Back in April, with gigs newly canceled and venues shut down in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Salt Lake City-based musician Talia Keys noted, “Any artist you love right now is struggling.”
Concert promoter and club owner Chris Mautz famously put it even more succinctly: “Pretty much everyone’s eating a piece of the s--t pie.”
Of course, back then, with the scope and depth of the pandemic not yet known yet, there was fear and uncertainty, but also some degree of cautious optimism. While some dreaded the possibility of concerts going away for up to a year and a half, others dared hope that the live music scene could be up and running again by June or July.
And now, here we are in November, with more Utahns than ever testing positive for — and dying from — COVID-19, and social gatherings again limited to no more than 10 people. Needless to say, the pandemic continues to be problematic for independent musicians.
Nick Passey, a web developer, graphic designer and independent musician (he plays both under his own name and in the punk band Folk Hogan), is hoping he can do a little bit to change that for some people.
Which is why he created Record Spread, a monthly album subscription service in which Passey plays middleman and facilitator between struggling musicians and the new-music-starved masses.
“I’ve obviously had to adjust what I’m doing a little bit this year, as have all of us. I’ve watched all of these bands, me included, just struggle to sell music,” Passey said. “And we’ve all kind of been patiently waiting around for maybe something to fix the situation. … Every band is struggling to move actual physical media.
“I just saw this as an opportunity to connect to everybody that’s spending a lot more time at home and not really able to go out and experience what they’re used to, and in the meantime, help out bands.”
At its most basic, Record Spread entails Passey buying up vinyl records at fair-market prices from artists he knows and likes, packaging the albums with extra merchandise like T-shirts, stickers and buttons, and then mailing it all off, with some help from his girlfriend.
For about $30 a month, subscribers get some new music and merch, plus the chance to contribute to the well-being of independent artists. And the musicians get a chance to move some stock they’ve been stuck with since concerts went away.
Passey only had about 15 people sign up the first month, in which he sent out “Death, Thou Shalt Die” by Woods Cross-based Jacob T. Skeen.
Not that Skeen was complaining. “That’s 15 more people than I would have sold records to,” he said.
Skeen’s batch of newly pressed albums arrived two days before everything shut down. He’d also booked a weeklong tour of Italy, plus appearances at the Durango Blues Train in Colorado, the Salt Lake City Jazz Festival, et cetera, et cetera, only for the pandemic to hit and wipe away his opportunities to sell some records to people seeing him play.
“It ruined everything. It’s been horrible,” said Skeen, a simulation technologist for Intermountain Healthcare by day, and a one-man band and sound engineer by night. “This was actually supposed to be a really big year for me.”
And so, when Skeen and Passey happened to run into one another recently, and the latter pitched the Record Spread idea to gauge the former’s interest, there was no reason not to give it a try.
After all, Passey has earned a certain cachet with many in the local music scene on account of his other side hustle, NP Buttons, in which he puts his graphic design talents to use by creating pins, buttons, magnets, T-shirts, what have you, for local bands. And beyond that, he’s offering to buy up records and taking on the work of mailing them out.
“I think anyone that has the courage to try anything right now, it’s a good thing,” Skeen said. “… [The market is] almost nonexistent right now, so almost anything will help.”
That’s how Passey looks at it.
He knows the struggle himself, having seen his own scheduled tour of the Netherlands, Germany and other parts of Europe fall apart. And given his longstanding ties to myriad other artists, he’d simply heard the same story too many times to not consider at least trying something.
Meanwhile, after 15 years of cultivating relationships within the industry, he figured he knew plenty of intriguing music that deserved a chance to get heard — resulting in him getting an eclectic bunch of artists on board with Record Spread.
“It could be anything that I personally would listen to, so it’s going to be some indie, it’s going to be some punk, it’s going to be some country, it’s going to be some rock,” Passey said. “It’s kind of a mixture, but the secret sauce is they’re all bands that I’ve actually listened to and vetted, records that I’m addicted to.”
Record Spread’s catalog of music is “gonna be Salt Lake-heavy, ‘cause that’s home base” (“Mansion of Heartbreak” by SLC Americana band The Hollering Pines is the second album of the month, and Josaleigh Pollett’s “No Woman Is the Sea” will follow), but Passey also has deals in place with outfits from Denver, Chicago and even Holland.
For now, he’s got ambitions of getting Record Spread up to a thousand or so subscribers, though he wouldn’t want to go much past that, because he’s “always been in love with the idea of a business that can fit in a filing cabinet.” He’s admittedly got a long way to go, and thus is keen to point out there are slight discounts available for signing up for three- and 12-month plans, as well as for ordering multiple copies of a record per month.
Of course, he’s also eager to get the live music scene revived, to the point that he sounded nearly wistful in recollecting Folk Hogan’s early days, when the band was a bit too raucous for prim-and-proper Utah County, where a few fog machines once triggered a visit from the fire department, and spray painting T-shirts in a parking lot prompted police to come investigate reports of — gasp! — graffiti.
The return of live music, of course, remains annoyingly impossible for now. So in the meantime, Passey’s focused on helping some fellow musicians get paid in other ways for their music.
“Basically,” he said, “I’m just tired of watching all of these hard-working bands not get their fair cut.”