February 23rd, 2009

Rollo & Grady Interview :: Dave Kusek

Rollo & Grady Interview :: Dave Kusek

David Kusek has been shaping “the future of music” for the last 25 years. As Vice President of Berklee Media he oversees some of the school’s most forward-thinking projects, including berkleemusic.com, berkleeshares.com, and berkleepress.com. These projects represent Berklee’s continuing education, global education outreach and publishing initiatives, respectively. Kusek also runs Digital Cowboys, a consulting group that advises most of the majors in the music business.

At age 19, Kusek co-invented electronic drums at Synare. In 1980 he founded the first music software company, Passport Designs, making it possible for musicians to record and produce their music at home. His work with A&M Records in 1993 enabled the link between audio CDs and computers, reshaping the music industry as we know it. Kusek also co-developed the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), which makes electronic music accessible to millions of people. Dave is currently working on a project called the Music Power Network, which is intended to be an interactive toolkit for musicians, writers, and people starting businesses, hoping to capitalize on all the changing elements and realities of the music industry.

I recently talked with Dave about the book he co-authored with Gerd Leonhard, “The Future of Music,” the industry and whether he thinks music will soon become like water.

Rollo & Grady Interview :: Dave Kusek

R&G: What was the reason behind writing “The Future of Music?”

Dave: Gerd [Leonhard; co-author] and I became friends at Berklee. He did a few projects with the music business department, which is how we got to know each other. We started talking and found that we had a lot of common ideas about what was happening in the music business. I ran Berklee Press, so I had a way to publish the book. We just started putting ideas down on paper. There wasn’t as much blog action then as there is today. It was probably 2002 or 2003 when we really started to write the book, so we figured, ‘Okay, we’ll publish it in book form.’ Our motivation was, ‘How can we help people understand what we think is going to happen?’ Both Gerd and I had done lots of panels and music shows – South by Southwest, all the digital music ones, Billboard and many gigs like that. We thought, ‘How can we pick some of these ideas and package them in a form that would be digestible and widely available to people at a reasonable price point?’ That was the genesis of it all. Honestly, it all happened so quickly that I kind of wish we could do it all over again. It was fun. It was a very condensed period of time. There were a lot of things that obviously were changing and happening, and there were a lot of things that weren’t so obvious. For example, I don’t think there was an iPod when we first wrote the book. That happened during the publishing and editing process. There was no iTunes music store, no MP3 blogs to speak of and no Amazon.com selling downloads. eMusic might have been there. It was all so early. Everything was happening so rapidly. We just tried to gather up as much as we could that was obvious and make some stabs as to what might happen.

R&G: Can you discuss the process of writing the book?

Dave: I learned a lot from Gerd during the process. I was more on the ground with the musicians. My whole career has been helping musicians and artists create their art, take their art to market and most recently teaching them about it. Gerd was more in the consulting end of things, talking to the likes of Nokia, Apple and Sony. I learned a lot about what was going on in the corporate world that I hadn’t been exposed to. I think we pushed each other because I would often argue that, ‘Man, we’ve got to talk to the artists and writers and managers, not to your consulting clients, because most of these people aren’t going to understand what the hell you’re talking about.’

R&G: “Music Like Water” the David Bowie quote meaning music becoming a utility. Do you still believe in that?

Dave: I think it’s inevitable. Music has always been free. It started off as a live performance. You’d go to a party, to a friend’s house, to a show, to the theatre or an event and music would be there. You’d be dancing and laughing and happy and singing. There was no idea of a business other than maybe the performers wanting to get paid. Throughout the technological phase of the last seventy or eighty years, there was always a free form of music, such as radio. The single most influential technological phenomenon in music was radio. It brought music to everybody, and it was free. Now we have gone through this pre-packaged, packaged phase of music, with vinyl, cassettes and CDs. That was a way for labels to control distribution and squeeze profits out of people wanting copies of the stuff they heard on radio. But once that leapt into the Internet, music became free again.

R&G: By free, do you mean file-sharing and uploading CDs onto your computer hard drives?

Dave: Both. People have been trading files for years. It started out on Usenet, which predated Napster. You remember Apple’s “Rip, Mix, Burn” campaign? It was really all about enabling the digitalization of music and unlocking it from the plastic that it was bound to. I don’t see it as a big deal that music is free again and in a higher quality format that is randomly accessible to the file-sharing networks or the services that we have now, some of which are “legitimate” and some aren’t. It’s not a very big deal to me. It just seems normal. The utility idea already exists on your TV. I have Comcast service here on the East Coast. We have Music Choice, which is essentially digital radio on your TV. There are 30 or 50 channels of music that are programmed and streamed to my house constantly that I pay for on my cable bill every month. I’ve been doing that for fifteen years. I have no choice about it. I just do it. It comes with HBO and the basic cable service. So there already is a music utility that millions of consumers in the U.S. have paid for many years. Why can’t that service just get a little bit better? If you add a random access mechanism where I can select what I listen to at a finer level than just picking the channel that Music Choice gives me, the service becomes better. I think it’s inevitable. I don’t understand what all the teeth gnashing is about. That’s a personal opinion.
Rollo & Grady Interview :: Dave Kusek

