Mike Park faced the same problem punks have had since the dawn of the genre—he loved music but hated the music industry.
The way Park tells it, the real hero is the Post Office.
His solution was to create his own DIY label, Asian Man Records. To uphold his ideals of people over profit and anti-facism, he ran everything himself from his mom’s garage. Park’s label handled early releases for some of today’s most famous punk bands. Without Asian Man Records, the early music of Big D and the Kids Table, the Lawrence Arms, and Alkaline Trio would have gone unheard.
Park is a hero of the punk scene for giving so many influential bands their start as well as being living proof that you don’t have to compromise your beliefs in order to make it in the music industry. But the way Park tells it, the real hero is the Post Office.
“It’s our lifeline. We’ve been in business for twenty-four years. For twenty-two of those years I was very fortunate to live down the street from a small one person run post office for a small suburb of San Jose [California] and it was amazing,” Park reminisced. “We had our P.O. Box there, we all knew each other’s names . . . . It was like The Andy Griffith Show.”
The Post Office’s affordable shipping rates is what initially made creating and distributing independent music viable. Even without the financial resources of a major label, the Post Office made it possible for independent labels like Asian Man records to get records into the hands of fans. Asian Man Records was just one of dozens of such success stories.
Chris Hassen, operations manager of Polyvinyl Records, said the label used the Post Office for commerce to get their start long before online ordering was possible. “We had printed catalogs and people would fill out what they wanted on the order form included, send it back with money to cover postage, and then they’d receive their 7” in the mail a week later. This entire process was essentially reliant on the postal service.” Other DIY labels like Greenway Records, which specializes in unique vinyl releases, use the Post Office to deliver 100 percent of orders.
In short, the Post Office is the backbone of independent music. But it may soon buckle under the pressure to privatize, and that would spell tragedy for record labels like Asian Man Records.
Even before the strain of the current pandemic, the Post Office was kneecapped by an unusual law passed in 2006. The law required the Post Office, alone among federal agencies, to fund employee retirement benefits in advance.
In the time of a pandemic, with the Post Office less profitable than ever, President Donald Trump has threatened to block aid unless they raised prices. Conservatives have been foaming at the mouth to privatize the Post Office for years, despite it being one of the nation’s most popular government agencies.
In a world without the Post Office, shipping options for independent labels and musicians would be far more expensive.
The Post Office isn’t profitable for the same reason that a library isn’t profitable: they’re both public institutions that provide near-universal services to everyone at little or no cost to the consumer. In a world without the Post Office, shipping options for independent labels and musicians would be far more expensive, causing prices for records and merchandise to skyrocket.
Private companies like UPS, DHL, and FedEx also provide shipping services. But unlike the Post Office, they only operate for a profit. A single record shipped via the Post Office is comparatively cheap, with small fluctuations that can easily be recouped by other sales.
“It’s really the only affordable medium for us and the consumer to buy music,” Park says. “To ship one record [by] media mail, it’s $3.33 vs [by] FedEx or UPS it could be up to $15 depending on where you live in the US.”
Increased shipping costs would eat into already narrow profit margins in a time when bands, unable to tour due to the COVID-19 outbreak, need merch sales for income.
“We rely on [the Post Office] for about half of our monthly income in merch sales,” says April Hartman, guitarist of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, folk punk band, Apes of the State. “If the USPS wasn’t around, shipping would be way more expensive and it would be harder to convince customers to justify buying a $5 CD when the shipping would cost two or three times that much.”
Higher shipping costs would also harm rural fans for whom the Post Office is the only physical connection to the music they love. The Post Office’s flat shipping rates and unique “last mile delivery” policy requires the Post Office to see deliveries through to their destination, making it feasible to send records and T-shirts anywhere in the country at a modest profit.
In fact, this policy is the reason that private shipping companies use the Post Office to ship their packages to more remote locations. But if private companies handled these deliveries themselves, rural customers would be charged much more.
“Who is going to pay $40 for an obscure band T-shirt?” asks Hartman. “I’m sure some fans would. But we would also lose a lot of customers that don’t have the money to spare. When you’re playing punk music, a lot of your fan base ends up being in the latter category.”
With record stores struggling to stay open, ordering directly through a label is becoming the only way to get physical music.
“We’re seeing more physical sales come through the webstore,” said Toby Jeg, founder of Red Scare Industries. “And as retail outlets erode, mail order has become more and more of a last resort option for people to get their hands on our music. We absolutely need the USPS every day.”
Jeg also sees the value of small labels in how they independently support and develop young talent. “I am skeptical about a music world without small labels. I imagine the worst trends would take over. ”
If that happens, shipping costs would skyrocket, privately traded companies would run the show with no public accountability, and independent music as we know it may disappear.
The services performed by the USPS are vital to ensuring it’s still possible to approach the music business as Mike Park does. As he says on his website, “I do this for the love of music, not for capitalist gain or status recognition.”
For the love of music, the Post Office must be defended, not defunded.