Elwood: "It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses."
Jake: "Hit it."
While it's not quite the Blues Brothers saving a Catholic orphanage with a platoon of legendary R&B/blues musicians, the real-life Numero Group, a Chicago-based archival record label, may be doing far more to preserve and promote American music and other sounds than Jake and Elwood could ever dream of. Rather than smokes and shades, however, the Numero crew is heading west in a black Ford E-350 15-person passenger van filled to the brim with an estimated 9,000 records, two turntables, an amp, battery-powered speakers, five folding tables, a T-shirt rack, two sleeping bags and three humans as part of the label's pop-up van tour of the West Coast.
"We can average say $10,000 a day in places like Kansas or Phoenix or Denver," says Numero co-founder Ken Shipley, who today is en route to the fist pop-up stop in Bloomington, Indiana, with label co-founder Rob Sevier and the label's audio archivist Blake Rhein. "In Los Angeles or the Bay Area we might make $25-30,000," Shipley adds. These days, with physical and brick-and-mortar sales flagging, that's a substantial amount of revenue.
This year's music sales are the worst since the 1991 debut of SoundScan (now Nielsen Music). Album sales, including track-equivalent albums (TEA, whereby 10 track sales equal one album unit) are down 16.9 percent in the first half of this year, which doesn't explain the seemingly inelastic demand for Numero Group releases.
"A lot of it has to do with having a great brand already in the marketplace and people knowing that the brand is great," says Shipley, who formerly worked at Rykodisc and calls his label a "privately owned Smithsonian." And with roughly 300 wide-ranging reissues, compilations and lost titles -- much of which the Numero team has excavated from basements, long-shuttered studios and elsewhere -- the analogy is apt. But no one record store could possibly ever carry all of the label's often obscure and brilliant compilations.
Numero's titles range from Ork Records: New York, New York, a compilation chronicling the rise of New York's '70s punk label with artists like Television, Richard Hell and Cheetah Chrome; to Bobo Yeye: Belle Époque in Upper Volta, a triple album and photography book dedicated to the mid-'70s sounds and culture of what is today Africa's Burkina Faso; to Light: On the South Side featuring photos by Michael Abramson, who took incredible photos of nightlife on Chicago's South Side in the 1970s and includes two LPs of electric blues (and which earned Numero's three of its five Grammy nominations).
The label also has several ongoing series, like Eccentric Soul, featuring obscure soul and funk; Cult Cargo, with foreign takes on American music; Local Customs, which documents various local scenes; Wayfaring Strangers which puts together obscure folk music; and Good God spotlighting the sounds of religious soul and funk.
"There are people who are like religious about what Numero does and buy every record and every color vinyl variant -- they're obsessed with the things we do," says Shipley. "These pop-ups end up being a pretty big event where people come out."
Last spring the label did a pop-up in a 350-square-foot space in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood, where Shipley says they took in $24,500 in four days. Even better, the label did a pop-up in a 900-square-foot Parks Department comfort station in Chicago's Logan Square where they did $13,000 in sales in eight hours.
Shipley says the biggest sellers tend to be their newer releases but not any one individual title. Often, he says, it's something overstocked and discounted and that might result in an LP being priced at $10 and selling 50 units.
As impressive as Numero's pop-up sales are, the co-owner doesn't see the 12-person company's future in selling records. "We're not relying on making records as our primary source of revenue anymore because it's not really realistic," says Shipley. "I don't personally believe that vinyl is the future of the record industry -- I think it's a tchotchke that we're making."
Instead, Shipley believes in making Numero's music accessible and figuring out other ways to monetize. The label's entire catalog, for example, is available on Spotify and Apple Music. The label also owns two publishing companies in Dust Index, which has between 7,000-8,000 copyrights, and Songs of Numero Group which focuses on contemporary songwriters. The label also has a robust sampling business, which for example, owns part of the copyright on Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement" and works with Syl Johnson, whose "Different Strokes" is one of the most-sampled songs in music history.
The company's most-licensed track is a song by Penny and the Quarters called "You & Me" which first appeared in the Ryan Gosling film Blue Valentine. "Since then it's been our No. 1 streamed track, our No. 1 on YouTube, our No. 1 downloaded track," says Shipley. "It's been in an Ikea commercial and in a Polish commercial right now -- it's an unending flow of money and the result of just this really cool track."
In 2013, Numero formed the Secretly Canadian Group in partnership with the Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar and Dead Oceans labels and whose principles own minority shares in Numero. The deal gave the label greater back-end resources and distribution.
That company, incidentally, is based in Bloomington, Indiana, the first stop on the Numero Group's pop-up van tour, where Shipley is in the process of hawking Numero product out of the van. "We're still figuring out what the future record company might look like," he says. For right now, that means driving a Ford E-350 passenger van filled with 9,000 Numero Group releases across the country.
Numero Group Pop-Up Van Tour Dates
10/7 Bloomington, IN - 213 S. Rogers
10/8 Kansas City, MO - Mini Bar, 3810 Broadway Rd.
10/10 Denver, CO - Studio C, 2700 Arapahoe St.
10/12 Phoenix, AZ - Monorchid, 214 E. Roosevelt St.
10/13 Los Angeles, CA - Rappcats, 5636 York Blvd.
10/14 Los Angeles, CA - Rappcats, 5636 York Blvd.
10/15 Los Angeles, CA - Rappcats, 5636 York Blvd.
10/16 Berkeley, CA - 651 Addison St
10/17 Berkeley, CA - 651 Addison St
10/18 Berkeley, CA - 651 Addison St
10/20 Portland, OR - The Cleaners, 403 SW 10th Ave.
10/21 Seattle, WA - Seattle Center, 472 1st Ave. North
10/22 Seattle, WA - Seattle Center, 472 1st Ave. Nort