“Kill Rock Stars is…firmly committed to punk rock and “independence,”
both financial and aesthetical. Most importantly, we are committed to
putting out records that are meaningful and not just nice pleasant noises
to listen to while you wash your dishes. People who make music just to
try to get famous or rich are dumb and the people who put out records
for those same reasons are pretty silly too. Good rock and roll is a conspiracy,
not just something nice made by crafty businessmen that matches the couch.”
S = Slim Moon
J : You say that Kill Rock Stars has been on the web for since 1997. What made you decide to put up a website?
S : I don’t know (laughter) let me try to think of an honest answer. We had thought about putting up a website for a while because — well, I guess it just seemed like something that we should do. I don’t know, you read articles — I can’t remember what caused it. Part of the problem was the fact that we used to be strictly on AOL and their browser was so terrible that the experience of going to people’s websites and surfing the internet was just frustrating and awful. So even though I read that the internet was “where it’s happening now,” it wasn’t very real to me. I’d usually give up after a few minutes online.
We first registered our domain name and had some kind of half-assed website because some guy pitched it to us and we said, sure, why not. We got a little ways into it and then we saw the price quote of what he wanted to bill. The whole thing just sort of stopped there because we could not afford it. Then it went for a year where we just had this site that basically said, “Coming soon!” Finally this kid Aaron Tuller came along. He moved to Olympia from Seattle and he sent me this really long email about what our website ought to look like, just trying to be helpful. Well another six months went by with us sending emails back and forth. Finally, at one point he just became our webmaster. Once we moved, he came and looked at the new space and convinced us that we could get networked and get DSL and he started developing stuff.
I was nervous because other people’s websites were so bad. I’d go to a lot of band websites and see that a lot of energy had gone into the original development and then they would leave all these parts that needed to be updated. You would look and there would be tour dates as of 15 months ago and it would say “Merry Christmas!” and it would be June. I was really worried about that. I felt if we were going to have a site we should either choose to have basic information that didn’t need updating or we needed to do something that didn’t cost too much to keep current. He sort of convinced me that that was doable. Then his girlfriend moved here and started designing artist pages on spec and we liked them so much we hired her. So we kinda never had a plan, we just evolved into it.
Frequently, people just end up working at KRS in various capacities by default, whether it’s stuffing 7”s, or putting out an album. You look back and you can’t remember when it started to happen that they got on the payroll or you asked them to put out a record — it just sort of happens. You know what I mean?
J : Absolutely, it all starts to overlap. Suddenly the intern is playing in your band or you start putting out their band and then they become the head of mailorder. Do you spend much time on the web now?
S : Yeah, we have DSL and we’re networked through a server. We send each other emails all the time. I’m always on the Internet. I can be talking to you and looking up the definition of the word relevant or looking up why ash is used on Ash Wednesday. I use it for that kind of stuff. I buy a lot of music over the Internet too.
J : Really? When did you start doing that?
S : The last 4 months I’ve been doing it a lot because my car has been
broken. I go to
J : Are there many sites out there that you like? Are there any sites out there that inspire you to go to your webmaster and say “I want our site to do this”?
S : Yeah, and then he always talks me out of it. That’s the problem.
I keep basing my conception of the web on my experience of the web. So
when I had AOL I thought it sucked and now that I have a fast connection
I want to do all these things that include all these plug-ins. He usually
says that’s a bad idea because it will be really slow for Joe Shmo, average-kid
who has a 56K modem. So every time I point things out he says, the technology
isn’t really there for that yet. It looks great on your computer but it’ll
look bad on everybody elses. But I think we’ve gotten some organizational
ideas from other sites. In my job I have to straddle both business decisions
and aesthetic decisions. Ultimately a lot of aesthetic decisions will
affect business. Some of the things I would copy from other sites are
how they lay out their mail-order. For example, right now we send an e-mail
that says, “We’ve accepted your order.” But we want to change it so now
they will get another e-mail that says; “It’s been shipped”. I got that
J : I think a lot of sites share good ideas. That’s something that’s interesting to talk about with regards to the internet as a place where people are meeting each other, as opposed to thinking of it as just bunch of tools to use to sell and buy things.
