Rollo & Grady Interview // Peter Rojas of RCRD LBL

Rollo & Grady Interview // Peter Rojas of RCRD LBL

Peter Rojas is one of the world’s most famous bloggers. He’s also a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and received his Master’s in Critical Theory at the University of Sussex in England. Before his launch into the blogging business, Rojas worked in his native California for Red Herring Magazine until he was laid off after the dot-com bust in 2001.Then he moved to New York City where things started changing for him. Quickly.

In 2002 Rojas started Gizmodo and in 2004 he was hired by Weblogs, Inc., the world’s largest blog network, to start Engadget. Both Gizmodo and Engadget are focused on consumer electronics for the tech-savvy and quickly became the two most successful blogs ever. Not long after his arrival at Weblogs Inc., Rojas was made Chief Strategy Officer and when AOL purchased them in 2005, blogs became further validated as a viable revenue stream. The sale also made Rojas a “blog-millionaire”.

In November of 2007 Rojas moved to combine his two passions, technology and music, to launch RCRD LBL with Downtown Records. RCRD LBL has taken a completely different approach to the music business; it’s an online record label that offers all digital, all-free MP3’s for streaming or download that are DRM free. It’s a powerful combination. Since then he has quickly emerged at the head of the pack, leading the music industry towards a new and more progressive business model. While that model is clearly still being defined, RCRD LBL is breaking new ground and signing emerging and established artists including Dinosaur Jr., Public Enemy, Moby, Spoon, Dead Confederate, Bon Iver, White Denim and the Felice Brothers.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Peter Rojas of RCRD LBL

R&G: You started two of the most popular and successful blogs of all time: Engadget and Gizmodo. They are tech focused. What inspired you to move into the music space with RCRD LBL?

Peter: Music is something that I have always been interested and involved in since I was young. I ran my college radio station, was in bands, put out records and set up shows. So I was really passionate about music but dismayed at how screwed up the industry had become since the introduction of Napster and how poorly the industry has adjusted to the new realities of the online world. My perspective was that music and the music business were going to fragment in all sorts of different ways, and that there would be an opportunity to approach online music from the angle of blogging. Music blogging had become this really exciting space for music discovery, for breaking and discovering bands in the way that radio and labels used to do. It seemed like you could build something, like an online music property, that approached things from the perspective of online or niche media, which is what blogging is all about. I took a lot of those lessons from blogging myself. When I started Engadget I worked very closely with Weblogs Inc. to develop that network. It had a huge swapping site covering all sorts of topics in addition to technology-specific stuff, so I felt like I had a sense of what it would take to build something.

R&G: When you started reading music blogs, did you realize that the best blogs have less clutter and are easy to navigate?

Peter: The key is that blogs are a great platform for delivering up content of any kind. Whether it’s video or audio through a podcast, or news or commentary, a blog is a format that people are really comfortable with because they know how it works. They know that they’re going to get the freshest content at the top. They know that they can subscribe to an RSS feed and get new content delivered to them in a format they understand. I think music blogs have done an amazing job of revitalizing music discovery.

R&G: You guys are a little over a year old. How many artists do you have on your roster right now?

Peter: Oh man, I think we’ve worked with well over a thousand different artists at this point and in a variety of capacities. We’ve done one song with some artists and multiple EPs with others. There’s a wide spectrum of stuff, but what’s really nice is that we have so much flexibility in what we can do. We can do something with Moby, who’s already signed to EMI, because we offer him a really flexible, easy-to-work-with platform for getting the music out there.


R&G: I think you made two wise decisions when you launched RCRD LBL. The tracks are DRM-free and you do not embed ads in the MP3 tracks. Do you plan on adding advertising messages in the audio tracks in the future?

Peter: No, I don’t see that happening for a variety of reasons. I don’t think it’s something that people want, and I think that’s something you have to do when you build a business like this. The problem with how people try to do this is they say, “Here’s what we want, and we’re going to try to get everyone else to fit into that.” What we’re saying is, “What does the audience want and how do we build a business around that?” It’s always tempting to say we’re going to add DRM on the tracks and control what people do, like SpiralFrog does, or we’re going to put audio ads in the songs themselves, which is what Peter Gabriel’s We7 did. I think they’ve abandoned that model, as far as I can tell. But, I don’t think a ten-second audio ad at the beginning of songs is a good user experience. It’s the kind of thing that turns people off, and I think that all you’re going to do is get people to strip out the advertising and then post it up somewhere else. I’m not going to say that we wouldn’t put advertising into cover art or something like that, but I think that is a lot less intrusive. It’s a lot less annoying than putting ads into the songs. I see myself as a prime user of this site so I think, ‘What would I want personally?’ Odds are that if you’re going to be annoyed by something, others are going to be annoyed by it too.

R&G: You guys have earned the status of tastemakers in a short period of time offering tracks by MGMT, White Denim, Dead Confederate, Bon Iver, Hot Chip and Andrew Bird, to name a few. What’s your secret?

