A little bit about me:
I went to a University with an adjunct program that allowed students to create their own individualized majors (it’s called the Johnston Center). You see, my interests and passions were too diverse for me to settle with one single field of study. We didn’t have letter grades — that doesn’t tell you anything — instead, we received evaluations of our performance. Before the class we would write a course contract stating our goals for the class, at the end we would write a self-evaluation based on how we felt we did, and then the professor or facilitator of the course would write an evaluation which went on our file. I recently uncovered the faculty evaluation for my senior project and was reading it. And I think this says a lot about my approach as well.
The original concept for my senior project was to take an entire year, including the short interim semester, and write a story, film it, and then turn it into an interactive movie like many that were popular when I was in high school (Phantasmagoria and the sequel, Wing Commander III, various others). The film footage was shot, but when it came down to doing the game portion, I realized the scope of the project would exceed the amount of time I had, and shifted gears, focusing on editing and showing the film and created a CD-Rom with bonus material and the extra footage from the scenes that were to be alternate takes for different forks in the story. Rather than being seen as a failing, my faculty advisor — who I mostly just checked-in with to give periodic progress reports, otherwise I completely ran everything myself including facilitating my own class which became the production team for the film for the first half of the project — saw this as a strength. She says:
The many challenges he faced (teaching and directing peers, sorting out technical and creative goals, and readjusting his plans as he went along) could easily have proved too daunting for many students. But Chris persisted with his core ideas and visions, demonstrating a solid enterprising spririt and producing and intriguing film in the end.
Re-reading this ten years later makes me realize that being able to evaluate a situation and adapt as-needed to create something that is attainable and still true to the original vision is a skill that hasn’t faded, in fact, as a designer and an entrepreneur (I hate that word, by the way), it’s something I do almost every day. Several years ago, I decided I wanted to create an online music store. The vision behind it was based on a dream I had for a brick and mortar store, where you would be able to go to a kiosk (I was working quite a bit with photokiosks at the time) and listen to any album in the store, in its’ entirety, before purchasing it. It was based on the idea that I’ve had for many years that the best way to promote music is to let people hear it, without restrictions. I tried to take this approach to the website, with mixed results. The stuff I had in my online catalog was not the same as the stuff I had in the store, and vice versa, and the music catalog was limited by access to distributors, many of whom required a monthly subscription that I didn’t have the capital to front. It was a learning experience, however, one that — for the first time — really got me deeper into the music business than I had been before.
The only thing that has ever held me back in following through with my crazy, ambitious schemes is taking myself seriously. In college, of course you take yourself seriously, because you take everything you do incredibly seriously, and you have a bunch of teachers urging you to push yourself. But in the real world, when you’re faced with bills and responsibilities, it’s too easy to look at a crazy idea and say “wow, that’s crazy” and let it die right there. But it was a crazy idea to start a business doing web design, and that’s one instance where I’ve taken the crazy idea, and shaped it along the way as new challenges have come and the industry has evolved. Last summer we started Museum Themes and, in less than a year, have sold enough WordPress themes and Blogger templates to take in over $1k. It’s not much by the standards of all the other premium theme vendors, but for us, an indie studio with a very small advertising budget (most of the earnings from the themes go straight to advertising), it’s a pretty big deal, and those numbers only get better over time.
So when I start musing over the idea of a netlabel, what I’m doing is analyzing the situation. Is it worth it? What is the benefit? What could I provide with my netlabel that you might not find elsewhere? Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the music industry. I’ve watched and watched and I can’t believe how some of these monolithic labels continue in their Jurassic practices and fail to see the obvious right in front of them: that the industry they are in is not the same as it was ten years ago, or even five years ago. I was about to write a post about the small-batch cd duplication service provided by Kunaki (which I’m still going to do), and considering the new Radiohead album which is sold as a digital-only album with a collectors-edition physical artifact (in the form of two records and expansive art), when a word floated to the front of my consciousness: netlabel. What does that mean? Can I do it? Why bother?
If you watched my last video post, you will know that I’ve been thinking more about the production side of music-making. This new idea is an extension of that. And the more that I think about this idea — netlabel — the more attracted to it I become, the more serious the idea gets. But most of all, the thing that’s driving me is when I half-rhetorically asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in joining me if I started a netlabel, and actually got a few bites.
