The Strained US Postal Service Is Still a Lifeline for Independent Music

With touring on hold, artists have become increasingly dependent on music and merch sales, which means they're also relying a lot on the USPS.
JT
Chicago, US
September 2, 2020, 11:00am
USPS Package Delays Music
A man wearing a mask carrying priority USPS mail boxes walks past USPS mailboxes and into a Post Office in Park Slope (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

For the past few months, there have been significant delays at the United States Postal Service. If you're a patient waiting on life-saving medication or a Holocaust survivor looking for a reparations check from the German government, not getting deliveries on time is a potentially deadly scenario. If you work in independent music, it's yet another headache in a turbulent year, one that has put live music on pause for the foreseeable future and been financially devastating for touring artists, their road crew, and independent venues.

Workers from all over the music industry—from label bosses like Steinhardt, to musicians, vinyl sellers, and merch managers—have long depended on the United States Postal Service for a cheap and reliable way to ship music and merch. But while the USPS is still the cheapest option, shipping schedules have become increasingly unpredictable in 2020—mostly due an uptick in packages during the pandemic, and partly due to cost-cutting measures at the USPS.

"[The USPS] has been wildly inconsistent as far as both receiving and shipping," said Joe Steinhardt, founder of Don Giovanni Records, a New Jersey-based label specializing in punk rock. "You used to reliably ship something out in three to five days or five to seven days. Now, sometimes it's still three days, but other times it's like three weeks."

President Donald Trump's May appointment of Louis DeJoy, a Republican donor, as Postmaster General, has ushered in a chaotic time for the Post Office. In his tenure so far, DeJoy has cut off overtime for mail carriers, removed several public mailboxes and sorting machines, and reduced post-office hours. While the current neoliberal movement to defund the post office is in some ways just a continuation of a trend that began several administrations ago across both parties, the issue has become particularly politicized in the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential Election, leaving many politicians and voters worried that the post office will be unable to deal with the influx of mail-in ballots. While Dejoy has stopped the recent slow-down measures including overtime reductions and mailbox removals, the music industry is still feeling the damage.

According to Steinhardt, these delays haven't affected Don Giovanni's bottom line so much as they are leaving customers frustrated and confused. "You should be interviewing mail order customers and asking them what their problem is right now," he said with a laugh. "The problem is some people can't wait 16 days for a record they've already probably listened to," Steinhardt said. Still, the prospect of a work stoppage protest or the U.S. government privatizing the USPS in the future, which many worry is a Republican goal, could be catastrophic for his business.

"If the postal system does go or get privatized, I am totally fucked," Steinhardt said. "A big fear is that if mail order goes on pause, either I have to refund all those orders or I have to pay for FedEx to ship them in and lose $10 per order."

Bigger retailers like Discogs have had similar concerns. Aub Driver, a spokesperson for the online vinyl marketplace, said that 86 percent of U.S. sellers and 79 percent of U.S. buyers use the USPS, totaling an average of 141,000 Discogs sales per month. Though business has been up for Discogs since the pandemic started, Driver said the company has received several complaints about ship times. "We certainly heard from some sellers that there have been substantial delays," Driver said. "A record that was shipped from Boston to LA took almost two weeks to get there that would normally take only two or three days in a Priority Mail situation."

Driver said that following an initial wave of delays starting around April, when cities across America shut down to stop the spread of, they'd noticed shipping times starting to improve—up until around late June, that is, when Postmaster Dejoy instituted the cuts. "In June we started to see a positive shift and things were starting to open up again," Driver said. "But then, all of a sudden, there were reported slowdowns with the USPS."

Though business has been up for Discogs since March, Driver hopes the unpredictable delays don't continue. "There's a worry on what would happen if things continue to decline," he said. "If the USPS were to go away for whatever reason or stop doing media mail or any convenient service, you'd see a huge spike in shipping prices."

The situation has had an effect on artists too: With touring on hold, artists have become increasingly dependent on music and merch sales, which means they're also relying a lot on the USPS.

Every day since the pandemic started, Ryley Walker has been riding his bike out to his local post office to ship out t-shirts, records, cassettes, and any other merch that happens to be on sale in his webstore. "I do mail order every single day because it's really fun and the best part of my day," the guitarist said. "It's become my main source of income, more or less. I get some royalties, but that's not really enough to subsidize rent and bills for me."

Walker said that the postal service has become a lifeline for independent artists like himself. He describes it as the shipping equivalent of "some old piece of shit car you gotta pump the gas on to get started": even when there are hiccups like a delayed package or a bent record, it gets the job done. It's the only affordable way to ship his music and merch, Walker said, and he doesn't think he could be profitable without it. "Everything else that exists, like FedEx or UPS, has really harsh rates for working-class people," Walker said. "For low-tier indie-rock ding-dongs like myself, anything else is really not sustainable for me because it's multiple times more expensive."

The uncertainty surrounding the post office is also worrisome for merch managers like Abbey Simmons, who has noticed that shipping estimates are dramatically longer than they used to be. "Tour is an ever-changing thing, but one of the reliable things has always been the post office." she said. "If a package doesn't reach you on the day that you're there, you could spend an entire tour chasing down packages." She said she knows that when touring resumes, she'll already have her hands full worrying that she can sell merch safely. The prospect of chasing down packages would be an extra, potentially overwhelming stress for merch managers to tackle on the road.

While the USPS is unlikely to ever go away entirely, Steinhardt and others stressed that a smooth-functioning, low-cost postal service is essential to the independent music industry's survival. "When it comes to the relationship between record labels and the post office, it's like you're asking me what's my relationship with cardboard," Steinhardt said. "Yes, it's essential. It is a good. I need it. If it didn't exist, I'd have a lot of problems. I don't really love or hate cardboard but I need it to run a record label. It's neutral and that's the point."

Compared to a rent check, medication, or any other urgent piece of mail, Steinhardt said he hopes music fans will recognize that if a vinyl record takes a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days to arrive, it's not the end of the world. "If you want to support the post office, just be ok with the fact that the mail might be taking a little longer right now," he said.