Peter: I think the secret is if you create something that’s really valuable for the core, in this weird way you end up creating something that other people want to be a part of too. Coming out of the blog-space was such an advantage because I understood that the key to making Engadget successful was not trying to appeal to everyone, but trying to appeal to the hardcore gadget nerds. If you’re so hardcore that you need to know about some obscure phone six months before it comes out, so there’s some spy shot out of the factory, you’re not a normal person; you’re like me, but you’re not a normal person. Engadget has never tried to water it down and not try to address those people. I took the same approach with RCRD LBL. You have to create something that people who really know what’s going on with music, those who are the most in touch and paying the most attention, are going to find credible and real. We can’t just throw a bunch of bands out there; its bands that we really believe in. The key is finding people with their ears to the ground, discovering great new music, kind of like A&R people. I give a lot of credit to Elliot Aronow, our creative director. He put together the editorial/A&R team and is the person who has really gone out there and made sure the site is good and that we have great music.

R&G: Do you have final say on the tracks that RCRD LBL offers?

Peter: The way we work is we bring in people we trust and then trust them to bring in good music. We try not to micromanage too much. For us to work with an artist, the risk is really low on both sides because we’re not signing anybody to, like, a five-album deal. And the artists aren’t giving up their rights for the next five to ten years. We try to defer to the team, and they report to Elliot. He makes sure that we keep stuff really, really good. We don’t sit there and argue over music all the time. If people feel really passionate about having a band on the site, then I’m going to probably let them get it on there. If they feel really passionate and think it’s a great band, then it means other people are probably going to like it, too. I don’t love every single piece of music we put on the site, but that’s okay. The whole point is that we’re trying to have a spectrum of music, but with the common denominator that there are people out there who are really passionate about that band. We try to have nothing on there that is mediocre.

R&G: What lessons have you learned from working in the music business?

Peter: There’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and doing something yourself. I didn’t anticipate doing as much of the ad sales as I have; I’d never done ad sales before. I assumed I wouldn’t be any good at it, so I spent a lot of time trying to find someone to do it. I went through a few different people, none of whom did a particularly great job. So I finally decided to do it myself. I learned a lot and made the site better. It forced me to approach the site from a slightly different angle, if that makes sense – from the ad sales and marketing perspective, rather than from just the product or tech side. It helped me get a more 360-degree view of what we were doing. It’s really important to get your hands dirty with this stuff. RCRD LBL is small. It’s a handful of people working full time. There’s a fantasy that when you’re the founder or CEO all you do is tell people what to do all day. You don’t. I’ll sit there and package t-shirts to send out to people. You have to be prepared to be involved with every part of your business.

R&G: Do you think the majors will adopt a subscription model that’s DRM-free?

Peter: I think the DRM is really important to them. If you actually look at the mechanics of how the subscription services work, the DRM is actually part of the way they do the accounting for paying people. I don’t know the details of every single subscription service out there, but typically the artist doesn’t get paid on the download. They get paid on the play. They use the DRM to track the number of plays either on the device or the desktop client.

R&G: Is it only used when the user is streaming the songs?


Peter:
It’s in streaming or downloading.

R&G: You can track a DRM track once it’s downloaded and moved to a portable player?

Peter: Yes. You can track it onto the player when you sync the player back with the client. For instance, the reason Apple hasn’t been able to offer a subscription service yet has to do with some of the ways iPods were built in terms of having a clock for timing out subscription tracks and keeping track of stuff. In the same way, if you use Last.fm you can actually track what plays you’ve had on your iPod when you sync it back.

R&G: What are some gadgets you can’t live without?

Peter: I have a lot. Probably more than I need. I love the Xbox 360. I think it’s a great platform and the gaming experience was really well done on that. They just updated the whole user experience for the Xbox, and I think it’s pretty phenomenal. The Sonos, which I use as my home stereo system, is pretty indispensable. I have the G1, the Google phone, which I really like.

R&G: Are you an iPod owner?

Peter: I have one but I don’t use it. I actually use the Zune and also have a Sandisk Sansa e280. It’s very solid. It’s got 40 hours of battery life, so I only have to charge it every two weeks. I’m not really a huge fan of the iPod, to be honest. I have an iPod Touch, which I use as a web tablet but not for music.

R&G: I find that weird. Chris Anderson said he’s never owned one and doesn’t use iTunes. It just seems like everybody I know owns one. I think the iPod has an 80% market share.

Peter: I know. It’s pretty prominent. I don’t use iTunes either.

R&G: How can an artist submit music to you guys?

Peter: It’s really easy. You just email us at aandr@rcrdlbl.com. And send a link on Yousendit or zSHARE, or something like that. Don’t send the MP3. We do listen to everything that comes in, but we are pretty picky, just because that’s the nature of the site. This year we’re going to improve the whole experience of submitting music. There are various ways we can do that without compromising the experience. It’s something that we want to build out. The funny thing is that we’ve basically done RCRD LBL as a bootstrap start-up. We have all this stuff that we want to do, that we want to build. It’s kind of frustrating because you see all the things that you could do but you have to take the time and have the resources to do them. A lot of things we know we can do better will happen. It just takes time because, unfortunately, we don’t have ten million dollars to build stuff out right now.

FURTHER READING:

ROLLO & GRADY INTERVIEW WITH BOB LEFSETZ (CLICK HERE)
ROLLO & GRADY INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS ANDERSON (CLICK HERE)