The conversation about how the Information Age has changed the music industry has been had. Anyone who consumes music knows that digital downloads are the new norm. And everyone even slightly interested in the industry knows that this format has unleashed a generation of independent artists who now rely on the Internet and their own pluck to deliver their music to audiences instead of corporate record labels.
So now that the music world is done discussing (yet still, at times, freaking out over) these profound changes to their industry, it's back to business as not-so-usual. Part of that new normal is a first-time demand to serve the needs of successful bands that no longer have record labels running the show. Among those is merchandise distribution.
"When the label system sort of collapsed a bit, bands were trying to reach their fans directly," says Sean Hurley of Ann Arbor's new merchandising logistics startup, Whiplash
. "Selling digitally is how you get the music out there, but if you have shirts or posters, how do you get out those things that are value added that fans do want?"
It's a valid question. After all, there's only so much income to be made by stationing a cute merch girl behind a table of t-shirts in the corner of The Blind Pig. Besides that, Hurley says, merchandise logistics isn't always high on a musician's lists of preferences or skills.
"People in bands don't want to think about packing a poster - or a hundred posters, and shipping them out," he says.
That is the problem to which Whiplash provides a solution. Though the company doesn't exclusively service bands, but all "small brands," the unique needs of the changing music industry are inextricably tied to Whiplash's roots.
Hurley, in fact, was in the music biz first. When living in Seattle he became friends with the band Modest Mouse
before serving as their tour manager. His relationship with the band continued after he moved back to his home state of Michigan. Though he decided to remain here permanently, he was again tapped by Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock to help with the online store for his label, Glacial Pace Recordings
"I had a relationship with James Marks," says Hurley, "because we had been doing prints of Modest Mouse things for VG Kids
. We teamed up to get the technology in places for Glacial Pace. James is the savvy one when it comes to applying new technologies."
In just three years, Whiplash, which is a partnership between Hurley, Marks and principal engineer and technology advisor Mark Dickson, has grown from a project set up in some extra space at VG Kids to a full-fledged logistics operation. After things were rolling with Glacial Pace, the trio started looking to add new clients, and found some - unsurprisingly - in the music industry.
"James applied some of his sales skills to start bringing in some new clients and we got Ghostly International
," Hurley says. "We started doing their fulfillment and then we saw the potential for a real business."
Now Whiplash handles about 50 clients that range from very small sellers to companies that require shipping services daily. The company's VG Kids connection allowed Whiplash to share space until they absolutely needed to move in May of this year.
"We just about outstayed our welcome," laughs Hurley. "We were kind of incubating in their space and completely outgrew it."
What they grew into was a 3,000-square foot warehouse on Platt Road south of Ellsworth in Ann Arbor. The expandable space allows for Whiplash to have a more physical identity, as well as the ability to continue to grow - something they're already hard at work doing.
"It doesn't feel like we're exclusively music, but I guess it is a big part of our thing," Hurley says. "We're banking even more on that type of client too."
Because Whiplash has had such early success with their focus on independent musicians, the young company is actively working on new ways to service the unique and burgeoning industry. From developing a new kind of packaging to safely ship LP records to customizing their fulfillment software to integrate with potential clients’ existing websites and order systems, Whiplash is placing itself in a position to be the go-to source for merchandise fulfillment for indie artists.
There's even talk of landing a music industry client that has both an international reach and millions of users but has forgone the complications of fulfillment. For Whiplash this could mean a dramatic spike in merchandise sales, and incite an evolution in their logistics.
"We'll see what comes through," says Hurley, hesitant to count his chickens before a deal hatches. "We're kind of keeping our fingers crossed for semi–explosive growth."
Though success in business is never guaranteed, the young company certainly has a few things working in its favor. Its connection to the popular VG Kids and a client list that includes some big names are helpful, but Whiplash also has on its side the fact that they are early players in a new industry that will undoubtedly keep growing.
"The whole landscape has changed because of Internet sales," Hurley says. "It's still a fairly new phenomenon. We feel like we're on the front end of the shift, so it's a good thing for us."
And, many independent musicians tired of hand-addressing poorly packed boxes of merchandise might add, what Whiplash has started is a pretty good thing for them, too.
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe
Sean Hurley at Whiplash
The aisles of merch at Whiplash
Sean Hurley at Whiplash
Jason Voss packing an order at Whiplash
LP mailer designed by Whiplash
Justin Rhody sorting the outgoing mail at Whiplash
Sean Hurley at Whiplash
A Ghostly order getting ready for shipment at Whiplash