How much do the bands participate in their web pages?
S : Very little, and we really would like them to do more. I think a lot of them don’t have computers yet, and if they do, the ones who can afford them, are usually very busy. Most of our artists have an e-mail address now but often it’s just a Hotmail address. A lot of them have to come over here to the office to check their mail. For many of them, the internet is not a “reality”. Even for the ones who surf it, I think they still don’t think much of it. I think our bands in particular are not used to thinking in terms of how they are going to sell themselves. They either think it’s our job, or they never think about it because it’s not part of the way they think. So when we say, “This is really important because there are 4,000 people on the mailing list. If you put up new information and we send them a letter that 4,000 people are going to get a letter saying, “Come to the Unwound site and check out the new live MP3s.” It usually just goes in one ear and out the other for most of our bands. I don’t know why. Our bands have not been particularly participatory and the ones who have are generally solo artists. I think it’s easier for a solo artist. There are so many different feelings about the web so far that to try to get 4 or 5 band members to agree on how to do a site is really tough.
J : Do you think that some of the lack of participation is tied up with fear of the technology? In the same way that before you first put out a record when you picked one up and looked at it, you though, “This comes from an alien planet. I have no idea how this is made.” That’s the same experience I had when, for example, I looked at a photo image on a web page before I bought a scanner.
S : I think we’re kinda past that point now. I think everybody knows it’s real and they all have some experience on the web. I just think with us it’s the same mentality that made some of our bands refuse to be on CD until several years after that was the dominant format. Or who still want to put out vinyl now even though vinyl is pretty much dead. It’s the same mentality. “It’s not my listening experience so it’s not legitimate.” People will dress that feeling up in all this…”Well the sound quality is not as good” or whatever. Sometimes they are right but mostly it’s just a rationalization. They’re just looking at everything through the lens of self.
J : I still wonder though, about the fear aspect. I worry that a lot
of independent artists shrink from the internet because they are afraid
(maybe rightfully afraid) of the technology and they miss out on a lot
of good things that are going on. Look at
S : Ironically, I’ve discovered over the last 10 years, that most artists
do like having that layer between them and the fans. Yes, there are some
artists that are comfortable with interacting with their fans, but it’s
pretty rare to find an artist who is comfortable with it and who is not
a megalomaniac. A couple of people on our label are really into developing
their site and would do all the Momus stuff if they had the resources.
But those people are kinda into themselves. It takes someone like
J : Yeah, I wonder about that because Momus and Watt are around the
same age, and they’ve been making music for around the same amount of
time. I find both of their DIY approaches different but similarly refreshing.
S : Yeah, I think you’re totally right.
J : It’s the same way that a young kid asks me a question about why Tsunami chose to put out our records on an independent label as opposed to a major label. They don’t understand that I could have never been a major artist. We started putting records out because no one else would do it. There was no perception of doing it in the face of that “choice” to be independent. People have a hard time understanding what they have never experienced. Young kids always see independent music in relation the majors. Older folks don’t always see it that way. When we started we didn’t really much think about the majors at all. There was no reason to. I think a lot of the earlier punks (like Watt) have that “Do It Yourself” mentality down in their toes, based, mainly on the fact that when they were coming up there wasn’t any other choice.
S : Yup.
J : Let’s talk about interaction on the web. Let’s assume that the Best Buys (first) and the CDNows (recently) are putting mom and pop record stores out of business. Do you think online store sites like an Insound or even your KRS site will facilitate the same friendships and connections that were born of the corner record store? Do you think something is lost if we’re not interacting personally as much?
S : Well, I definitely think that the web is great for the weirdos.
If you are really into a thing, like
J : This raises a question that I hadn’t thought about before. I think when you look back at the origins of punk rock, one of the things that was really interesting was the way that punk rockers identified themselves as outsiders, but didn’t really have just one flavor of how that outsiders should be demonstrated. So if you lived in a small town during punks early days, the punk rock bar was also the bar where the gay people hung out and the bikers and the rebels and maybe the nerds. So you have this whole variety of outsiders coming together in one place where you ended up being exposed to not just the outsider stuff you thought you liked, but a lot of other influences. I think that punk became less interesting once it settled down into easily recognizable and codified style. Like, say, the hardcore song, with a certain type of guy, singing in a certain type of way with a certain sound.
