How USPS Pandemonium Threatens Indie Musicians and Labels
Mississippi indie label Fat Possum Records was deep into shipping copies of veteran punk band X’s first album in 27 years, Alphabetland, when they were faced with an unprecedented problem: How do you fit 1,000 vinyl records into a postal worker’s Jeep Cherokee?
Shipping records in the past hasn’t really been arduous for the label; local postal workers have typically shown up with two-ton trucks that could fit all of Fat Possum’s records without a problem. This particular carrier, though, was down to just one truck from four. Patrick Addison, a marketing and distribution exec at the label, says the postal worker’s Jeep was so full of records that some were sitting in his lap, stacked up to his chest while he drove. “Now that’s not safe for the postal worker, and [I’m] not sure that’s safe for the vinyl record either,” Addison tells Rolling Stone.
The sudden drought in resources is a byproduct of President Donald Trump’s refusal to provide funding to the U.S. Postal Service during the pandemic — what many Democrats see as a move to stymie mail-in voting come the election. Businesses were already scrambling to adapt to a new pandemic-friendly norm and the USPS slowdown has added another layer of stress for many labels and artists, whose revenue streams already took a hit from tour cancellations.
Fat Possum is only one of many affected labels. Alyssa DeHayes — owner of Athens, Georgia, label Arrowhawk Records — says that while the majority of her customers have been understanding, she’s seen a considerable uptick in complaints. “We have items that ship and then tracking never updates,” she says. “Or tracking drops off halfway through the journey and a month later the item still hasn’t shown up. A friend here shipped an enamel pin five minutes across town and his tracking routed through Puerto Rico then back to Georgia.”
So why, exactly, have USPS orders been so delayed? Dell Cameron, a senior reporter for Gizmodo, claimed that he spoke to a postal worker who said that the Postal Service has been attempting to cut costs in the midst of the pandemic by removing mail-sorting machines. This means that “packages are showing up later and later… This late mail is intentionally not scanned, I’m told, so people with USPS Informed Delivery [the organization’s tracking service] won’t get notified and expect to see mail that isn’t coming.” Cameron says supervisors would rather people think their mail is stuck at a processing center than delayed for other reasons.
“A friend here [in Athens, Georgia] shipped an enamel pin five minutes across town and his tracking routed through Puerto Rico then back to Georgia.” – Alyssa DeHayes, Arrowhawk Records
Cameron also claimed that the newly appointed Postmaster Louis DeJoy instructed carriers to “prioritize Amazon packages, then Priority Mail, then everything else,” according to his source, because Amazon is a high-paying client. The USPS is reportedly not prioritizing their Media Mail option, which many independent record labels use due to its cost-efficient nature.
While a USPS representative did not directly respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment regarding Cameron’s specific claims, they did point Rolling Stone to an official blog post that addresses what they call “false narratives” surrounding sorting machines and other topics. “Resources match volume requirements,” the post reads. “Letter sorting and flat machines are only being used for about one-third, 32% and 38%, respectively, of their available machine hours. There is ample machine capacity to handle spikes in mail volume… While [Postmaster General DeJoy] did not initiate the evaluation or removal of this equipment, [he] has given the directive to stop the removal of additional mail processing machines through the election.”
The fact remains, though, that the labels Rolling Stone spoke to that use the USPS are having issues with on-time delivery, while those using private companies — like UPS and FedEx — did not report similar problems.
“Media Mail is crucial,” DeHayes says. “There is a ceiling on what you can make from physical merch, and while no one I know started an indie label to get rich, you also want to keep being able to pay your employees, office rent, etc. once you’ve outgrown being able to do it all yourself from your house.”
Furthermore, Arrowhawk has had to cover unexpected costs due to damages that have started to occur in transit. Even though the company recently switched to higher-grade mailers, which are bigger and have more padding, DeHayes says they’ve had more damages to vinyl this summer than at any other point in the label’s seven-year history. “Every damage is a disappointed fan who has to wait longer,” she says. “[Then there’s the] replacement cost and additional shipping for us.” While DeHayes says there is no way to know for certain that these damages are USPS’ fault, she explains that vinyl is already at risk of warping in the summer — so spending weeks in transit ups the chance of damages.
In a recent statement from Postmaster General DeJoy, he admitted that “the intervening service declines should not have happened.” However, he also claims that the Postal Service is “strongly committed to fixing the problems by identifying and rectifying their root causes.”
“While there are a number of factors at play related to service performance, including pressures related to the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters and other unforeseen events, I am confident that the Postal Service’s performance will continue to improve overall, and that it will ultimately exceed our prior service performance levels,” DeJoy said. “This is an organization-wide commitment.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much more specific than that. While the USPS confirms its financial instability, citing $11 billion in 2020 losses in the aforementioned blog post, the USPS also says that “necessary reform efforts will begin after the election.”
