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Interview: Ernie B

Interview: Ernie B

Interview: Ernie B

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"When CD's first came out it was a bonanza like the industry had never seen. After riding high for years, the inevitable happened"

Ernie B's Reggae

In the past years United Reggae has covered the tough climate in the music business through interviews with artists, producers and label owners. Until now we haven’t really covered one of the other key players – record shop owners. U.S. based Ernie B’s Reggae is the largest Internet reggae distributor in the world and United Reggae got a chat with its founder, owner and CEO – Ernie Boetius.

The music business has dealt with difficulties over the last ten years with several labels – both major and independent – having a hard time making money. The issue itself is Internet with new ways of buying and consuming music and, of course, illegal downloading and file sharing.

These new ways have caused the music and book retailer HMV Group to close 60 UK stores during the past year in response to declining sales.

To illustrate this further – when I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, in the late 80’s there were record shops in every mall or shopping centre. There were also several smaller shops located all over town. Today there are no major record stores left in Stockholm and you have to conduct a rather thorough search to find the small independent ones.

Tragic developments since record shops are more than retail outlets. They are an essential part of music culture and they support new bands and local talents, as illustrated in the book and motion picture 'High Fidelity'. The shop owners are usually dedicated music aficionados and also record collectors with deep knowledge of the industry and what customers want and don’t want.

One such is Ernie Boetius – founder, owner and CEO of Ernie B’s Reggae. Founded in 1993, Ernie B's Reggae is a supplier of reggae for record stores and mail order customers in more than 100 countries and have – according to the web site – the world's largest catalogue of reggae music, stocking CD's, vinyl records, DVD's and books. If you have been into reggae for a while you’ve probably heard of Ernie B and most likely placed an order or two.

Started with a cassette

Ernie Boetius was born and raised in California with his greatest interests being playing competitive basketball and business. He also had an almost unnatural interest in computers. Somewhere in between these three he found time for music, particularly reggae.

“In 1985 someone gave me a cassette of a reggae radio show from a college station, and then you know what happens next. It was Half Pint, Pato, Mad Professor, Augustus Pablo, Black Uhuru, King Kong, etc. I listened to that tape, and a couple of other tapes, solidly for over a year. Then I got curious and went to Tower Records and actually found some of the songs. I was elated and surprised you could even buy this stuff,” explains Ernie Boetius.

For the fun of it

From then and onwards Ernie took record collecting seriously and in 1992 he decided to find out if he could sell as well as collect.

“The transition wasn't hard because I was buying directly from labels such as RAS, Greensleeves and Ariwa anyway. I did a little mail order and then gradually sold to local stores,” he says.

Ernie B was started for the fun of it, for the enjoyment of reggae music.

“It’s fun to collect, fun to listen and fun to convert someone into being a listener. Fun to tell a hardcore fan about a killer LP they had never heard of. Fun to play a song for a non-reggae fan and then brag that you can understand every word,” he says, and makes an example many collectors recognize:

“It's like Christmas when a shipment arrives, even if you know what's inside. It's still fun tearing open the boxes. I remember the feeling I'd get when my RAS mail order box arrived back in the 1980's. Do you know how fast I'd get those records on the turntable? Then like a true collector I would play them for ten seconds and then file the records and go order more!”

The Internet has changed the game

Over the years things have changed. Today music sales have declined, and more people are buying over the Internet, either from a reggae distributor such as Ernie B and Dub Vendor, or from auction outlets such as eBay. And this is a natural progression and an extension of previous year’s mail order when you ordered a catalogue, browsed it and then placed your order. Today it’s much easier.

“When CD's first came out it was a bonanza like the industry had never seen. After riding high for years, the inevitable happened,” he explains, and continues explaining the sequence as he remembers it:

“The first problem was big-box retailers selling CD's at below a record store's cost. They would retail Bob Marley’s Legend for $9.99, but as a record store you had to pay $12.02 if you bought direct from the distributor. So the Top-100 sales went to Target, Circuit City, mall music stores, etc., diverting profit from record stores. Then came the CD-R technology. Why spend $15.98 on a CD when you can spend $2 on a CD-R and have a friend burn it? Then the MP3 file sharing. Then iTunes and the iPod with legal MP3's. Then video games, siphoning the entertainment dollars of the casual CD buyer.”

Ernie B's Reggae

Piracy is peanuts

Somewhere in between all of this is piracy. But according to Ernie the effect of piracy is peanuts compared with the iPod and CD-R's. 

“When CD's first came out, the only way to get the music was to buy a CD, or record to tape. Now you can buddy copy, download for free, buy a download, or less frequently buy a pirated copy. So the major change is CD sales have gone down about 90 percent across all genres. MP3's, legal and illegal, also played a large role in the demise of the 7" from Jamaica. Add to that the recession and unemployment. I'd say when the economy turns around our sales will naturally go up by 30 to 50 percent.”

A new perspective

Over the years Ernie B has branched out a bit to other genres such as soul and Latin, but the company’s strategy from day one has been the same. Ernie explains that the venture into new music territory is not because of increasing sales, but because of the coolness factor of handling LP’s with interesting artwork.

“We will always be reggae to the core, but it's one way to get some non-reggae stores to order from us and then we can introduce reggae to them,” Ernie explains, and points out a new phenomenon he has observed: 

“Before the decline in music sales I used to view some other companies as competition. This gave us competitive drive and more energy to work harder. However, the decline changed my perspective 180 degrees and I now view all other distributors in the industry as partners. To be specific, when I e-mail VP Records an order five miles long I now have a sense of pride in that I am helping them make a profit and thereby helping to keep them going full speed ahead. If any of the few remaining core distributors go into steep decline then it will be bad for everyone. More distributors mean more orders for record labels, which mean they have enough orders to press 1,000 copies instead of 500 or 300. All of the core distributors look strong now, I am pleased to say.”

