stores in Minneapolis. I was in this awful art school, doing college radio, printing my own fanzine, in a band, and (to put it politely) I was in a lot of conflicting romantic relationships I needed to step away from. And Hartford was sooooo boring, they rolled up the sidewalks at 6 P. M.
Meanwhile, that whole Minneapolis music scene was exploding with Prince, Husker Du and the Replacements, so when Rob hired me to run his retail business, I dropped out of college and fled. We opened stores in the Twin Cities, San Francisco and Boston; they all did great – we got in at the right time.
SD: So at this point you’re still in retail?
JR: Yes, I was running the “chain” and then became buyer for the distribution company, which had gotten pretty big. I thought Rykodisc was going to remain a side project. They were putting out oddball folk & blues compilations, Native American Jazz, the Residents – pretty esoteric stuff – but in the early days of CD, the major labels, with typical lack of foresight, didn’t believe CD would catch on. They thought it was only for audiophiles, so all you could get was classical music, Miami Sound Machine and “Thriller.” Because the selection was so limited and mainstream, there was a market for the weird early Ryko stuff. Plus Ryko CDs had great liner notes and extras that no one else was doing back then. As the label grew, music fans recognized the brand and they’d take a chance on music they didn’t know because it was on Ryko. That’s pretty rare.
SD: When did you realize Rykodisc was going to be big?
JR: Early on, Ryko cut a deal with Frank Zappa. Frank’s record company, EMI, told him “no one will buy your music on CD,” so he licensed it to Ryko. That was a stepping stone and a gift that paid off for years, but his commercial peak was over at that point. That led to Ryko being approached by the Jimi Hendrix estate for a concert CD. I got a an early copy CD from the plant before it was released. As soon as I heard the opening chords of “Fire”, I knew things were going to change.
SD: What did you do for Ryko?
JR: Rob’s brother-in-law is Don Rose, who was President of Rykodisc. Rob told Don about me, we met and I was hired. At first, Don ran Ryko out of his house on Essex Street; that was literally the address on Ryko CDs. When a few people got hired, it moved to Pickering Wharf, then to Shetland Park.
My official title was Director of A&R and Special Projects. A&R stands for “Artists & Repertoire.” My job was to find and attract projects to the label. There were hardly any employees, so everyone did everything. In my first year I answered phones, designed posters and marketing materials, launched our cassette and vinyl line, helped stack boxes in the warehouse and was the primary architect of the research and creative side of our proposal for David Bowie’s catalog.
SD: What Bowie material did Ryko release?
JR: The deal was for all of his albums from Space Oddity through Scary Monsters. All his 70’s work, basically, including Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, the Berlin trilogy – all the stuff most people still regard as his best material. We did a box set and two Best Of compilations, too. It took about 18 months from proposal to signing, with too many heart-stopping close calls. I’d written my part in January of 1988, and the contract wasn’t signed until the summer of ‘89. From there it was a mad dash to get our first release together and out in time for the Christmas season, which was late September. It was crazy. No one believed we could do it.
SD: Why did he pick such a tiny company?
JR: He suspected, and we ultimately convinced and proved to him, that above all his other suitors, Ryko would put the most effort into quality presentations and execute a respectful promotion of his work. There were bigger labels with more money in the mix, but they lacked our enthusiasm and forward thinking. I’m sure he was being advised to take the more obvious deals, but he could see Ryko brought value to the table.
We thought, ‘here’s this amazing, influential body of work that is genetically imprinted into so much great music that followed it.’ We knew people who missed out the first time would love his older stuff if they were exposed to it properly – and that became our mission. We achieved that and helped introduce him to a new generation of fans, which was important because he was trying to find his way again, artistically.
Plus, we sensed all the underground music of the 80’s he’d inspired was going to break through at some point. Sure enough, the alt-rock explosion happened shortly afterwards, with Nirvana and the death of hair metal.
SD: So Ryko was ahead of the curve in a lot of ways, but in the last 25 years, the evolution of technology has had a huge impact on the music business. Did Ryko keep up?
JR: Our belief was to always be to first to the table whenever new formats or opportunities arose. We released DATs and minidiscs, two formats that failed, but we were the first label with a website, we had our catalog on CD-ROM, and were the first label of any consequence to sell music downloads online, way before iTunes. That enraged the bigger brick and mortar retailers.
SD: Ryko had some big acts in the alt-rock genre too, correct?
JR: Yes, we had Sugar, which was Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du band. Their album “Copper Blue” is still one of my favorite records and it was a huge success. That album put Ryko on the map with other living, breathing, touring artists. It made people in the industry realize we were more than a catalog label. After that, we signed Morphine, who sold a lot of records, especially in Europe. There was a great documentary about them at the Salem Film Fest last year. It’s a sad story in a lot of ways.
SD: Morphine was a Boston band; did Ryko always have ties to the Boston music scene?
JR: Absolutely, although we existed in a bubble outside of it – it’s 15 miles from Salem to Boston, but it takes an hour to get there! Plus, no one expects an international record label to be based outside either New York or LA, so we were under the radar. We flew a Ryko Pirate flag off Shetland Park; that was the most visible sign we were here.
Even so, we were very Boston-centric. Besides Morphine, we put out the first Mission of Burma CD, a pretty daring move in 1988. We loved them, and released it even though we didn’t expect it to sell, it was a gut thing. Then one of the guys in REM said it was the reason he bought a CD player in a Rolling Stone interview, and it sold. They could have been a forgotten band outside Route 128, which would’ve been a shame.
We did the Galaxie 500 catalog and Throwing Muses, and one of my favorite bands from anywhere, who made one of my top five records ever; Waltham. PS: they were from Waltham. I made some stupid errors with that record and it didn’t sell, it was heartbreaking because they were so great. That one still haunts me, but not every record finds its audience.
We nearly signed the Pixies, too. That would’ve been amazing.
Part 2 will be posted here on Salem Digest next Sunday Night.