Bobsled Builds Momentum
One of the most promising new labels on the Chicago scene isn’t in Chicago–it’s in Aurora. Bobsled Records, the fledgling pop imprint run by former tennis instructor Bob Salerno, has a roster that includes groups based in England and Germany as well as the local chapter of the Nikki Sudden gang, the Chamber Strings. Salerno, who turns 30 next week, numbers the five acts he’s signed as his five favorite contemporary artists, and says he thinks there’s no reason that they can’t sell as many records as the Backstreet Boys or Insane Clown Posse. “I’m told the way I think is very idealistic, but I really believe it’s possible,” he says. At this point, however, he’s got a long way to go: the most successful of his three full-length releases has sold only about 6,000 copies.
Though his taste now leans toward guitar pop, Salerno’s interest in music began when he discovered Kiss in the 70s. At age seven, he begged his mother to buy him his first record. “She was going out to run some errands and she said that if I wrote the name of it down she would get it for me,” he says. “I wrote down ‘Kiss Alive II.’ She came back and I was really excited, yelling, ‘You got it! You got it!’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I saw that record cover. There’s no way on earth that record’s coming into my house. Here, I got you this instead.'” She handed him Barry Manilow Live. “Needless to say, Kiss Alive II was the second record I got.”
Salerno played in bands all through high school and college, but he never had any intention of working in the music industry. He grew up in Aurora and spent two years at Oklahoma State on a partial tennis scholarship. By his second year a teenage romance was headed toward marriage–he met his wife, Amy, on a tennis trip to New Orleans when he was 12 and fell for her seven years later when she came to Aurora for his sister’s wedding–and Salerno decided that he didn’t need college to play tennis. He and Amy wed and had a son; he struggled through some pro tournaments and earned a living teaching the sport at various racquet and country clubs. “In order to make decent money you have to teach at country clubs, and that forced me to be around all of these people I didn’t want to associate with,” he says. “That’s when I knew that I had to get out of it.”
As his interest in the sport waned, he turned increasingly to music. Jim Powers, founder of Chicago’s Minty Fresh label, was an old friend–his family lived across the street from Salerno’s in Aurora–and he often discussed music with him. Powers advised him that it was a risky business for a family man: by the summer of 1995 Salerno’s second son was on the way, and Amy was splitting her time between school, waitressing, and child rearing. But with her support, Salerno approached Powers about a job. “I took a pay cut of about 75 percent. What I was making per month was only $100 more than my mortgage.”
He started out filing, mailing, and taking out the Minty Fresh garbage, but eventually he moved into radio promotion. After two years he moved on to a radio job at the now-defunct major label Zoo Records, where Powers had previously worked. There, soliciting airplay for Matthew Sweet and Tool, he learned how it was done in the big leagues, and he didn’t much like it. “When I left Minty Fresh…I had no idea how awful it really was,” he says. “It’s a business, and music is just a commodity to radio. During my first day at Zoo I introduced myself to a sales rep and I asked her what kind of music she liked, and she said, ‘You know, I really don’t like music.'”
He was also demoralized by the way major labels push certain records while leaving others to stall out. “I couldn’t understand why everything wasn’t a priority. Why would you sign the band in the first place? Zoo actually approached me to do A and R for them, but I couldn’t sign anyone to a label that I didn’t want to be at, in good conscience.” By the time Zoo folded in the fall of 1997, Salerno was laying plans for Bobsled with silent partner Jeff Slay, another old friend, who worked for his family’s trucking and shipping business in Saint Louis.
The label’s first release was a seven-inch single by Adventures in Stereo, a Beach Boys-inspired project of former Primal Scream member James Beattie, but Bobsled didn’t become a full-time endeavor till last July. Until then Salerno also did radio promotion for Herb Alpert’s Interscope-distributed Almo Sounds imprint. Last year Bobsled released full-length albums by Adventures in Stereo and kitschy multinational pomo popsters Stereo Total. In February he reissued the debut album by the Chamber Strings, and in August he’ll release a terrific new album by Velvet Crush, produced by Matthew Sweet. Salerno himself is currently producing the debut album by Dean Fertita, a Detroit unknown he met behind the counter of a record store; it’s due in January. Salerno says only two of Bobsled’s records have broken even so far, though he declines to say which. He’s using three-album contracts that provide a fairly standard 13 percent royalty rate for the artist, but he says the contracts stipulate a greater rate as the records sell more copies. But so far no one’s making much money, and Slay’s providing the capital to keep the business running in the meantime.
Still, like Powers when he started Minty Fresh, Salerno has significantly more experience than the average indie upstart, and given that he plans to keep his roster at a manageable five acts for the time being, it’s not unlikely that some of his records could attain the five- and six-digit numbers that bigger records at labels like Matador or Touch and Go occasionally reach. Velvet Crush’s last major-label effort, Teenage Symphonies to God, sold some 50,000 copies worldwide.
Salerno insists that he can do even better, especially if he concentrates on his area of expertise–radio. Although at the moment his only assistant is an intern, he hopes to have at least three full-time employees a year from now, including one full-time radio promoter. “I think one of the reasons why a lot of indie records aren’t popular is that a lot of the labels don’t want to deal with the process of getting them on the commercial radio,” he says. “They’re more interested in creating their own niche. But I do believe that eventually some of my releases will be gold and platinum records.”
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gary Leonard.