February 15th, 2009

Rollo & Grady Interview // Anthony Volodkin

Rollo & Grady Interview // Anthony Volodkin

After many late nights browsing the Internet and music blogs for new music, Anthony Volodkin started work on his first incarnation of The Hype Machine. He launched the beta version in April 2005 from his dorm room during his sophomore year at Hunter College in New York City. Almost four years later, the site now generates 1.5 million unique visitors per month and serves as an aggregator for more than 1,500 music related blogs.

Anthony has paired his love of music and computer science background to create what has become one of the foremost filters for MP3s on the Internet. He designed the site to create an unbiased voice for people who want to discover new music. Anthony is now poised to be a major player in the new music business world.

I recently talked to Anthony about the future of The Hype Machine and where he sees the music industry headed.

R&G: What inspired you to start The Hype Machine in April 2005?

The Hype Machine came about from a personal need to find new music. I reached a point in my life where I had not heard anything new. I was familiar with the music that my friends were listening to and things I’d listened to for some number of years. I didn’t know where to find something interesting from a voice that I could listen to and trust. There wasn’t a magazine for me. The content in magazines was all a result of relationships and deals or some other arbitrary connection people had and not so much about the music. New York radio was not that good either, so I didn’t know where to start. I ended up stumbling onto music blogs. I browsed the web and was surprised that people were posting music files and writing about them just because they liked them. It was just what they did for fun. Over the course of a few weeks, I kept staying up late and finding more and more of these sites. I felt there had to be a way to get more access to all this activity. It felt genuine, like hundreds of people were doing this. If combined in some way, this could be the voice I was looking for, the voice that I could resonate with and trust. That’s how the first version of the site came about. It was a tool I made for myself, but it didn’t stay private for long.

R&G: You were still in college when you developed The Hype Machine. How old were you?

I was 20 years old, and attending Hunter College in New York.

R&G: Did you ever imagine that at age 20 you would create an application that could index hundreds of music blogs?

Anthony: I wish I could say I did, but I wasn’t really thinking about that too much. It was more about creating immediate value, and that’s what I focused on most. We have these couple hundred blogs, so how do we present the information that’s going through them in a way that gets people to listen and discover the writers and music together?

R&G: How long had you been programming before you started the application?

Anthony: I was a computer science major and worked in a local New York IT consulting firm, fixing servers and maintaining networks. I definitely have a programming background, but in some ways The Hype Machine was a learning process. Learning how to build web apps was definitely a big part of the process. That’s also what made it more interesting.

R&G: Did you have any help? Any mentors?

Anthony: In the beginning, I just did it. I didn’t talk to many people about it. I just thought the most direct way to get what I wanted would be to start building it and then other pieces would fall into place.

R&G: Did you think you could generate revenue with the site?

Anthony: Well, the hope was that other people’s needs would resonate with what I was building. I also thought it would be able to make money by selling CDs through Amazon and other sources in a typical affiliate system. I obviously didn’t know as much about all that as I do now, but it seemed like a potential way to monetize it. Everything turned out to be much more challenging than I expected.

R&G: What’s a typical day like for you?

Anthony: Hmm. Usually it’s a vibrant mix of many things. There’s usually quite a bit of emailing. Sometimes I talk to the other guys on the team about the products they’re working on. Other times I just build things because I’m still the chief developer of the app. I go to meetings with people who are working on something related to music on the web. It varies. We don’t have an office, so currently I work from home.

R&G: How many unique visitors and page views do you guys have a month?

Anthony: I don’t know the page views off the top of my head, but we have a 1.5 million unique visitors.

R&G: How many unique visitors did you have a year ago?

Anthony: I’d have to double-check, but I think a year ago we had 800,000.

R&G: Were you a fan of the original Napster?

I started using the web towards the end of that, so I didn’t get a chance to experience that as much. When I first tried it, it seemed obvious that it changed and altered how people relate to music. When you started using it, you instantly got a new feeling about media. That was probably the most magical thing about Napster.
Rollo & Grady Interview // Anthony Volodkin

February 9th, 2009

Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

John Varvatos has successfully blended his lifelong love of music with his fashion career.

