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How Fervor Records Built a New Business with Classic Arizona Music

Dave Hilker and Jeff Freundlich
Dave Hilker and Jeff Freundlich

One man installs a recording studio in a house or a storefront, starts an independent record label, signs a roster of artists, and boom, a music factory is born. It's the stuff that fills whole display cases in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Berry Gordy with Motown Records in Detroit. Sam Philips with Sun Records in Memphis. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton with Stax Records, also in Memphis. With minor variations, you could be telling the story of Chess or Atlantic or A&M Records--any number of labels that came, saw, conquered and was eventually gobbled up by a conglomerate looking to diversify its investment portfolio.

When you first hear about Fervor Records, a label founded by Dave Hilker that has its recording studios in two suburban houses in Sunnyslope, AZ, your mindset drifts to that simpler time when a record company could conquer the world through its old business model, consumer music sales.

"The unique thing about Fervor Records," Hilker says, grinning, "is that we don't make our money selling records. We make our money licensing music. Our artists make more on performance royalties than they would selling CDs."

Fayuca
Fayuca

Fervor artists own the physical rights to their CDs while Fervor does the digital distribution and takes a cut--still a small piece of their revenue pie compared to song placement and publishing royalties. "ITunes sales and streaming, it's not even a secondary market of ours. It's third, maybe. If that."

Even more unique among indie labels is Fervor's wildly diverse roster--for a conventional label, it would seem more than a little scattershot. Heritage artists--some dating back to the '20s--are listed side-by-side with futuristic electropop band Super Stereo, old school punk like Glass Heroes, blues and folk artist Hans Olson, and hip-hop artists like Tarik NuClothes.

"Most indies target a niche of music and go after that niche, sign bands within that genre. We're the exact opposite. If we only have one genre, our phone isn't going to ring very often to get music on a TV show. And it's not fair to the artist if we have 20 artists on our label doing the same stuff. Every genre is valid for what we do."

On the day we visited, Fervor Records co-owner Jeff Freundlich fielded a call seeking suitable music for The Bridge, a crime drama on FX. "It takes place on the border, so they're using a lot of country, reggaeton, and Latin music," Freundlich says.

"If someone goes into a bar, it's usually dance music, and if there's a radio in a pickup truck it's country music. In a lot of ways, music is used to stereotype a scene. And 99 percent of the time, when the music search comes in, it's at the 11th hour. But it's a good problem to have."

Among Fervor's high profile TV placements of late was AMC's Mad Men, where it placed 11 songs from the likes of such obscure '60s acts as The Fly Bi-Nights, The Leaves of Grass, and the Steam Machine.

 

Valley rock veteran Bruce Connole's music with legendary band The Jetzons can be heard on shows like How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), How I Met Your Mother, Fairly Legal, Parks and Recreation, and Parenthood, while you can hear one of his Suicide Kings tracks on an episode of the TNT-resuscitated Dallas.

"David and Jeff, they're both great guys," Connole says. "They're intelligent, hard working, and they actually enjoy music. The fact that the office and studio are both located in Sunnyslope is a definite plus for me. Sunnyslope sleaze has never received the attention it deserves."

Hilker's band The 1933 were contemporaries with The Jetzons and other bands like Blue Shoes and the ASS, who most Phoenicians around in the '80s figured to be THE AZ band that would break out nationally. It's a public service that their long-out-of-print records have been made available digitally. That they are getting attention nationally and earning some shekels years after their sell-by date is almost corrective history.

Sometimes Fervor's artists catch on--20 years late--under a pseudonym.
Sometimes Fervor's artists catch on--20 years late--under a pseudonym.
YouTube

"We're a boutique and we like that," adds Hilker. "We're not a clearinghouse of music. Since we built our catalog organically, we know what's in it. Where there are companies that will relentlessly sign everything and then rely on a search engine to figure out what they have. Not only is that not a lot of fun but also it doesn't really serve the client very well.

"What we really want to do is perpetuate legacies from artists from Arizona," he continues. "We're fortunate to have stuff that Duane Eddy is on, and Wayne Newton. We have the song that got Wayne Newton his deal with Capitol Records when he was 12 years old, which is awesome. The whole Duane Eddy thing started here. Phil Spector shadowed Lee Hazelwood at Audio Recorders in Phoenix. It's an amazing story. And the whole Mill Ave thing, that's a sound that identifies an era, so we pick music that's true to the era."

On Hilker's mixing desk for review are a stack of Doug Hopkins two-track reels and cassettes, pre-Gin Blossoms material that you had to be there to know even exists.

"The 10 O'Clock Scholars, The Psalms... Doug has this legacy. A great body of work. And that's a story we would want to tell."

So maybe you'll hear a Psalms song in an HBO series, or a movie in wide release. But for someone still alive who's never sold more than a few thousand records, a placement like that could be a real game changer.

"The first cut I got placed was in the Jack Nicholson film As Good as it Gets," Hilker recalls with fondness. "It changed my life. You can't even hear the song, and nine months later I got a royalty check. And I still do every quarter. [I said] 'I gotta figure out how to keep doing this. This is awesome.'"

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