S : Absolutely. I mean, some great music came out of it but it certainly
was less interesting. Some pockets of scenes were spared from that. In
Olympia, for example, punk rock can still mean
J : Yes, I totally agree, but my question is this: do we lose something due to our ability to find exactly what we think we want to find and connect with exactly the same kind of people we want to connect with?
S : I guess that could happen and would happen with the less interesting people, but with the more interesting people they just get dulledÃ„ In my small town if there are only 4 or 5 people who think like me, after a while I just start to fit in with the other 20 people who are not like me. I think that there is a good chance that I will lose some of that unique thing that I have if I never get any support for it. If there is no one who will say, “Hey that’s cool about you.” But if you go on the internet and you find other people and they say, “That is really rad that you are really into painting the underside of rocks.” If they get a little encouragement, then, who knows, they might take painting the undersides of rocks to new heights? So I’m kinda excited about it.
J : The next question speaks to the rose-colored tongue (er…glasses) with which so many folks are describing the internet and the possibility of moving towards digital downloads as a standard format instead of CDs. Actually I guess we should first explain that while Mordam are great (see sidebar), they don’t really take on many labels (so everyone who has just read how good they are and who are planning on sending demos to Mordam, you’ll probably be out of luck).
This means that there are thousands of bands out there that won’t be able to go through a respectable and powerful distribution group like Mordam. These bands are stuck trying to get their records into chain stores that do not want them and very often will not pay for them.
So this whole idea of moving towards the digital download format becomes really exciting as a way for small bands to avoid having to go through standard distribution channels. In a perfect world, bands could put their tracks up for sale on their site and sell them directly without having to go through chains or distributors at all.
J: What do you think about that as the possible next step in the future?
S : Yeah, it’s possible that digital will be come the primary way the people buy music someday. But I think that’s going to be the same day that there are no more video stores because it’s all on-demand, and even first-run movies will get filmed with hundred million dollar budgets to be shown in people’s houses as pay per view. At some point in the future there will be no difference then between your TV and your computer. When that happens, whenever that happens, 10 or 20 years from now, I can see digital being the main way that people buy music. But I don’t think that will happen more quickly with music than with other types of downloads.
J : But don’t you think that there are simultaneous markets? In the same way that there are still movies in movie theatres and there are also video stores?
S : Yeah, but even if movie theatres continue forever, that’s like the experience of a live show. There may be a no-CD world someday but it’s not that soon and I’m not that worried about it. For the time being I think it will be a simultaneous market but it will also be an additional market. I don’t really see CD sales going down in the next few years. I think we’ll just be selling 10% more total, because that’s how it works when things first switch until the old format dies.
J : What do you think about DD as a way that bands can side-step traditional distribution channels?
S : In the short-term I think the majority of Alanis Morissette CDs will still be sold as CDs and cassettes. So in the short term I think what you’ll see is subcultures of music that is being made by independent musicians or people who are extremely cost-conscious. They will be the types of people who are into the music that isn’t Alanis Morissette. These types of people will be getting used to these new formats way before the mainstream does.
J : That’s what I think too. In the same way that there remains a cassette culture. Or a vinyl culture.
S: Totally. Like the cassette culture. It’s been happening already, obviously, it’s been happening a lot but for bigger bands that doesn’t really translate yet. When I hear Chuck D saying that he’s going to reach all his fans and go around the major label I don’t believe it, because Chuck D’s fans are not part of that weird subculture of hardcore music addicts. He’s not going to get his music directly to the mainstream audience getting around the major labels until the major labels are already there and mainstream people are buying Alanis Morrisette downloads. So, no, I don’t think it’s going to be this great way for Prince to sell millions of records, sidestepping the record label.
J : Well there was an interesting statistic that proves your theory, at least for right now. Apparently David Bowie offered his new record through digital downloads in advance of the CD release and only 990 people in the whole world downloaded it.
S : (Laughter) Right.
