Saturday, June 6, 2009

Blistering Sounds From Banksville Road

Blistering Records

Jim Pitulski is a Beechview guy, and it seems like he's always had the music in him

Hey, ya gotta love music when your initial foray into the biz is hawking and stocking CDs and vinyl at Eides Records on Penn Avenue, where Pitulski got his start.

He actually got a pretty good primer there in Music 101, becoming a manager and letting touring underground bands crash in his pad when they came through town, even promoting some of the acts. It was a valuable lesson in street marketing.

He was in a metal band himself, an outfit called Angus Grim that was more ambitious than able. They figured they were going nowhere fast in the Steel City's small pond, so they piled in the van and went off to earn their fortune in New York City.

Well, they didn't exactly become the talk of the town, but the trek provided Pitulski with an opportunity to continue working on the other side of the industry street. He hooked up with a connection from the Eide's days, and finagled a day job as a salesman for Caroline Records, an indie metal outfit.

After Angus Grim broke up, he left Caroline for Mechanic Records, MCA's metal label, crossing over from the artistic to the business side of music full-time. He ended up being in the right place at the right time, during the first burst of the metal explosion.

Starting out with an indie label, he learned the tricks of the small, agile record companies, like using college radio and the stand-alone record shops to promote their sound. And as metal took off, the major labels came courting, needing to find guys that were fluent in the genre and its markets.

After working at Mechanic, Pitulski was recruited by Columbia, and then jumped ship to the Polygram Group for marketing and promotional gigs. He picked up on the nimbleness of the little fish and the muscle of the 800-pound gorillas.

But it was a connection from his first real job at Mechanic Records that sent him on his way. When he was there, he heard a demo from a prog band named Majesty that blew him away, and signed them to the label. They would later launch each others careers.

Majesty, in the meantime, became Dream Theater; a lawsuit from another group with the same name triggered the change. Then in 1992, just before the release of its second album, "Images and Words," the band's management walked. So they called their industry angel, Pitulski, who agreed to manage the group.

The single "Pull Me Under" became a hit, and the album went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Japan. Pitulski had walked into a rose garden.

"Pull Me Under" was Dream Theater's only hit. But it gave the group almost legendary status as one of the fathers of prog rock. Roundtable Entertainment, Pitulski's new management company, added other progressive acts to the roster.

But the rat race was getting to Pitulski. He left the management side of music and returned to Pittsburgh, back to home and hearth. But it was to be a short break. Another one of those connections he had made was about to pay off, again. (He's obviously one heck of a network guy!)

While working with Dream Theater on a European tour, he met Thomas Waber, president of the German label Inside Out, which pushed progressive rock bands. In the late 90's, Waber asked Pitulski about starting a US division of Inside Out.

Having a safety net under him was appealing and he could work from home, so he got back on the stool by representing Inside Out Music America from an office out of his Greentree apartment in 1999.

The operation got big enough for him to move to a Banksville Road address, and he found that in the PC age, running a label from Pittsburgh was every bit as effective as being in the Big Apple. He and his five-man staff helped IO Music America become one of the hot prog rock labels in the nation, even if it was a secret in Pittsburgh.

He told Aaron Jentzen of The City Paper that "We keep a low profile on the local scene. Not on purpose, but it just seemed like it didn't really seem to interest anybody that we were trying to run a national company out of Pittsburgh."

Pitulski added that the regional retailers were down with IO Music America's efforts, but getting the local radio, press, and promoters to give a little love was a task. Same ol' story about the Pittsburgh scene, repeated ad nauseum.

He also learned a lesson of sorts from his Angus Grim days. Pitulski told Mark Waterbury of the industry mag Music Morsels that "Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it's record companies finding out about what a band is doing on a local level that can actually attract them to you. Be the biggest fish in the smallest pond you can find."

Still, everything wasn't roses for him. He had side projects to juggle, and was finding it tough to branch out; several groups he liked didn't want to sign with a label so closely identified with prog rock and trap themselves in a nebulous genre niche.

Heck, even his trusty sidekick and PR guy, Eric Corbin, ran the Da Core and Screaming Crow labels, homes for punk and metal bands.

The final blow came in 2007, when the German distributor SPV took over IO Music America and decided to run it from their offices in Red Bank, NJ. Unwilling to give up his home and move further away from his family, Pitulski decided to stay in Pittsburgh. It didn't take long to be proven a wise decision.

In August of 2008, Blistering Records formed. It covered a wide range of music, from classic rock to prog rock to metal; they recorded all comers (although the catalogue leans heavily towards metal). The label was based in Sweden, but Blistering knew who to call on to run their operation in the states.

Yah, Jim Pitulski was their man. He was named the North American Managing Director, and is back in business on Banksville Road, merrily running another international label quietly from the industry backwaters of Pittsburgh.

Oh, one final bit of irony. SPV, who pulled the plug on Pitulski's Pittsburgh operations for IO Music America in 2007, is going bankrupt. Speculation in Euro circles is rampant that Pitulski might be able to buy the IO assets at a nice price.

Blistering and IO Music America both operating from Banksville Road? Hey, just thinkin'...might the South Hills become home to a 21st century rock Brill Building? And if it did, would anyone notice?

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