January 22, 1999
"Chris Whitley's 'Dirt' Takes Root"
By Bradley Bambarger
NEW YORK -- Chris Whitley got back to basics with his album "Dirt Floor," and it has suited him in more ways than one.
Issued early last year, the disc features the New York singer/songwriter in a stripped-down solo setting, harking back to the days before his hit 1991 debut on Columbia, "Living With The Law," and two edgier, more involved efforts on Work/Sony. Moreover, Whitley chose to shepherd the elemental art of "Dirt Floor" with the aid of a small boutique indie label here, Messenger Records.
Whitley's core fans responded warmly to the intimacy of "Dirt Floor," which was recorded in one day and with one mike in a Vermont barn. Yet it was the pairing with Messenger that ultimately made 1998 a watershed year when it could have been a dry season.
Messenger, a tiny operation led by 25-year-old Brandon Kessler, has been tireless and resourceful in its efforts on behalf of "Dirt Floor." The label worked closely with Whitley's publisher and booking agent, as well as recruited his fans via incentive programs to help carry out elements of the marketing campaign.
With SoundScan figures and the label's numbers from non-reporting retailers combined, "Dirt Floor" has sold more than 18,000 copies since its release last March. In contrast, Whitley's last Work/Sony set, 1996's "Terra Incognita," has sold 16,000 copies, according to SoundScan -- with about 2,200 of that coming since the issue of "Dirt Floor." The album before "Terra Incognita," 1995's "Din Of Ecstasy," has sold about 28,000 copies, according to SoundScan, while "Living With The Law" has sold 150,000.
Kessler, who started Messenger in his Columbia University dorm room two years ago, is quick to credit those who have worked in league with Messenger to make "Dirt Floor" a grass-roots success: Warner/Chappell Music Publishing senior VP of creative services Kenny MacPherson and VP of promotion and marketing J.B. Brenner; booking agent Kevin Daly of Monterey Peninsula Artists; the label's U.S. distributor, New York-based Proper Sales & Distribution; Ken Helie, Whitley's tour manager/soundman; and Les Rayburn, founder of Whitley's World Wide Web site (www.phpad.com/whitley) and Dust Radio E-zine (which goes out to about 10,000 people).
Regarding the Internet's role in Messenger's promotion of "Dirt Floor," Kessler says, "We sent constant updates about each review that was coming out, every TV appearance, tour announcements. The E-zine and Web board -- where fans post messages to one another -- were instrumental in reaching Chris' fan base without having to take out thousands of dollars in advertising.
"And we were relentless in getting our Web site address on everything: posters, stickers, fliers, other Internet sites," Kessler adds. "We also did more than 10 cybercasts so fans all over could hear Chris' shows via our site. The Internet really served as our marketing hub."
Embracing Whitley fans is a key aspect of the "Dirt Floor" campaign, with Kessler counting more than 200 grass-roots marketing aides among those who helped spread the word.
"I've worked with just about every independent marketing company in the business, but nobody promotes an album like these fans have," Kessler says. "We were in constant contact with them and sent them promo copies of the disc, along with stickers, fliers, posters. They not only helped alert retail, they hooked us up with in-store performances and getting reviews written. We guided them, but the fans did a tremendous amount on their own initiative."
Although songs from "Dirt Floor" like "Scrapyard Lullaby" garnered airplay on such triple-A stations as KGSR Austin, Texas; KMTT Seattle; and KPIG Salinas, Calif., Kessler and company couldn't depend on commercial radio to take the album to heart. So retail was Messenger's focus, from mom-and-pop stores to chains. On the phones daily, Kessler called stores around the country to encourage in-store play. And Whitley played 20 in-stores from coast to coast.
One break that followed Messenger's efforts was Alanis Morissette's handpicking of Whitley as the opening act for the East Coast leg of her fall tour.
In addition, Whitley was on tour in North America and Europe for most of last year and is playing shows in Europe this month and next. In March, he opens for Jonny Lang on the young blues star's West Coast tour. Whitley is making plans to tour Australia in the summer, as Messenger is negotiating for a Down Under licensee. The label issued "Dirt Floor" in Europe via German indie Ulftone, selling 4,000 copies since the fall, according to Kessler.
The European version of "Dirt Floor" features three stellar bonus tracks: a cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" recorded in Whitley's home studio; a live version of "Alien," from "Terra Incognita," recorded at New York's Brownies (with Whitley's 11-year-old daughter, Trixie, stealing the show on backing vocals); and a live version of the title track from "Living With The Law," recorded at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
Whitley's roadwork and radio promotion for his album have benefited from financial support by Warner/Chappell -- which was impressed by Messenger's savvy and enthusiasm and has striven to take a complementary approach.
"Messenger and Chris have come to be a real success story -- and we have tried to be as proactive as possible in doing our part," MacPherson says. "It's all about having realistic expectations and the power of the personal touch, which is something you can never underestimate."
Messenger has just issued "Wood," the debut disc from New York power pop act Johnny Society (led by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Kenny Siegal). Whitley played dobro on two "Wood" tracks. He also recently shot four videos for "Dirt Floor" in one day with photographer Frank Ockenfels 3; the clips are to be collected on a video for European promotion and possible sale via Messenger.
Whitley has also been working up demos for his next record with drummer/producer Tony Mangurian (Luscious Jackson). After the sparse "Dirt Floor," Whitley has an eye toward making a more elaborate, "produced" follow-up. The pairing of contrasted albums in the future, one simpler and another more involved, is a method that inspires him.
"I know the market was smaller back in the '60s, but it was so much more organic the way Hendrix or Dylan or the Beatles made two or three records a year," Whitley says. "Now you're expected to work for two years on this big product, and if it doesn't take off in three months, you're screwed."
To be fair, Whitley says, Sony would have probably fared better with "Dirt Floor" than the more experimental "Terra Incognita." Still, his experience with Messenger has been eye-opening.
"With a big record company, it's simply a fact that some people are going to be working on your record just because it's their job," Whitley says.
"With Brandon, it has been pure enthusiasm. He isn't a rebel; he's just incredibly unjaded. To him, it's always, 'Who says I can't do this?' "