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Flying Fish Fried

The Final Countdown at a Local Landmark



By Jeffrey Felshman

Knee-high piles of stuff surrounded Grace's desk. Stacks of paper stood like nodules next to Dorothy's computer and lined the walls, forming a path to Kim's office. The desktops looked like the bottom of an old handbag; the only empty space was in the shipping room. Flying Fish Records was just about to close for good, and its staff of ten awaited their termination letters, which they'd expected to be in the fax machine by now.

Last Friday was supposed to be Flying Fish's last day. Rounder Records purchased the label back in late November. Newspaper stories initially reported that Rounder would keep the operation intact at its north-side home, and Flying Fish staffers were told they might be kept on. But everything in the office was being moved to Rounder's headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, everything except the computers and the employees. The Fish employees didn't trust Rounder, but they trusted them on this. Still, here it was, the official last day, and they still hadn't received any word about their fate.

So at 9 AM--while there was still a shred of hope in the place--Grace went upstairs to the kitchen to make coffee. Dorothy, the receptionist, banged in the door, stomped her way upstairs, said hi to Grace, and grabbed a gift-wrapped bottle of single malt Scotch sitting on the counter. She popped it open and took a long pull. She'd been the most enthusiastic person in the office before the buyout, but she'd been drinking sporadically and playing computer solitaire in between answering phone calls ever since the announcement. "Want one?" she asked Grace, who declined. "I'll have one for you." She took another shot.

With Flying Fish a lame duck, there shouldn't have been too many phone calls to answer, but the label's artists and suppliers had been calling for weeks, wanting to know if Rounder would pick them up. The artists were assured that all contracts would be honored, but that didn't mean much to some. While some thought of Rounder as the Ben and Jerry's of the record business, others said that Ben and Willard was more like it. Appearances don't count for much in folk music, or they aren't supposed to anyway.

Jim Netter had been running Flying Fish since its founder, Bruce Kaplan, died three years ago. Netter spent the last weeks on the phone, massaging diverse and agitated acts from upstate New York to lower Alaska, but all he could offer was friendly advice and sympathy. Musicians Anne Hills and Michael Smith had called today and offered to order pizza in return.

By the middle of the afternoon the pizza had arrived, but the termination letters still hadn't. The radio was playing. There was a magnum of medium-priced champagne in the refrigerator; half-empty bottles of Jack Daniel's and Bacardi were on the table (the Scotch was gone); and a group of former and current employees were standing in the kitchen, eating, drinking, and reminiscing. There was still no word from Rounder Records. The parent company hadn't sent anyone to Chicago, hadn't called, hadn't faxed. Everyone began to wonder if Rounder had reconsidered letting them go.

Flying Fish had foundered for a time after Kaplan died. He'd started the company 21 years ago and had made all the decisions, signed all the acts, and screamed at all the agents and employees (who'd called him "Il Bruche," among other things); the company was so associated with Kaplan that it was expected to collapse after him. But in the last three years it had grown, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the staff, who were all still hanging on, waiting for the final word. At about a quarter to three the fax machine began to spit out termination letters.

Eric read his out loud, pausing after the line, "We let you know a couple of months ago that tomorrow would be the last day of work for you." He responded, "Hey, they didn't even own the company a couple months ago." Rick, a former employee, grabbed a rubber band to tie up a poster he was taking. But when the rubber band broke, he noticed that it had been held together with a piece of tape. "That's typical," he said.

Grace finished her coffee and wrote one last check to Kaplan's daughter. Dorothy looked up from her computer. All hope was gone. The end was here. She turned back to the screen and finished her game of solitaire. When it turned out to be a losing game, she clicked "Deal" and played one more round.

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