I’ve known University of Chicago alum Pat Reisinger for about a year and a half now; that is, about as long as he’s been running the Rocket Reducer distro. “What is a distro?” the reader may wonder. “Distro” is an abbreviation for “distributor” that implies independence and informality on the part of the material being distributed. No surprise, then, that the term refers to packagers of open-source operating systems as well as clearinghouses for zines and minimally-produced records. Reisinger’s focus is garage punk records, the product and obsession of a tiny scene of bloggers, message board posters, eBay buyers, bands, and distro operators. Taking its name from an MC5 proto-punk anthem and its phallic logo from a drawing Reisinger’s ex-girlfriend made, Rocket Reducer is something of a middleman between labels and buyers. Or, as Reisinger puts it, he’s a dealer.
Records are a strange thing in 2008. After two decades in a commercial coma, they’re making something of a mainstream comeback. For audiophiles and punk’s hydra-headed subcultural descendants, they never went out of style, which implies their inclusion ‘neath hipsterdom’s ever-broadening blanket. The evidence bears this out: a range of indie labels, including Chicago’s Thrill Jockey and Drag City, have seen record sales increase, which Reisinger confirms, noting that a few years ago, pressing plants could promise a two-week turnaround, whereas a label can now expect to wait twice as long. But even though records are incontrovertibly popular, the appeal is still a little mysterious. Explanations about sound are monumentally uncompelling if you apply them to Rocket Reducer’s catalog of obscure, fuzzed-out garage rock and weird punk. People who revel in crystal tuning and perfect pitch won’t find much to interest them in his stock, and as for listeners who claim to appreciate clicks and pops, I’ll simply resort to calling them liars. The real allure of plastic discs is talismanic. A milk crate of LPs represents something like 2,700 minutes of music, or about half of what you could fit on your iPhone. The same milk crate, filled with hard drives, could contain WHPK 88.5′s room-sized, 50,000-plus record library that awes DJs and visiting bands alike. But every one of those discs is a physical manifestation of enviably good taste, the bricks in a record collector’s pedestal.
Reisinger seems to regard those collectors with ambivalently empathetic disdain. For one thing, he is one. Rocket Reducer’s profits, if there are any, mostly go to buying new records, and by keeping a personal copy of every record he distributes he’s added about 400 to his collection. The result, he says, is a room dominated by “stacks of boxes of records.” And those records! Take the anonymous synth-punk act Blank Dogs’ “Diana (the Herald)” EP on black vinyl from the first pressing of 390, which will cost you $70 on eBay these days, though I got it for $10 from Reisinger back when he bought copies direct from Sacred Bones Records. Or the Vivian Girls’ “Tell the World” 7”, which was something like $35 at the peak of the girl band’s hype this summer, though Pat had them for $5 for a few days before they sold out. Record collecting, Reisinger says, “is low-level speculation. It stopped being about the music a long time ago.” The whole experience has been an object lesson in the economics of small markets. One can conservatively estimate that globally, at least 10,000 people are listening to these microgenres, or at least posting on relevant message boards and seeing shows in the right lofts and basements. Now turn them loose on a thousand or so records. The phenomenon is even more remarkable given that music is so easily downloadable these days.
Economically, it’s not clear how well a distro works out. Though he doesn’t keep close track of his finances, Reisinger thinks he breaks about even, a sentiment shared by many gamblers. Between PayPal and the Post Office, his margins are pretty thin, especially when someone buys just one record. Most of his profits go to buying new records, since a distro is only as popular as it is capable of enticing buyers with new releases. And despite the admittedly “massive” temptation to eBay popular records instead of selling them at just-above-wholesale prices, Reisinger considers it bad faith. That’s not to say guessing which records will explode isn’t a crapshoot. After two years of making connections and earning money, Reisinger released a record of his own, the “Pill Me” 7” by Texas punks the Teeners, whom he signed in part because their first record sold out rapidly. On red vinyl with enchantingly tasteless artwork, it made #32 on WHPK’s Top 40 last week. From his description, it was an anticlimactic experience. The Teeners handed him a CD, he filled out paperwork and mailed it to United Record Pressing, and a month later, he had 300 records on his doorstep, most of which are still in his apartment.
Reisinger good-naturedly compares himself to a dealer for a variety of reasons. You may laugh at the image of him running around town making deliveries and accepting cash payments, but the buyers approach him with emotional intensity. When Reisinger inadvertently sold a HoZac Records 45 that he’d weeks before offered to hold for a steady customer, the guy quit talking to him. At the same time, record collecting is vastly estranged from the music being recorded. There’s a charming story about John Fahey calling up his friend and fellow collector Dick Spotswood and demanding that he play a Blind Willie Johnson record. But John Fahey died without a single 78 to his name. It’s much harder to imagine Reisinger’s clientele of middle-aged music nerds doing either of those things, not the least because half the eBay auctions for these records advertise that they’ve never been played. Not even the bands themselves seem to care much.
Rocket Reducer is also an interesting demonstration of the globalization of music fetishism. Jazz-hungry Russians made underground bootlegs on X-ray film in the ’50s, but now anybody can download whatever they please and, if they’ve got cash, indulge in whatever obscure American punk records top their want list. Though years running WHPK’s Friday night live show Pure Hype have helped Reisinger win a few regulars in Chicago, he figures he’s never seen 99 percent of his customers. Geographically, they’re widely distributed, with strong concentrations in Texas and California as well as France and Japan. And while PayPal takes at least $0.25 on every record he sells, it makes currency conversion invisible and simple. Shipping is a bigger headache, especially when buyers tell him to hold a dozen records, buy only one, and then specify what thickness of bubble wrap and how many layers of cardboard they want protecting it.
But for Pat, the end is approaching. He’s applying to law school, and plans to wind Rocket Reducer down over the next year, which may leave him with several hundred duplicate records. He has already decided how much he’s going to slash prices during the fire sale (answer: a lot), and seems excited about uncluttering his bedroom. Looking back on the experience of running a distro, he’s not sure if he’d repeat it. As the MC5 song from which Rocket Reducer takes it name goes, “You think you’re satisfied? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”