I do not have to tell Skope readers, but the music industry and it’s brick and mortar business model is a thing of the past. People are not buying CD’s but rather downloading music right onto their ZUNE or I-Pods.
We are now seeing a rise in strictly digital indie record labels. I really wanted to get a nice insight into this trend so I called on Dave Brandwein of Boston, MA to tell me all about his digital label, Galaxy Smith records. Read on because you might just learn something.
Stoli: What made you want to start the record label initially & how did you create a buzz behind it?
Dave: Two years ago I moved into a house in Allston with three of my fellow Berklee friends and musical collaborators. We also had a crew of about 5 or 6 other musicians who came around quite regularly. We would stand out on our porch playing songs on our guitars, banjos or mandolins… singing, beatboxing, etc… or we would be inside playing the piano or listening to each other’s latest recordings or compositions (we quickly erected a home recording studio upon moving in). We were just having fun and celebrating our recent arrival to Allston. I started noticing that though this was just fun and games to us, people were really interested in what we were doing and slowly but surely people would come up to our porch or knock on our door to see what we were up to. They just wanted to hear some music and be entertained, and in those days especially, they would never leave disappointed. There was always something going on.
I began to think… If only there were a way that we could just broadcast this over the Internet, so people all over the world could tune in and just see what we’re doing whenever they want. That would be perfect. The idea of Galaxy Smith began in this way. Of course, after some time it seemed that emotions run high naturally in a community of musicians, and turning ourselves into a 24 hour reality show might shake things up a little too much. So the idea was forced to change into something else. Basically the new model was to form a website where all these musicians could display their material to anyone in the world that wants to hear it. If someone makes a demo in their room, or if we film an impromptu musical performance, we can throw it up on the site for people to see the very next day, or even that same day. Eventually this evolved into the idea of a collective comprised of many artists who all interact with each other, as opposed to a typical record label with a roster of isolated artists. This idea is more community based, and meant to represent what really goes on in our lives and in our studio. We’re still working to make the site more interactive and updatable, customizable, etc… but we’ve made a lot of progress thus far and it’s coming together nicely. That’s really where the idea came from. Since then, it’s just been a matter of figuring out logistics and working out all the kinks.
As far as creating a buzz, a lot of the musicians on the site as well as people we were associated with had a certain amount of recognition around Berklee, and access to a lot of musical communities in Boston on both the performer side and the listener side. More and more as time went on, I began to notice that when I’d talk to people about who we are and what we do, they had heard of us, and they’d either heard the music or heard good things about it. This is always a nice feeling. I think not being afraid to tell people what you’re up to and promote it is really important in getting a buzz going. It really starts from word of mouth. Of course we sticker and flyer and advertise, but essentially it comes down to what people are saying about you.
Stoli: You are an alumni of Berklee College in Boston, MA. How did your education prepare you to start your own label?
Dave: Well I suppose the reason that Berklee really did have a hand in my ability to start Galaxy Smith is that it’s really more of a school for the trade of music and the industry, rather than just focusing on the art of it or the performance aspect, as many schools do. When people hear songs that I engineer and produce, they assume that I majored in Music Production and Engineering. When I tell them about the label I’ve started, they assume that I’m a Music Business major.
When I play an original song they assume Songwriting major, or if I sit in with a band and play guitar, they assume Performance Major. The reality is that I didn’t major in any of these things. I chose a major called Professional Music, which really allows the student to get a taste of all different aspects of music and the industry. In the same semester I would be learning about contract negotiations, recording techniques, stage and guitar performance, and music theory. The diversity in my music education has really helped me to play the many roles I do in the company (artist, engineer, producer, and president/director to name a few).
Stoli: You are strictly a digital record label. Please explain a few advantages to going that route?
Dave: Well this is an ongoing debate. I really would rather not comment on whether or not CD’s are gonna be phased out in the next 5 years (they are!), but I will say that it seems like a natural progression. I’m surprised that there aren’t a lot more digital labels out there… or if there are, I’m surprised I haven’t heard about more of them.
