Henry Stone in The Music Retailer (trade publication) June 1976
Independent labels and independent distributors wax and wane in strength. And according to Henry Stone, both are on a strong upswing today. Stone is President of Hialeah’s Tone Distributors, long a factor in the Florida market, and he also heads TK Productions, one of the hottest R&B disco labels in the country. In the following interview he describes how both operations are benefitting from the independent resurgence.
“I’ve been in the record business for 30 years and I’ve seen the industry go through a lot of changes in that time. One of the last big swings came four or five years back when the majors began to expand their branches and took over the selling of many smaller labels. This didn’t help the independent distributors’ business much. Companies like Tone began hurting. It was in this period when I really began concentrating on TK Productions.
TK wasn’t a new thing for me. I’ve always had a little studio in my hip pocket. Over the years we’ve been able to come out with a “Mashed Potatoes” hit, and who can match our experience. So when independent distribution became soft, we worked hard on breaking the TK label. And right now I would guess it is the third largest independent label in the country in terms of sales.
“TK had to be sold through independent distributors and I had a tremendous advantage in this. I know this business and its problems as well as anyone. When something came up, I could identify it immediately and work to straighten things out. We call ourselves ‘The lndependent’s Independent.’ That’s a title we are proud of.
“The distributors who survived the coming of branches came out stronger than ever before. When the Aristas, Private Stocks, 20th Centuries and TKs, began appearing these companies were in a good position to jump into the market and make profits. I have a lot of respect for branches. But when it comes to selling know- how, you can’t match the independent distributor.. The Milt Salstones (MS Distributor) and the Schwartz’s (Wash., D.C.) have been around a long time. They are heavy people. A label they handle doesn’t get caught up in the big shuffle or computerized into oblivion.
”Our specialty has always been R&B and most of the 25 labels Tone distributes today are in that field. In the past three decades I would say that I have sold numbers on every black record that has been released-from Stax, Motown, whoever-either in Florida or as a trans shipper. The sales growth of our own TK Productions wasn’t lucky by any means.
“When we started making a strong commitment to building the label, we began by taking on the best R&B writers and producers we could find. Then we got the acts and tried to match them up. Today we’re reaching out a bit for established acts, but the emphasis of the label continues to be on building our own talent. Our people have been working and fighting together to create the ‘TK Miami Sound’ and they seem to be the best source of new talent to numbers on every black record keep it going. It’s like an expanding family.
“TK music wasn’t consciously designed to be disco music. We tried to cut hit R&B records and they turned out to have a driving beat, a tremendous dance sound and a strong message which turned on people at the discos. It was fortunate that this music evolved just when the disco phenomenon was taking off. And because of the rapport we’ve worked out with black one-stops, radio and retailers over the years, we were in a perfect position to get feedback on the music and to be able to follow it up when it began to break.
“When you talk about discos, you’re talking about a new way to promote records. It’s not the only way to break them, however. I can name a lot of records that were number one in discos last year and which ended up selling only a few thousand copies. The real importance of discos is that they can help you break on radio, which leads to your real sales. There are maybe 50,000 discos of one kind or another now operating in the country. We service about 300 of the top ones with new product to help get a feel. “TK has now established itself as a strong independent label and we are planning to expand in many directions, to eventually get into every part of the black music market. We’re screening new artists who can work with our present sound. We’re also going into jazz and gospel. These areas are growing fast And with jazz especially, the market is open- ended. A Grover Washington Jr. sells a half a million copies of an album and it tells you something. “The prospects for independent labels and independent distributors to handle them look very good
As a distributor in the Alan Freed days, I was selling 98 percent of all the chart music in Florida. Then came the majors opening branches and it got to a point for a while where I was handling only three of the top 100 titles. Today, we’re selling about 40 percent of the chart music and I expect that to rise to about 50 percent by the end of the year. A 50-50 break between independents and majors, on both the label and distributing level, is the way I’d like to see the business be.”