J : I think this transformation is going to happen a lot faster than 10 or 20 years. It’s the same thing as how you felt disinterested in the web before you got a good browser… in the same way that TV has sped up our attention span. I think our brain is a whole lot more sympathetic to the idea of the web. We just need a catalyst to make that transition concrete and there are many people who point to music as the best possible catalyst for that transformation. I think that’s why there is so much venture capital money being poured into digital downloads. Who knows, maybe it will be digital TV and not digital music but then again, it only took the fact that your car broke to get you to you to make the transition to buying more and more records online.
S : But they have to make it really easy for people, you know. Unfortunately this is all going to happen because something is going to get bundled in Microsoft. So we can take it out of the box, plug it in and it’s just as easy as TV. Then it really will happen on a big mainstream basis.
J :You’ve been offering some digital downloads through
S : We gave them our entire catalog but they haven’t put up the entire catalog. You know, the sales are pathetic; there’s almost no sales. I would say there is practically no market yet for digital downloads.
There are some people who think MP3s are going to bring in this new world where bands are going to give away all their recordings and then make their money off of, what? …merchandise and touring, I guess. Then record labels will only be like promotion companies. But I really don’t think that will happen. Although I do think there will be a subculture of it just like there is a subculture now trading Grateful Dead tapes. There will be some bands that come a long and say, “Ok, we’re going to give away all of our recorded music and that will support our live thing.”
I would worry about MP3 being so widely copy-able except for the fact that nobody’s using them yet and, also, of course we’ve reached a point where it’s too late. Until there is watermark or encryption built into the CD’s themselves any kid can rip a CD and upload it and send it anywhere they want. There’s no way for us to hire a huge battery of lawyers to stop them all. Still, I don’t really think it’s that big a threat right now.
J : What do you think with regards to publishing? BMI and the rest of the performance rights associations seem to be naive and behind the curve. They are not chasing down websites who apparently should be getting a legal license for digital downloads and paying publishing fees. It worries me because there are so many people who say that the age of publishing is over but I’m not sure what to put in publishing’s place to protect the artists.
S : Well, you know, I don’t know too much about it. Most artists are their own songwriters. We’re not really talking about paying artists, you’re talking about paying songwriters.
J : Yes, that’s what I mean.
S : Yeah, sorry to be picky.
J : That’s fine, but I consider songwriting to be an art.
S : Oh, that’s true, but in the terminology of the business “the artist” is usually the performer, which is kind of crazy. In my value system I would probably say that writing is more of an art than performing. I don’t mean anything personal by that because I believe I’m a better performer than I am a writer.
See, I don’t even know. Is it like you say? If Kill Rock Stars gives away a free download but it’s a song that was written by Brian Wilson, then I’m supposed to be paying the publishing on that, right?
J : Exactly.
S : Then you’re right, they are totally not doing that. They are just letting it happen and that’s pretty wild.
J : I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that ASCAP and BMI are nonprofits and they already make more than they need to cover their bills. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to go after this.
S : Yeah, when there’s no profit incentive then the incentive will have to come from Garth Brooks. He’s going to figure out how much he’s losing and he’s going to freak out. It will be major artists that make ASCAP and BMI get on the ball.
J : It’s so interesting to see the tech-heads (who seem to understand best what is happening) so clearly committed to free access. They seem absolutely sure that we will not be getting traditional publishing royalties anymore. But if you think about it, I guess we’ve only been getting them for 90 or so years.
S : I’ve always wondered why songwriting royalties and not performance royalties are written into law. Why when you play something on the radio it’s only the songwriter who gets paid.
J : Yes, publishing is a strange amalgam of historic agreements. It’s like sprawl. It wasn’t planned well.
Kristin just told me something very interesting about the original race to develop a standard recorded musical form. Back when Edison and Victor were competing to see if the wax cylinder or acetate records were going to be the standard way that people listened to music, the determining factor ultimately became access to artists. Victor began signing exclusive contracts with the most popular artists of the day, Enrico Caruso in particular. That way if you wanted to listen to these artists you would have to purchase a Victor-owned Victrola and not an Edison wax cylinder player. I see this same pattern repeated with artists signing exclusive digital download agreements with certain sites. For example Alanis Morissette who aligns herself with MP3 makes a million dollars because it’s so important that she draw people to one particular site.
