Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank.
George Drake Jr. I’m George Drake Jr. and this is Everything Sounds
Craig Shank In the last show, we were talking about sounds of the past that were slowly becoming antiquated or just simply dying out, but are now being preserved in a different form.
George Drake Jr. The sounds we’ll be talking about today are actually music. Music from the past that was largely ignored in its time, but is now been given a second chance thanks to a small, but dedicated group operating out of a rather unassuming-looking house in Chicago.
Craig Shank The Numero Group finds, preserves, and reissues sounds and stories of artists and record labels from the past before they fade away forever.
George Drake Jr. For-ev-er…you get the reference, Craig? You get it? for-ev-er…
Craig Shank Is that The Sandlot?
George Drake Jr. Yeah. It is.
Craig Shank Just…let’s go.
Ken Shipley Alright, let’s hit it.
George Drake Jr. We spoke to Ken Shipley, one of the founders of Numero.
Craig Shank He didn’t just found the label and call it a day. He does a lot more.
Ken Shipley I don’t do one thing as much as I do many things. I do A&R or accounting, intern direction…
George Drake Jr. Seriously, he does just about everything he can.
Ken Shipley …creative director, creative design…
Craig Shank Ken thinks that the best people at a record company can pretty much do anything, and he lives up to that himself.
Ken Shipley Having worked and owned several different record companies, I can tell you that the best way to run one is to be able to run every part of it.
George Drake Jr. The concept of Numero came from a number of places. At the time, Ken was working in the A&R department at Rykodisc while also working on a 45-inch series for the label.
Ken Shipley …and we’d been doing it all under the guise of sort of how could we create a demo aisle. Things that we were very curious to see how they performed, but had no real way to, you know gauge how a band might succeed or not succeed. I convinced my bosses that this was something that was worthwhile.
George Drake Jr. And at that same time, some gears were turning in his head.
Ken Shipley And I made ten records in that line and I always loved the name Numero because I always liked the idea of a numbered series of records and that was inspired by a company called Actuel, which is a French free jazz label that all of their records are numbered. I like the uniformity of things like Verve’s orange spines and I wanted to be able to take that and transpose it on to works that I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to stay in the catalog field at Ryko.
Craig Shank Then it’s almost like fate intervened. After he lost his job at Rykodisc, he decided to take a little bit of his previous work with him.
Ken Shipley I pretty much started Numero off of the back of the work that I had done over the course…the two years that I worked at Rykodisc managing to steal a product away from the jaws of defeat that was about to go into Ryko and it was the Numero two, which is Antena: Camino del Sol.
Craig Shank He approached the band and explained that he was still interested in working with them, but he had to figure something else out first.
Ken Shipley That record was something I had worked on at Ryko and brought to the hilt and then all of a sudden I lost my job and I went back to the band and I was like, “Don’t sign the contract. Just don’t. We’ll find another way.”
George Drake Jr. That’s when fate really came into play.
Ken Shipley One night I bumped into Thom Lunt at the grocery store and we’d known each other from when I’d worked in record retail and he’d just gotten back from Poland and was unemployed and looking to do something and I had just been laid off at Rykodisc and I was looking to do something. And I’d met Rob Sevier right around the same time at a bar and we connected about a number of different things, you know, including this idea he had for series of records….a record called “Eccentric Soul.”
Craig Shank Which would later become Numero’s first release and the beginning of their “Eccentric Soul” series.
George Drake Jr. So, the team was set up. It was Ken, along with Tom Lunt and Rob Severe. The three of them began The Numero Group in 2003.
Ken Shipley Between Eccentric Soul and Antena and three guys with a little bit of passion we managed to foster a business plan and a couple of unique titles that we knew we wanted to execute, you know, with very little money we started the company out of a fourth floor walk-up on Chicago’s North Side.
Craig Shank The Numero Group isn’t just an average record label. Instead of finding new artists and cultivating their careers, Numero digs in the past and releases music from artists and labels that are largely unknown or forgotten.
George Drake Jr. And that’s what really sets them apart. The lengths they go to find out about the music they want to release is incredible. Just think about it. They’re trying to track down information that only exists in handwritten notes, memos, old publications, and the memories of those who took part in the process.
Ken Shipley A Serious amount of labor by myself and Rob Sevier, Rob Sevier is the head of A & R over here and he is vetting projects constantly, but I’m also doing the same thing and it’s about, you know, watching CollectorsFrenzy auction ends or, you know, hearing something on somebody’s, you know, mixtape, or there’s just so many different ways music populates your brain and all of a sudden you hear one thing and you you’re like, “Well, could that be something more?” And, you know, it’s like a sweater. You start pulling on a thread and then you end up with a pile of yarn and all of a sudden you rebuild the sweater into what you want it to be.
Craig Shank Another thing that sets them apart is that each of the owners plays a role in every release. If one of them has an idea for a new album, they all work together to try to make something unique.
Ken Shipley And so like, things like Gospel Funk, that was…Rob really wanted to do a gospel comp. Well, what’s unique about this? Well, all of the sounds sound like this or Kid Soul was, you know, we wanted to do from the very start, we wanted to do a record of kid performers. How do we find enough of these kid performers to sort of tell this alternative Jackson 5 history?
George Drake Jr. Not only do they construct the concept, but they’re also their own design team. While Tom handles most of the design, Ken and Rob each come forward with their own ideas.
Ken Shipley Records come together in the collective brain, you know. Somebody might have an idea for one thing, like Rob was…worked really hard on getting this Medusa record into the fold. Then I came in and said, “Let’s do this velvet cover and we’ll do these…this embossed gold and embossed blood-gold.” You know, the cover sort of erupted out of listening to music, talking about things, and letting the ideas develop in an actual course.
