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Music man Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

It seems to pain Jim Clevo when he talks about the problems he has experienced with his suppliers during the past 24 months.

One of the most memorable was a computer glitch at a compact disc manufacturing plant last December that delayed an order for one of his most high-profile clients.

"There was a defect in the hard drive used to remaster the music for reproduction at the plant and it was causing errors in hundreds of thousands of discs," says Clevo, adding that the problem was not an isolated occurrence. "I've had plants push orders back a month. I've had them close down the week before Christmas just because the company president ordered them to stop and clean up their mess."

For the better part of the last decade, Jim Clevo Presentations was the place local music artists went for a good deal on a compact disc pressing. In fact, Clevo adopted the slogan "America's Low-Cost CD Specialist" and focused on his CD printing business, a decision born of pure customer demand instead of a strategic business plan.

Then again, the 1990s was the decade of the compact disc. It was during the first five years of the decade that millions of Americans bought their first CD players. Among those in the music scene, a true test of a band's mettle quickly became whether it could scratch together enough cash to press a digital copy of its tunes.

That prompted many fledgling musicians to rush out and find independent-friendly businessmen like Clevo, who were not only selling a service but also were willing to share their expertise and extend a little credit to struggling-yet-promising young acts.

"In a big picture sense, they are the ones who decided CD manufacturing was the most important, most profitable, thing I could do," says Clevo, who has made a home for his company behind a quiet, unassuming Lorain Avenue storefront. "I was skilled in artist management, touring, booking and radio promotion before I even knew what CDs were. There weren't a lot of artists who could afford those extras, but CDs became very, very essential for people."

The only trouble with running a business based solely on the pressing and packaging of compact discs, it turns out, is dealing with the extremely volatile nature of the business.

"There was a time during the 1990s when this started becoming enormously popular, when disc plants were always overloaded," explains Clevo, who launched JCP in 1994. "Then, for the next couple years, there was a rush for all the big plants to expand and new plants to pop up."

Nevertheless, by 1996, Clevo was landing reissue work from national rock and roll acts like Los Angeles' breakthrough Jane's Addiction and perennial punk favorites Gwar. But, as the decade wound down, the already erratic CD manufacturing market hit even more turbulent times.

First, industry consolidation lowered factory production schedules and boosted minimum ordering requirements, moves that hurt underground music industry entrepreneurs like Clevo. Then, the emergence of the recordable compact disc, a blank media which reached blistering levels of popularity in just the past six months, seemed to push the industry's manufacturing facilities to the breaking point and created a business environment that Clevo can only refer to as "extraordinarily brutal" and "nightmarish."

The only way to negotiate the tricky environment is to plan ahead, far ahead, and Clevo found his client list too big for such an undertaking.

So after five solid years as one of the city's homegrown gurus of the independent music scene, Clevo is not shy about the fact that a schizophrenic CD manufacturing market and the popularity of emerging new technologies have forced some changes behind the scenes at JCP. But instead of fading away, he's doing what any road-weathered rock band would do in the face of adversity. He's reinventing his act.

Clevo makes no apologies about the fact that his days of serving 80 to 100 music artists at the same time are over.

Besides the fact that CD manufacturing facilities have upped their minimum orders, Clevo discovered over the years that there were really only a handful of bands that provided JCP with the majority of its revenue. Not surprisingly, they were also the ones with the most promising careers.

"We're trying to have less accounts and build to a point where we can do more volume of total units in sales with just a handful of labels," he explains. "It's just become a little more unstable industry than it was when we started five years ago."

Although he tried to keep it business as usual for awhile, eventually the industry squeezed Clevo to the point that he decided JCP had no choice but to prune most of its smaller customers so he could serve and nurture the acts that were driving the company's steadily increasing profitability.

In order not to burn the clients he was preparing to cut from the picture, Clevo negotiated referral deals and account transfers with several other top-name CD manufacturers to ensure a smooth transition for those whom he could no longer serve.

