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Jim Schwartz, Pioneering Indie Music Distributor, Dead at 91

Legendary indie music distributor Jim Schwartz died in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8 of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 91.

Legendary indie music distributor Jim Schwartz died in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91.

Although Schwartz ran Schwartz Brothers for many years, the company was originally founded right after World War II by his father Harry, who named the company after his three sons, Jim, Bert and Stuart, according to industry veteran Brent Gordon, who worked there from 1966 to 1971. Harry eventually passed the reigns of running the company over to his son Jim.

According to Gordon, Schwartz Brothers legend had it that Harry Schwartz initially intended to start a business that would wholesale World War II surplus goods but instead turned to music distribution at the encouragement of the Feld brothers, who promoted rock concerts, managed Paul Anka and owned a couple of music stores (Super Music Stores) in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area.

The Feld brothers helped the Schwartz Brothers land Mercury Records as a distributed label back when independent distribution was regional and labels needed to put together a network of distribution wholesalers across the country in order to get their records into stores throughout the United States.

An interview with Schwartz in the April 10 1965 issue of Billboard.

The Schwartz Brothers covered Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and eventually Philadelphia too. By the 1960’s, in addition to Mercury Records, the brothers carried Motown, Monument, RCA, Epic, Atlantic Records, Elektra Records, Warner Bros. Records, Kapp, Dunhill and Deutsche Gramaphone, according to Gordon who worked there from 1966-1971 before joining WEA, where he later became a regional vp before moving to Platinum Entertainment and becoming president of sales and distribution for that company.

“Schwartz Brothers were a very important indie distributor; they controlled Baltimore/Washington,” recalls John Sippel, who worked for Billboard in three different stints for a total of 25 years in between 1947 and 1987. In addition to covering Schwartz Brothers as a reporter for Billboard, Sippel also dealt with them as a label executive when he worked for Monument Records in the first half of the 1960’s and later for Mercury Records. “Schwartz Brothers were the strongest indie distributor in that area,” Sippel says. “No once else could approach them.” 

When video came along, the company diversified into that product line and became a video distributor as well. Along the way, the company went public, but it was lightly-traded stock, which are sometimes referred to as a “pink sheet.” Although he was the middle son, when his father Harry retired, he chose Jim to run the operation.

“Jim was a great guy and he taught me the record business,” Gordon says.

While Schwartz Brothers was one of the top independent distributors in the country, they became weakened first when the major labels started building their own distribution operations in the 1970’s and were further hurt when indie distributors like INDI and RED started to transform into national distributors. On the video side, labels also started to consolidate distributors. Eventually, the Schwartz Brothers were forced into bankruptcy and liquidated in the early 1990’s.

“Jimmy Schwartz was a close friend and a loyal supporter of Motown Records, who made a real contribution to our success over the long haul,” according to a quote obtained by former Billboard editor Adam White from Barney Ales, who was vp of sales and distribution for the label during the 1960’s and later became president. “We were like brothers, and he was truly one of the greats in independent distribution.”

With all three of the brothers now deceased, Jim Schwartz is survived by his wife Cora and his sons Stephen and Carl.