Craig Shank During our visit to the Numero Group, Ken explained that although the label’s audience is not as large as a major record label’s, their market isn’t all that different than a major label’s, it’s just…smaller.
Ken Shipley Top 40 is just as much of a niche as what Numero does. It just happened to have a larger audience, but if you think about the amount of people who actually listen to Rhianna, Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen, it’s, you know, a very small percentage of the population actually just listens to that.
George Drake Jr. He went on to say that if a major label record sells three hundred thousand copies in its first week, yes, that is a lot of copies in the seven day period. However, 300,000 that’s still a tiny portion of the population.
Ken Shipley 300,000 people is nothing. That’s a niche.
George Drake Jr. Numero’s just doing it differently.
Ken Shipley So Numero’s spot is very niche-oriented and we recognize that there are different listeners that are interested in different things. There’s always going to be people interested in French free jazz, there’s always going to be people who are interested in rare R&B…
Craig Shank Guilty.
Ken Shipley …and people who are interested in, you know, contemporary coffee-house folk music…
George Drake Jr. Also guilty.
Ken Shipley These audiences exist and, you know, to not do these things just in spite of the fact that your audience might be smaller than another is, well, I mean, your heart never really was in it, then.
Craig Shank Remember when Ken said this…?
Ken Shipley …I always liked the idea of a numbered series of records…
Craig Shank Well, we wondered if Numero’s numbered releases led some people to purchasing their music solely for the purpose of complete their catalog.
Ken Shipley I own 70% of the Actuel catalog…
George Drake Jr. That’s the French label he mentioned earlier.
Ken Shipley …and I have probably listened to less than 30% of it. So, you know, when you start looking at those numbers and you start realizing that there is a fetishist marketplace out there of people who just want to sort of make sure that the numbers all line up, that’s something that we’re extremely aware of.
George Drake Jr. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. They’ll sit there and collect dust, sure, but what’s important is that they’re always there to listen to.
Ken Shipley …but, I also like to think of it as something that people will return to in the future, come back to and say like, “I never really gave the Boddie Recording Company a thorough listen,” and they’ll discover something on there. Our records are in print for years, you know, nothing goes out of print. Well, very few things go out of print and because they don’t go out of print there’s always the chance for them to be discovered by somebody at some point in time.
Craig Shank The Numero Group doesn’t just find music they plan on releasing. They purchase music they think is valuable because, who knows, maybe they’ll need it in the future.
Ken Shipley We’ve just bought an archive of master tapes that we have no plans to do anything with. We spent a lot of money to buy those master tapes mostly because we wanted to catalogue them and realized that at some point in time, somebody’s going to come out of the woodwork and we’re gonna be like, “We actually have that.” You’re looking for this very specific soul master tape and we have that master tape because we had the foresight to buy it.
Craig Shank Ken thinks that the work that Numero is doing is much more than simply operating as a record label. Numero is also an active archive.
Ken Shipley It’s a massive archive of a lot of different things. I mean, from the photo archive that we maintain, to the ephemera archive, to the master tape library, there are so many things here that, you know, have use beyond just the fact of making records. We’re saving music.
Craig Shank They’re saving music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the label is playing god. Ken sees it a bit differently.
Ken Shipley Just recognizing that there is a history that is on the cusp of being lost and because it’s on the cusp of being lost and nobody is paying attention to the idea that it could be lost that, you know, somebody has to step in and actually do something about it.
George Drake Jr. He gave us a great example of how to describe what Numero is doing. Remember?
Craig Shank Oh yeah. The painting example!
George Drake Jr. Yeah. So, he watched this documentary on Afghanistan and how before the Taliban took over…
Ken Shipley …there were these people who worked at the National Gallery of Afghanistan or whatever the equivalent of that is, and they had these paintings that they knew that once the Islamist kind of regime took over that the paintings would be destroyed, these works of art.
George Drake Jr. So, they did something extreme, but at the same time ingenious. They painted over all of the paintings…
Ken Shipley …hundreds of paintings….
George Drake Jr …with paint they knew they could remove later when things got better.
Ken Shipley In a lot of ways, I think what we’re doing is a very similar thing. We’re recognizing that something needs to be saved and nobody else is actually paying attention and wants to do the work, and so we’re just getting in there and saying, “Look, we need to save this.” And in some regard or another, it has to be saved.
Craig Shank Ken is right. Numero is more than a record label. It’s kind of like a record label, music hospital, and archive all rolled into one. And while The Numero Group seems to be the main force behind releasing older music in a unique way, we wondered how important he thought the work they were doing was.
Ken Shipley I mean, it may not be. I’d like to think it is, but it’s just nine, ten people everyday coming into an office that’s being driven by an economic machine that consumers are putting their faith into. I mean, it only really has value for the people that are listening. If you’re not listening, then it doesn’t have any value to you, but I’d like to think that hopefully in the future that people look back the way we look at someone like Moe Asch from Folkways and think, “Thank god that guy was there to give Woody Guthrie twenty dollars when he needed it to, you know, write these songs or record these songs.” You know, if long after I’m dead there’s people writing books about what Numero does, then I guess we’ve succeeded. If not, you know, that’s just…add to all the f******* rubble.
Craig Shank The music on today’s show was all used with the permission of the Numero Group. You can out more about the Numero group, their releases, and which songs we featured at our website, everything sounds dot org.
George Drake Jr. Everything Sounds is an independent production. If you enjoy the show, thank you, and consider giving your support by becoming an “Everything Sounds” Audophile or writing a review on iTunes.
Craig Shank We’ve got links and information to help with that and you can also find out where and how to listen to the show at our website. One more time, it’s everything sounds dot org
George Drake Jr. Until next time, I’m George Drake Jr.
Craig Shank …and I’m Craig Shank. This is Everything Sounds.