He cut his teeth in the fashion industry in 1983 with Polo Ralph Lauren. In 1990 he moved over to Calvin Klein, where he launched their menswear line. For the past several years he has held key design and marketing positions with Polo, London Fog and Nautica. In 1999, Varvatos started his eponymous company, debuting his first clothing line for Fall/Winter 2000. He has received numerous honors from the Council of Fashion Designers: 2000 New Menswear Designer of the Year, and 2001 and 2005 Menswear Designer of the Year. In 2007 Varvatos was named GQ Magazine’s Designer of the Year

John credits rock ‘n’ roll for his early interest in fashion. His first fashion/rock campaign featured Ryan Adams in 2005. John has since showcased in his campaigns Joe Perry, Iggy Pop, Chris Cornell, Alice Cooper, Velvet Revolver and Cheap Trick.

I recently caught up with John to discuss the new happenings with his company, 315 Bowery, which opened in the former CBGB’s, as well as who’s playing this year’s Stuart House event.

Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

R&G: 2008 was a busy year for you. Can you tell me a little about it?

John: Well, we opened up three new stores – the Bowery in April, in the old CBGB’s location, San Francisco in May, and Malibu in September. So we’ve had three openings, a fragrance launch and a lot of new, exciting things happening with the company. It’s been a very busy year for us all the way around.

You generated some controversy when you opened up the store in the former home of the famed music venue CBGB’s. Tell me about that experience.

John: We definitely had some controversy when we announced that we were taking the space. It had been empty for over a year-and-a-half before we leased it, so it wasn’t like we forced anybody out. There were a handful of protesters the first few days we opened, but the controversy went away very quickly. Even The Village Voice was surprised at what we executed in the space. Most of the music world came out and supported us, including a lot of musicians that played there – members of Blondie, the Dictators, Little Steven and C.J. Ramone. We don’t use the name CBGB’s anywhere and we don’t imply that the store has anything to do with it, but we do our best to honor the past. We have a permanent stage set up with an amazing P.A. system, and the first Thursday of every month we have a free concert to promote up-and-coming artists that have a hard time getting labels behind them or the labels don’t give them the money to get out there. We support this through our artist development fund. And all the kids who work in the store are musicians.

R&G: You sell vinyl and memorabilia there, so you consider it a concept store. It’s a lot different from your other locations. How have people reacted to the combination of merchandise?

John: The original protesters complained about how expensive the items are. The reality is that although there are some expensive things, there are inexpensive things, as well. Fashion has always been a big part of the history of rock and roll. A lot of people are interested in the way bands dress and what they look like in their videos and album covers. We haven’t tried to exploit it, but I still have to pay the rent, so I have to sell things. And I want CBGB’s, its history of being a place for artists to get their start, to somehow remain in New York City. That’s why I use some of my profits to support up-and-coming artists. The reason you have your blog is exactly the reason I have that store. Would I love to own a club? Yeah. But for right now, this is what I’ve got. You don’t have to pay to come into the store. You can spend two hours just looking at all the memorabilia and the original walls from CBGB’s, and nobody is going to bug you. It’s like a museum in that way.
Rollo & Grady Interview // John Varvatos

February 6th, 2009

Rollo & Grady Interview // Nic Harcourt

Rollo & Grady Interview // Nic Harcourt
Nic Harcourt is arguably the most famous DJ in the world. He was born and raised in England and lived in Australia before moving to the United States. He landed his first radio gig doing fill-ins, with no prior experience, at WDST in Woodstock, New York. Before long, he was running a daily show and programming the station.

When the slot opened up for Morning Becomes Eclectic at KCRW in Santa Monica, Harcourt landed the job after an nationwide search. At both WDST and KCRW, Harcourt earned the reputation of spotting talent way ahead of the curve; he’s regarded as the ultimate “tastemaker” in music and was an early proponent of Coldplay, Dido, Damien Rice and Moby to name a few.

He stepped down from Morning Becomes Eclectic and as the station’s music director last Thanksgiving after a 10 year run to build his own business SamLuna Media. He won’t be splitting from the station completely; he’ll continue to do 3 hour Sunday evening show. Harcourt has already earned credits as a music consultant or music supervisor for several movies and television shows and in 2005 completed his first book, Music Lust, a collection of essays about popular music.

I caught up with Nic recently to discuss SamLuna, radio, music and where it’s all heading.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Nic Harcourt

R&G: How does it feel to be retired from Morning Becomes Eclectic?

Nic: How does it feel? I have mixed feelings. I went to the same place every morning for 10 1/2 years, so it takes a little bit of adjusting to, but it’s good. It was time for me to move on and do some other stuff.

R&G: Prior to coming out to Los Angeles from Woodstock, did you realize the traffic conditions here would present an opportunity for you to reach a captive audience?

Nic: I don’t think you can ever really know what you’re getting into whenever you take any job, to be honest with you. But, my market before L.A. was Poughkeepsie. I think that market is 150-something, so there’s a big difference, obviously.

