How Fervor Records Built a New Business with Classic Arizona Music

Categories: Music Industry

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Dave Hilker and Jeff Freundlich
One man installs a recording studio in a house or a storefront, starts an independent record label, signs a roster of artists, and boom, a music factory is born. It's the stuff that fills whole display cases in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Berry Gordy with Motown Records in Detroit. Sam Philips with Sun Records in Memphis. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton with Stax Records, also in Memphis. With minor variations, you could be telling the story of Chess or Atlantic or A&M Records--any number of labels that came, saw, conquered and was eventually gobbled up by a conglomerate looking to diversify its investment portfolio.

When you first hear about Fervor Records, a label founded by Dave Hilker that has its recording studios in two suburban houses in Sunnyslope, AZ, your mindset drifts to that simpler time when a record company could conquer the world through its old business model, consumer music sales.

"The unique thing about Fervor Records," Hilker says, grinning, "is that we don't make our money selling records. We make our money licensing music. Our artists make more on performance royalties than they would selling CDs."

AMC's more famous for licensing The Beatles, but if you listened carefully you might have caught '60s Phoenix rockers Phil & The Frantics in this year's Mad Men season premier.

In 2002, Hiker and his partners, John Costello and Jeff Freundlich, shifted their gaze toward publishing while the music industry was still focused on the ever-fickle and easily corrupted consumer.

When big labels admitted they could no longer sell anywhere near the volume of units or even downloads they once moved, they struck 360 deals with their big name artists, taking a cut of the merch and ticket sales from live shows. Fervor didn't go in that direction.

"One of our artists, [local reggae-punk-Latin band] Fayuca, plays 200 dates a year, and if you buy a Fayuca CD at any show, they get 100 percent of that," says Hilker. "I don't want to sabotage that merch revenue stream, cause that's gonna help them be on the road, keep their business going."

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Fayuca
Fervor artists own the physical rights to their CDs while Fervor does the digital distribution and takes a cut--still a small piece of their revenue pie compared to song placement and publishing royalties. "ITunes sales and streaming, it's not even a secondary market of ours. It's third, maybe. If that."

Even more unique among indie labels is Fervor's wildly diverse roster--for a conventional label, it would seem more than a little scattershot. Heritage artists--some dating back to the '20s--are listed side-by-side with futuristic electropop band Super Stereo, old school punk like Glass Heroes, blues and folk artist Hans Olson, and hip-hop artists like Tarik NuClothes.

"Most indies target a niche of music and go after that niche, sign bands within that genre. We're the exact opposite. If we only have one genre, our phone isn't going to ring very often to get music on a TV show. And it's not fair to the artist if we have 20 artists on our label doing the same stuff. Every genre is valid for what we do."

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Fervor's David Hilker
On the day we visited, Fervor Records co-owner Jeff Freundlich fielded a call seeking suitable music for The Bridge, a crime drama on FX. "It takes place on the border, so they're using a lot of country, reggaeton, and Latin music," Freundlich says.

"If someone goes into a bar, it's usually dance music, and if there's a radio in a pickup truck it's country music. In a lot of ways, music is used to stereotype a scene. And 99 percent of the time, when the music search comes in, it's at the 11th hour. But it's a good problem to have."

Among Fervor's high profile TV placements of late was AMC's Mad Men, where it placed 11 songs from the likes of such obscure '60s acts as The Fly Bi-Nights, The Leaves of Grass, and the Steam Machine.


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