Considering that we have our own recording studio and the ability to make good recordings, we’re already way ahead of the game. This is what people sign away their lives to major labels for – recording and distribution. So that’s the next step: Make the music available so that anyone in the world can hear it or buy it. It seems the Internet has taken care of that problem pretty effectively.
Being exclusively digital at the end of the day cuts a lot of the cost and a lot of the legwork, and it’s the way that most people are getting and promoting their music these days. It just makes sense. Essentially we can handle every step of our process from writing, recording, mixing and mastering to distribution and advertising, right from our own computers.
Stoli: The music scene is incredibly saturated now with new bands and artists coming up everyday. How do you help your artists to stand out & generate revenue?
Dave: Well I think the live show is very important. This is something that I’m really starting to realize fully for the first time and put more energy into. You can friend request all day on Myspace, and you can tell people to buy your album, but at the end of the day people need to have a real experience with the artist. They need to get excited.
One of our bands, Turkuaz, has been gaining momentum live and it’s really done wonders for us. Turkuaz is a big funk band, and the shows are inevitably always a party atmosphere. We noticed that each time we played a show, the number of people was practically doubling. It’s because they were having a genuine experience with the music and most importantly a really good time. This is what makes us stand out and what brings people back and keeps them talking about it.
The other way we manage to often stand out is the fact that each of our artists exist within this collective. It’s one of those whole is greater than the sum of its parts kind of things. The fact that we all stand together under this umbrella does not cheapen or take away from any of the music, but if anything seems to enrich it and add value and weight to it. I think this is something that more like-minded bands and artists should start considering and doing more often. When they come together and support each other, it makes all of them stronger and it benefits everyone.
Also, I try not to think of other bands or labels as competition, but rather as allies. iPods are only getting bigger and people don’t have to choose one or another. I’d rather trade links and shows with a band than try to outdo them. This helps to keep me sane as well as open to new partners and opportunities in the fast-paced and ever-growing music world.
As far as revenue goes, we have a fairly simple relationship with our artists. We don’t charge them a cent for anything we do. That’s the first step in aiding in their eventual ability to generate a profit and make a good living through music. Whatever digital sales they have we split with them 50/50 right down the middle. Our 50% obviously goes towards keeping the label running and providing those free services to the artist. Other than that we really let them do their own thing.
We’re not trying to be the gatekeeper that major labels once were. If artists wanna do other things, we’re not asking for a cut. So it’s really up to them to figure out where the rest of their profits are coming from. Along with the freedom that artists get with Galaxy Smith, they also get responsibility. They book their own shows, they print up their own CD’s and flyers for shows, and they have the right to do anything they want really to make money as long as it doesn’t violate our agreement with them. We’re not trying to make a quick buck or mooch off of success that they generate on their own. We just want to help. And realistically, we often end up providing any of those other services whenever it’s requested by the artist, if it’s in our power to do so.
Stoli: Do you feel that people will ever pay for music like they used to or will illegal downloading be here for good?
Dave: I don’t think people will ever pay like they used to… or at least they won’t pay as much, and rightfully so. I mean, out of the 20 dollars you used to spend on a CD the artist was getting almost none of that. Right off the bat the store you buy it from is making 6 of those dollars. The rest is going to all those middlemen. Distribution houses, promoters, executives (of course), etc. And for the 5% of all major label artists that were ever lucky enough to see a single royalty check for their music (labels don’t pay the artist until they recoup ALL expenses for making, distributing and promoting their album), they’re still splitting their tiny percentage with their producer who doesn’t get paid by the label.
So I think since we have found an alternate way to cut out these middlemen, we ought to also have the responsibility of finding an alternate way to price it. I happen to think that iTunes has a good model. Sure, 99 cents a song plays a role in devaluing the idea of an album, and making it too easy for people to pick and choose, but the reality is that things change and we are entering a new paradigm.
