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. 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 eventually were gobbled up by conglomerates looking to diversify their investment portfolios.
When you first hear about Fervor Records, a label founded by Dave Hilker that has its recording studios in two suburban houses in Sunnyslope, your mindset drifts to that simpler time when a record company could conquer the world through the industry's 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."
In 2002, Hilker and his partners, John Costello and Jeff Freundlich, shifted their gaze toward publishing while the music industry was still focused on the ever-fickle and easily corrupted consumer. When big labels admitted they no longer could sell anywhere near the units they once moved, they struck 360 deals with big-name artists, taking a cut of the merch and ticket sales from live shows. Fervor didn't go in that direction.
"One of our artists, [local reggae-punk-Latin band] Fayuca, plays 200 dates a year, and if you buy a Fayuca CD at any show, they get 100 percent of that," says Hilker. "I don't want to sabotage that merch revenue stream, cause that's gonna help them be on the road, keep their business going."
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 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 Phoenicians 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 I Met Your Mother, while you can hear one of his Suicide Kings tracks on 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 of The Jetzons and bands such as 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 its long out-of-print records have been made available digitally. That the bands are getting attention nationally and earning some shekels years after their sell-by dates is almost corrective history.
When it was founded in 1990, Fervor operated like a more typical record label — albeit it one with an altruistic streak, doing various artist compilations for St. Mary's Food Bank and Central AZ Services, trying to do something positive in the community.
"Dave was doing some really creative things promoting local artists no one else was doing," says Freundlich. "There really weren't AZ compilation records outside of what radio stations were doing, so the idea of bringing all these Arizona artists together — it might seem so obvious now, but it wasn't back in the day."
The Fervor imprint lay dormant in the late '90s and early '00s; meanwhile, Hilker and his songwriting partner, John Costello, were placing hip-hop in a lot of television shows, because their tracks were sample-free and therefore easy to license. When Freundlich joined the pair in 2002, they realized they already had a catalog of music for film and TV licensing between them, which they named Wild Whirled Music after Hilker and Costello's recording studio.
Says Freundlich, "We had to reactivate the label because we'd get music on a show like One Tree Hill, and literally the next day we'd have 100 e-mails — I don't even know how they found us and they'd say, 'Where can I buy a copy of this song?'"
Fervor was lucky to get in ahead of the curve in 2002, when there weren't a lot of people doing indie local music licensing, and build a lot of solid relationships in the industry.
Four years ago, MTV came to Fervor and asked them to be their eyes and ears in Phoenix, and that's when they signed Super Stereo, which came to rest in the Top Five of MTVu.com for 35 weeks. The band scored right out of the box on NBC's Parks and Recreation, earning a 40-second vocal placement. Super Stereo also has had a lot of non-vocal placements on Keeping Up with The Kardashians. "That show is wall-to-wall music," says Freundlich. "But Kim Kardashian is the star of that show, not Super Stereo."
"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.
"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.'"