What sells?

Since Ernie B stock about one million items I regard the company as one of the biggest reggae retailers in the world. Probably the biggest, something that urges me to ask Ernie the basic question – what sells? But the question appears to be loaded.

“Wait a minute, I don't want or need to be the biggest, because that's simply ‘status’. I don't want a ranking. I would rather hear people say ‘EBreggae is on the ball, I ordered the music today and I received it yesterday!’”

Now, he’s ready to answer the question.

“For us it’s basically everything from 1960's to 1989. The biggest sellers are roots and dub. Why? Because the music is timeless. I can go three months with Prince Alla’s I Can Hear the Children Singing CD in the car player, which I have,” he explains, and continues:

“New dancehall can be fun, exciting and even interesting sometimes, but very few new releases have shelf-life. Vinyl is running things now. The sound is so much better, the coolness factor of owning something, the cover art and trading with your friends,” he explains, and sees an investment opportunity:

“Reissue LP's in print now will sell for $30-$50 in five years. I know precious metals have gone up a lot over the last few years, but vinyl has outpaced everything historically and I'm not joking. If I was a collector I would stash an extra copy of every Pressure Sounds, Soul Jazz, Studio One, etc LP and sell it in five years. Why not?”

The conflict with Burning Spear

But running a reggae distribution outlet is not always fun and exciting. Apart from having a tough business and economic climate to deal with, you also have to manage the relations with the artists and the labels.

In recent months a conflict between Ernie B and reggae veteran artist Burning Spear has gone public and took a turn for the worst on February 13 when Burning Spear posted on Facebook that “they [Ernie B] bootlegging all of our music and trying to use the police to get us arrested.” The issue concerns accusations of piracy and bootlegging.

Ernie has done a lot to meet the accusations with several posts in reggae forums such as Bob Marley Magazine and Blood and Fire.

“I get a lot of e-mails saying ‘how can you do this to Burning Spear!’ and ‘I'm never buying from you again’. And some pretty nasty ones too,” he says.

Accusations of bootlegging seem part of the business for Ernie. Probably because the revenue from music sales for the artists is decreasing, which makes the artists and labels a bit tense. But according to Ernie the accusations from Burning Spear are unusual. Very unusual.

“I can see where they are coming from, wondering why they can't sell CD's anywhere near the numbers they used to. We're talking about their livelihood – they put in years of very hard work to churn out quality product,” Ernie explains, and continues:

“I think many of his releases are masterpieces, and then Mrs. Rodney [Burning Spear’s wife] did a sensational job of putting the packaging together, the website, etc. I know what it's like to work seven days a week, sacrificing your personal life, indeed sacrificing everything for your business. But I don't know what it's like to see it decline, and I know times are tough for all record labels. I feel for them and wish I could help.”

Ernie says he would have liked Burning Spear and Mrs. Rodney to have done a more thorough research before making these serious statements. However, he now wants to go on.

“I think we all owe it to them to not even talk about this and let it all calm down so they can get back to releasing CD's and touring. For some reason industry gossip is huge with reggae, and with the Internet and social media it gets blown out of proportion, quotes are taken out of context, and inaccuracies abound,” he explains, and makes an example:

“I read an online newspaper article the other day that referred to me as the CEO of RAS Records. I could tell you plenty of unusual ‘disputes’, but remember what I said about gossip?”

More of the same in the future

Despite the accusations Ernie seems confident about the future. It means sitting in his office chair in front of three computers doing the same thing he has been doing for the last 20 years. The company will be much larger, but never huge, since he’ll never sell to big companies or chain stores.

“I like the down-home feel of the company and perhaps the customers do too. I don't want to take over the world; I just want to provide the very best service imaginable for the reggae fan, just like I wanted when I was a mail-order customer.”

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Read comments (5)


Posted by RObert on 09.11.2012
I have been buying records from Ernie for years. His prices for reissues are always good. Never had problem, the man is a business man.

Posted by Ras T on 02.14.2013
Agreed. Ernie seems to me a square dealing man. I have dealt with him many times as a customer; good prices, very good service, and he seems to have a genuine passion for the music, which comes through in his correspondence. I respect the Spear as a man and a musician, and with Ernie B's being high profile I wonder if he is not just an easy target when seeking a scapegoat for falling record sales. Hard to say without more information. Hope it gets cleared up as both parties are vital to real reggae music.

Posted by blue on 04.08.2013
I am blue from Jamaica, record dealer and I come up old shop stock with some very never play 80s 90s, I was just thinking if you would have some interest, I was searching to find somebody with a shop to ask, so am look to here from you, you can ask about me if you know anyone in this business in Jamaica, bless.

Posted by Matty on 02.28.2014
I am a Jamaican artist leaving in the US and Ernie B is selling several of my CDs and LPs online. He told me a year ago that he had money for me and that I will feel good about it. But I did not hear from him since: no responses to emails or phone calls.

Did anyone heard about him recently?
Does Ernie B still send CDs ordered??

This is not clear.

Posted by MarkusMarky on 03.11.2014
They still send CDs and LPs if you are placing a new order. I recently placed an order with them and there was a slight problem with the shipment. My single phone call was returned within a day but it took almost two weeks before I received any response to email. Since I hadn't received a reply to my email I also sent a note vis USPS. Within a couple of days I received an email reply that resolved everything. I have dealt with them on occasion for maybe 15 years and aside from this recent lapse in service I have had nothing but positive experience.

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