People can choose what they wanna hear. And the fact is, if they like something I think they will pay for it and support the band. The number of people downloading legally is rapidly increasing every year. And people are definitely starting to be scared of illegal file sharing programs for all the potential fines or viruses. iTunes has presented a good, safe, and quality controlled legal alternative, and we’re trying to do the same.
I do believe however that illegal file sharing will never stop in the way of people burning discs for one another, swapping files on hard drives, and of course those dedicated bit torrent users. So it is possible that something else will need to be figured out, and we’re always trying to think outside the box. I was chatting with my teacher, friend and fellow musician Livingston Taylor the other day, and we were discussing possibilities of breaking the Internet off into pieces, so musicians could be paid out based on what people were downloading for free, by the entities that provide the Internet services to them (who are actually making the money). Sort of like the way BMI and ASCAP collect money from bars, clubs and restaurants and pay out to the musicians whose material is being played or performed in those establishments. It’s an interesting idea, but certainly unrealistic for the near future. It would take an enormous amount of cooperation from a lot of different entities with different agendas and priorities. We did end our conversation however on a positive and optimistic note, believing that this problem will be solved.
Stoli: Are you for or against illegal downloading & why?
Dave: Well I suppose I’m neither. I don’t do it myself. I used to, but I feel like iTunes is safer, more reliable, cheap, and I feel much better about supporting the artist. In terms of hoping to make a career out of creating original music, illegal downloading is certainly a scary thing. However I think for the time being there really isn’t anything we can do to stop it entirely, and I’d rather people listen to the music than not listen because they don’t wanna spend the money. Instead I think the new idea is that the song is really an advertisement for the band, as funny as that may sound. Now this begs the question: What is the product?
The product is anything the band has the creativity to think up that will cause the fans to want more. On the more conventional side – live shows, T-shirts, posters and visual art, books, DVD’s, etc. I think outside of those other ways of making money, the music industry is in dire need of some innovation as far as where to direct people once they’ve got all the music for free. This is a big part of what I think about and brainstorm over everyday. What is that greater product or service? How do we keep people interested and put food on the table? I have a few ideas which I won’t disclose at this point. I think they need to be better developed and formulated before they’re attempted. But don’t get me wrong, we provide a cheap and legal option for people to purchase our music through our own website as well as iTunes, and we certainly encourage listeners to do that.
Stoli: When you are going to sign an artist what do you look for in them begore signing the contract?
Dave: Usually the relationship comes from interaction with the band or artist. It’s somebody I’ll meet through a friend, or someone I already know half the time. I just think about if they have something unique and valuable to offer to the collective. I try to keep it very quality controlled, as opposed to just signing up tons of bands. This keeps the music on the site more interesting and potent. I really don’t go out and scout bands or anything. It makes me feel a little sleazy to be honest. And it just feels sort of disingenuous. Of course, if I see something I like, I certainly don’t have a rule against it. There are no requirements though in terms of genre or style. If it’s good we’ll take it, as our current catalogue reflects.
Stoli: If a band is interested in signing with Galaxy Smith, what should they do?
Dave: I suppose the best thing to do would be to get in touch either through GalaxySmith.com, myspace or in whatever way possible. Give us a chance to hear what you do, and tell us why you think you would be right for it. Or why you appreciate our approach and our ideals in terms of the way we do things, and the way we are musically and aesthetically. Like I said before, we don’t usually go out of our way to seek out bands and artists because we like doing in things in-house and having solid relationships between everyone involved. But the door certainly is not closed to anybody. We are always excited to hear new stuff.
Stoli: Many people say that the major label will not be necessary in 10-15 years. Do you agree and why?
