INDUSTRY PROFILE - Burt Goldstein, President of Big Daddy Distribution
by Mark E. Waterbury
Many kids keep things from their parents. In Burt Goldstein’s case, it was all the money he was spending on records. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York and becoming a music lover at an early age, he had to sneak LPs into the house so his parents didn’t know that was where most of his money was going. His friends knew about his love for music, however. “They always thought I was going to open a record store,” Burt remembers. “You know, by the time I was fifteen, that is what I thought I would do, too.”
While pursuing a degree in sociology at Long Island University, Burt started working as a clerk for a record store called Uni-Sonic across the street from the school. After obtaining his degree, Burt realize that social work was not his bailiwick. He went full time and eventually ended up running the store. His tenure at Uni-Sonic only lasted a year after graduation, as Burt followed through with his initial ideal. “I opened my first record store in April of 1973. That was in Manhattan and it was a big step for me. Kid from Brooklyn goes to Manhattan.” The store was called Musical Maze, and Burt had actually opened it on his own. He knew all the suppliers from his days at Uni-Sonic, and they all gave him credit lines to stock the store. The first store in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan became enough of a success that in a couple years a second store was opened. A third store opened in the Bronx, and Burt also opened a seasonal store on Park Avenue that sold mostly cut outs during the holiday season.
After a brief unsatisfying foray as a pit boss in Las Vegas, Burt tried a bit of a new venture when he leased a department from an electronic store called Newmark and Lewis in January of 1979. Unfortunately, this idea was not successful, and after trimming back to having only the two original Music Mazes, Burt decided he needed to take a job. “I went to work for Crazy Eddies, which was a four store electronics and music retailer. I ran their music departments, and we had maybe fifteen percent of the New York market. I was getting whatever I wanted from the record companies because of my relationships with them. It was a beautiful thing.” Crazy Eddie’s, perhaps and harbinger of future chains like Best Buy and know for their flamboyant TV commercials eventually went public and opened fifty stores in the New York area.
Unfortunately, despite the rapid expansion, the Crazy Eddie’s went under in the late 80’s. The units were sold or closed, and the ones remaining open were going to have their music departments run by Trans World. “They wanted me to keep running the departments. I thought about it and visited their offices, and they seemed a bit too corporate for me. That is when a friend of mine suggested I get into the independent distribution business. I was like, what do I know about independent distribution? The only thing I know about it is the fact that I had dealt with them and knew what they sold.” Burt found out about an opportunity in Chicago where there was only one distributor and the public was clamoring for a choice. Burt carved relationships with several people who sold music for some of the burgeoning rap records in the 80’s such as Profile and Select. He asked them if they would give him a credit line if he opened a distributorship in Chicago, and Profile Records was the first one who agreed. That was enough to get Burt his start, launching Impact Distributors in 1988. “I thought with my previous contacts in the music industry from retail that this would be a slam dunk. I had people asking me if I wanted their line, and I said, sure, but the thing is I really didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t have a clue how to do distribution, but I took two people from Crazy Eddie’s with me, rented a space, and went out and sold.” Burt talked to his friends in the industry that gave him advice on how to run the business. He visited each account in the eight states in his distribution area, personally meeting with every store owner he wanted to work with. “I think meeting the people personally really helped, and it was a major learning experience. Getting out and selling was a major experience, and I was nervous as hell at first, but I went to every store we worked with, even ones who only ordered once.” Not too long after Impact opened, they started getting more labels offering their lines for distribution. Sleeping Bag gave them their line which included EPMD who had a hit with the song “Strictly Business.” Tommy Boy came on board and produced hits with Queen Latifah and others.
When Profile Records (who owned Landmark Distributors operating in New York and Atlanta) decided they wanted to get out to California, they asked Burt if he would partner with them on this. Burt agreed and while keeping Impact open, he moved to California and opened Landmark West. Then in 1991, Landmark, Landmark West and Impact all merged to form a national distribution company under the Landmark name. “I like to think that we were, if not the first, at least the earliest national independent distributor.” In 1994 however, three creditors filed involuntary bankruptcies against Landmark. Despite the fact that the courts found the filings were in bad faith, when the news came out in the trade journals, it had a negative impact on the financial status of Landmark, causing labels to start pulling their product back. Landmark did bring suit against a couple of the companies that filed against them, but ended up liquidating the company in 1994. “I looked at everything and figured that I just have to start from the ground up again. At the time, the labels I started with were in limbo for a number of months while we were liquidating Landmark. They were thrilled I was starting up again. I started with labels like Cutting and Metropolitan that are still with me to this day. The relationships I built over the years really helped. So I had a business right out of the box; a small business, but a business nonetheless.”
So in 1995, Burt launched Big Daddy Distribution. By this time, everyone followed Landmark’s direction and were national with their distribution, so Big Daddy was nationwide from the beginning. Big Daddy works exclusively with indie labels and has seen steady growth in over ten years. “With indies you play in a different arena for the most part. Even the larger indies who are owned but majors deal with advances and everything, and we don’t do that. It is unlikely that we are really competing with them when someone is dealing with a hundred thousand dollar advance. To sum it all up, I would rather work for myself then work for someone else, and when you do that, you have to be independent in all aspects.” Big Daddy, which Burt co-owns with Doug Bail now has over forty independent labels it works with, and in keeping with the times is delving deeper into digital distribution. Burt continues to grow Big Daddy as a totally self financed business, which has is limitations but also created satisfaction in the fact that he is his own boss. Beyond the business side, Burt’s love for what he was doing is rooted to his childhood passions, which created ultimate satisfaction. “I always enjoy listening to the music and tracking their sales. When I was a kid I used to write down lists of my top ten, top twenty five, top one hundred songs from 1966 or whatever, my own lists, and I still have them hand written. Fortunately I have been able to take my hobby and make it my career.”
Burt Goldstein’s advice for musicians: “The DIY thing is still the best thing to do. With us, criteria for us taking on a band for distribution is that they have already done some of the work. you have to be touring, you have to have an agent and have an attorney, If you have all of that in place first, then you go to a distributor to try to get your music out nationwide, or regionally, which is getting harder to do. But what artists do well is play music. Get that going, and then the next level is get the business side going, and then you can look at a distributor. Then the next level should you want to try to go that way is get the financing from a major label to make it bigger than it has ever been, providing you go in there with your eyes open and know what you will be giving up.”