Today, he lives by the hard and fast rule that if a band isn't serious about the music business and doesn't plan to hit the club circuit to market itself, the band members shouldn't bother knocking on his door.

"We had always seen our niche as being customer CD specialty for groups who were doing at least a 1,000 CD package," he says. "This year, we've changed now to where we're trying to go strictly with our established few clients and reorders and new orders from established people."

Rap, blues and hardcore rock are what's on the menu for Clevo these days. An office bookshelf is stacked high with beautifully packaged compact discs he slides one at a time across the desk to illustrate the work he's done for his biggest clients. First, there is Mushroomhead, an incredibly popular local hardcore band that records on its own label. Next, there is the deep-pocketed Columbus-based Ratti Records rap music label.

Other acts include folkster Anne E. Dechant, local bluesman Colin Dussault, as well as a host of artists on the Cleveland-based Lockwood Records and Higher Level Entertainment labels.

"They require a different level of billing, bookkeeping and counting of their product," explains Clevo, who notes Ratti Records spent somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 on its latest release. "It requires much more time and maintenance for a customer of that size, who deserves your time and attention."

Aside from working with his stable of proven musicians, Clevo last year launched "Just Cleveland's Past," a small record label that will handle the reissue of music from Cleveland's rock underground. One of his biggest success stories so far has been that of local punk music favorites Hostile Omish. The band originally surfaced 12 years ago, but is still around today, and with Clevo's help, its reissue of 27 classic songs is on store shelves in Best Buy and Tower Records stores across the nation.

Clevo doesn't plan on getting rich from the reissues, admitting it was more of a strategic move to build the JCP brand and set it apart from the work he does for other labels.

"It was really part of a way to create a product to market and sell internationally through online sales," he says. "It was an angle for me to represent something else in addition to just the artists themselves."

Last May, Mushroomhead sold out the pavilion at Cuyahoga Falls' Blossom Music Center by itself.

It was an unprecedented feat for a local band and one that, at least in Clevo's eyes, makes it the most successful act to emerge from the Cleveland music scene. The hardcore rock group also has the standing record for attendance at the Agora Theater and has sold more than 30,000 compact discs to date.

But, warns Clevo, getting from there to industry success is still a huge uphill battle, even for such polished local talent. He says part of his role is helping the musicians he works with map out a direction that will allow them to make music their career, regardless of mainstream success.

That is why Clevo also struck partnerships with some of the more serious groups he works with to serve as a label administration consultant who can bring his experience as an A&R representative for MCA records and an event organizer for the music convention circuit to the table. It is a level of involvement he reserves for his more serious clients.

"What I've seen over the long haul is an extremely small handful of artists who are actually motivated enough or have the understanding to grasp what having a career and being professional really is," he says. "For most people, it is the day-to-day responsibility and diligence that they can't hack. That always sorts out which groups persevere and continue to grow and develop and have success."

Several years ago, Clevo put pen to paper with the help of Cleveland music critic Eric Olsen and shared his insight about making connections in the music business. "Networking in the Music Industry," released in 1994, was created from Clevo's experience with MCA Records and his nomadic speaking appearances and promotional parties across the United States and Europe.

Now, after a steady and profitable run in the CD business, Clevo is once again turning his attention toward sharing with others what he's learned during the past five years in the music business. He's working on a book about the CD manufacturing and packaging industry, and expects that -- along with his duties promoting and consulting the proven bands with which he works -- will take up a good slice of his next 12 months.

So after 20 years in the music business, Clevo is once again changing his business to meet the demands of the marketplace and following the one rule that he has followed all along.

"Whenever I see the abyss, I look back to why I started any of this to begin with," he says. "It was to put my resources into the local groups I was excited about and create for them some sort of career opportunity.

"Whether it's 15 years ago or now, that has always been a motivating factor of anything I've done, or not done, in my career." How to reach: Jim Clevo Presentations, (216) 941-CDCD

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.