But November is still two months away. That’s a long time to wait when the labels have already been embattled for half a year. At Maryland’s Carpark Records — home to Toro y Moi and Speedy Ortiz — label owner Todd Hyman says many of these issues started popping up at the start of the pandemic before any political drama surrounding the USPS surfaced. Carpark’s biggest problems, according to Hyman, have to do with international delays. “Sometimes a package bound for Europe will sit in a warehouse in Jamaica, Queens, for a couple of weeks before it heads off,” Hyman tells Rolling Stone. “We’ve had a few things go lost. I just go under the assumption that any international package will take two to three months now instead of a couple of weeks pre-pandemic.” (Arrowhawk’s international orders have also been “wildly delayed on top of their already-long waits,” DeHayes says.)
Carpark is also facing issues with domestic mail. “I arrange pickups with USPS online for the following day,” Hyman says. “Most of the time they come. Sometimes they don’t, and I have to reschedule. But I know those guys are busy.”
And then there’s the added sting to the USPS slowdown: Multiple labels told Rolling Stone that their direct-to-consumer orders of physical products have actually been up during Covid-19 — and problems with the USPS are making it difficult to reap the rewards.
DeHayes describes getting a record in the mail during such hard times as “a balm if you’re having a hard week… It’s such a little pop of joy when the mailperson comes and you see the tell-tale shape of a vinyl mailer. Everyone is having a hard time right now, and it’s really frustrating for fans to not receive that album that was already in preorder for months, which could be a real pick-me-up for them when it arrives.”
DeHayes adds that the increase in sales at Arrowhawk at the pandemic’s start was significant, but she didn’t feel comfortable asking employees to come into their small office space to fill orders. DeHayes tried to handle them herself during nights and weekends after her three other jobs but eventually ended up hiring a fulfillment company. “Hiring a fulfillment company felt like a huge relief and light at the end of a tunnel,” she says. “That relief quickly wore off when our new problem was tracking not updating, or records floating around for weeks.”
“We shipped out over 4,000 records in [one week] to individual customers, and we sure as hell want to make sure our customers receive them in a timely manner.” – Patrick Addison, Fat Possum
Hannah Carlen, U.S. Marketing Director at Indiana’s Secretly Group — which houses Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans, Phoebe Bridgers’ label — says that Secretly’s direct-to-consumer sales had also been up with people sheltering at home and in need of more creative outlets. When USPS problems struck, the company was put in a frustrating predicament: Orders were increasing, but so was the fear of untimely deliveries and refund requests. Carlen says delays haven’t become awful yet, but that Secretly is preparing for the worst. “Right now, we’re watching customer service volume, checking in and getting regular updates from our direct-to-consumer fulfillment center and trying to brace.”
With an influx of orders, Fat Possum faces a similar situation. The label was hiring short-term temps to help during a particularly busy time in the warehouse until one person tested positive for the virus. Addison quickly found himself filling in and working hands-on to make sure preorders went out before release day. “It’s been very nerve-racking,” Addison points out. “We shipped out over 4,000 records in [one week] to individual customers, and we sure as hell want to make sure our customers receive them in a timely manner.” Now that the high-priority X release is out of the way — and all other employees have tested negative — some normalcy has returned.
At Los Angeles label Brainfeeder — a company founded by experimental DJ Flying Lotus — label manager Adam Stover adds that preorders and sales at the beginning of the lockdown were “more difficult to fulfill due to supply-chain issues.” He says this is a result of “manufacturing, packaging, [and] fulfillment being put to a halt, physical record stores being shut down for months and online retailers not being able to stock orders because of the product being untouchable in closed warehouses.” He adds that Amazon wasn’t selling Brainfeeder’s records and CDs, because they were considered non-essential at that time.
Stover says business at Brainfeeder, which now works with the likes of Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Tokimonsta, started to pick back up about three months ago — around the time that Bandcamp introduced a weekly, fee-waiving promotion, record shops started to sell their stock online, and Amazon returned to selling vinyl and CDs. He says the company is now at least able to fulfill all of its online orders in a timely fashion. As far as potential delays go, though, he calls the USPS situation a derailment. “We are fortifying for the worst in regards to present-day politics, the ongoing pandemic and the possible shifts in the consumption of music in general as a result,” he explains. “If I had to describe how we’re feeling, I’d say we’re cautiously optimistic.”
Sub Pop — the Seattle-based birthplace of Nirvana and Soundgarden — is also preparing for additional problems, while trying to lend a hand toward a solution. Since their customers can choose between multiple services, Sub Pop is actually encouraging them to pick the USPS as their delivery method in the hopes of generating more funding for the service. As an incentive, the label recently waived shipping charges on their online store for these customers. “USPS Media Mail is a godsend to labels and fans alike,” Jon Strickland, Sub Pop’s Head of Sales, tells Rolling Stone. “As an indie label that still sells and ships a lot of LPs, Sub Pop depends on USPS to get those orders to fans cheaply and efficiently.”