Owner Follow-Up Interview
with Sam Rosenthal of Projekt April
Name: Sam Rosenthal
City: Portland, OR
Artists Roster: www.projekt.com/store/product-category/artists/
Original Label Owner Interview with QRD
QRD – Any major changes to the label or your general outlook on running a label since last time?
Sam – Last time was what, five years ago? Major changes for sure. As we talk about on Facebook, as the music industry continues to reduce the amount of money available, you have to make changes. With more people shifting over to listening to music for free, a label like mine just can’t release as much music because there’s just not the economics for it. So it’s kind of looking for what artists still make sense physically & digitally & what other new ways are there to make income off of music. That is definitely different. In 2002 when things were first drifting off, Projekt was still doing well & kept doing well for quite a while. It wasn’t until the beginning of this decade that it really started really feeling what was happening. People still love the music; it’s just that it’s harder to get people to want to own it & support it that way.
QRD – How do you feel labels are more & less useful to artists now than they were five years ago?
Sam – The thing is that there is so much music available now that a label kind of acts as a filter. The fans of Projekt know things on Projekt will have a certain level of quality as well as fit into what they are looking for. That’s useful. At the same time I think people have found other filters, it might be friends who are always out there finding new bands or a website that applies to their taste. I think it is helpful for a band to be on a label because it kind of gives them an acknowledgement of a certain sound that will be enjoyed by certain people. But if an artist can do it on their own & can sell a thousand CDs on the road & through their website, that artist might not find a reason to use a label anymore. So it’s definitely reduced the need of a label by successful artists.
QRD – There are a lot less record stores than their used to be. How has that effected your model for releasing music?
Sam – Yeah. The record store decline started ten years ago & I don’t even remember when Borders disappeared. Borders used to do 1000-3000 of every record Projekt released & that was the biggest hit when Borders was gone. Tower picked up right in the last year, so Tower disappearing was a problem. But Amazon is the music store for the world now & everything can be found there. That’s a good thing because when our labels released records even at the peak there were so many stores that didn’t stock it. But I don’t even think about record stores anymore except that I still have a physical distributor, but Amazon is the place where I assume most of those records are selling. There are still a few really cool record stores. There’s one here in Portland called Music Millenium, Digital Underground in Philadelphia, they are here & there still; but for the most part it’s a thing of the past.
QRD – Spotify has become an undeniable force that has reduced download sales while (allegedly) fighting piracy. In the end what is good or bad about it for you as a label & do you embrace it?
Sam – First I would say that many labels tell me that 30% of their digital income or more comes from Spotify & those are labels with more of a pop side to their darkwave or industrial, but you’ve just gotta kinda go with it & realize there is a certain audience member that is just going to go to Spotify. I put Black Tape back up on Spotify & Rdio & now 30% of Black Tape’s digital income is from Rdio & Spotify. You can fight it, but if that’s where people are going it is kinda dumb to not take that money. We have to find every place to get money. I think the bad thing about streaming is that for casual listeners if you’re not there, they don’t care; they just find something else that’s close enough. It becomes a complete eco-system. Just like YouTube, if you don’t have a video up on YouTube you don’t exist for a lot of people. That’s unfortunate because the artists who don’t want to be on Spotify are not in that world & they’re not getting heard. There are people who only listen at Spotify or only listen at YouTube & I guess really you have to be available everywhere even if the money sucks & you think it’s wrong, because the other choice is not to be on there & not to be heard. I don’t put everything on Spotify, but I do put things up there because there is an audience for it. Voltaire wants all his music on Spotify because he wants to be heard everywhere that people want to listen & because his music is on the pop side of what Projekt does, it makes sense. He gets a lot of plays on YouTube & Spotify. Not a lot of money, but a lot of plays.
QRD – One of the things that I have done that increased my Spotify earnings by ten is starting to do Spotify playlists that go out with the newsletter & it can create a spike of listens to earn a release an extra $50 or whatever. Or I guess more realistically $5.
