INTERVIEW: Excavating Jem with Marty Scott
The list of American cities tied to record labels is small, but certainly notable. Memphis has Stax and Sun, Detroit is defined by Motown, Sub Pop defined the Seattle sound…and then there’s Jem Records, which made its home in the middle-class borough of South Plainfield, New Jersey.
Jem, as well as its sub-labels like Passport (a joint venture with Seymour Stein of Sire Records) and PVC, became something of a cratedigger’s dream in the 1970s and 1980s, licensing content from all over the world and getting it into stores across America, effectively breaking bands that may have never been heard otherwise. Boys Don’t Cry, the American debut album by The Cure, was a Jem product. So were albums by The Good Rats, The Bongos, several spinoffs of Genesis (co-founder/guitarist Anthony Phillips; jazz-fusion combo Brand X, for which Phil Collins played drums), Judas Priest, King Crimson, Siouxsie & The Banshees – even, for a time, huge sellers like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and – when Epic first passed on a domestic release – Cheap Trick’s At Budokan.
The original incarnation of Jem folded in 1988, after nearly 20 years in business, but co-founder Marty Scott is about to resurrect the label – and the timing couldn’t be better. Tonight, as Hoboken rockers The Bongos take the stage as the final act at the venerable rock venue Maxwell’s (as members of local band “a,” they were the first act on the stage in 1978), they will announce the new Jem’s first release – a new Bongos album, Phantom Train, recorded in 1986 for Island Records but unreleased until this year.
As a catalogue enthusiast who grew up mere miles away from Jem’s original headquarters, I am very pleased to present – as we remember a monumental place for rock music in New Jersey – this brand-new, exclusive interview with Marty Scott on the past, present and future of Jem Recordings.
What made you decide to get back into the music business after so much time away?
Over the years, people always said, “Well, why don’t you get back in [the business]?” And I always say, “Well, the business has changed.” I believe there’s very little artist development and it’s all very song-driven, or producers are making the music and the singers are overlaying tracks. A little more than a year ago, Richard Barone contacted me about getting involved in a documentary being filmed for the 25th anniversary of Cool Blue Halo, which we had put out in 1987. That was a seminal record – the beginning of what later became the unplugged era.
So I did the documentary around May of 2012, and I got to talking to Richard again. I’d found out there was an unreleased Bongos record – a record I never even knew existed. It was recorded for Chris Blackwell at Compass Point after they’d left RCA, but Blackwell had left to form Palm Pictures, and the record sort of languished. I’d said, “Well, let’s do something with this.” Richard had the tapes, we listened to them, and they sounded pretty damn good. He and Steve Addabbo at Shelter Island Sound started to rework the tapes – they had to bake them! Steve’s the best baker in the business – he just worked on the next Bob Dylan Bootleg Series that’s coming out. I should give him a chef’s hat next time I see him! [laughs]
The record, Phantom Train, is going to come out October 1. The band is going to announce from the stage of Maxwell’s, that they’ll be releasing a track the next morning, called “My Wildest Dreams.” And the band will be touring to back it up.
What was it that drew you to importing?
I was really big into The Who, and I had found out that there was a Who record available only in England, called Direct Hits. I still have that record, which I went to England to buy, in my office at home!
In college, we were selling American records near our colleges – I went to Franklin & Marshall College, and my two childhood friends and partners went to Cornell and Wesleyan. As soon as we’d get them from the post office, we were outselling the record stores nearby. After we graduated, we went to Europe to sell records to other college kids. And I got Direct Hits and thought, well, if I want this record, there’s got to be other people that want this!
There’s more Marty Scott after the jump!
What made you decide to set up shop in South Plainfield?
We grew up in Metuchen. My father’s [business] partner had one of the largest real estate brokerages in the state. I went to him and they showed us this new building in South Plainfield. It was totally luck at that point.
How were day-to-day operations for Jem, typically?
Don’t forget, it was the whole company. It wasn’t just me. I focused mostly on the label end – they used to call me “Deal a Day.” We actually put out a promo record under that name. You can get it on eBay for about $24.95, which is great, because last year it was $19.95. My net worth is going up! [laughs]
We were breaking records with in-store airplay. The majors would call us asking how we were doing this. It was simple – at the time, there were certain stores and stations reporting their numbers. If you focused on them, your numbers would go up. And we didn’t have to send free records to get people to report! They reported because they loved the records.