What can a netlabel offer? Exposure. A small amount of advertising (mostly through viral and online, social networking-type avenues). Complete creative freedom. Most of all, I think what a netlabel could do for an independent musician is deal with the getting-your-music-out-there part of the music equation, so you just need to worry about making it.
What would I be bringing to the table? I have been making sideline commentary about the music business for years. It’s time to put these ideas to practice. So, in part, it would bring my analytical view of the direction the music industry and the effect of the internet and digital mediums on this new incarnation the industry is taking. I’m also a designer and a web guy. I could design or help with art, websites, banners, various social networking type things. I’ve dug deeply into a variety of social networks and tools and ideas and practices, trying almost everything to figure out for myself what works, what doesn’t, and why. So, as opposed to a regular label, or even, maybe, an indie label, I have music industry knowledge, business knowledge and a knowledge of the internet, social networking and — though nothing I’ve ever done has gone viral, per se — viral marketing. As stated in my video post, I’m also interested in getting involved in producing albums. I’m looking at the last few days of the RPM Challenge winding down, and what I see is a lot of people struggling with mixing their own albums. As of today, I can’t promise that I’m an expert, but I know my tools, I know I have a good ear for music, and, in many cases, I couldn’t possibly be worse than what you’re trying to do yourself. Time, practice, and experience will tell if I’m as good as I think I could be. That’s another thing that I could bring. I also have experience getting music posted on Last.fm, Alonetone, Bandcamp, all of which I’ve used. I’ve followed both indie musicians and professional musicians and watched as many have shifted their approaches to releasing music and, literally, there isn’t anything they are doing that I couldn’t also do.
What does a traditional label give you? Distribution. With everything online and an emphasis on digital music, this is irrelevant. The only real thing that matters is getting your music in the right places so people will hear it. But with the internet as your storefront, there’s no question of distribution. Marketing. Again, when the internet is your medium, the entry level for this goes down to nil. You can market yourself. Or you can hire some firm to market your stuff for you (in this new job description known as “social media marketer”) but the end result is the same: get yourself a web presence, establish your “brand”, throw your name in as many people’s faces as possible and, most of all, actually engage with people (this is where a lot of companies and individuals fail, opting, instead, for generic or canned messages and status updates or exclusively aggregated content). Take @Syfy for example. A single employee for the cable channel maintains the Twitter stream, but rather than posting sterile tweets about upcoming shows, he actually engages his audience, and it’s largely because of his tweets and retweets that I’ve started watching (and enjoying) the Syfy shows Eureka and Being Human, so obviously what he’s doing is working.
Traditional record labels also often provide recording studios and equipment, but if you’re interested in joining or getting involved with a netlabel, you’re probably already doing this in your bedroom. We have tools now that they couldn’t dream of when they got in the business — we can have entire, professional-quality recording studios in our bedroom for less than $500, so this, too becomes a moot point. They also provide some upfront cash and help with tour dates and getting gigs, but this is something that bands generally do themselves when you scale it down and start looking at indie labels. And, again, with the internet, the need to gig to get your music out there isn’t as necessary. More than that, being a touring road musician means that, unless you’re a big deal, you’re ending up making just enough to get to your next stop. This will almost never not be the case for any of us bedroom musicians — we know this, and probably we’ve come to terms with the fact that we won’t ever be a huge deal. But, we could cultivate a cult following if given the right ingredients. I also think that — while my initial research into what it takes to start a netlabel (honestly, the answer is: hardly anything) says there’s generally no money in it and you’re doing it mostly for a love of the game — I don’t think that it should be excluded as a possibility to actually sell your music. And maybe signing onto my netlabel will help you promote your music enough and provide enough tools and resources so you are actually able to sell a few copies.
This is what has me thinking. A lot. I think I’m going to try it. I need to work out the details of the business model, profit sharing, etc., but the framework is there, and I really don’t expect there to really be any money involved for a while anyway. I’ve also got a clear idea of the structure the website will take and even some idea about the design. And, despite what I’ve seen suggested that netlabels limit themselves to a particular genre or style, my approach is not going to go in that direction. I’m interested in promoting and producing good music, regardless of the form it takes. And if your music isn’t good, you should know, and understand how to make it better. Which is one of the things I’m thinking about with the website…
With that said: Plague Music, coming in 2011.