Sam – Yeah, if they are normally earning $0.37 that certainly is a big increase. & here we are in the music business talking about how to make $5. (Laughs)
QRD – I know, right? That’s the frustrating thing. I’m like, “Was I not paying attention?” or is this everybody? One of the reason I like talking to you about things is we’re both kinda like, “Things are fucked.” But so many people are like, “Oh, no, no no. I’m not having any issues, you must not know how to run a label.” Whatever.
Sam – Yeah, I was talking to a label in Germany about two years ago & he was like, “Oh my God! It’s not just me!” Nope, it’s all of us.
QRD – Yeah, people feel like they are a failure & I tell them, “No, you’re standing in quicksand.”
Sam – I’ve had some bands that get frustrated with me & Projekt & I’m like, “Hey, just ask around.” It’s often bands that aren’t in a scene & are in their own isolated world that don’t know this is everyone’s situation except for U2 & The Rolling Stones & Paul McCartney. Whatever, they are billionaires.
QRD – Yeah, I feel really bad because a lot of bands we work with haven’t put an album out in several years & they’re like, “Why is this happening?” & it’s just because this is how it is now. Meanwhile they think we’ve become worse businessmen or something. Anyway, leads right into the next question: Most labels are making a bit less money than they were a few years ago. What have you done to lower expenses or find new sources of revenue?
Sam – Well I moved to Portland from Brooklyn & that cut my costs in half right away. In Brooklyn it would really be hard to have cut things more. I was keeping the budget as tight as possible. But renting an office in Brooklyn & paying utilities in Brooklyn & paying taxes in Brooklyn was just too expensive. Portland costs 55% of what Brooklyn does when you average everything out, so it’s just a much better place to run a small record label. The other thing is Projekt is releasing less records. There’ve just been too many records that sold less than 250 copies & when you are pressing a thousand that just doesn’t make sense. I’ve reduced the number I’ve pressed, but if a bad can’t sell that much with how much I’m pushing it, I just can’t put it out anymore. It’s reducing the labels output, which is fine because it gives me more time to work on my own stuff.
QRD – I’ve noticed in the past year it seems like you are working more on your own material more than you basically have in the 20 years I’ve known you.
Sam –Yeah, basically this is how it was in the early 90s. When Lycia & lovespiralsdownward first came to Projekt I wouldn’t have time for my own stuff, but now I’m back to it 20 years later. The first skit of Portlandia about the dream of the 90s being alive in Portland is totally accurate. It’s like when I lived in LA in the 90s. It’s so much easier living here than it was in Brooklyn.
QRD – What social networks are you active on & what ones aren’t worth the time & energy to you?
Sam – Twitter is not worth the time & energy. Facebook is not worth it for business, but for my personal page it is worth it & that’s where most of the promotion happens. Black Tape has a lot of followers, but the message never gets out because of the way Facebook has squelched it down to nothing. It’s really annoying, but it’s free so what are you going to do? I think Instagram is a very fun social networking site that’s just about quirky things you find interesting to look at. It’s not about life stories & political arguments & people breaking up & all this stuff that takes up Facebook. Instagram is really relaxing with pictures of cats doing something funny or a weird road sign.
QRD – With the rise of social networks & trusted download shops, has your own website become less important than it was a few years ago?
Sam – I think the Projekt website is still important as a store. More so than a band’s individual website. When a band talks about doing a website, I’m kinda like, “Well, why? Do you have enough people heading to your website to interact with it?” I don’t think most bands at our level do anymore. If your band has a strong store like Steve Roach’s then yes. Voltaire has a lot about his touring schedule & that makes sense. But for a lot of bands Facebook is all you really need. For Projekt the website is the store, but like everything selling music the traffic is way down from where it was ten or fifteen years ago
QRD – Do you think fan funding (e.g. Kickstarter) is the future, a fad, or an awful thing for the music industry?