What were some of Jem’s notable success stories?
The biggest record we ever had was Cheap Trick’s At Budokan – Epic passed on the record, and I went to Jim Tyrrell, who was doing marketing at Epic, asking to import it. We cut a deal with Sony and sold tens of thousands. [Epic would delay Cheap Trick’s next album, Heaven Tonight, to release Budokan domestically. That album’s live version of “I Want You to Want Me” was their breakthrough single.]
Then there was The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was basically printing money. The record came out on Ode Records in 1976 and was deleted everywhere but Canada. So I did a deal with Lou Adler to ship them from Canada. There were no rights for America – Lou owned it – so we did a P&D deal to press it ourselves. And we sold insane amounts.
The thing I didn’t realize at the time, was we were creating a brand. Nobody was using that phrase at the time, but that’s what we were doing. Every record store at the time would have a Jem section. There was no section for any company except Jem. We’d have a little import 45 RPM point of purchase display at the front counter, and people would check for imports in our section. The first point of purchase we ever had said “Don’t be xenophobic – buy import records!” People didn’t even know what “xenophobic” meant.
We did a lot of unique marketing like that. We were putting things out as picture discs, or on colored vinyl. Now, people pay to have that kind of exposure, which really killed things. At the time, we’re not talking about a six foot painting on a Tower Records on the Strip, we’re talking about in-store airplay in a store in Poughkeepsie.
Something called the “FARM system” has been used to describe Jem’s distribution process. Can you elaborate?
FARM stands for “First Album Release and Manufacture.” It was really more “manufacture and release,” in order, but I couldn’t call it “FAMR.” [laughs]
There were a lot of bands I thought should be out in America. Not in terms of imports, but bands whose careers were going to happen. Take The Cure – they had no deal in America. So I went to Fiction and we put together a record for them, from singles and EPs and different tracks. They were one-record deals – we’d license the album for a few years.
Tell us a bit more about the history of the company.
So I decided to start importing records. It took six weeks to get the first order – of course, when Jem was going, we would get them the next day, over air freight. So I started bringing in other records you couldn’t get in America. And as it turned out stores would call us and say, “Listen, there’s another record you should get,” or “I heard about this other record that you can only get in England.” This was about 1971. By 1972 we were incorporated – we started off in a trailer in the parking lot of a one-stop in New Jersey, then we moved into a building inside that one-stop. When we were in that trailer, we’d get orders so big we had to lay out all the boxes in the driveway and hope that it didn’t rain before we got the orders out.
Then in 1975, we opened Pacific Records in England, to import the records to us; we had offices in California and Texas, far and away the biggest independent distributor of all these labels. We went public in 1985 – and then there was that lawsuit, which changed the face of imports. We’d lost, but what the labels were really trying to do was go after the retailers who were killing their business. It hurt imports in a lot of ways, but Passport was doing incredibly well. In 1987, we were going to sell the company’s assets to Enigma, and on the day of the closing of the deal, [Enigma co-founder] William Hein came to the office – we’re all wearing jackets and ties, and he comes in wearing a t-shirt, saying “I’m not here to sign, I’m here to pull out.” Not long after, we filed for Chapter 11, and my contract as president of the company was removed, and I’d lost the company I’d founded when I was a teenager in college.
But now I’m back.
What are some future projects we can expect from the new Jem?
I was just able to pick up the physical rights to Cool Blue Halo: 25th Anniversary Concert as a 2CD/1DVD set. It’s been available digitally, but never in stores [as a physical item]. That comes out in October.
I think one of our biggest sources I have for ideas are writers. All the writers I’ve known for the past 30 or 40 years, they know more about these things than even I do. They give me great ideas. I have a vehicle to be able to put things back into circulation, or into circulation for the first time.
The old Jem was a distribution company. We made it possible for anyone to make their records available. But this is a label. I hope to attract artists or managers to contact me with product that they own that’s never been released.