R&G: You were considered a tastemaker before you came to Los Angeles. When did you feel like you earned your stripes at KCRW?

Nic: I don’t know. People started telling me that I was a tastemaker. I never really thought about it. I moved to L.A. because it was an opportunity for me to do something different and to move on in my career. To be honest with you, before I left Woodstock I was happy where I was. I was at a small independently owned alternative station. I was the morning guy, the music director, the program director and the promotions guy. I had a lot of stuff going on there that was keeping me busy. It wasn’t until people started taking notice of some of the stuff that I was doing in L.A. when they started saying, “You’re a tastemaker now. How does that feel?” I was like, “I don’t know. I’m just doing my thing.”

R&G: Was Coldplay your first major discovery?

Nic: I think so. Before Coldplay, we played Dido before her album came out. That was probably the first year I was at KCRW. She didn’t really break through until a year or so later. I think she broke through before Coldplay, if memory serves me correctly. I’ve learned, in hindsight, not to say we were first because there’s always somebody that’s going to be pissed off when you say that. When I was hosting Morning Becomes Eclectic, we were way early with people who went on to fame like Travis, Norah Jones, Dido and Damien Rice. A lot of that stuff happened somewhere between 1999 and 2003.
Rollo & Grady Interview // Nic Harcourt

February 5th, 2009

Rollo & Grady Interview // Seth Godin

Rollo & Grady Interview // Seth Godin

Business Week has called Seth Godin “The Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age.” He’s the author of 10 international bestsellers and is considered the top marketer in the Digital Age. His e-book Unleashing the Ideavirus was downloaded more than 2 million times before it was published. And his blog is consistently ranked one of the top 20 in the world by Technorati. Through his writing and speaking, Seth has changed the way people think about marketing, change and work.

Seth graduated from Tufts with majors in Philosophy and Computer Science and received his MBA from Stanford. In 1992 he founded Yoyodyne, one of the first online marketing companies. He sold Yoyodyne to Yahoo! in 1998 and became its VP of Direct Marketing.

In 2005 Godin founded Squidoo, a free, interactive, easy-to-use site allowing anyone to create pages (called lenses) about topics in their expertise.

I recently caught up with Seth to discuss his latest book Tribes and how its concepts apply to the music industry.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Seth Godin

What’s your take on the state of the music industry today?

Seth: The music industry is really focused on the ‘industry’ part and not so much on the ‘music’ part. This is the greatest moment in the history of music if your dream is to distribute as much music as possible to as many people as possible, or if your goal is to make it as easy as possible to become heard as a musician. There’s never been a time like this before. So if your focus is on music, it’s great. If your focus is on the industry part and the limos, the advances, the lawyers, polycarbonate and vinyl, it’s horrible. The shift that is happening right now is that the people who insist on keeping the world as it was are going to get more and more frustrated until they lose their jobs. People who want to invent a whole new set of rules, a new paradigm, can’t believe their good fortune and how lucky they are that the people in the industry aren’t noticing an opportunity.

R&G: Are you saying that the technology players like The Hype Machine, Last.fm, MOG or Pandora are taking advantage of the new paradigm?

Seth: I would go to even smaller places. I would talk about the folks who started CD Baby. I would talk about musicians who are making a great living leading a small tribe – 1,000 true fans connecting directly with each other, leaving out many layers of middlemen. I would talk about powerful musicians like Neil Young who are moving things in one direction, versus powerful musicians who are just sitting back and watching the whole thing fade away.

R&G: Can you give an example of a powerful musician or a super-group that’s missing the boat?

Seth: We saw both Metallica and AC/DC take interesting paths when it came time to figure out how to generate new generations of fans, when it came time to play with distribution, etc…

R&G: Going with Best Buy or Wal-Mart?

Seth: Yeah. A Wal-Mart deal seems really sexy, but you’ve got to figure out who you are reaching and what is it doing for you in the long run. Suing your fans is an interesting approach to maintaining the status quo, but there’s no evidence that it leads to long-term benefits. There are musicians who are reaching out and building fan bases and then there are those who are fighting the other direction. I went to see Ricky Lee Jones live in New York City a couple months ago. At the end of the concert they stood up and said, “If we get your email address at the front of the room, we will email you a live recording of tonight’s concert when it’s ready.” 72 hours later, there it was. The idea that you could have a micro-market of 250, 500, 1,000 copies of a CD every night is a totally different way of thinking about what you do for a living, rather than making one album a year marketed with payola and promotion that reaches a certain group of people and ignores everybody else.
Rollo & Grady Interview // Seth Godin

February 3rd, 2009

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.
Rollo & Grady Interview // Peter Rojas of RCRD LBL