When Kevin Parks decided to start his record label, Soundies, in early 1998, he plotted his course with great care. Unlike the majority of indie label founders, who tend to be young musicians or music enthusiasts with a little extra cash, he hoped to make a full-time vocation of putting out records--he was an avid music fan, but he'd spent the last 15 years as an intellectual-property-rights attorney and was married with three kids to support. So he cultivated contacts in the music industry, drew up a business plan, secured a deal with leading indie distributor Koch International, and convinced a handful of friends and relatives to invest in the company.
The plan was to license vintage recordings for reissue, a la Rhino or Razor & Tie, and Soundies' first project was a good fit: the sound track to Pete Kelly's Blues, a 1955 Jack Webb film featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. But not long after it came out, Parks made a discovery that sent his careful calculations out the window. Twenty of the twenty-five titles he's issued since January 1999 are not reissues but rather never-before-released radio performances culled from the archives of one man: Bill Cook, a 71-year-old retired engineer and radio-station owner who lives outside Colorado Springs. Cook's collection consists of thousands of hours of transcriptions--cumbersome, fragile 16-inch acetate discs made exclusively for radio broadcast in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Among them were performances by dozens of classic country artists. "I never really liked that type of music that much, but I wound up with a lot of country transcriptions anyway, and they sure have come in handy," Cook told the Denver alternative weekly Westword in June.
Parks, a 40-year-old native of Des Moines, had gotten hooked on country music in New York, of all places. In the mid-80s, just out of law school, he became a fan of a Manhattan combo called the Surreal McCoys, and one thing led to another. "Right at that time Steve Earle released Guitar Town, Dwight Yoakam released Guitars Cadillacs Etc. Etc., and Randy Travis released Storms of Life, and I loved all of those records," he says. "I went from there to exploring older and more traditional country, and I've been listening to that stuff for the last 15 years."
Parks moved to Chicago in 1987, working for several small law firms and eventually settling at Baker & McKenzie. In the meantime his obsession with country music grew. In 1989 he hired local legends the Sundowners to play his wedding. In 1992 and 1993 he and childhood buddy Wendell Gibson--another country fan who's now Soundies' art director--produced a cable access show called Jellystone's Heart of the Country. "We had local C & W bands come and play live, and I hosted the show in campy cowboy regalia," he says. Guests included Robbie Fulks, the Texas Rubies, Special Consensus, and Moonshine Willie, and the friends he made included kindred spirits Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw, who were just launching the "insurgent country" label Bloodshot Records.
They made five or six episodes over the course of 18 months, but gave up completely when Parks and his family moved to Hinsdale. After that, Parks began looking for a more serious way to get involved with music. "I always wanted to get closer to the music industry and I was kind of on the periphery of it, doing licensing work, but I wasn't doing entertainment work per se," says Parks. As he was interested in older music--and as the overhead was traditionally low--he decided that a reissue label would be a good way in, and in early 1998 he drew up the plan, incorporated the company, and began phasing himself out of his job.
He'd occasionally given free legal advice to Richard Weize, owner of Bear Family, an incredibly thorough German reissue label. When he told Weize he was starting his own label, Weize suggested that he contact Gordon Anderson, a vice president at Collectors' Choice Music, the Chicago-based reissue label and powerful mail-order company owned by Playboy. Anderson gave Parks advice and contacts and offered him distribution; Pete Kelly's Blues was actually a joint release. And when Anderson was approached by Bill Cook, in the fall of 1998, he suggested that Cook call Parks.
When Parks visited Cook, he was especially drawn to the country transcriptions, and afterward approached Bloodshot about coreleasing some of them. Thus far that partnership, which Miller and Warshaw dubbed the "Revival" series, has produced four releases, by Rex Allen, Spade Cooley, Hank Thompson, and most recently Pee Wee King; stuff from Jimmie Davis, Hank Penny, Johnny Bond, and Cindy Walker (who wrote for Ernest Tubbs, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Roy Orbison, and many others but rarely recorded herself) is planned for this year. Meanwhile Parks has released more Cook transcriptions--including some by Duke Ellington, Mel Torme, Eddie Condon, Frank Yankovic, Doris Day, and Sons of the Pioneers--on his own.
Though many of the songs on the transcriptions are protected by copyright law, the actual sound recordings are not--the artists sold them outright to the transcription companies, most of which are no longer around. Once Parks has a recording remastered, he owns the new version; for the privilege he pays Cook a flat fee plus royalties, and he must pay songwriters and publishing companies what are known as "mechanical" royalties for each copy he manufactures. But he also tracks down the performers or their estates to get their blessing and offer them compensation as well. "I could arguably put this stuff out without contacting any of the artists, but for ethical and practical reasons we do," says Parks. Sometimes the extra effort brings pleasant surprises: Hank Thompson was willing to give interviews and play shows to promote the release.
Parks's access to Cook's archives helped him attract additional investors, and that enabled him to bring on a second full-time employee, longtime pal and sales professional Kalon Sarby. Sarby's job will be to focus on something that was just a footnote in the original business plan: putting together custom packages for corporate promotion, from CDs to be offered as customer premiums to CD-ROMs that could include video games, interactive material, or Web links. Parks says he knows the kind of label he's running can be profitable, but not necessarily enough to support him and two other employees, and he hopes this will give Soundies some extra security. "I'm tickled pink because I'm doing what I want and I'm having fun doing it, but I'm scared as shit because I don't have long to make it happen," he says. "This year is make-or-break for us."
A Soundies Web site should be up by April at www.soundies.com, and a catalog can be requested by calling 800-832-8388.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.