Distribution Life Scratch

Distribution Life Scratch
Name: Scratch Distribution
Date of Birth: 1994
Number of Distributed Labels/Titles to Date: Over a thousand labels/64,065 titles
Biggest Sellers: The New Pornographers Mass Romantic
Current Releases: Thor Keep The Dogs Away 30th Anniversary Edition
Online: www.scratchrecords.com

Facing a teetering record business in constant flux or else completely collapsing, Keith Parry is sticking with his original vision for Scratch, the Vancouver-based retailer, label, and distributor he founded 21 years ago and now runs with a small staff. Overseeing some 300 labels, including Ecstatic Peace, Mint, and Upper Class, Scratch promotes an eclectic array of music while traversing the digital age with an air of defiance and commitment to traditional music formats.

"Stylistically we’ve always supported obscure and non-mainstream artists; Scratch has always been a champion of the underdog,” Parry explains proudly. "Beyond that though, we’ve established ourselves as perhaps the largest distributor of vinyl in Canada. Even through the ’90s and first part of this decade, we never turned our back on the vinyl format. We’ve always carried records and encouraged stores that a grassroots specialty market for vinyl will always exist. And we were right.”

Bolstered by locals, the Scratch store became a clubhouse for serious, obscure music aficionados in the early ’90s. More than a business opportunity, Parry viewed this heightened obsession with subversive sounds as a measure of kinship between outcast communities. "It dawned on me that, if we had such a strong scene in Vancouver, surely there must be other stores across Canada interested in the same outsider music we were specializing in. So we put together a unique catalogue to spread the word, expanding our role as cultural ambassadors beyond our own city.”

From Parry’s perspective, when Scratch entered the fray in 1994, music distribution channels were somewhat "conservative,” especially compared to more accepting international retailers. Determined to make a difference here, Parry maintained his rationale for building upon his retail store and boutique music imprint.

"The initial goal was to expand the awareness and presence of the Scratch label and unusual music with big and small retailers across Canada. To that end we were definitely successful but, as distribution became a more serious proposition, that extended goal became to do it well, take it more seriously, and diversify musically in order to expand our store client base and actually make a living doing it.”

Beyond championing vinyl, Scratch is an innovative business, examining client issues and coming up with solutions themselves. Take the New Pornographers’ 2000 album Mass Romantic, one of the highest-selling albums in the Mint Records catalogue, for example. That release’s surprising success deeply impacted Mint, while spurring a transition for Scratch. "We expanded our distribution to export in the U.S., Europe, and Japan,” Parry recalls. "Before the New Pornographers were licensed to Matador in the States, Mint didn’t have strong distribution in the U.S. to reach indie stores desperate to carry Mass Romantic. So Scratch filled a need and sold dozens of thousands of copies of the album outside of Canada.”

Parry speaks of such Scratch milestones with refreshing, familial joy for his clients and artists. "I’m probably most proud of the Black Mountain, Pink Mountaintops, and Jerk With a Bomb family of releases we’ve been involved with,” he says. "We discovered and supported Steve McBean and Jerk With a Bomb years ago and nobody cared. That guy has been playing in tiny bands for over 20 years and never threw in the towel. It’s proof of some sort of God that they’re doing so well now.”

That same spirit of confident perseverance guides the Scratch ship through the tumultuous waters of file-sharing and altered distribution methods. For his part, Parry blames greedy corporations for misreading the digital revolution. "Why on earth should CDs sell for $19.99 or more? They cost a dollar to make! Technologies change, as do people’s habits in how they transport music. Had CDs been more fairly priced years ago, perhaps less damage would have occurred.

"It’s a complex issue, but no one is arguing that downloads sound better, because they don’t,” Parry reasons. "MP3s sound like shit, but most people don’t care. I still listen to cassettes, so I can’t argue against files, but physical distribution and music retail is really tough right now. We have to keep costs in line with a realistic expectation of what we can actually sell. Everyone has to diversify and tighten their belts.” Vish Khanna