Dave: I don’t think it’s so much a matter of if they will be necessary or not, as much as if they’ll be able to survive. I believe that they already are not necessary, and more and more artists are realizing this every day. They can flood the media with promotions for new artists. They can hit people over the head with it repeatedly but the reality is that people are really starting to not care anymore. No one listens to the radio anymore. People can listen to what they want, and the amount of fans seeking out independent artists they like far surpasses those still buying in to the major label hype. And as discussed before, the downsides to signing with a major really outweigh any of the potential advantages. Even this new Live Nation trend seems like a feeble attempt to buy someone for their name. It makes the company look good. It’s not about the music. People are looking for quality again. They want sincerity. This is something that major labels do not specialize in. They will surely be extinct very soon. I think their only hope is to save up that money of which I’m sure they still have plenty, and buy up all the little guys emerging. I certainly hope to never sell out to them, but inevitably in a few years time they will start looking for who the money makers are, and what the price tag says. I’m just glad at this point to be the entity with unlimited potential for growth, instead of being a dinosaur searching for that final act of desperation.
Stoli: I have not bought an album in years but I buy singles everyday on ZUNE. Do you encourage your bands to produce 10-15 tracks or will singles take over?
Dave: As a producer I usually try to encourage artists to keep the song count a little lower. I have a deep appreciation for the art of making an album, and I really want that tradition to live on. However I feel that the best hope for this to happen, is to create albums that people can listen to. Anything more than 10 or 11 these days just really doesn’t get played all the way through. I’d rather someone be able to really take in the project on their morning commute. Otherwise they’re just gonna be looking for that one out of 15 tracks that they wanna throw on a playlist. It’s just another one of those realities of the new paradigm, and I’d like to say that my attention span hasn’t been dwindled down in this digital age, but i can’t. I think generating a good roster of songs at the end of the day is what is most important and will build the fanbase, regardless of the increments the songs come in.
Stoli: What can we look for from Galaxy Smith for 2008 & beyond?
Dave: Well we have a lot of things planned. We have four new artists currently in production all of whom are great. We also are in the process of doing a lot of renovation and redesigning to the site. As I said earlier we’re really trying to make it more a living, breathing entity, better equipped to handle real-time communication between the artist and the listener. We also are constantly trying to make it more intuitive and user friendly, considering that it is the point of interaction between us and our fans.
Galaxy Smith is also hoping to add three new elements and general aspects to our business and functionality as a digital entity. One of these is to feature more art and media. We coined the term “Digital Media Collective” with the idea of incorporating more video and visual art into the site. We are searching for filmmakers and visual artists to not only complement the music on Galaxy Smith, but to also be featured in their own right. I strongly encourage artists of all kinds out there to get in touch if they feel they have work that will match the aesthetic of any of our artists or the site in general. This really will enhance the creative, and community aspects of the site.
This leads to the next thing, which is building our community and message board/forum. We hope to make Galaxy Smith a place where people can talk about more than just Galaxy Smith artists. We want musicians and fans alike to use our site in the future to discuss various topics pertaining to music, the music industry, and really anything at all having to do with the arts. We also feel like it may become a good place for musicians to interact and discover each other, whether they are on our label or not. If someone needs a guitar player in their band they can post it up there. Or if they’re selling their old drum kit they can let people know. Anything at all really. I think this would be a valuable way to expand our base of listeners and supporters, while providing a useful service to the general music community.
The final thing is launching our licensing department. We are looking to have a lot more songs by Galaxy Smith artists featured in movies, television and video games, as this really seems to be the new radio. A lot of production companies and music supervisors also seem to be looking to break new bands these days, as opposed to paying big bucks for hits of the past. I think this is the modern approach to placing songs and it looks cooler for the companies to show people something new. We are very optimistic about this new division in our company though we do have a lot to learn and I think there will be some trial and error before this is a steady thing for us.
Overall we really try to keep ideas flowing all the time, and we always keep an open mind so that we can innovate and move with the changes of the industry which is undergoing a major crisis right now, while also being introduced to new opportunities. Most entities that sell music I feel have not fully realized these opportunities and that is what we as a company are trying to do more and more everyday through close interaction with our artists and with our listeners. I think 2008 will continue to be a good year for us and things will get better and better in years to come. As long as we keep our priorities straight, don’t get too full of ourselves, and most importantly continue to have fun and love what we do while making good music, we will be consistently improving our operation and contributing something good to music and to the world.
Dave Brandwein – CEO – Galaxy Smith Records