Bob Barley is probably the only plumber in the world who also happens to run his own record company.
In the past three years, Barley's Vinyl Communications label, with headquarters in Chula Vista, has released 15 records by eight so-called alternative bands from San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Florida and Hawaii.
Despite international distribution and airplay, Vinyl Communications is hardly in the same league as CBS or Warner Bros. It's a labor of love, Barley said--which is why he's still fixing leaky toilets and plugged-up sinks for a living.
"There's no money in it. We're part of a real underground network that's got nothing to do with the real business end of the music industry; these are all fans and people who like a different style of music than the commercial mainstream."
Indeed. Vinyl Communications focuses on cacophonous punk-metal bands with socially conscious, decidedly anti-Establishment lyrics.
"You won't hear any sappy love songs on this label," said Barley, 25. "It's a reflection of my personal tastes, my personal thoughts about what music should be.
"Music is a very powerful medium, and you can either put people to sleep or shake them up a little bit. Pop music, and pop culture in general, is geared very much toward people sitting back and consuming and not taking part in anything.
"What our bands are trying to do, on the other hand, is get people to think, get them to interact, and expand their minds beyond what they learn in state-run schools, which are basically training grounds for people to get low-paying jobs and make somebody else rich."
Vinyl Communications was founded in October, 1986, when Barley decided to take his own band, Neighborhood Watch, into the studio to cut a three-song, seven-inch extended-play (EP) record.
"We thought we had something to say, and rather than trying to play the music-industry game, which we wouldn't have fit into anyway, we just went ahead and released it ourselves."
The EP was distributed to local record stores and marketed, worldwide, through mail-order ads in underground fanzines. The initial press run of 1,600 quickly sold out, and Barley began toying with the idea of releasing records by other bands as well.
The first was A.P.P.L.E., from New York.
"I read an interview with them in a magazine called Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and I really liked what they had to say," Barley said. "They were very political and very up front about it.
"I wrote to them and sent them one of our records, and they wrote me back, saying they were very interested in doing vinyl, but couldn't afford it.
"I told them that if our record sold well enough so that we got our money back, we'd consider putting out their record also."
In April, 1987, A.P.P.L.E. made its recording debut on Vinyl Communications with "A Sensitive Fascist Is Very Rare," a four-song EP with a picture of Ronald Reagan on the cover.
"The record sold more than 4,000 copies, primarily through mail-order, and that's what got the whole setup going," Barley said.
"At that point, we realized, 'Hey, we can do this,' so we decided to turn Vinyl Communications into a full-fledged label. Our plans were to get music out that the mainstream labels or even the bigger independents wouldn't touch, just because of its political content or its lack of musical accessibility."
Since then, Vinyl Communications has grown, slowly but surely.
The label has subsequently released a dozen more records, including EPs by Amenity, from Chula Vista, and Cringer, from Hawaii, and full-length albums by Neighborhood Watch, A.P.P.L.E., and San Francisco's Brain Rust.
Master tapes are either submitted by the bands or produced in-house at Vinyl Communications' Chula Vista recording studio. Records are pressed by Bill Smith Custom Records in El Segundo and marketed internationally via mail-order ads in fanzines and a growing network of independent record distributors.
"We usually press between 1,000 and 2,000 copies of each release," Barley said. "And we generally sell out, particularly since we signed a new distribution deal four months ago with Mordam Records of San Francisco.
"They deal directly with about 100 record stores all over the world, and they also service something like 70 other distributors. They're currently getting, and selling , the lion's share of our records."
Barley said the demand for Vinyl Communications product is growing primarily because of regular airplay on alternative and college radio stations throughout the United States as well as on Britain's BBC, France's Radio Gironde, Germany's Radio Berlin (with an estimated 4 million listeners), Canada's CITR and CJIV, and Mexico's Estereo Frontero.
"The label has built up a fair reputation for having quality releases," Barley said. "Our records have gotten favorable reviews in magazines and fanzines all over the world; I just saw one from a fanzine in Switzerland in which the reviewer called our label one of the best in the U.S.
"That's how we get airplay, and that's how we sell records."
Still, it's a constant financial struggle. The primary reason Barley rejects most of the five to 10 demonstration tapes he receives each month, he said, isn't because he doesn't like them, but because he's temporarily low on funds.
"We recently got a great tape from a band from Finland," he said, "but financial difficulties prevented us from releasing it, and they ended up putting it out themselves.
"I'd love to put out more stuff, but it's hard coming up with the money. At best, it's a break-even situation, and whatever money we make goes right back into the business.
"Eventually, I'd like to see us generate enough income to become self-sustaining, continue to grow and release more product, and maybe start paying the bands and some of the people who work with the label.
"After all, you can't eat good reviews."