S : Well, those deals are absolutely out of proportion because everybody is just trying to stake out market share. They aren’t trying to make any money.
J : That’s also why everything is being given away free now. All the formats are free because they need you to be able to work with them and become familiar with and “feel ownership” with their brand. Ultimately however I believe you will have to pay to have access to these forms of technology. Just like you do with cable. Everything can’t be free forever.
S : Right.
J : Well, what bothers me about these exclusive deals is the fact that in a perfect world artists should be able to do this stuff themselves. It was interesting that you started this interview with that as a description of KRS’s ideal approach to being a label — that you were the label where bands could feel like they were doing it themselves without actually having to do it.
S : Yeah, I mean, ideally, we’d like to follow that trend. If the DIY idea functions that way, if what happens in the world is that there ends up being a lot of Momuses we’ll want to do that too. Unfortunately, I’m not a pioneer. Hats off to the folks who see this as the future and put their records on MP3.com. Right now I’m busy enough just trying to find great records to put out. I don’t want to spend all my energy figuring out what’s going to happen in the world of the internet unless the internet becomes something that I am passionately involved in. I feel like the best way I can serve the bands I work is how I’m doing it now. It’s not there with the internet yet. So, unfortunately, I will not be the pioneer, but if that culture comes to fruition, we’ll be there.
J : Do you deal directly with Amazon and CDNow?
S : Yeah, Mordam sells to Valley Distribution who does the fulfillment for those sites. We do talk to people at Amazon and CDNow but that’s more in the marketing department. Sometimes we can get placement opportunities.
J : Do they make you pay for placement?
S : Sometimes, but not always. A lot of the times indies who are cool can get free opportunities as part of trying to make the company look cool.
J : Yeah, we did some of that with Tsunami. I’d be interested to see how it works with digital downloads because then you don’t have to worry about the problem of returns. I mean if they put a Tsunami CD in the listening stations at Tower we have to supply all of that product for free and then we need to manufacture enough copies so that all the stores can stock it. Then if our audience doesn’t particularly buy records from Tower we are looking at a pretty huge return in a couple of months.
S : Right, you can’t return a digital download.
J : And you don’t have to pay to manufacturer it in advance.
S : Actually, I have something to talk about regarding the issue of
digital downloads and the exclusive versus non-exclusive issue. Recently
there have been two and three digital download companies that have decided
that they are aggregators. These companies have bought up as many exclusive
rights to as many indie bands as they could. It’s been all indie because
the majors are holding on to their band’s rights very tightly. If you
J : That’s absolutely true.
S : What we’ve decided to do with KRS and Mordam and the Mordam family of labels is to stick together. Mordam has decided that a sale is a sale and if our 20 labels are bonded together then we’ll be able to sell to those retailers in the same way that we’ve been able to get into the chains.
J : That’s interesting. I’ve been worrying myself a lot about the re-establishment or transference of the same narrow distribution channels from the chains to the web. I asked Momus if it worried him that he might have to align with one of these companies to get into a chain like Tower and he had an interesting thing to say. He said, “Why does anyone need to get into Tower now?”
S : Well right, we’ve talked about that a lot. Here’s my theory on that. Search engines are getting better and better and there are so many great, specialized sites, so if someone knows what he or she want they can go right to the source. Anyone who wants a KRS record will more and more just come to KRS and we’re going to beat their price, just like we do to the chains now. For a company our size that’s very significant. At the same time we also work with bands like Sleater Kinney. They have the highest chain sales of any of our artists. With them there are a lot of people who have kind of heard of them, or heard one song, or saw them on MTV. Those people will never sit down at the web and go search for the band by name, but when they are at CDNow if it comes up with placement and they’ve heard of it they will probably check it out. That’s the same difference that exists between the mom and pop and the chain store mentality right now. I think even after digital downloads are established, being in the chains is still going to be important. It’s not going to be as important as those companies would like us to think but it will still be important.
J : Thanks, Slim.