Razor & Tie Entertainment has a monster on its hands. It’s no Godzilla, but it sure is cutting a wide sales swath.
The New York-based record label has tapped into the nostalgia of twentysomethings with, of all things, a two-CD package called “Monsters of Rock,” a salute to cheesy 1980s hair-rock bands.
Available through one of Razor & Tie’s trademark direct-response TV commercials and also in record stores, “Monsters of Rock” is at No. 123 and climbing this week on Billboard’s pop chart and is well on its way to becoming the 8-year-old company’s biggest seller, eclipsing its 1995 release “Living in the ’90s.”
And to think they’re doing it with the likes of Great White, Ratt, Poison, Warrant and Winger.
“We were thinking of doing this two years ago,” co-founder Cliff Chenfeld said recently from the label’s burgeoning offices on Sullivan Street in the Village, “and we thought it was too early, because people were still in the midst of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and were serious about their music. There was enough distance between when the stuff was out and where we are now that people could look back fondly on it with a sense of humor, as opposed to ‘Thank god, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ killed off all these bands.’ People went through that phase.
“Four or five years later since Nirvana started and 10 years since this music came out, everybody who was into that music in ’88 is now 26 and they’re going, ‘These are pretty fun pop songs and they remind me of when I was a kid.’ It’s pretty goofy and guilty-pleasure stuff. It’s the same way people our age go back and get a kick out of disco or the Carpenters.”
Chenfeld and partner Craig Balsam probably don’t have a Cinderella, Britny Fox or White Lion album among them, but Chenfeld says the much-maligned hard rock of the 1980s has its merits.
“You strip down the poofed-up hair and it’s pretty good pop music,” said Chenfeld, who suddenly begins pounding on his desk and sings “She’s my cherry pie …”
“It’s pretty catchy,” he said. “I’m going to say something, and I really believe this, I’d rather listen to (Warrant’s) ‘Cherry Pie’ than Pearl Jam. I’m tired of ‘Ummmmm.’ I kinda like ‘Cherry Pie.’ “
Okay, but who knew “Monsters of Rock” would take off so quickly?
“When we do these things, we always think there’s potential,” Balsam said, “but we’re never sure how much, with few exceptions. We knew ‘Living in the ’90s’ was going to be big. This one, we thought was going to be good, but we didn’t think it was going to be unbelievable. That’s part of the fun of being in this business.”
And therein lies the reason these two former corporate lawyers traded in their suits and ties for the buttoned-down music reissues world in 1990. They wanted to do something creatively challenging and, well, fun.
Sensing that baby boomers would eventually wax sentimental about the Me Decade, Chenfeld and Balsam teamed their legal minds and devised a plan: selling hits compilations on television. The first release, “Those Fabulous ’70s,” and its accompanying ’70s Preservation Society movement was about as fun as it gets.
“It made sense to us,” Chenfeld said. “We thought the ’70s thing would be happening, because people go through these nostalgia cycles. I was getting into my 30s and thought people my age would get nostalgic and they’re starting to run the media outlets so they’re probably going to start jamming culture down everybody’s throats and all of a sudden we’re going to miss ‘The Brady Bunch.’
“We also thought a lot of the people who might buy these records perhaps weren’t going into record stores anymore. When we looked at TV, all we saw was Roger Whittaker and Slim Whitman. It was very pragmatic to start ourselves on TV.”
Even though they knew nothing about distribution or licensing deals, their legal training came in handy, Balsam said.
“You learn how to pay attention to detail as a lawyer, which is something that for people who run businesses don’t necessarily know how to do or they have to learn how to do it,” he said. “We really learned the whole business from the bottom up. We like to tell people that we did our own legal work and our own deliveries the first two years.”
All they knew was, there was no turning back, Chenfeld said.
“We both didn’t like being lawyers,” he said, “and we watched people who liked doing what they were doing. We’re both pretty happy, optimistic people, but we’d sit there and go, ‘Man, I really don’t like what we’re doing everyday.’ The good thing about the TV business, you put out a record, you run a spot on TV, the next morning you know whether it worked or not. We made a TV commercial really cheap; we wrote it ourselves, produced it ourselves, put the thing on, and the next morning, we had 110 orders and we’re like, ‘Hey! That works. Let’s try a little more.’ “
They did. “Those Fabulous ’70s” begat “Disco Fever,” followed by a series of “totally awesome” ’80s collections, a hot-selling “Motown Love” and “Living in the ’90s” and its sister release, ” ’90s Style.” They have four gold albums to their credit.
Then they went a step further, creating a retail label. They signed some familiar names – Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, 38 Special, Michael Stanley – and a few promising newcomers – Dar Williams, Cledus T. Judd. Veteran artists Francis Dunnery and Fred Eaglesmith also call Razor & Tie home.
They’re far from done. A “Monsters” follow-up, “Monster Ballads,” is in the works.
And what do they see as the next wave for nostalgia? Chenfeld jokingly says they’re considering “The Grunge Album.”
“Somebody’ll interview us years from now,” he said, “and we’ll be talking about how crappy pop music is today and ‘remember when there were artists with integrity like Pearl Jam and Nirvana?’ We’ll call it ‘The Forgotten Flannel Bands of the Mid-’90s.’ “
BWF (before we forget): For a smooth, close shave, visit Razor & Tie on the Web @ www.razorandtie.com.