Sam – I think it is the future for some people. I think it could prove to be a fad. You could say funding NPR is a fad & that’s been going on for however long it has been. It’s definitely not bad. I think what makes it bad are two things. 1) People who take your money & never put out the thing which is why they added the risk & responsibilities comment to the bottom. 2) If you go to the page for just about to end Kickstarters, half of them are at $6 after a month & the other half have met their goal. So you have a lot of people that don’t know what they are doing with fanfunding & think that if they put it up then wham, they get $20,000. It doesn’t work that way. If you fund your friend’s band & only six people back it so it never happens, that might turn you off of crowdfunding. But there are a lot of successes on it & I’m working my fifth one & it’s doing well. It’s been up for four days & is 60% of the way to the goal.
QRD – What’s something you leave up to bands to do rather than handling as a label?
Sam – In the old days, the 90s, a band could just record a record & then do nothing else. The label would get the word out & build interest & really do all the promotion except for the band playing live or answering some interview questions. But now the band has to be more active than the label. There are people who like Projekt & say, “Oh, a new Erik Wollo record on Projekt, I’ll check that out,” but they want to hear from Erik. They want to hear from the artist & they want to have much more of a personal connection. It’s hard to convince some of the old school bands that that is what they have to do now. They still have the 1980s or 1990s idea of “I’m supposed to be mysterious” & people don’t want mysterious artists anymore. There was a fan in town from England who backs me on Patreon & I was like, “Let’s meet for coffee!” & that’s what you do nowadays. I think in the old days that would freak people out.
QRD – Do you see albums, EPs, or singles more relevant than a few years ago or pretty much in the same place?
Sam – I think that to spend two or three years of a band’s life building an album to have it released on one day & hope that in that one week it does well is a very flawed model nowadays. It’s putting all your eggs for years in one basket. I think it’s much better to have a lot of music along the way & then have an album so that you aren’t so invested into the success of that one thing. I was listening to Neil Young yesterday & it was six months between his first & second album & then I think his third album was a year later & then he had another three albums within another year period. Okay, he was a full time musician & he had time to just record, but he didn’t wait three, five, seven years between records. Black Tape’s last record was in 2009 & so Black Tape is a perfect example of this problem. “When is the new album coming out? There’s so much time between albums!” With Patreon there’s a lot of new music along the way & there’s little things I put up on Bandcamp. But with new bands I try to encourage them to do an EP every six months. Not necessarily a physical EP, maybe just digital, but to keep the music flowing. I think the album is a great format & I really like it, but because of attention spans & how much music is out there it is detrimental to bands who take a long time to make an album.
QRD – So just to always have something to promote as a new item.
Sam – That’s just it. Even on your Facebook page, how many times can you say, “I have a new album, go buy it”? Many people say, “I saw that & I’m not interested, so what else?” So you’ve got to come back with “I have a new video,” “I have a new song,” “I have a new interview.” You need constant new things to talk about. It’s amazing how quickly albums drift into the past that aren’t at all old. I mean, back in the day with Jill Tracy I think it was ten years between albums & her first album was selling year after year & it didn’t matter that it wasn’t brand new. But nowadays that is hard to do. When you say “singles” I think we think of the physical format & if it was vinyl I think you could do that, but you can’t do a CD single at all. You can do a digital single. If a band did a vinyl seven inch & digital version every five months or every three months & they had fans to support the release, that would be great. But you can’t do it on CD anymore. There was a time where we’d release a single three months before the album on CD & that’s past.
QRD – Do you have separate release dates for different formats (CD, vinyl, digital download, streaming)?
Sam – We try to do the digital & CD on the same date, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Like Steve Roach has an album name Skeleton Keys that is Echoes album of the month for May, but the street date for physical is the end of May, so we’re moving the digital street date to the beginning of May just so it’s available for people who hear it. It’s definitely less firm than it was. Record stores used to get really mad at you if you started selling it before they had it, but my opinion is they weren’t going to stock it anyway so if they get mad at me what do I care? We need to get the sale while people are aware of the release, because of how fast people move to the next thing.
QRD – Anything else?
Sam – It’s funny when people say to me, “Projekt is still around?” The 500,000 people who bought Projekt records in the 90s, so many of them aren’t really paying attention like they were so they stumble onto something & say, “Oh, wow, you’re label’s still around.” Yep, still around, still probably putting out twelve albums this year, fifteen last year, still busy.