Vinyl Countdown: The New Record Label

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Contemplating the changing model of the label with Sub Pop‘s Jonathan Poneman and RCRD LBL‘s Peter Rojas.

As online labels and music blogs become the default means of discovering new music, is there still room for vinyl-and-CD purveyors in this web-obsessed world? On the occasion of Sub Pop’s 20th anniversary we called up co-founder Jonathan Poneman, who ushered the Seattle label through the grunge era into its current incarnation as one of indie rock’s most challenging and authoritative names, and Peter Rojas, creator of tech blogs Engadget and Gizmodo and founder of the game-changing, online-only RCRD LBL imprint, to talk it out.

XLR8R: Sub Pop has long been a record label in the traditional sense, and RCRD LBL is a new, online-only imprint. Do you guys see yourselves as playing on the same team?

Peter Rojas: I certainly do, in a sense that Sup Pop was sort of an inspiration for what we’re trying to do with RCRD LBL–along with all the other labels I really cared about when I was growing up, like Dischord and Kill Rock Stars and Factory. What makes a label great is the sense that there are people doing it that actually are out there finding music that they love.

Jonathan Poneman: I draw inspiration from labels like RCRD LBL–it’s that initial inspiration, that passion that drives individuals to get behind the music and represent the music in a way they find to be meaningful. Also, I am always impressed and inspired by people who are doing business in ways that are not as prehistoric [laughs]. While we try to be as progressive as we can, [Sub Pop] is, in fact, an old-fashioned record label. And I think that there’s still a place for an old-fashioned record label in this world. But, like so many other people involved in our culture, I hold particular reverence for the new and what’s coming up and to that degree, labels like RCRD LBL are keeping up with the future in ways I can only hope to attain myself.

When the advent of digital music sales came about, what was the feeling within Sub Pop?

JP: The first reaction was “uh-oh” and then we tried to do whatever we could to try and stamp it out. No, I’m kidding [laughs]. It was exciting because first and foremost, we’re fans, we’re consumers. The odd thing is that we’re trying to maintain and feed this paradigm as business people, which we don’t always honor as music fans. Having said that, Sub Pop [negotiates] the many different communities and business models that exist right now as best as a label our age can. And I’m proud of that… As a fan first, I’m excited by new music delivery systems. I’m not always psyched about the quality, but it’s not that much worse than CD. But I think the thing that should take precedence soon is just making sure that the actual fullness and richness of the music that gets recorded gets passed on to the consumer. And I’m not just indicting sound files here, but CDs as well.

PR: There’s been a generational shift of what people care about in terms of audio quality, in many ways for the worse. Obviously there’s no comparison when you talk about vinyl being sort of the paradigm. And being someone who was a big vinyl collector for a long time until I moved into a small New York apartment, there’s obviously there’s no comparison. I think there’s a trade off with the MP3: You gain a lot of convenience, portability, and flexibility–and you sacrifice some sound quality. What I consider to be an encouraging trend is if you look at where things are going technologically speaking, in terms of hard-drive capacities and bandwidth, it will actually get easier and easier to offer higher and higher quality MP3s. It’s encouraging to think that there might be a point where having sound files that are 100 MB in size won’t be a big deal for users.

JP: The revolution has been about access and, as Pete stated, convenience. I don’t think it’s a generational thing myself. It could well be. But I think it’s inevitable that once these other frontiers are traversed that we’re going to start dealing with things that may just be considered as minutia at this point. But I think it really goes to the heart of art’s creation, which is having music sound the way it’s supposed to.

PR: One of the things I really like about the shift toward digital files that you can get online… it has in a lot of ways democratized the consumption of music. It used to be, as a record collector, you sort of lorded your collection over other people. And that isn’t as meaningful [now]. In some ways it is this shrinking subset of über-collectors, but I think for most people, the idea that you would have a collection of music that would be exclusive to you, that someone couldn’t just copy and also have access to, is foreign.

But the digital revolution has got to make the job of being a distiller of culture that much more daunting, right?

JP: I don’t see it as a distiller per se–a portal of sorts, I guess. The only thing I see being more difficult is the sheer volume. I mean, there’s just so much music, but I don’t see that as being an inherently bad thing. I react to the music–like or dislike–the same as I always have.

Peter, are you signing unsigned artists as well as those who are established on labels?

PR: We are doing both. [We’re doing] a lot of things that make sense given how fluid and dynamic the web is and how mercurial web-based businesses can be–and sort of have to be today. We sign artists directly and we don’t do long-term album deals. We really just sign them specifically to a set number of songs, whether it’s an EP or album or even a single. I’ve worked with White Denim and Jacques Renault to do original music that’s released only at RCRD LBL. And then we have a network of about 15 different independent labels that have a presence on the site and can put out music–whether it’s exclusive or non-exclusive or promotional–on the site and can get adshare revenue with that. The idea is really just to put out as much great music as we can every day. And we have a team of bloggers/A&R people that are helping us find bands.

Why have music blogs struggled so long to legitimize themselves as actual businesses?

PR: I think that most music bloggers aren’t struggling or aspiring to be legitimate businesses. It’s just people doing it as a hobby because they’re really passionate about the music and want to share it with people. I thought that the biggest hurdle to music blogs to date is that taking other peoples’ music and posting it without permission is illegal. There’s been a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of thing where most copyright owners look the other way because there are promotional benefits. Not to say that there isn’t a benefit but I think it’s hard to build a business when it’s predicated on something that’s a little unstable. So far the response [to RCRD LBL] has been pretty great–artists are happy to put their music out there for free and get paid for it. Audiences or music fans are happy to get music for free… in a guilt-free context. And for the advertisers obviously it’s a way to be a part of something.

Jonathan, what’s your view on distributing music when it’s assisted by advertising?

JP: I think it is a worthy model. The thing that would give me pause–and when I say this, there are a hundred things that give me pause about the model that I work with right now, [so this] is not to condemn the model–is that when the economy takes a plunge as a whole, those of us who are reliant on advertising dollars will be directly hit... What you’re gonna find in the long run is more and more people participating and relying [on] or feeling comfortable with the new models so they become established models. That just takes time though. And there really just hasn’t been enough time yet for the new community to establish itself.

Peter, many of the concerns that Jonathan has had as a record label owner and operator for so many years don’t apply to RCRD LBL’s model. For instance, do you desire to have greater involvement with artists in terms of trying to market songs to radio?

PR: We definitely have thought about that and I’m not sure if we’ll ever end up [having] a really long-term relationship with an artist that will last longer than an album or two albums. As Jonathan knows, having a full-blown marketing team to get stuff played on the radio costs a lot of money. And the economics of the internet are pretty brutal. We’re not just competing with every other source of music on the internet–we’re competing with anything that competes for peoples’ attention online. We have to keep our cost structure very lean, and so far we’ve done a pretty good job of that. Not having to worry about pressing up CDs and getting them sent out to distributors obviously takes out a huge cost for us but, as Jonathan noted, we are also susceptible to a downturn in the advertising market. I’m hopeful that we’ll reach a point where we can start to stretch our legs a little bit more and do some of the more traditional label things. I think that most of the artists that we work with don’t really need or care about getting on the radio except for maybe a handful of independent radio stations here and there, and we actually have a good relationship with KCRW and have gotten a lot of our bands played on shows there. If you think about how few songs get put on rotation at mainstream Top 40 Clear Channel stations, it’s like you win the lottery and become Rihanna. But for everyone else, it’s a waste of time.