Patrick Rodgers: Philadelphia’s Digital, Dancing Ferret

As an unseasonably warm breeze blows throughout the first Saturday in March, Patrick Rodgers goes to work - opening his new store, gathering his mail.

Once upon a time, the sight of Rodgers in long black clothes with his onyx hair blowing would cause people to whisper tired insults regarding vampires in the sun. That Rodgers has (if you look closely) a set of fangs only added fuel to their fire.

But he doesn't suffer fools. He's too successful to bother.

His Digital Ferret Records and CD shop popped the top on its new address this month along Fourth Street's Fabric Row, a store twice the size of his former location on Fifth Street, off South.

The mail he's collecting is for his Dancing Ferret Entertainment Group, a record label and booker of concerts and events, such as its weekly Wednesday Nocturne party at Shampoo. Having just hit the 12-year mark, Nocturne is the longest-running weekly club night in Philadelphia.

The label - like his store, specializing in dark-wave synth-pop, Goth and industrial rock - has had CDs on Billboard's dance chart, where its group the Cruxshadows rivaled Mariah and Britney.

Either success would be enough for an independent local company. But that Rodgers owns a label and store that are making money during this music-business depression makes Ferret doubly impressive.

"We have a unique vantage point to observe what happens with alternative music and dark-wave culture because we see the trends, not only at retail and mail-order, but at our events and through our label's sales and band tour data," says Rodgers.

He won't give sales figures for his acts or say how much product his store moved. The proof appears to be in Dancing Ferret's expansion and chart-topping songs.

"We know people are listening, attending, and buying . . . even if the media isn't writing about it," says Rogers, laughing. Though mainstream awareness of Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, and My Chemical Romance has grown, the press fascination with Goth culture seems to have dissipated.

To offer a sense of that disconnect, Dancing Ferret's quarterly Dracula's Ball sold out its 40th party, in February, without benefit of a single print story or ad.

The Bahamas-born Rodgers has had nearly that level of success since starting his parties, store and label. Which is odd, since he had no formal training, not the biz or the sound. "I don't sing or play an instrument," he says.

After working at a video arcade, Rodgers (who won't give his age) started booking concerts in 1995 because no one else did what he wanted to hear - Goth and industrial music. "Or because we were the only suckers in town who wanted it," laughs Rodgers.

His label started in August 1998 when two opportunities intersected.

Vampire: The Masquerade was a board game Rodgers liked, and he thought it needed a soundtrack. "I negotiated the license to produce a CD for the game, to be licensed to a record label for release," says Rodgers. "Problem was, once the project was finished, none of the labels were interested."

At the same time, a band Rodgers was booking, Florida's Cruxshadows, was in crisis. Preparing to deliver an album to a label that didn't have experience marketing goth bands, they feared their record would languish in obscurity.

Faced with projects nobody else wanted, Rodgers started a label and immediately released both CDs. "The game soundtrack wound up being one of our best-selling titles ever, outselling many other albums released by those labels that passed on the project," says Mark Schultz, the label's manager. The Cruxshadows went on to become the label's flagship artist.

Dancing Ferret Records has other respected acts, including Australian industrial-dance duo Angelspit, and the Belgian trip-hop act Lunascape. The label has a deal with Hot Topic clothing chain, which is one of Rodgers' best customers, buying a series of special compilations exclusively for their stores.

But it was Florida's introspective Cruxshadows that beat out Beyoncé when "Sophia" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard dance singles chart in September 2006, and stayed there for 18 weeks. In 2007, Cruxshadows' "Birthday" debuted at No. 1, and "Sophia" reentered the chart at No. 3. Rodgers believes those dance-chart heights occurred due to the band's constant touring.

Robbie Tronco, a DJ and former Billboard charts reporter, has another idea. Tronco, who spins dark underground tracks at Lounge 125 and Vango, says there's a connection between the emotive Cruxshadows and their audience.

"Neither the band nor its frontman, Rogue, make cookie-cutter dance rock," says Tronco, who remixed the band's single "Tears" in 2005. "Their remixes appeal to broader audiences but never lose the essence of what he feels."

Along with the fact that Cruxshadows fans want to support their favorite band and the scene they come from, Tronco points out that much of this music isn't readily available online. "People download Britney," says Tronco. "Not Dancing Ferret."

Part of the way that Digital Ferret bucks the downloading trend and makes money is with its store, which sells shirts and other ephemera. But the larger portion of their success is the same thing that drives the label: the emotional connection between fans and music. People who listen to Dancing Ferret bands want to own the CD, read the liner notes and the lyrics.

"When Tower Records bit the dust, everyone said music retail was at an end, particularly on South Street," says Rodgers. "That may hold truth for mainstream music, but promoting and retailing alternative music has meant our business thrives."

Though he doesn't dress like Rodgers, Mike Hoffman of Philadelphia's a.k.a. music has much in common with Dancing Ferret's honcho. Hoffman's record store, opened in 1999, has doubled in size while moving along the same stretch of North Second Street three times.

His retail business continues to grow, he says, while the rest of the music industry shrinks. "We cater to deep catalog sales and indie music while keeping overhead low," says Hoffman, whose current sellers are from Cat Power and Autechre, not Janet Jackson. Hoffman believes the success of a.k.a. and Dancing Ferret comes down to a boxing analogy.

"Rocky Marciano once was asked about how he won so many fights, and he answered with 'I just keep swinging,' " says Hoffman. "We never worry about the other guy."

Neither does Patrick Rodgers.